Scripture notes – 3rd Sunday of Lent, A – 12th March 2023

From today till Passion Sunday, the gospel readings are from John. Even a quick look shows how different John is from the first three gospels. It is generally thought to be the last of the four written, when time has allowed for deeper reflection on who Jesus is, his relation to the Father and Spirit and to each Christian.

The readings are available online here.

Exodus 17:3-7
With water as today’s theme in the Gospel, we start with a story of the times when the Hebrews were in the Sinai desert after their escape from slavery in Egypt. Conditions in the wilderness were difficult, and looking back on this, the biblical writers saw it as a period of ‘testing’: will the people continue to put full trust in God? Often the answer was ‘no’ – they felt rebellious against Moses, whom God had chosen for their leader, and would grumble and complain. Today’s selection shows one of those times. Water is of course scarce in deserts and it would be a real ‘test’ to believe that God would provide enough for the large numbers. Moses himself is unhappy with both them and God, but he listens to God and performs a miracle of making water spring out of solid rock.

Psalm 94/95:1-2, 6-9
Our psalm selection recalls the incident in Exodus, and uses it as an exhortation to listen to God, unlike as the people had done in the past. The first verses are trustful and joyful. ‘Rock’ is a frequent Old Testament comparison for God as one who is completely trustworthy like a firm foundation, or a protecting rocky fortress. Here, it also recalls the rock Moses struck to bring forth the stream of water.

Romans 5:1-2, 5-8
This letter of St Paul is a complex working of his theology, showing how all God’s promises and directions of the past find an unexpected fulfilment in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus- Messiah. At the point of today’s reading, he had previously recalled the words, ‘Abraham was saved by faith’ and applied it to the Christians’ gift of salvation by our trust in Jesus. Several verses are omitted, which show how living in faith progresses to hope. It picks up at the verse linking hope to the gift on the Holy Spirit poured now into our hearts. ‘Poured’ is a metaphor taken from showers of water and thus relates to the first reading and to John. The final verses remind us that we stand before God as totally needy and that all our salvation comes from the generosity of God’s unconditional love.

John 4:42, 15
In this Gospel, as James McPollin, SJ, points out, Jesus ‘reveals himself with individual people’. Some of these are women, as in today’s story. Other techniques often used in this gospel are a dialog based on misunderstanding what Jesus says or an irony which shows a deeper meaning than what appears on the surface. John also likes to present dramatic scenes, which can be quite long, as is this one. (A shortened version may be read at mass.)

As our reading begins, Jesus with some close disciples is leaving Judea en route to Galilee. The shortest way is through Samaria although most Jews preferred the longer journey because of the hostility between them and the Samaritans. There was a long historical enmity between the two countries, and serious theological differences had developed. Some of these are in the dialog of Jesus and the woman. In those writing about this scene, I find a difference between many male commentators and the views of Sandra M. Schneiders, who was my professor in graduate school. Her work has a feminist theology outlook. The men often focus on the seemingly scandalous background of the woman, while Sandra points out that the woman engages Jesus in serious religious questions of the time.

Although John often stresses the divinity of Jesus, he also notes his humanity, as here telling us he is tired and thirsty after travel. While his disciples go to find food, he pauses at the well at about midday (‘the sixth hour’ when heat is highest). It is late in the day for the usual woman’s morning chore of collecting water, and only one woman is there. She is surprised at Jesus’ request, for Jews did not want to share things with Samaritans, especially women, because of the idea that they were ‘ritually unclean’ Jesus does not deal with this point, but begins his revelation of himself as one who can give her a superior kind of water. At first the woman misunderstands, logically thinking of ordinary drinking water, which she sees Jesus cannot provide for himself or her without a bucket. She makes another objection based on the importance of Jacob as one of the great Jewish patriarchs. Her doubting question about Jesus being greater than the revered patriarch is an example of John’s irony – for Jesus will indeed show himself as ‘greater’ as the conversation continues.

