So many people talk about this gospel story as being one of their favorites, and this is true of me as well. I've heard so much lukewarmd exegesis on this passage, so much unenlightened and unstudied finger-wagging around the woman's marital past and her shame, and her being separated from other women in the village. I'm grateful for those who have, over the years, taken the time to study the scripture in its cultural context, and give some deeper insight into this story. I just want to highlight some of the best things I've heard over the years.
The source of some of it is James Dunning's Echoing God's Word, and some of his insight is suggested by IHM Sister Sandra Schneider's book The Revelatory Text. Other insight has come from a great homily on "the seventh lover" that Bishop Gerald Kicanas preached at a parish mission about fifteen years ago at St. Anne's; some has come from the JBC and other biblical commentary I read. I'm not going to try to cite everything or say this is all the gospel: take it for what it is.
What I'd like to emphasize as I begin is that whatever else they are, the gospels are literature. We need to read them as literature, as literary documents of faith, and not like newspapers or history books. Certain words, places, and people are mentioned because the writer expected hearers to know the backstory. We ourselves, as hearers of the word, are expected to know the backstory! When we hear, for example the story of Elijah and the cave, we're expected to know that he's in flight for his life from the king and queen of Israel, and not on a guided retreat. When we hear the prophecy of Isaiah, we are expected to hear it in the context of the chaos of exile, not as the hashish dream of a late Iron Age poet sitting in the bar at the Jerusalem Hilton. We shouldn't be listening to scripture the way catechumens or the non-churched do. We are already supposed to be people of the word. That's a starting place. We all have some catch-up to do.
So take the gospel for Lent 3, year A, used any time a community has catechumens gathered for the first scrutiny. Remember that the purpose of the scrutiny is to "gradually instruct (the elect) in the mystery of evil," first to uncover all that is sinful in their life (and ours) so that it can be rejected, and then to strengthen all that is light and gift in them for their life in the church. It's against that backdrop that these readings, this gospel, was chosen for today.
First, the well itself is special. The author of John alludes to the well at Shechem, in Samaria, as "Jacob's Well." This is the place, in the story in Genesis, where Jacob first laid eyes on his beloved Rachel. This is a well where lovers meet. Wells are important centers of community and information in desert lands, and this one is special because of its history.
Second, it's strange that John has Jesus travelling with the disciples in Samaria, because this is expressly forbidden to them in Matthew, where Jesus alleges that his mission is to the tribes of Israel, and bars the apostles from going to Samaria or the pagan lands. There is no mention of a mission to Samaria in any of the synoptics. Yet, in the Acts of the Apostles, Samaria is the first mission undertaken by the Jerusalem church after Pentecost. This is another indication that something unusual is happening in this story, something unexpected, diverging from the older versions of the narrative.
Third, there's John's summary of the state of affairs between Jews and Samaritans, for any who might not know. The hatred between the two Semitic groups was already ancient in the first century, and stories of bloody feuding and the hurling of filth and insults between Jews and Samaritans are found in non-scriptural accounts. John seems to be saying that there is no human explanation for what is about to happen. Jesus is a man of honor and a Jew, she is a dishonorable woman and a Samaritan, and ne'er the twain shall meet.
Enter their mutual thirst, and Jacob's well.
What is truly amazing in the story is that Jesus begins their dialogue by asking for a drink. He risks all the taboos, and opens up the possibility of a new future with a word of vulnerability. "Give me something to drink." In typical fashion, John has the woman miss the point, play the foil, and we get a chance to see that she's not going to be an easy mark. She knows the score: "Hey, Jew-boy, how can you ask me, a Samaritan and a woman, for a drink?" (That's not the RNAB, but it conveys the contempt at which the "dialogue" begins.) You know how the story goes on. As their conversation ensues, she is drawn more deeply into the heart of the thirsty man (we can imagine that he did, finally, get his drink of water), and is finally able to reveal her own thirst to him. "Give me this (living) water, sir, so that I don't have to keep coming here to draw water." Then Jesus tells her to go call her husband.
This is the part that causes some of the lamest homilies to be preached, as though this were a story about a fallen woman, and the whole problem of salvation is the mess of human (read: female) sexuality, and how Jesus will fix it all if we just listen to him. It's as if we want to reduce this story to something about sex so that we can think of it as about somebody else. Libera nos, Domine!
