By FATHER JOSEPH A. FAHY, CP, Special Contributor | Published March 3, 2005
During Lent, thousands of catechumens throughout the nation are preparing to receive the sacraments of Christian initiation, baptism, confirmation and the Eucharist, at the deeply inspiring Easter Vigil. Accompanying the catechumens are numerous candidates—those who are already baptized but wish to embrace the fullness of the Catholic faith and deepen their commitment to Christ through confirmation, the Eucharist, and further instruction.
During Lent, the Catholic Church also invites all followers of Jesus to renew and deepen their commitment to imitate faithfully our Lord and to serve selflessly our brothers and sisters.
Most catechumens and candidates are enrolled in the renewed rite of pastoral formation known as the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA). An important part of the RCIA is instruction, particularly about the person of Jesus and his mission and the implications and consequences for living out faithfully our Christian discipleship and baptismal vocation.
A prominent part of the Lenten instruction in the catechumenate, reaching back to the first millennium, is to reflect in a prayerful manner upon three important incidents of Jesus’ life, as related in the Gospel of St. John. These incidences include extraordinary encounters between Jesus and the Samaritan woman, the man born blind, and the resurrection of Lazarus, the brother of Martha and Mary. All of these people were deeply loved by Jesus. The three encounters have been regarded as “narrative masterpieces” and as “the most profound commentary” the author of the Gospel could offer on discipleship, containing the “key” to the faithful following of Jesus.
Setting the stage for these encounters, the classic prologue of John’s Gospel states: “No one has ever seen God. The only Son, God (the Christ) who is at the Father’s side, has revealed Him” (Jn 1:18). Our Lord also explains to his disciple Philip: “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (Jn 14:9).
The beautiful preface of the Christmas Mass proclaims: “In Him (Christ) we see our God made visible”—Christ is the supreme revelation, manifestation of God. Consider this important truth as we reflect upon the encounter of Jesus and the Samaritan woman.
She approaches Jacob’s well at noon to draw water. The woman’s need to draw water in a tropical land later suggests a deeper thirst and yearning for fulfillment.
Jesus is sitting at the well, fatigued and thirsty from his journey from Judea. We see the true humanity of the “Word made flesh” authentically human except without sin (Heb 4:15).
The Samaritan woman chooses the warmest part of the day to draw water. Her choice for midday may be dictated by her desire to avoid meeting other women because of her irregular lifestyle. Jesus breaks the racist, sexist custom of a man not speaking in public with a woman and a Samaritan, by initiating a conversation with her, requesting a drink of water.
She reacts with annoyance: “How is it that you, a Jew, asks a drink of me, a woman of Samaria? For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans” (Jn 4:9). Jews despised Samaritans as mixed-race and semi-pagan.
Jesus breaks the unjust barriers between races, nations and the sexes: Christ “has broken down the dividing wall of hostility between peoples” (Eph 2:14).
Jesus then talks with her about his gift of “living water,” which satisfies the deepest human thirst for fulfillment, happiness and the meaning of life: “But whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst” (Jn 4:14).
Jesus refers to heavenly realities as himself, baptism, grace, his revelation, the Holy Spirit. The woman is confronted by the one person who can satisfy the deepest needs and yearnings of the human heart. The fresh bubbling spring water from the well is a symbol of what Jesus gives, the “living water” by which he designates himself and his gifts.
Misunderstanding ensues, as the woman believes that Jesus is speaking of the water from the well. She does not understand the deeper meaning of his words nor his greatness: “Surely you are not greater than our father Jacob who gave us the well…?” (Jn 4:12).
Jesus declares more clearly the water he wishes to give her is not that of the well, but one different, which quenches all thirst and leads to “eternal life” (Jn 4:14).
He delicately reveals the disorder in her life in order to lead her to a deeper faith in him and to conversion and discipleship: “Go and call your husband and come back. The woman answered, “I have no husband.” Jesus said, “You are right when you say, ‘I have no husband. You have had five husbands, and now the one you have is not your husband. You have told the truth’” (Jn 4:16-18).
Apparent in the passage are both the profound yearning of the woman vainly seeking to find the happiness which she desires and the Good Shepherd searching for the lost sheep in the non-Jewish world, as part of his universal mission.
The Samaritan woman recognizes Jesus as a “prophet” (Jn 4:19). Jesus teaches her and all of us that “the true worshippers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth” (Jn 4:23), inviting her and us to intimacy with the Father in worship by the community, in obedience to God’s will, in the practice of charity and service, “the doing of the truth” (Jn 3:21). We are called to imitate Jesus’ own life: “My food is to do the will of Him who sent me and to carry out His work” (Jn 4:34).
Jesus even tells her that he is the Messiah, a truth he seldom revealed: “I am He” (Jn 4:26), perhaps also alluding to the divine name, “I AM.” This is the culmination of her progressive understanding of Jesus and her growing faith.
As the disciples return after purchasing provisions, the woman departs, leaving her jug as she returns to the community. Leaving her jar may be a masterly artistic detail, indicating her return, and more importantly, her transformation into a disciple and the abandonment of a past disordered life, her joy and burning enthusiasm to share this remarkable encounter with the community who had so hurt her. She realized the drawing of water was not that necessary at that moment. She was willing to expose herself again to the taunts and insults of those in the community, so that they might also have the joyful experience of an encounter with Jesus: “Come see the man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ? …. But many Samaritans of the town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony” (Jn 4:29,39).
The Samaritans requested Jesus to remain with them, and he did so for two days. “And many more believed in him on account of his words. We have heard him ourselves, and we know that he is in truth the Savior of the world” (Jn 4:41,42), the climax of his revelation to the marginalized Samaritans.
Wondrously, the Samaritan woman becomes a dedicated disciple of Jesus and also, incredibly, an apostle, “sent” by him to draw others to know and serve the “Savior of the world.”
This woman of Samaria is a marvelous model, not only for catechumens and candidates but for all of us called by our baptismal vocation to be both faithful disciples and dedicated apostles, leading others to Christ by example and word.
The Samaritan woman’s encounter with Christ, who satisfies her deepest yearnings for fulfillment, is the source of her conversion and apostolic zeal. The Risen Christ lovingly desires the same for us.
Father Joseph A. Fahy, CP, works with the Hispanic Ministry for the Archdiocese of Atlanta.