First he responds to her misunderstanding of the water he has to offer. His will be a totally different kind of water, ‘lasting’- but she still is thinking of ordinary water and would be happy to be relieved of the daily chore of carrying it home. Part of the contrast is between water that collects at the bottom of a well and must be worked for, and a spring where water bubbles up fresh and freely. This ‘rising up’ becomes a symbol of the water of life Jesus will give, a super-abundant source. As natural water is necessary for physical life, this water ‘springs up into eternal life’. In this dialog, there is no immediate description of this new kind of water, whether representing Jesus himself, or the Spirit, (as it often does in the Old Testament), or Jesus’ teaching in place of the Torah. There is also a possibility that it includes the waters of Baptism. (John 8:37-39). We can accept it as having all these resonances.

Faced with this challenge, the woman needs to take a further step in recognition, and for it, Jesus asks her to bring her husband. Commentators disagree on the details of this and his response, and whether it is symbolic – as the ‘five husbands’ may mean five different gods worshipped in the past in Samaria. Whatever the background, Jesus’ response shows his more than natural knowledge, and now the woman realises he is more significant than she originally perceived. She moves into a theological issue between the Jews and Samaritans. This seemingly ordinary housewife responds to Jesus with the same kind of religious questions as the Jewish leader Nicodemus in the previous chapter.

She picks out one major difference between the two peoples: instead of the Jewish worship of God in the temple in Jerusalem, Samaritans went to their local mountain, Gerizim. When she has pointed to this, Jesus tells her that the Jews indeed were right about worship, but now a change is at hand. As Jesus will replace the Temple (John 2:21) and as he is the Truth (John 14:6) the new worship will be through him and led by the Spirit.

Faced with this new claim, which she does not dispute, she goes to what she as a Samaritan also believes: that there will be in the future a ‘Messiah/Christ’ who will be reveal ‘all things’ and clear up the issues raised between her and Jesus. Now Jesus takes the full step of his revelation to her. ‘I am, who is speaking to you.’ In ordinary speech, this can be as our reading translates it, ‘I am that one, who is speaking to you’. In John’s Gospel, however, this is of several instances where the Greek text has the simple, ‘I am’ and when it stands alone seems to echo the name of God as given to Moses: ‘I am who I am. “I am” is sending you.’ (Exodus 313-14) So here it may show John’s belief that Jesus as the one sent by God who shares the nature of God. Before the woman can respond to his words, the disciples return and she is so excited as she leaves the scene that she drops her bucket and rushes to urge her townspeople to come and see him, too. Her raising the question of his identity shows she is thinking about what Jesus has said and is taking the first steps towards faith.

The return of the disciples with their food supply opens the second act of the drama with a second misunderstanding. Their unvoiced shock that he would be speaking with a woman – and a Samaritan at that – reflects the ideas of the rabbis at that time that a teacher should avoid female company outside his family. Jesus’ reply about what is his ‘true food’ gives us a glimpse into his inner life in full obedience to ‘the one’ who sent him into the world. He goes on to prepare the disciples for their own ‘sending’ as they too are to bring his truth to others. With what may be agricultural proverbs of the time, he expressed some urgency on this. There is also a reminder that what brings God to others is a collaborative process. Each may play a small part, but a necessary one.

The two parts of the story come together when the townspeople arrive and want to learn more from Jesus – they are a first sign of the ‘harvest’ Jesus predicted. ‘To believe’ and then ‘to know’ represents the way we start in initial faith but grow into deeper understanding and commitment to Jesus is and what he brings to us. ‘Saviour of the world’ is not a common title in the New Testament; this may be because it was used by the Roman emperors as worldly praise for themselves. It fits here, coming from the Samaritans who now see that what Jesus brings goes beyond any differences between Jews and Samaritans. Eventually the disciples will come to appreciate how all people in the world are offered salvation in Christ.

We can read this story as a cleverly presented dramatic scene, and appreciate what it shows about Jesus. In Lent, however, we are meant to be moving ever deeper in knowledge and in the love of Jesus, and therefore this example of the Samaritan woman and the disciples who have to work through their expectations to a new way of understanding the Christ, offers us a pattern to follow. Lenten practices of fasting are meant to shift our attention from natural food and drink, so that we become more open to the spiritual waters flowing up to eternal life with Jesus, who brings the living water and is the ‘Bread of Life’ (John 6).

Joan Griffith

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