Sunday 12 March 2023 Lent 3
Woman at the Well
Exodus 17:3-7; Romans 5:1-2, 5-8; John 4:5-42
Context: a London Catholic parish with adults preparing for Baptism
Aim: to reflect on coming to the waters of life and finding our identity in Christ
Outside of the Passion Narrative, this story of the ‘woman at the well’ is one of the longest gospel passages to be selected for the liturgical year. In fact, it is the first of three long gospels we listen to for these three Sundays of Lent every year when there are candidates for Baptism among us, the others being ‘the man born blind’ and ‘the raising of Lazarus.’
Each one of them is about an encounter with Jesus that leads to a deep conversation and an experience of healing. Each of them explores a significant dimension of our lives as Christians and what it means to enter into a relationship with Jesus.
For the woman in today’s gospel everything about the encounter was a surprise — it should never really have happened! Most likely she comes alone to the well in the middle of the day because her history as a woman with five previous husbands and currently living with a man she was not married to, would make life difficult for her with the other women of the town. It certainly was not respectable to be meeting alone with a strange man at the well. Even more concerning, he was a Jew and she was a Samaritan, and Jews and Samaritans did not mix.
Yet he opens the conversation by asking, ‘Give me a drink,’ and she can’t help but get drawn in. Water was something she knew about, collecting it was her daily task, but this conversation opens up a whole new understanding of ‘living water’ and gradually she moves from thinking about human thirst to the thirst for God ‘in spirit and in truth’ and an acceptance of the water that wells up to eternal life, an acceptance of Jesus himself.
Intriguingly, this Samaritan woman is never named. Even though we are told that the disciples and Jesus subsequently spent two whole days with her and the people of her town, her identity did not get recorded for posterity. So, instead, she is defined by where she was — ‘by the well’ — and we continue to this day to recall this conversation to understand why we come to the waters of Baptism when we become followers of Christ and members of his Church.
It is all the more surprising that the woman goes unnamed because, in our tradition, Baptism is so closely connected to naming. ‘What name do you give your child?’ we ask parents who bring infants forward for baptism and all our adult candidates are presented to you by name during this time of preparation.
As a young teenager, I collected female names, I think because my own name was a little unusual and I was curious about the other options. Looking back, it was a bit of a strange hobby, but I wrote out long lists of them, adding to it over the years whenever I came across a new one. Growing up in Essex in the 1980s the names were mostly British, and I stopped once I realised that taking on international names as well would be a never-ending task!
These days names for girls far outnumber those for boys, but at the time of Jesus there appear to have been more names for men than for women. Around one in four Jewish women recorded were called Mary, while Salome was the next most popular, accounting for about 20 per cent. The preponderance of Samaritan names in unknown, but safe to say it was not regarded as important to the early Christians to identify this particular woman. What was important was that everything changed for her after she met Jesus, as it does for us.
I am reminded of Justin Welby who describes his early life as ‘messy’ owing to the alcoholism of both his parents, and when he found out — three years after becoming Archbishop of Canterbury — that in fact he had a different biological father said, ‘I find who I am in Christ, not in genetics, and my identity in him never changes.’
Thanks to the witness of the Samaritan woman, Jesus stays two days with the people of her town and we are told that he had a big impact on them all. ‘We have heard him ourselves,’ they say, ‘and we know that he really is the Saviour of the world.’ But now I notice that she is not coming alone to the well in the heat of the day when no-one else is around. She is in the midst of her community, being included in the dialogue about the stranger she introduced to them and whose presence has enriched their lives.
It is always a privilege to accompany our candidates for Baptism, our catechumens, in our many long conversations together and this point in Lent is a good time to deepen our conversations with Jesus. Any starting point will do. I always like that the Samaritan woman’s first word in response to Jesus is, ‘What?’
We look forward to continuing our journey together towards Easter.
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