But I suggest that this story isn't about a woman and Jesus, but is about the new Christian church, born from and ultimately excommunicated from Judaism, and the people of Samaria, Jewish renegades, and the subject of the first mission of the apostolic church. What if the "five husbands" were the many gods that Samaria, the former "northern kingdom" of Israel, had embraced syncretistically since the division of the kingdom after the death of Solomon, and "the one you are living with now," the worship of God in their own temple, is also not their husband? The literal number of gods (or husbands) doesn't matter. (The Hebrew word baal means both "god" and "husband," by the way.) What matters is that John adds them up (5 + 1) to six. Six is the symbol, in Jewish numerology, of complete imperfection. (Think of the "number of the Beast" in Revelation, "666", as the numerical representation of absolute imperfection.) It's one less than seven, the perfect number. Samaria, symbolized in this woman, is utterly unfulfilled. Then one day, along comes Jesus, preached by the word of the apostle Phillip, at Jacob's well (i.e., in Samaria). She has met her seventh lover: this is the husband for whom she has been waiting.
Acts reports that after Philip preached in Samaria, Peter and John had to go up as well to help with all the baptizing. So I am convinced that this is the story of a marriage, of a reconciliation of worlds, actually. The ancient but severed union of Samaria and Judea, the northern and southern kingdoms, is restored when Jesus sits down at the well with the Samaritan woman. Political, ethnic, and religious enemies are reconciled in the Way. The preface of the day telegraphs the message:
When he asked the woman of Samaria for water to drink, Christ had already prepared for her the gift of faith. In his thirst to receive her faith he awakened in her heart the fire of your love. (1972 translation)
Jesus reveals his thirst; he "prepares the way." he breaks down the wall between peoples the way he always does. She hears the voice of her true love, and opens her heart, and becomes an apostle of the Way. Hearing the voice and remembering who the Lover is is a big part of this story. Jesus heard the voice at his baptism in the Jordan, and again, with the three apostles, on the mount of Transfiguration. The voice that calls him "the beloved Son" is the voice to which he is faithful, the voice that he will cling to, when it seems that the voices of hatred, envy, and division have won the day.
"If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts," the church sings today, all of us, to and with our elect as they prepare for the Easter sacraments. To be Christ today, after hearing this gospel, seems to mean being willing take the risk, to reveal my thirst for unity and reconciliation, to get out of ruts and strictures and taboos imposed by culture, politics, even religion. If I'm doing discernment about my life in my community, I ought to be asking myself and my friends, Who's not welcome at our well? Who's asking for a drink, and getting pushed away? Who's going to have the courage to expose our longing for reconciliation, to be vulnerable, and offer the first drink of living water?
Seven (!) years ago or so, Fr. Michael Jacques, a pastor of St. Peter Claver Church in New Orleans, preached to us on this Sunday. He had come to raise money and seek help for his neighborhood after Katrina. Fr. Michael is a fine preacher, though he's not accustomed to preaching to our more sedate suburban Catholics! In a haunting refrain, taken from today's gospel about Jesus and the Samaritan Woman, he told us that we too might be married to the wrong love. "If you are addicted to drugs or alcohol, or anything else that lets you avoid reality, the husband you have now is not your own. If you get up every morning and go to work, and try to get more power, and more money, and have as many possessions as you can have so that you have more than all your neighbors, the husband you have now is not your own. If you can't wait to get the latest XBox games, or computer games, or electronic stuff, and spend all your time playing with them, then the husband you have now is not your own." You get the idea. After this litany of truth, he said, "Somebody say "Ouch."" We all laughed, of course. He had been encouraging us to say "Amen" when we agreed with him: now he was hoping we'd say "ouch" because he was afflicting the comfortable (with love).
I want to hear the voice that calls me "beloved child," and be true to that Voice as it reveals all others to be the same. I want that Voice to break the concrete around my heart, soften it, so that I can better see and love the ignored, the one-passed-by, and learn to do good to those who hate. Ouchtime. It seems so hard. I can't do it.
Change our hearts! Create us again! Let me know where the well is that you're waiting for me and my community, waiting, thirsty and without a bucket, for us to slake your thirst with our desire for integrity. So many of us are on lover number six, or sixty-six, or six hundred sixty-six. Come be our seventh lover. Bring us together again, in this world, today. Don't make us wait any more.