What We can Learn from the Samaritan Woman at the Well

Yesterday’s Gospel reading was John 4:5-42.  It’s the passage of the Samaritan woman that Jesus meets at the well.  There’s a lot to be gleaned from it, and likely much more that I’m not picking up on.  But here are a few things of interest:

In John 4:1-4, we hear that after Jesus left Judea to return to Galilee, He “had to pass through Samaria” (John 4:4).  The NAB’s footnote explains that this was a theological necessity, not a geographic one — that the Jews often bypassed Samaria by taking a separate route, along the Jordan.  So Jesus doesn’t just stumble upon this woman — it’s part of His mission and His ministry.  That should be shocking to us.  Here, the Christ who came to save the world includes as part of the eternal plan of salvation, to meet with and save a single non-Jewish woman.

John 4:6-7 notes that the time was about noon, and that this woman came to draw water then.  Fr. Kelly explained in his homily that this is unusual.  In the Middle East, when townspeople need to go to the well, they do it in the morning or at night, when it’s cool.  You don’t want to have to walk all the way there and back with a heavy jug in the hot sun.  Three groups of people were at the well at noon: travelers, prostitutes, and outcasts.  This woman seems to be in the third group.  She’s come to the well for water, not illicit purposes (John 4:7),  and she’s not a traveler.  John 4:28-42 makes clear that she knows the people of the neighboring town, which is why it’s so sad she’s at the well alone at noon, instead of with the other women in the cool hours of the day.  We can deduce why it is that the woman is an outcast. She’s had five husbands, and is living with a man who isn’t her husband now (John 4:16-18).

This woman is simple, and has simple desires. The woman is slow to realize that the “living water” (John 4:10) Jesus speaks of isn’t literally water. Even when Jesus rephrases it as “a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:14), she still thinks He’s talking about some sort of magical drinking water (John 4:15).  Christ has mercy on her, and instead of relying upon parables, reveals Himself explicitly to be the Christ to her (John 4:25-26).

The most incredible part of this passage, to me, is what it says about Christian anthropology.  Jesus says many things to the woman at the well.  He describes living waters welling up to eternal life; He explains that salvation is from the Jews, but that both the Jewish and Samaritan places of worship will soon be destroyed or abandoned; and He even declares Himself the promised Messiah.  But look at what the woman says when she journeys back into town: “Come see a Man who told me everything I have done. Could He possibly be the Messiah?” (John 4:29).  In other words, the thing that most awestruck this woman what that Jesus knew her. There’s an incredible power there.  Here’s a woman desperately searching for love, going from one man to the next.  And Jesus reveals to her the love she’s been so unsuccessful in finding.

One of the other priests of St. Mary’s, Fr. Jean Claude, said in his homily on this that there are couples who have been married for 40 years, and things will still arise in which they say, “I never knew that about my spouse!”  With God, this never happens.  Instead, we learn from God things about ourselves we don’t even know. He knows us better than ourselves, and He knows precisely how we fit into His Grand Design.  We have a God Who promises the saved “a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it” (Revelation 2:17). That is, part of salvation is this intensely individual and unique relationship with God, almost like an inside secret only the two of you know.  This same God said to Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations” (Jeremiah 1:15).

The Catholic Church teaches that it’s only through faith, through learning to see things through God’s eyes as best we can, that we learn who we really are.  That might sound sentimental, but it’s not.  If you reject God, then what’s the point of man? For our lives to have any true purpose, they must have been given purpose by One greater than ourselves.  For this reason, the Church says things like, “Therefore, reason and faith cannot be separated without diminishing the capacity of men and women to know themselves, the world and God in an appropriate way” (Fides et Ratio 16).

Vatican II put it brilliantly:

The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light. For Adam, the first man, was a figure of Him Who was to come,(20) namely Christ the Lord. Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear. It is not surprising, then, that in Him all the aforementioned truths find their root and attain their crown. (Gaudium et Spes 22)

Every time anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists, economists and historians have attempted to describe the condition of man without reference to God, and man’s relationship to God, the picture has seemed flat or hollow.  Some specific aspect of man (his sexuality, or his need for daily bread, or his greed, or his willingness to fight) will be colored in, but other parts of the human experience are overlooked or denied.  In Catholic Christianity, we see these pieces, and countless others, take shape.

There’s a Divine irony here. Just as a man who dedicates his life to pleasing only himself is never happy, while a man who dedicates his life to serving others often is, the same is true with knowledge: those who desire to know nothing more than themselves never obtain a picture of who they truly are or what their purpose is (since man was never meant to desire to nothing more than himself).  Only when man seeks to know Someone greater than Himself, and seeks to understand the Lord and Hub of the Universe, can he begin to grasp his role as a single spoke, seemingly insignificant, but known and beloved by God.

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