One of the traditional Scripture readings for Lent is from John 4:5-42, the story of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at the well.
The gospel story about the woman at the well may be a familiar one to many people. Just on the first floor of our monastery, we have two depictions of it: a large painting of the encounter and a piece of stained glass art that shows the woman.
This gospel is often paired with other related readings such as Isaiah 12:1-6. Both of these readings are about water. Isaiah refers to “drawing water joyfully from the wells of salvation,” a reading which will be heard again at the Easter vigil in many churches. The Gospel of John invites us to consider quenching our thirst with living water.
So, what is our gospel message? This gospel text, according to the Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, “transforms conventional expectations and challenges the status quo.”
In what way? Before I speak of the gospel passage, I would say that in light of what has been happening in the last few days — the clearing of our calendars from appointments and events for the coming weeks, not being able to hold worship services in our churches, being separated from loved ones, worrying about jobs and child care, being unable to gather and recreate in customary ways — all have the potential to transform us and certainly will challenge our status quo. May we heed Isaiah’s words: “God indeed is our strength. Let us be confident and unafraid.”
Now back to the gospel. The Samaritan woman speaks in a cynical, even caustic, tone to Jesus. Her rude insolence and disrespect, however, don’t seem to deter Jesus from staying in conversation with her. His patience actually softens her sarcastic attitude and lowers her defenses. She becomes curious about receiving the water Jesus offers and then eventually makes a statement of faith calling him a prophet.
How does this happen? Jesus is a wonderful spiritual director and he demonstrates a couple of important values. First of all, he respects her, he treats her as fully human. He listens, and as the Benedictine rule says, listens “with the ear of the heart.” Jesus is non-judgmental, he accepts the Samaritan woman as she is, he is patient with her, giving her time and space to respond. This is just as I do as a spiritual director. This humane treatment of her, a woman and a woman from Samaria, creates a sense of trust in her. Because of this trust, she invites other Samaritans to come and listen. In this lively exchange between Jesus and her, the status quo is challenged. She becomes a witness to the faith.
Lent is a season to follow Jesus more closely. How can we imitate what Jesus did in his conversing with the woman at the well? As Lent continues to unfold, I would invite you to be mindful of how we listen and treat others whom we encounter. As a spiritual director, I ask myself: do I welcome each directee with a non-judging attitude, do I accept each one as she/he is? Similar questions can be posed to anyone.
Can we be patient with others, create space where trust can be deepened, listen and be present to the fears of others in the midst of the corona virus and the related financial and personal uncertainties? This is our challenge; it is our reality. Let us embrace it, along with what we hear in the gospel, so that we, too, might bear witness to our faith and our belief in the promises of God.
Let us together as Christians go with Jesus to the well.