On the surface my life seems more stable than hers. One husband, not five. But I understand the Woman at the Well. My heart is insatiable and wanders in all directions. I fall in love all the time, becoming passionately absorbed with pretty much anything or anyone. A new friend, a big idea, a chance for recognition, even a new diet can possess my heart before I know what’s happened.
Then, suddenly, I realize that my new passion didn’t give me what I was searching for and I want my heart back again. I want to be alone, to avoid the critical glances of everyone who tried to tell me I’d gone too far again.
Sometimes when I think of her I hear Elton John’s classic tribute to Marilyn Monroe in my head. Monroe’s iconic sensuality led to wealth, fame, friendships with celebrities and a tragic, early death. With deep compassion, the songwriter compares her to a “candle in the wind, never knowing who to cling to when the rain set in.” Neither did the Woman at the Well, and neither do I. We all express it in different ways, but we all live with a volatile heart.
But that’s only the beginning of the Samaritan woman’s story, and I love the way it ends.
She wasn’t expecting to meet Someone worth clinging to the day she came as usual to fill her water jar. It was noon, the hour when the light is brightest, and she was about to meet the Light of the World.
It’s also hottest at noon and when we meet her, she’s hoping to avoid the patronizing kindness and down-the-nose criticism of women who socialize at the well in the evening cool.
This is the first time she ever saw Jesus, but it’s not the first time he saw her. “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,” God told Jeremiah. “Before I brought you to birth I consecrated you.” He’s had his eye on her from all eternity and his Heart is burning for this meeting.
“Give me a drink,” he says. His request foreshadows the “I thirst” he cried from his cross. He thirsts for souls. He thirsts for her.
She is world-weary and skeptical. “How is it that you, a Jew, speak to me, a woman of Samaria?” Samaritans were a people of mixed race and religion. Jews avoided them and a Jewish man certainly wouldn’t speak to a double outcast, a Samaritan woman.
If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that speaks to you, you would ask him for living water and he would give it to you.
“So think you’re better than Jacob, who dug this well and provided water for his family and animals here?” We Samaritans are just as good as you.
Anyone who drinks from this water will thirst again. I have water from which you will never thirst.
He has an authenticity she’s never seen. She wants more. “Sir, give me this water.”
“Go get your husband.” (Whoever you’ve given yourself to. Whatever’s running your life right now.)
“I’m not married.”
“That’s true. You’ve actually had five husbands and you’re not married to the man you have now.”
Nothing is more embarrassing than finding out that someone you want to impress knows all your dirt. And yet, there’s something in his look that makes it okay to be who she is. He already knows her past and he’s still asking.
Unconditional love changes everything. Even for churchy women like me.
I’ve been a Christian all my life and a Catholic for over ten years. Conversion, however, is an ongoing process, and the interaction between Christ and this woman takes me back to a Saturday evening (after having been a Catholic for two or three years) when I went to confession and there was a priest I didn’t know waiting in the confessional. He was the kind of priest whose holiness seems to draw things up to the surface, and everything I’d been holding back, the real truth about me, came tumbling out.
That priest spoke kindly to me after hearing my sins. He looked me in the eye. When I looked back, I saw purity. And that look told me everything I’d ever done.
I think that’s the look Christ gave the Woman at the Well.
It’s a little too much at first. I couldn’t hold eye contact comfortably. I looked away and tried to keep talking. So did she. Like me, she spiritualized the situation to escape that purifying gaze. Let’s not talk about me, let’s talk theology!
Sir, I perceive you are a prophet. Our fathers say we worship on this mountain, you Jews say it’s in Jerusalem.
I totally get what she’s doing. I’m a preacher’s kid; I can talk religion without facing the truth about myself all day long.
He cuts her off. “The time is coming and now is, when those who worship God will worship him in spirit and in truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him.”
Her diversion continues. “Well, I know the Messiah is coming, who will restore Israel and lead us into all truth.”
I who speak to you am he.
That is as clear a statement of self-revelation as Christ ever gave anybody, and he gave it to a woman, who was living with a guy, who had five husbands before that!
He didn’t come to save the righteous. He came for everybody who knows they’re not.
So she ran to the village and invited everyone who would listen to come and meet the man who had told her everything she’d ever done. Jesus stayed with them two days and many believed on account of the testimony of the woman.
He would soon be betrayed, handed over to the Romans and crucified.
In reality, they couldn’t take the life of him who had the power of life and death. He laid it down for her. He laid it down for you and me.
After his resurrection he spent 40 days showing up unexpectedly and explaining how the Scriptures pointed to himself, establishing his apostles in faith and mission.
He was specific about where they would be his witnesses: in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth. He told them to wait for the Holy Spirit. And nine days later they became unstoppable.
A great persecution arose, as it always does. The Gospel always causes conflict.
But God brings good out of evil, so the persecution drove the Christians out of Jerusalem and into Judea first, then Samaria, and ultimately to the end of the earth, including wherever you are right now.
When the Christians got to Samaria, it turned out that the Samaritans were already believers but hadn’t yet received the Holy Spirit. So they sent for Peter and John to come and lay hands on them. That’s the Church showing up. Peter. John. The laying on of hands.
The Samaritans proved very ready to receive the fullness of the Apostolic teaching.
They had been prepared, months before, by the witness of a woman. A woman who didn’t always know who to cling to when the rain set in.
But then she met Jesus, and he said to her:
Give me a drink.
I thirst for you.
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If you enjoyed this post, you might also like Conversion as Shrinking: Mrs. Zebedee, the Sons of Thunder and a Little Child.
“I thirst, I thirst, I thirst: as I lick off the pavement, as if it gives me water, AS IF IT GIVES ME YOU.” You MUST hear “Controlled Burn,” a song from Alanna Boudreau’s 2016 album Champion AND the conversation about it on a phenomenal new podcast: Song & Story: Conversations with Songwriters about their Songs. Subscribe now, before you’ll be forced to binge listen for days. I’m serious! Check it out here.
Edith Stein understood the nature of woman, noting that we are passionate and curious, we want to possess the heart of another. Only Jesus Christ with His infinite, unconditional love and unwavering attention can fulfill our insatiable hearts. Essays on Woman, the second volume of the complete works of a woman who began as an atheist philosopher and ended up a saint, is worth the time.
I hope you’ve forgiven my paraphrasing of the dialog in the fourth chapter of John. I’ve benefitted much from Bishop Robert Barron’s reading of this event in his series on conversion.
“As the apostles left their nets on being called, so she leaves her water jar to do the work of an evangelist by calling not one or two people, as Andrew and Philip did, but a whole city” (John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Gospel of John 34.1). Read more here.