On Jn 4.
She could scarcely have been more of an outsider. For a start, just being a woman was enough to rule her out as someone a respectable rabbi like Jesus would be seen talking with. But more than that, she was a Samaritan woman. And worst of all, she was a sinful Samaritan woman, whose life-style would have put her on the margins even of her own people.And the circumstances could hardly have been less auspicious. Here she was, carrying out the monotonous drudgery of her daily routine. And then, she met Jesus. That is, she met the Messiah; Jesus, the all-holy Son of God, the Lord, full of majesty beyond that of any King. So how could someone like her dare to approach him, much less speak familiarly with him?
Because he came down. If she could never come to him, then he must come to her. And so she met him just as she was, where she was. He was tired from his journey, hungry and thirsty – a man just like us, in all things but sin. And there the 2 of them are, alone together, at Jacob’s well.
Jesus addresses her with courteous respect. He shows delicate tact, by putting himself at a disadvantage, when he asks her for a favour. But very soon it becomes clear that this is no ordinary exchange of civilities. Jesus is physically thirsty. But his deeper thirst is a thirst for her faith. And it is a thirst to give. Jesus thirsts to give her the living water of the Holy Spirit – to draw her into eternal life, in union with himself, in accordance with the will of the Father. This thirst would find its supreme expression in his cry from the cross – I thirst. And it would be fulfilled precisely at his death, when blood and water flowed out of his opened side.
If only you knew the gift of God! he says. If only you knew what I am offering you – this living water, which is the Holy Spirit dwelling within you. If only you knew how great a thing it is to have the very divine life given to you, only on condition that you accept me in faith.
Obviously, these words do not only apply to the Samaritan woman. They apply to all of us: we are all meant to identify ourselves, in a sense, with her. They apply particularly to those preparing for baptism, which is why the Church gives us this Gospel, with its own preface, on the 3rd Sunday of lent. Those who are to be baptised at the Easter vigil are specifically preparing to receive the gift of living water, springing up into eternal life.
The Samaritan woman is naturally enough slow to understand what Jesus is offering her. Her mind, formed by the Old Testament, moves on the natural, this-worldly plane. Not that she is irreligious. Jacob’s well is for her a symbol of the Promised Land, given by God to the Patriarchs, and to their descendants forever. But in Jesus the Old Testament becomes the New. The good natural gift of water becomes an infinitely better supernatural gift of life.
Jacob’s well had enough water not only for himself, but for his sons and cattle as well. Jesus’ gift of living water, the gift of the Holy Spirit, is in principle limitless. Within each believer it will be an inexhaustible source, always leading us beyond our wretchedness and sinfulness, always drawing us into the fullness of eternal life. But it will also be a limitless gift for all mankind too. It is noteworthy that the phrase “gift of God” is also used of the Holy Spirit in the book of Acts, specifically referring to the spread of salvation outside the boundaries of orthodox Judaism.
The well has another important layer of symbolism. Jesus’ meeting the Samaritan woman by the well recalls the meeting of Abraham’s servant with Rebekkah, who became the wife of Isaac and mother of Israel. Jacob also met his beloved wife with Rachel by a well, and it was by a well that Moses met his wife Zipporah. So St. Augustine was surely right to see in the Samaritan woman a symbol or figure of the Church, the beloved bride of Christ, who would henceforth be one flesh with him. Like the Samaritan woman, the Church will be drawn from outside Judaism; made up also of sinners like her, but who also like her are ready to change, and become witnesses, apostles of Jesus.
Why did God give promise a land to Israel? Not just so that they could be one up over their neighbours. It was so that here there might be a people who would belong to him, and offer him, the one true God, their uncorrupted worship, love and service. We can say a similar thing about the gift of Baptism. It is ordered for an end, and that end is worship: the worship of the Father in spirit and in truth.
And the place, above all, on this side of eternity, where worship in spirit and in truth is offered is the Holy Eucharist. That is why we say, rightly, that baptism is ordered towards the Eucharist; or, the purpose of Baptism is to enable us to participate in the Eucharist. The Eucharist is worship in spirit and in truth because it is Christ’s own worship of the Father. Christ’s gift cost him his life, and this free offering of his life to the F on the cross, for our salvation, is renewed in each Mass. We come to Mass to participate in this perfect worship, to add our own gift to it, to drink again from the inexhaustible fountain flowing from Christ’s side.
And today, as we recall our own baptism in preparation for Easter, we are reminded that everything is gift. Our faith is a gift, our Baptism is a gift, the Holy Eucharist is a gift – and all because of the Holy Spirit, who is Himself the Gift of all gifts. We should then have great confidence in our baptism. We should look not at our own performance, but at what Christ has given us. And we should ask that we might be ever more open to receive what we have been given, to the glory of God the Father.