Reflections on the Woman at the Well

We meet Christ weary and hungry – His disciples have left Him to rest, while they go into town to buy food – and also thirsty, as He openly tells the woman whom He encounters, apparently quite arbitrarily, at Jacob’s Well: His first words to her, after all, have the sudden intensity of an appeal: Give me a drink. We mustn’t suppose that He wan’t, in fact, physically thirsty. But in noting that He was, we note, as the Gospel unfolds, something else as well. Starting from showing her His physical thirst, He expands its meaning, in a way which she does not at first grasp or even suspect, until it expresses between them a new understanding, something more encompassing than the physical thirst which first draws them together, which next becomes a more embracingly human thirst – and finally, we realize, nothing less than Divine. For the full dimensions of the thirst which Christ uncovers belong not, as we might suspect, to her, but to Him. He discloses to her God’s own thirst, the Father’s thirst for the ones He desires to encounter in spirit and in truth – a thirst in God to meet and to fulfil the thirst in her. Hers is a thirst which, although it is hers, she at first cannot articulate or even see, for she unknowingly awaits the encounter with His to uncover her own. Her thirst, as she comes to realize, is ultimately for Him; but what we also see is that her realization and embrace of her need for Him is, at the same time, a response to a need or thirst in Christ Himself. She thirsts for Him, because He also thirsts for her. If she needs Christ, then we are shown also, and as the commencement of everything, that He needs her.

Give me a drink – His words to her, then, take on an unexpected, in fact unprecedented, meaning. Like her, we must learn to recognize in Him the one Who alone can slake our thirst to be known as we are, and then, unburdened, drawn into God. This has the pain, but also the release, of acknowledging all that we live with, and even all that we seem to live by, which somehow falls short, and which only the love of Christ can begin to disentangle and restore. All of us hear from Him, adapted to ourselves, versions of the words He speaks to her – he whom you now have is not your husband – and we must allow Christ, as she allows Him, to tell us, for the first time, the truth of all [we] ever did. But even before we come to this, and in fact as the very thing that makes it possible for us to come to it, we realize there is something else: not our thirst, but God’s, not our search for Him, but His for us.

So now, because of this interaction of desire between God and her, between God and the soul, journeys which it seemed impossible should be made are actually undertaken, old identities are surpassed and new ones are brought into being. Jews, we are told, have no dealings with Samaritans.  So when those who are already disciples happen upon the scene of encounter, they have questions which they do not quite dare to ask, when they come across the two of them together – the Jewish man and the Samaritan woman; and those questions have a profounder significance than the disciples themselves can ever have suspected.

What do you want from Him? they almost ask her. The irony is that by then she would have been able to tell them – in fact, her understanding is already ahead of theirs, despite their disdain for her. She would have been able to unfold to them that she had recognized in Him the Messiah who, as she says to Him privately, is coming to show us all things.

And there was a second question which they almost asked, symmetrical with the first, which was of Christ Himself: Why are you talking with her? Underlying this is a legacy of excluding and of making that exclusion felt, of inducing self-doubt in people you think of, and who think of themselves, as strangers and unworthy. The disciples’ question only repeats her own, from the uneasy beginnings of her faith, asked outright and from her heart: the very first thing she says to Him is How can you ask me, a Samaritan and a woman, for a drink? In asking that, just like the disciples wondering why He was bothering with her, she was thinking belatedly, behind the advance that God had already made towards her. She was conscious only of the fact that a Jewish male had no reason to disclose His thirst, His vulnerability, to a Samaritan female like her. What was He thinking? What should she do? Was it a perhaps kind of trap?

No – it was only love re-inventing things. Christ’s self-disclosure had already undone the impossibility which still seemed to be a permanent confinement of her life and self-understanding; she had only to catch up with Him, which He would quietly but steadily empower her to do.

But there was something more, something she could not foresee at all, just as the disciples were blind to it and would probably, at this point, have repudiated it had it been pointed out to them (although no language to express it yet existed). There was another and even more momentous impossibility that had become possible, in that moment when our Lord had asked her for a drink. This was the erasure of the barrier that seems to divide God from man, the Creator from the creature, the self-sufficiency of the Divine from a thirsting and needy humanity.

How can you ask me, a Samaritan and a woman, for a drink? Why are you talking to her? The answer to these questions can be condensed in a single, overwhelming realization: God, even God, needs, and seeks, what only each one of us, in her uniqueness, can give Him. This is the unfathomable mystery of the Divine love that is exchanged between us, which elsewhere St John expresses when he teaches that we can love God only because God loved us first.

Christ’s encounter with the woman at the well reminds us that it is indeed a thirst to express love that underlies it all: our thirst for Christ, for the water that He alone can cause to spring up in us, our thirst to know Him and, above all, to share in the pattern of life that is His. But even more than that, the Gospel reminds us that Christ Himself also thirsts, and thirsts for us – so that if He lays upon us any discipline it is for no other reason than that we should be made, by His grace, a little better able, from our inevitably meagre resources, not only to receive from Him, but also, in doing so, to give Him the drink for which He thirsts, which is our lives. And He desires this not so that He can possess us, or even we Him, but so that we can become other Christs, bringing Him, in our turn, to a world that, in the heat of the day, unknowingly awaits Him.

By Fr Philip Cleevely, Cong. Orat.

St Philip's Seminary, Toronto
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