03.12.2023 Third Sunday of Lent
Christ and the Samaritan Woman
Ferdinand Georg Waldmuller
Waldmüller was one of the most important Austrian painters of the Biedermeier period, an era in Central Europe between 1815 and 1848, during which the middle classes grew in number, and the arts appealed to common sensibilities, becoming popularised.
Everyone wanted to buy some art, and thus artists turned to classical painters to find inspiration and produce works in large numbers.
Our painting composition is based on a work by Annibale Caracci from 1604. The colours are crystal clear, rich in their variation. Jesus' blue cloak contrasts with the opposite yellow of the cloak of the Samaritan woman. The soft blue sky with white touches of clouds finds similar tones in the tunics of Jesus and the woman. The yellow stone of the well is reflected in the Samaritan woman's dress.
Matthew 17: 1-9
1“Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard, ‘Jesus is making and baptizing more disciples than John’— 2although it was not Jesus himself but his disciples who baptized— 3he left Judea and started back to Galilee. 4But he had to go through Samaria. 5So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6Jacob's well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. 7A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink’. 8(His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) 9The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’ (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) 10Jesus answered her, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink”, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.’ 11The woman said to him, ‘Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?’ 13Jesus said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’ 15The woman said to him, ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water’.
27Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, ‘What do you want?’ or, ‘Why are you speaking with her?’ 28Then the woman left her water-jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, 29‘Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?’ 30They left the city and were on their way to him.
39Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman's testimony, ‘He told me everything I have ever done.’ 40So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there for two days. 41And many more believed because of his word. 42They said to the woman, ‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Saviour of the world’”.
This is the much-loved story of the Samaritan Woman at the well and is the second of four encounters with Jesus in John this Lent. Each encounter reveals something about who He is, some gift He brings to us on this year’s Lenten journey. Where last week the gift emerged out of the Father’s love given in the Son, this week it gushes forth as Jesus’ gift of the Spirit, poured into the hearts of believers.
This encounter begins with social boundary-crossing, typical of Jesus in all of the Gospels, when He asks the Samaritan Woman for a drink. She is surprised that He is interacting with a Samaritan, and the narrator explains why her surprise is justified. Then the disciples will later be particularly concerned that He is talking with a woman – a Samaritan Woman who perhaps mirrors our own lives as we too are people with a history.
The Symbolism of Water
The focus here is on water. In our countries, we have plenty of water and consequently have little sense of the value of water. But in places such as Palestine, Africa and India, water is something very precious. Water is life. If there is no water, death soon follows. When the Bible speaks about water, it speaks about life.
The encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman can be read in three movements and the first one is all about water: Jesus’ thirst, then the ensuing conversation with the woman, a bit wary of him and his boundary-crossing, and then the living water gushing up to eternal life that He will offer her and for which she will ask.
We all thirst to be seen and to be known at a deep and intimate level. We all want to pour our lives out to one who knows us, to let them drink from the depths of our very being. That is exactly what Jesus is asking of this woman with a past when he says, “Give me a drink”. It is the invitation to let herself be known. To be known is to be loved and to be loved is to be known.
To be found out, however, without being known leaves us dry and desolate. It leaves us to live a dehydrated life, thirsting for something more, something different, but always returning to the same old wells.
The Wells from which we Drink
We all go down to some well. For some, like the Samaritan woman, it is the marriage well and we do not know her circumstances, (not that she had many choices or control over her own life as was typical of the time). For others it is the well of perfectionism. Some go to the well of hiding and isolation whereas others will draw from the well of power and control. Too many will drink from the wells of addiction and denial.
We could all name the wells from which we drink day after day. We arrive hoping our thirst will be quenched, yet we leave as thirsty as when we arrived only to return the next day. For too long, we have drunk from the well that never satisfies, the well that can never satisfy.
There is another well, however. It is the well of Jesus Christ. It is the well that washes us clean of our past. This is the well from which new life and new possibilities spring forth. It is the well that frees us from the patterns and habits that keep us living as thirsty people. That is the well the Samaritan woman in today’s Gospel found. She intended to go to the same old well she had gone to for years, but today is different. Jesus holds before her two realities of her life; the reality of what is and the reality of what might be, and He brings her past to the light of day. “You have had five husbands”, He says, “and the one you have now is not your husband”. It is not a statement of condemnation but simply a statement of what is. He tells her everything she has ever done. She has been found out.
