The "Living Water" of the Gospel
(Readings: Exodus 17:3-7; Romans 5:1-2, 5-8; John 4:5-42)
Introduction to Mass
The gospel passage in today's Mass is the story of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at the well. The woman has a lot of the ordinary preoccupations of life but Christ's conversation with her opens up a higher perspective. He compares the offer of friendship with God to "living water", that answers our thirst for the eternal and the infinite - not as a dreamworld that exists somewhere in the future, but as a force that changes our outlook and our interpretation of the world around us, now.
We often risk losing that perspective, and for those times, we ask God's forgiveness, and for the grace to change.
During Lent, as we all know, the general theme running through the readings for Mass Sunday by Sunday is repentance - the change, the turning-around that we need to get on with as we move closer to finding God and knowing him and having the close friendship with him that he wants us to have.
One aspect of that conversion of the whole of our lives - and it's the aspect that the gospel in today's mass is all about - is what we might call the conversion of our minds, the conversion of our mental outlook. Getting to know God better and being drawn towards him puts a question mark against all the ideas and assumptions we have about the world around us. It puts a question mark about the way we look at the world, how we interpret the world.
People can go a long way in their lives, and they can go a long way in their lives as Christians, without realising this. In other words, their faith in God manages to leave certain prejudices, certain assumptions, untouched. Certain areas of their lives remain where, strangely, the gospel message doesn't apply. I daresay we're all guilty of that one way or another.
Christ wasn't a philosopher or an intellectual - at least not the way we usually think of those kinds of people. But he did go out of his way to provoke people into making this conversion of mind and changing their interpretation of the world. This is what he does in the gospel this Sunday, in this more or less chance meeting with the Samaritan woman.
With passages like this one in St. John's gospel, it's probably worth pointing out, that when it comes to reading the Bible and interpreting the Bible, Catholics aren't fundamentalists. We don't believe that every incident in the Bible happened in exactly the way it's described.
The gospels, for example, don't give a kind of newspaper report of the events of Jesus' life. What they do give is a testimony of the Christian community's faith, after they've experienced Jesus' resurrection. All the events in Jesus' life were re-cast, or re-written, so to speak, to show him to be the Messiah, or to bring out some aspect of his life and teaching - a lot of which wasn't obvious to the disciples at the actual time they were going around with him during his ministry.
And this is what St. John is doing with this incident of the Samaritan woman at the well. The woman comes along looking for water from the well - an ordinary practical activity. But of course she only gets a couple of sentences into her conversation with Jesus before he lifts the discussion onto a different level altogether. And he seems to do it deliberately in quite an obtuse way - talking in language that most people would find a bit mysterious and confusing.
"Never mind the ordinary water in the well," he says in effect. "I'm here to offer you "living water" - water that wells up to eternal life, so that you'll never be thirsty again."
Without any effort at explanation, Jesus just jumps onto the level of the eternal and the infinite, the level over and above the ordinary physical, practical, material world. As if to say: everything we do, and everything we have in this life should be seen and judged against the background of the eternal life, with God, that lies in the future. Seeing and judging things in relation to our life with God is seeing and judging them in the right perspective.
The same thing happens when the woman brings up the subject of the different places that the Jews and the Samaritans associate with God, their different places of worship - Mount Gerizim for the Samaritans, and the Temple, in Jerusalem, for the Jews.
A bit of background information might help us understand this part of the conversation. At the time of Christ, the pagan religions tended to be very materialistic and in fact magical in their beliefs. In other words, their religion wasn't about preparing for the next life, it was about manipulating the gods or appealing to them in some way so that they could get what they wanted out of them in this life.
It was a mentality that the Hebrew people were always falling into, and one of the ways that they fell into it was by being too literal about where God was present and active in the world: tying God down to particular places, like the mountain or the temple, as if God was something they could own and control and domesticate.
And after all, it's a mentality that Christians can fall into - or believers in any religion. Isn't it true that very often that the people who make the biggest fuss about the paraphernalia of religious observance are also the people who have been the least touched and the least changed by real contact with God? The reason is that getting preoccupied with the minutiae of religion is a way of containing and trying to manage and domesticate God rather than being transformed by genuine contact with him.
So this was another bit of received way of thinking or a common trap that Jesus put a question mark against. Physical places don't contain God, and real worship isn't carrying out fancy ceremonies in one place or another. That's tribal religion, not real faith. Real worship is in spirit and in truth - responding to the grace God offers, being changed by it, being changed to be more like God in the way we think and behave.
This experience that the Samaritan woman had - meeting Christ, and being provoked by him to change her outlook - applies just as much to us. That's why the story was written. We're supposed to identify with the woman and apply Christ's words to ourselves. Our outlook on the world around us always needs to be further converted, shaped more and more by the content of the gospel. We need to be rooting out the ways we prefer to box God in and worship him in a way that leaves our way of looking at the world untouched and unchanged.
That's part of the purpose of the season of Lent when it comes round every year. So maybe the prayer we can make in the Mass this Sunday is a prayer that we be open to Christ's invitation to have our perspective on life transformed by our contact with him, and that as a Church, we learn to be true worshippers of God, in Christ's language: worshippers in spirit and in truth.