The gift of being human means that we can change direction in our lives. Perhaps we’re heading down one path, and then something comes and shakes us up, opening our eyes and changing our direction entirely. The woman in the Gospel for the Third Sunday of Lent had such an encounter.
When we meet her in the beginning of the Gospel, she is a woman of shame. Notice how she comes to the well around noon – this is significant because in ancient times, women would draw water in the morning and evening, when it was cooler. No one would go out in the heat of the day unless they were purposely trying to avoid others. So here she was, an outcast because of her sinful lifestyle, just trying to get a drink.
You can almost hear her weary cynicism in her snarky responses to Jesus – “How can You, a Jew, ask me for a drink? Are You greater than our forefather Jacob, who gave us this well?”
She comes to the well because she is thirsting for water, but Jesus knows she is thirsting for more: for love, for meaning and purpose, for direction in life. This is why the woman has gone through men like they were shoes to try on and then discard – she is thirsting for love. Jesus wants to quench that thirst.
It is so fitting that the woman’s sin is infidelity. All throughout the Old Testament, the relationship between God and Israel is described as a marriage. Israel is meant to be God’s exclusive Bride, fruitful in holiness, and Israel is meant to be exclusively faithful to God. But over and over again, Israel broke that marriage bond by worshipping false gods, and failed to give God the fruit of holiness that should have been the result of such a marriage. So this Samaritan woman’s unfaithfulness is a living sign of Israel’s unfaithfulness as a whole.
It may seem strange that the discussion shifts immediately from her sin to where to worship – is the woman trying to avoid talking about her sinful life? No, not at all. She recognizes that this Man Jesus is a true prophet, and so who better to bring your religious questions to! She cannot turn from her sin unless she gets the first thing right: how to best worship God.
Up to now, God has been worshipped in Jerusalem in the Temple. But now Jesus says that there will be a new way to worship. “Spirit and truth” means that it’s not enough to attend Mass and do external things – we must give our whole lives to the Lord, from the heart.
The woman is so changed by this encounter that she goes out and tells others. Notice her transformation – first, Jesus is just “sir” to her. Then, He is a prophet. In the end, she calls Him “the Messiah”. She has finally found what she’s looking for. She has made the conversion from unfaithful woman to seeker to disciple.
So I leave you with two considerations this morning. First of all, where are you along this journey? Are you living, like the woman, in a life of unfaithfulness? Those “five husbands” might look different for you – perhaps they are the greed, lust, sloth, pride, or unforgiveness that you harbor in your heart.
Or are you a little further along: a seeker? Do you thirst for love, for meaning, and for purpose in your life? Do you want to know what it’s all about? Are you willing to sit at the feet of Jesus and ask Him questions?
Or are you ready to be an Apostle, like the woman? Are you so convinced of Jesus’ love for you that you are ready to go and tell the world? Do you believe that Jesus died and rose to reconcile us to God, and are you thirsting to tell others about Him? Where are you on this journey – and are you ready to take the next step?
Secondly, I ask you: how do you worship? Is it just with your lips only, doing just the bare minimum that our Catholic Faith asks? Or do you truly worship with your whole spirit? Lent is a good litmus test for that – many people look for “loopholes” to get out of their Lenten penance, but one who loves God generously seeks to give more, sacrifice more, spend more time in prayer, love more.
The grace of God can transform souls. I want to close with the story of St. Mary of Egypt, a saint who experienced the transformation that an encounter with Jesus can give. St. Mary of Egypt grew up in a rural community in the late 300s, but as a young teen she ran away from home so she could experience the excitement of the big city – in her case, Alexandria. It was the New York of her time – culture, activity, excitement. But after a short while, realizing that she had no way to support herself financially, she turned to prostitution and sold her body for food and money.
She lived as a prostitute for many years. When she was in her twenties, a church group from Alexandria was planning a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. She decided to attend, only out of curiosity, and so that she could offer her “services” to the pilgrims! When they got to the Holy Land, they began touring the various churches. All the pilgrims began entering into the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, built over the place where Jesus was crucified and buried. Everyone walked through the doorway, but when Mary tried to enter, she felt herself hit an invisible force that prevented her from entering the church! Three times she tried to enter, and each time it was as if a force field did not allow her in. She realized it was due to her sinful life that she could not enter the sacred space, so she cried out to the Lord for mercy, promising to repent.
The Lord had mercy on her, and she was allowed in. She made a good Confession and spent 24 hours in prayer in the church, receiving her first Holy Communion. When the tour group began heading back to Egypt, she knew she needed to make a complete break from her former life. She went into the desert, and lived the remainder of her life in prayer and penance as a hermit. Here was a woman who knew the pain of unfaithfulness, but when she encountered the Lord in that church, sought to give everything to follow Him.
So where are you along the journey? Have you yet given it all to Christ?
Originally published at The Cross Stands While the World Turns.
Painting: Guercino, Jesus and the Samaritan Woman at the Well, 1641 (Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid) / PD-US