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Praying with the 3rd, 4th, and 5th Sundays of Lent

A Contemplation on The Woman at the Well
The Third Sunday of Lent - Year A
John 4:3-42

From a talk given at St. Wenceslaus Catholic Church, Omaha, NE;
Lent Parish Mission: March, 2011

Jesus came to a town of Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of land that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there. Jesus, tired from his journey, sat down there at the well. It was about noon.

A woman of Samaria came to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.”

His disciples had gone into the town to buy food. The Samaritan woman said to him,
“How can you, a Jew, ask me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?” — For Jews use nothing in common with Samaritans.

Jesus answered and said to her, “If you knew the gift of God and who is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,‘ you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”

The woman said to him, “Sir, you do not even have a bucket and the cistern is deep; where then can you get this living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us this cistern and drank from it himself with his children and his flocks?”

Jesus answered and said to her, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again; but whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst; the water I shall give will become a spring of water welling up… to eternal life.”

The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may not be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”

Jesus said to her, “Go call your husband and come back.” The woman answered and said to him, “I do not have a husband.” Jesus answered her, “You are right in saying, ‘I do not have a husband.’ For you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true.”

The woman said to him, “Sir, I can see that you are a prophet. I know that the Messiah is coming, the one called the Christ;  when he comes, he will tell us everything.”

Jesus said to her, “I am the one speaking with you.”

At that moment his disciples returned, and were amazed that he was talking with a woman, but still no one said, “What are you looking for?” or “Why are you talking with her?”

The woman left her water jar and went into the town and said to the people,
“Come see a man who told me everything I have done. Could he possibly be the Christ?”
They went out of the town and came to him.

Many of the Samaritans of that town began to believe in him because of the word of the woman who testified,
“He told me everything I have done.”

Woman at the Well
Jesus and the Samaritan Woman at the Well
Guercino - Giovanni Francesco Barbieri - 1640-41
Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

We talk about Lent as a time of invitation from God. What does God want to give us this Lent? 
We begin by looking at the story of a woman who sees how she can change her life – how she can change the patterns of her life.  She leaves behind her fears and her embarrassment and begins a new life – she sees that God has an invitation for her and she says, Yes! 

Jesus came to a town of Samaria called Sychar,
near the plot of land that Jacob had given to his son Joseph.
Jacob’s well was there
.

This is the history of our faith.  This is Jacob’s well and he gave this land to his son – Joseph of the coat of many colors.  The history, the stories we know so well, took place in this region. Now what we see is that these stories are a part of Jesus’ past – and, a part of our past.  But Jesus is a new part of it – a new covenant with God.  We see the transition from the Old Testament to the New Testament as he sits on the side of the well.

Jesus, tired from his journey, sat down there at the well.
It was about noon. A woman of Samaria came to draw water.
Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.”

It was noon.  The hottest part of the day.  Who goes to the well at such a hot and unpleasant part of the day to draw water?  Someone who does’t want to see anyone else.  This well was a lifeline for the people, but it was deserted at that noon.  The woman was hiding from others because she was ashamed of her life. 

Jesus knows her shameful secret: she has had five husbands and she is hiding. But what Jewish man would break the law and speak to an unattended woman – and a Samaritan woman! What man?  Jesus, who wants to offer her a relationship that will heal her. This encounter at the well is an encounter between Jesus and US today.

Lent is a season to be open and to receive.  God is waiting to offer us a great gift this Lent: the gift of a relationship with God! But sometimes, we get caught up in our fear and our guilt and we focus on ourselves and our sin.  So we hide.  We can all think of things in our lives that we are ashamed of and we hide from others, and maybe from God’s love.

Lent isn’t really about us!  Lent gives us a chance to look really closely at our lives and think about what we might want to change in it.  How can we be better persons?  If we only focus on our own sin, it becomes about us and it is a self-absorbed exercise.  When we are caught up in guilt, we are looking at ourselves.  But, what if we change the focus from ourselves, to God’s love?  Then, we come into the amazing awareness that even though we are sinners, we are loved incredibly by God.  That is when we become people who are drawn back to that love and to our God. 

A friend told me about how her father taught her to swim when she was a little girl. She stood at the edge of the pool and her dad was in the water.  “Jump in!” he would call to her.  But she saw all of water and it was big and huge and she was afraid.  Jump in!  But she couldn’t. Then he said to her while he pointed to his own eyes, “Look at me.  Look at me. Watch my eyes.  Jump.”  And she did it.  Suddenly her focus wasn’t on the water and her fear … but on her father. 

God is saying to us, “Look at me!  Don’t focus on your guilt or your fears!  Jump into my arms and let me love you!”  God is inviting us to jump into the deep water into a close and loving relationship.

Jesus, tired from his journey, sat down there at the well.
It was about noon. A woman of Samaria came to draw water. Jesus said to her,“Give me a drink.”


