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Sunday 15 March 2020: Lent 3

Salt of the earth and salt for the Spirit

Exodus 17:1-7; Romans 5:1-11; John 4:5-42

By John Deehan

Parish Priest, Our Lord Help of Christians, Kentish Town

Context: a Catholic mass with a mixed inner city congregation of mixed ages and backgrounds

Aim: to demonstrate how evangelisation can start from chance encounters

Travelling on the London Underground is not exactly a bundle of laughs!. I often wonder how regular commuters put up with travelling every day like tinned sardines in packed, sometimes sweltering carriages. The advent of the mobile phone or the small tablet has meant that people can insulate themselves from the bodies crowding around them and retire into their little worlds of films, emails or social media, their eyes seemingly transfixed by the small screen.

And yet, what amazes me is the number of times someone notices my arrival in the carriage and offers me a seat. Maybe I am in denial about my steadily advancing years but I have not yet felt the need to claim a priority seat. I know I am not the only one who gets offered a seat, but the fact that it happens at all I would class as one of the little miracles of the underground system, a small act of civility but an enormous one given the conditions under which people have to travel.

In today’s gospel we see another little miracle with enormous consequences – the fact that Jesus and the Samaritan woman even began a conversation! For centuries Jews from Jerusalem and Galilee had been hostile to one another. The safest way to live together was to keep their distance, live in their own little world and not notice the other’s presence. Most people would have considered Jesus to have been very brave, or very foolish, to have been in Samaritan territory at all. And to stop at a well was double trouble, because that was where the women came to draw water, and in a society where the sexes were carefully separated it was not the place for a man and woman to be found on their own. But anyone listening to this story who was familiar with the biblical stories of old would have thought, ‘Aye aye! What’s God up to now?’ Wells were places of opportunity, of blessing, where personal stories could move in a new direction.

Not that you would have thought that from the beginning of the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman. Far from getting off to a good start, it looks like the conversation will get bogged down in misunderstanding and cross purposes. Jesus speaks about the living water that is a symbol of eternal life, the woman is wondering how he will draw water without a bucket. And then her religious prejudices come to the fore. No one could be greater than ‘our father’ Jacob who built the well, a remark to give her people religious legitimacy and at the same time take a dig at Jesus. In a land where one had to dig very deep to find water, and according to legend Jacob’s striking water bordered on the miraculous, Jesus would have had to have been greater than Jacob to be able to offer ‘living water.’

But as the conversation moves on it begins to take a more serious turn. In what looks like banter about her troubled married lives, the woman begins to perceive that Jesus is able to interpret her story to her and in the process open her eyes beyond her narrow and defensive Samaritan world to the insights into God that Jesus brings from his Judaean background – ‘Our fathers worshipped on this mountain, but you say that Jerusalem is the place where one ought to worship.’ Having elicited this movement from the women, Jesus does not take the opportunity to reinforce a partisan position, exalting the worship of Jerusalem, but rather he proposes that the true worship that God desires is worship in spirit and truth, not dependent on any particular place or shrine.

I wonder how a modern ‘Samaritan woman’ might have told this on Twitter – Met this amazing bloke on the Northern Line, told me all my secrets, blew my mind, no idea he’d make such a big impact. He might be the one!

The woman in the story goes one better. Though she still only ‘wonders’ if Jesus is the Christ, her fascination with Jesus rubs off on the other townspeople to the extent that they want to get to know him. At first what seems to attract them is his ‘celebrity status.’ But as they spend time with him their understanding of him goes beyond that of the woman. From wondering if he is the Messiah sent to Israel, they can now declare Jesus, with conviction, to be the saviour of the world.

This is a story about growing in faith, but it is also a story of how evangelisation can begin with a little miracle - an encounter, a conversation, that might not have appeared significant when it began but led to extraordinary things - the breaking down of prejudices, and entering into a new world shaped by God. The early Christians must have marvelled at the conversion of the Samaritans. How could a movement based in Jerusalem of all places have done it? Was it some great plan, or programme, or a chance moment, a chance conversation, and a bit of gossip, all brought about by the grace of God?

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