Brothers and Sisters, our Lenten caravan is lumbering on. We are like the “mixed multitude” (Ex 12:38) that left Egypt with the Chosen People. We are on our way to Easter, all intent, to use St Paul’s phrases, to be “judged righteous and at peace with God”.
And on this journey, these next three Sundays, we are offered three unlikely travel-companions. Next week it’s the man born blind, the week following it will be Lazarus. This week the Samaritan woman. She is an unusual one. She’s feisty, argumentative, with a chequered past and present (she’s on man number Six). She comes to the well with not just a pitcher, but a number of disadvantages. She’s a woman, a second-class citizen in her world. She clearly had men-problems. And why does she come to the well by herself at the hottest time of the day when everyone else will be resting indoors: was she something of an outcast? From a Jewish point of view, as a Samaritan, she certainly was. There she is, member of a minority with a long resentment towards her Jewish neighbours, a heretic in their mind, worshipping stubbornly at the “wrong” place, Mount Gerizim, her mind perhaps narrowed and heart hardened by the accumulated centuries of theological controversy and incidents of violence. These things scar the soul. “What? You are a Jew and you ask me, a Samaritan, for a drink?” “Are you out to cause trouble?”
But Jesus, “tired by his journey”, sits down by the well. And this remarkable conversation begins. The well is Jacob’s well. Immediately, we’re thrown back to Genesis and the memory of those wells where Abraham’s servant found Rebecca as a future wife for Isaac and Jacob met Rachel and, later, Moses his wife. Immediately, there’s some kind of marriage on the horizon. This is why St Augustine calls her a figure of the Church called from the Gentiles, called out of her filth to be washed and anointed and turned into a beautiful Bride. And what does Jesus see in her? Her thirst, her many-layered thirst, an aching near-eastern thirst for water, another thirst as well for love, for real relationship, the thirst she had tried to quench with her many men. Jesus shows himself as Jacob’s Well, the one who opens the aquifer of the Holy Spirit: “the water that I shall give will turn into a spring, welling up to eternal life.” In the presence of this unconventional Jew who shouldn’t have been talking to her, she feels more and more known. “Go and bring your husband.” Her whole steamy life story is already read by him and thus already in process of being sorted. Perhaps she feels she is being given back to herself, body and soul. The conversation is taking a personal turn. She has to cause a dversion by trying to start an argument about Temple-worship. But for Jesus, the great Evangelist, this is just another occasion to lead her on. “The hour will come – in fact is here already – when true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.” After the real water comes the real worship; after the infusion of the Holy Spirit comes worship of the Father in spirit and truth. She is being led out of her cultural and ethnic confines into a good and broad land, into a new kind of freedom, a larger space, where her whole life can become one act of praise. What is happening in her is what St Paul would later advocate: “Brothers and sisters, present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Rom 12:1-2). No wonder St Augustine again calls her the “form of the Church”; this is what’s coming out in her. He is leading her into the Trinity too. He has disclosed the Holy Spirit to her, and then the Father; we could say too Baptism (Confirmation) and the Eucharist. And all the while the Man before her grows and grows before the eyes of her mind: the Jew becomes a prophet and the prophet the Messiah. “I who am speaking to you”, said Jesus, “I am he.” She’s on the brink of the Trinity. She has travelled so far, so fast.
Then the disciples, who have been away shopping (!), return. She gets up. She leaves her water by the well – a point to note – and back she goes to her people, thirsting to tell. Like Mary Magdalene on Easter morning, the evangelised one is now an evangelist herself, a missionary disciple. “This man knows me. Is he it, do you think?” And her fellow-townsfolk catch the flame from her, and go to Jesus. Then, in their turn, they are persuaded too. “We have heard him ourselves and we know that he really is the Saviour of the world.”
Please excuse this rather breathless retelling. But what a piece of storytelling it is! What a journey, hers and ours! The whole of our Lent and Easter is traversed by this woman. Through the whole process of Christian initiation she goes, purified, scrutinised, exorcised, enlightened, transformed. Through the whole process of Christian life. At the end of the story, she in a sense disappears. She has accomplished her mission. She has led her townsfolk to Jesus, and now it’s he, not her reportage, that leads them to believe. But in another sense, of course, she doesn’t disappear. She lives in the Gospel. She remains a guide for every generation. And Tradition has added a telling detail, has given her a name: Photina, the “luminous one”, the one full of light. That is the real upshot of her encounter with Christ. She has become a light. “Recognise yourself in her”, says St Augustine. Yes, may it be the upshot of our encounter too! Think Easter Vigil. Think Paschal Candle. Think Lumen Christi. Brothers and Sisters, if we make this Lenten journey, if we really meet Jesus, this is what happens.
(St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen)