When the northern Israelites were exiled to Assyria, many of the remnants married pagans who occupied the now vacated lands. Their descendants were called Samaritans who were despised by the Jews because of their mixed blood and their diluted practice of Judaism.
In Jesus’ time, the Jews circumnavigated Samaritan territories lest they be defiled by stepping foot into unclean ground. Jesus caused scandal by deliberately entering a Samaritan town, Shechem.
He caused further scandal by conversing with a Samaritan woman by an outdoor well. Jewish customs dictated that a woman was never to be by herself with a man in public except her husband. Worse, he requested for water from an unclean person, an enemy of his people, and by drinking the water she offered he defiled himself.
Jesus’ behavior scandalized the Jews of his time, including his disciples. On the other hand, his attitudes and actions, while provocative, were ultimately liberating. The woman eventually became his disciple after having been revivified from her state of moral stupor by the living waters he offered.
As he received from the woman water from the well, Jesus offered her living water which would forever satiate her thirst. Naturally she yearned for this living water. However, as they conversed something was lost in translation, for both referred to living water in a different sense.
On the first level, living water referred to the running water of rivers and streams, which the Jews and everyone else would have preferred to drink. However as the rivers dried up during the rainless months, the desert people drew water from cisterns or wells – stagnant water.
When Jesus offered her living water she earnestly wanted to know the location of this river or stream with flowing waters. However, Jesus was in fact referring to himself as the source of living water, the fount of everlasting life.
He helps her understand this by pointing out to her anomalous situation, that of having had five husbands in the past and of cohabiting now with someone not her husband. She had grown accustomed to living in sin. She had become deadened to sin. But Jesus made her realize she was meant for more, just when she had become used to settling for less, for a lesser version of her true self.
Jesus evoked in her a desire for transcendence, for purity and integrity which she had long set aside as not meant for her. Jesus made her believe in the capacity of grace to restore and renew her.
Her encounter with Jesus frees her from self-loathing. She comes to life in a way she deemed impossible for one in her convoluted situation. Freed from shame and moral mediocrity, she shares with her neighbors her revivifying encounter with Jesus, the source of living water.
As a people, we too have grown accustomed to our culture of impunity and violence. We have become desensitized to extra-judicial killings, the loss of decency in public discourse and the polarization of factions in society. We have become numb to our complicity in corruption at various levels of society and our contribution to the devastation of our environment. We have grown accustomed to a lesser version of our true self as a people. Many of us have given up on our capacity for greatness as a nation.
We pray that during this Lenten Season we become aware of our thirst for collective moral integrity. We pray for a collective conversion of mind and hear. We pray for openness to the revivifying grace of Jesus the living water.