Those who’ve become embarrassed about their troubled past typically try to avoid the local crowds lest people gossip and continue to smear their reputation. But, what if instead of finding the chattering crowd, they find an outsider who interestingly knows every detail of their past?
Our Gospel reading this Sunday presents us with such a scenario. Two cultural taboos initially stick out in this exchange; a man speaking with a woman without her husband present coupled with a Jew conversing with a Samaritan. The enmity between the Jews and Samaritans was deep. It went back centuries when the Assyrians destroyed the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 722 B.C. The people were forcibly deported and foreign tribes were brought in to settle the land. The Israelites that remained in the north were known as Samaritans. They assimilated with these pagan people, engaged in intermarriage, and adoption of pagan gods while the Jews in the Southern Kingdom remained somewhat loyal to God’s covenants. The north and the south kingdoms became competing camps in which one group thought the other had defiled the covenant. Consequently, the Jews and Samaritans avoided any contact with each other.
The context of a man speaking to a woman reveals the intimacy of this conversation goes beyond mere chitchat. This woman’s multiple marital struggles parallel the historical experience of the Samaritan people as the five foreign tribes who intermarried with the Samaritans introduced five male deities into their religion. Through her, Jesus is speaking to the entire nation of Samaria and showing the Samaritan people that their long-awaited God has come to marry them back. The five false gods to which the Samarians built shrines to (see 2 Kings 17: 24-34) were also known as “Baals.” While Baal was a name of a particular deity, it was also used to refer to a “husband” (see Proverbs 12:4, Judges 2:11). Therefore, in worshiping five Baals, Samaria was engaging in actions analogous to adultery to the Lord’s covenant. Yet, despite Samaria’s unfaithfulness and infidelity, God remained faithful to them (see Hosea 2: 14-23).
And here He is – God in human form waiting for them by the well of Jacob. The image of the well harkens back to the marital arrangements described in the OT. Here, the wives of Isaac (Gen. 24: 10-67), Jacob (Gen. 29: 1-30), and Moses (Ex. 2: 15-21) were first encountered at a well. Given this marriage backdrop, Jesus is the Divine bridegroom searching fore the lost Samaritans to be His covenant bride (John 3:29).
Continuing the nuptial theme, we see what Jesus is asking for – water. The woman thinks Jesus is talking about “flowing water,” which would be better than stagnant well water. But, Jesus is referring to “living water” - the life and vitality of the Holy Spirit. While Jesus is physically thirsty for water, He longs for something else. When was another time Jesus said he was thirsty? On the cross, He bellowed out, “I thirst.” As Bishop Sheen was fond of saying when Christ says, “I’m thirsty" He is referring to His thirst for souls. He is signifying His yearning for us. The Samaritan woman was thirsting too. She just didn’t know it. Fulton Sheen describes sin as drinking salt water. We think it will satisfy us, but it just makes us thirstier. The woman and her people have been searching for happiness by marrying other "Baals" but these have left them desolate and metaphorically dry in the mouth. She thirts and He thirsts. He who calmed the sea, and miraculously multiplied bread said He thirst. His thirsting represents a craving for our desperately dry souls to go to Him so we can experience what this woman at the well underwent - a transformation.
Let us meet Him as he stands waiting for us wherever our “well” should be.