But it does not end there. Jesus is more interested in her future than her past. He wants to satisfy her thirst more than judge her history. Jesus knows her. He looks beyond her past and sees a woman dying of thirst; a woman thirsting to be loved, to be seen, to be accepted, to be included, to be forgiven, to be known. Her thirst will never be quenched by the external wells of life and nor will ours.
“Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty”. This is the living water of new life, new possibilities, and freedom from the past. This living water is Jesus’ own life. It became in the Samaritan Woman “a spring of water gushing up to eternal life”. She discovered within herself the interior well and left her water jar behind. She had now become the well in which Christ’s life flows. To my mind, this woman is the image of humanity – all her life she has been thirsting for this “water”.
Enabling the Samaritan woman
The language of the well scene “water, water-jar, and drawing” — is reminiscent of the miracle at Cana when Jesus first revealed his glory to his Disciples, with the latter two terms used only in these two passages in all the New Testament.
Although Jesus knows everything about this woman’s life, as indeed He knows what is in everyone’s (2:25), there is no mention of sin or sinfulness in this text and no word of judgment or even encouragement to change her life. Any preoccupation with that is more a measure of the readers’ interests than those of the Evangelist. What is life-changing for the woman is, according to her, that she has been entirely known by him, and this being known has enabled her to know him. The story is about her being able to begin to see who He is, being given the gift of that truth that leads to real worship and becoming a conduit for the living water. It is about her only in so far as it is about who He reveals himself to be to her and, through their encounter, to her neighbours and then to us.
This text suggests in a number of ways that it is not about what we know but who we know. It is about having an encounter, experiencing the light of Jesus’ truth and love shining on our past and our future, and then having the courage and the wherewithal to drop anything that is not that and go share what we know (not what someone else knows, just what we know) as witnesses to his abundant grace gushing up to eternal life in us.
The Gospel of John was the last of the four Gospels to be written. By this time, the Christian Community had worked out that Jesus was truly the Son of God and so this, of all the Four Gospels, stressed the divinity of Jesus. This is why the Gospel of John is depicted as an eagle: it not only symbolises the carrying of the Gospel to the ends of the earth, but it also raises our minds to heaven. Our minds soar, as does the eagle, high towards the heavens. Therefore, the Gospel of John is full of symbolism giving us clues as to the divinity of Jesus.
In terms of symbolism, the key phrase, in my opinion, is “leaving her water-jar” in Verse 28. Why is this important? The woman leaves behind the very thing that she had walked to the well for. The most precious of all liquids for humans to survive – water. She had come specifically to this place to get water to survive and what does she do after her encounter with Jesus? She just leaves it there! Why? Because she has found someone greater than precious water there, she has found THE source of life. She has found God!
What else do we need in life? When you find Christ, you have found everything. Find God and leave the rest behind. Nothing else matters, only God.
God at the well,
teach us to come to you
when we are thirsty
and to welcome all who come to drink.
Show us how we judge others
and uproot it from our hearts
so we, with Jesus,
might offer water to all who are thirsty,
life to all who fear death. Amen.
o ‘If you but knew the gift of God’? What is God offering me in this story at this point in my life? Do I have a thirst for life, for God? Am I a dry weary land without water as it says in Psalm 62.
o Have I ever experienced being nourished by Gods word and his love? Can I say with the villagers in the story ‘I believe because of what I have heard for myself’? What is the ‘living water’ for me. Talk to Jesus about this living water.
o The thought of Jesus sitting alone by the well is an invitation to be with him. As he looked at the woman, he looks at me: he longs to offer me life; he invites me to see the deeper meaning in what I do; he respects my dignity, asking me to do what I can for him.
o When Jesus says, “If you knew…”, he reveals his desire to draw us into knowing God as he does. His open and generous heart is the heart of God, inviting us all to rest where we are known and loved, to find enduring life and lasting refreshment.
o Happy children feel at home in their parents’ house. They can run around and play and make noise. Do I feel at home in God’s house? Or am I rather like a servant or a visitor? Lord, may I remember that I have a place in your house - forever.