The Holy Mass readings for this past Sunday, March 19 – Feast of St Joseph – are quite interesting once we connect them.
Exodus 17: 3-7 relates the story of the Israelites who grumbled against Moses because they did not have enough water. After forty years of wandering in the dessert being miraculously fed, the Israelites faith faltered when water became scarce. The four decades old relationship with God (their unfailing provider) should have moved them to ask themselves why God was not responding to their needs as usual; why was God taking them to the limit? Then Moses was instructed to “strike the rock” with the same staff that he had used to turn the Nile River into blood. As a result water surged from the rock so the people could drink. The place was called Meribah (quarreling) or Massa (testing) for Israel quarreled with God there. Notice that the staff that was used to deprive the Egyptians of the Nile’s life giving water at the beginning of the exodus is used to achieve the opposite effect with the Israelites, providing the people with life saving water. What turned the Egyptian water into undrinkable blood was used now to extract water from a dry, dead rock. That reminded me of one of the seven words of crucified Jesus.
John 19: 28-30 – After this, Jesus knowing that all things were now accomplished, that the scripture might be fulfilled, said: “I thirst.” Now there was set a vessel full of vinegar: and they filled a sponge with vinegar, and put it upon hyssop, and put it to his mouth. When Jesus therefore had received the vinegar, he said: “it is finished” and he bowed his head, and gave up the ghost.
Just as the Israelites thought they were approaching the end of their time in the wilderness, Jesus was approaching the end of his life. Jesus thirsts, in the same manner that the people of God thirsted in the desert. Instead of the life saving refreshing water that Israel received at Meribah, Jesus is given vinegar. The mercy of men is not comparable to God’s mercy. Jesus’ human life ends on the Cross – Christ dies in obedience to the father; he won’t see the Sabbath, the next day just like that generation of quarreling Israelites won’t see the Promised Land because of their disobedience.
There is another counterpoint, just as the thirst of Israel preceded the first Pentecost – at the end of which Moses gave Israel the Law – Jesus’ thirst in Samaria precedes the great messianic revelation to the woman at the well; and his thirst at the Cross precedes the giving of the Holy Spirit at the Christian Pentecost of a. D. 33.
Psalms 95: 6-9 – “Do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah, as you did that day at Massah in the wilderness, where your ancestors tested me; they tried me, though they had seen what I did.”
We read this part of the Psalms every day when we pray the Divine Office, the Liturgia Horarum, the Liturgy of the Hours. There must be a good reason for the constant reminder. Men easily forget all the good that God does for them silently. When the test comes we all look at Heaven wondering why our needs are not being met. Antonio Machado, the Spanish poet touches on this very common human trait on his poem Del Pasado Efímero (From the Ephemeral Past) when he describes the vanity of a man who becomes the past by refusing to leave the past:
Un poco labrador, del cielo aguarda
y al cielo teme; alguna vez suspira,
pensando en su olivar, y al cielo mira
con ojo inquieto, si la lluvia tarda.
He is a bit of a farmer, expecting grace from Heaven
He fears Heaven, and sometimes he sighs,
Worried about his olive grove, he looks up skyward
With anxious eyes, if rainfall is delayed.
It is a very human trait to expect a lot from Heaven while at the same time being neglectful of our obligations to God. We find ourselves deserving of life – saving water for our thirst -but we have only vinegar for our crucified Jesus. It boggles the mind to think that God decided to live, suffer, and die like one of us after we offended Him to the fullest, becoming His enemies. (See Romans 5:1-8)
Having all of that in mind we arrive to the reading of the Gospel. Jesus talks to the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. Notice what moves Jesus to return to Galilee through Samaria: the envy of the Pharisees for Jesus’ growing popularity as a teacher.
John 4:1-7 – Now Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that he was gaining and baptizing more disciples than John— although in fact it was not Jesus who baptized, but his disciples. So he left Judea and went back once more to Galilee. Now he had to go through Samaria. So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon.
Our Lord is tired; he sits by Jacob’s well near the plot of land Jacob reserved for his favorite son Joseph. It seems to me one could write a book with all the signs presented to us in these few verses. His envious brothers threw Joseph the favorite son of Jacob into a dry well, perhaps this very well when it was still not completed. Now Jesus sits there resting on his way to Galilee.
John 4:8-9 – When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)
The woman asks that question for a good reason: for the Jews, Samaritans were not clean; the women were described as specially impure in some Jewish writings of the age: “constantly menstruating from the cradle to the grave.” One cannot imagine a more severe prejudice. In fact the line we read, “For Jews do not associate with Samaritans” literally says, “For Jews do not use dishes Samaritans have used” that is considering anything a touched by a Samaritan as unclean. Knowing all that, Jesus asks the woman for a drink! No wonder the poor woman was surprised; here’s a Jew who looks like someone religious and he is willing to incur in a double violation of a very strict prohibition by taking water from a Samaritan, a woman, and he is willing to drink from her cup!
John 4:10-13 – Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” “Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?”
She may have been considered an accursed Samaritan by some but this woman was smart. She asks the right questions. She first does the “finding of fact” observing that Jesus is not equipped to draw water (no “clean” bucket or cup) and the well is deep. So how could this Jew talk about giving her “running” (living) water? She correctly surmises that someone greater than Jacob could be there. She is interested in the riddles of this foreigner. How many times the truth comes to us as a riddle?
John 4:13-14 – Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
Here comes the Gospel. The water Jesus is talking about is something different from the water at the well. The woman wants that water although she does not quite understand how it works.
John 4:18 – The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.” He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.” “I have no husband,” she replied. Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.”
And here comes the transformation carried out by the power of the Gospel: notice that everything the woman concludes is true; even when she tries to lie –concealing the fact that she belongs to a man– Jesus extracts the truth from her statement. In three steps Jesus begins to reveal Himself to the “utterly impure” while starting to transform her. Soon she will see that Jesus is not an ordinary man and she will begin to receive wisdom from him, the Gospel will begin to enter her understanding through revelation.
John 4:19-24 – “Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.” “Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”
Here is the great news: soon people will worship with full knowledge, all people but first the Jews. Salvation is coming along with a pure worldwide worship of the Father of mankind. God is seeking the salvation of men in the same manner that Jesus initiated the dialogue with the Samaritan woman. Finally Jesus reveals himself as the Messiah to this woman, the woman everyone thought unworthy, and the one that gave him water – not vinegar. God will never be matched in generosity. Look at all the graces this woman received in exchange for a drink of water!
John 4:25-26 – The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.” Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.”
After that encounter the woman becomes a fountain of the Gospel herself, taking first the news to her people in town, and later introducing Jesus to them as well. What the great sages and scholars in Jerusalem could not see; what those preoccupied by keeping their ceremonial purity could not understand: the precious knowledge of Jesus, has been given to a poor sinful, undeserving Samaritan woman. Grace flows like water filling every corner, giving life to all.
The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.”
And let everyone who hears say, “Come.”
And let everyone who is thirsty come.
Let anyone who wishes take the water of life for free…