The Gospel for March 18th, 2017: “The Samaritan Woman”
Reflection: Dialogue and Evangelization as Ways for Encountering God
This week’s gospel about Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well is a rich and nuanced narrative, offering fertile ground for deep and thoughtful reflection. I choose to focus my reflection on its similarities and differences with last week’s gospel, which tells the story of Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountain with Peter, James, and John. Both stories describe encounters with Christ that explicitly reveal to others his divine role as Messiah. In the transfiguration, God the Father speaks from Heaven and tells the trio of disciples in their confusion and fear, “This is my beloved son. Listen to him” (Matthew 17: 5). In the story of the Samaritan woman at the well, a non-disciple encounters Jesus and is told by Him, “I am [the Messiah], the one speaking with you” (John 4: 26).
The juxtaposition of these two encounters allows for reflection on how different spiritual experiences and practice can facilitate closeness with Jesus. The transfiguration experience is marked by a journey with Jesus up a mountain, a pilgrimage, by disciples who know Him already. Their relationship with Christ is deepened when they see a glimpse of His divinity in the transfiguration itself. When Peter’s first reaction is to impetuously interrupt this experience by building tents for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah to honor this experience through some sort of traditional practice, God the Father intervenes and commands the disciples to listen to Jesus. In short, the characteristics of this experience are marked by pilgrimage and silently listening to Jesus.
In contrast, the woman at the well has not set out to seek Jesus in an unfamiliar place, nor is she quiet in the presence of Jesus. Instead, Jesus finds her in an ordinary routine of gathering water. Unaware of whom He is, she engages with Him in earnest, unguarded conversation. As the conversation progresses from the strangeness of a Jew’s request of a Samaritan woman for water to the distinction between liquid water for thirst and “living water” for salvation, the woman expresses her desire for the latter saying, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may not be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water” (John 4: 9-15).
In hearing the woman’s petition for salvation, Jesus sends her on a mission to tell her husband to call her husband and return, in other words to bring another to Christ the Savior. During this shift in the conversation, Jesus demonstrates He knows who she is and reveals to her that He is the Messiah, about whom she has heard tell. Now fully aware, she obeys Jesus’ command, going to tell other Samaritans she has found the Messiah and returns with those who will follow. They invite Jesus to stay with them, and he does so for two more days (John 4: 16-40).
This encounter with Jesus is marked by different characteristics than the transfiguration. Instead of on a journey, it occurs in the context of the familiar, a daily routine. Instead of an awesome experience where silence is called for, it occurs in an open dialogue, first between Jesus and the Samaritan woman, and later between her and her friends and family. Finally, we must not overlook the woman’s call to evangelization of those close to her when she meets her Savior and finds His “living water.”
I was once asked by a wise YMCA camp director, “Where are the places you find God?” This was a startling question that prompted me to think about the possibility that we may encounter and deepen our relationship with our Creator and Savior in many ways. In light of these two gospels, I think, on the one hand, we may find Jesus through our Lenten journey, which forces us beyond the familiar and calls us to silently listen for what Jesus is saying to us in this experience. On the other hand, we also need to seek Jesus in dialogue, first with Him in prayer, asking the questions we need to ask, and then with others, talking about the answers we are finding in Him. He is calling us to bring others to Him, like the woman at the well, and we will grow closer to Him in that effort, which is often marked by honest dialogue with those who do not necessarily share our beliefs. And what do we have to gain by our obedience to this call? It is certainty in our salvation that the world cannot provide. Like those Samaritans who came to the well to meet Jesus, we can say with confidence, “[W]e know that this is truly the savior of the world” (John 4: 42).