Jesus sits casually at the edge of the well and talks to this woman.  But Jesus speaks to her directly.  He is comfortable with her.  He is offering her new life.  A friendship with him.  He wants to offer us the same thing - a real relationship with him.  How does he encounter us? He sits in the same place we are.  He meets us in a place where we carry our shame and we want to hide. And he wants to love us and give us a new, deeper relationship with him.

A lot of times, we try to keep God at a distance.  I know I do.  My life goes along and my relationship with God is that I am here and he is "up there."   Life is good and I have it all under control.  I will look up at God who is very far away in heaven and say, “All is well down here, God.  I’ll let you know if I need you!”  I think I don’t need God. I have my life in control, or so I think until the next natural disaster in daily life comes along. Then I suddenly realize, "Oh!  I need God in my life.  Help me, God!"

One of the first things we can really realize is that God Is Here.  Not There. God is Here.  When I finally “get it,” that God is not in some abstract place far away but here, in my own heart, just waiting for me, then maybe I can move God out of my head and into my heart.

We can read lots of theology books, go to discussions about our faith and take classes to study scripture.  All of those are wonderful.  But if we only do those things, we never move outside of our head and into our Hearts.  God invites us to sit in the quiet and feel God alive and loving us, living in our hearts.

Jesus said, “You did not choose me, I chose you.” Jesus actively wants a relationship with us and our sin, our messiness doesn’t change his desire.  In fact, the messier our lives are, the more we need his love and the more he wants to love us. He longs to  be with us, to have us share our lives with him and talk to him.  Sometimes we feel like God is so far away.  A sense of absence vanishes when I am open to a sense of God’s presence in my own life. 

It was about noon. A woman of Samaria came to draw water.

When I read through this Gospel slowly, I re-think the Samaritan Woman.  What kind of a life did she lead? The well was a gathering place in town and the people would have met there, talked, laughed, connected with each other.  Then I imagine that they go home with their water because it’s getting hot.  They leave the well, carry their water and go to the shade of their homes.

And then it was noon and the woman of Samaria came by herself to draw water.  She was avoiding the people of the town. She knows they will judge her.  I can think to myself, "Oh those people, judging someone like that, so harshly."

But would I be different?  How would I be as one of the other people in the town?  Would I have befriended her the way Jesus did? Would I want to be even seen at the well with her?  We are so quick to judge, so quick to scorn. If we isolate her and see her sins so clearly, it helps us feel better about our own.  And when we hear five husbands, don’t we tend to blame her?

What does Jesus do?  He sits down and asks her for some water.  Would I have accepted water from her? Maybe I wouldn’t have even looked at her! She is a sinner!

I am judging her more harshly than God does!  Jesus simply loves her as a sinner.  We judge her and isolate her!  We don’t speak to her.

And what makes us condemn her more harshly than Jesus does?  It might be because we can’t comprehend how absolutely loved we are by God.  We think in our minds, not our hearts, and our minds tell us that we know how we love, and God must love us the same way.  We love carefully.  We love as people deserve.  We know how people have treated us in the past and we adapt our love accordingly.

It’s a very human way of loving, and it is imperfect because we are imperfect as people.  But God loves in a whole different dimension of time and space that we can’t understand.  God loves endlessly and without regard to what we have done. 

The best analogy I have for the way God loves us is parenthood.  If you are a parent, you understand what it means to love and forgive your child over and over again.  I’m not saying they don’t drive us crazy sometimes, but no matter what they do, you can’t stop loving them.  We look at the prodigal son and his guilt over what he did to his father.  He decides to go home, and practices an apology on the way home.  He doesn’t expect his father to forgive him.

Where is the father? Standing, looking down the road like he probably did every night, just hoping to catch a glimpse of his son returning. That father is simply a parent, and he forgives over and over again, and still loves. And that's a human understanding of love.  God’s love for us is endless, and goes into places in our hearts we can’t understand with our limited minds.

Fr. Greg Boyle, S.J., a Jesuit priest who works with gang members in Los Angeles, has written an incredible book Tattoos on the Heart, which is a very funny, wise and faith filled book about his ministry. (Great Lent reading.)  

In the book, Fr. Greg quotes Anthony De Mello, who wrote about how we might meditate on how much God loves us:  “Behold the one beholding you, and smiling.”  And Fr. Greg adds, “It is precisely because we have such overactive disapproval glands ourselves, that we tend to create God in our own image.  It is truly hard for us to see the truth that disapproval does not seem to be any part of God’s DNA.  God is just too busy loving us to have any time for disappointment.”

So here is Jesus, sitting at the edge of the well, asking for a drink of water and then offering the Samaritan woman living water.  Her response to him is from her brain.  She is logical, the way we are.

“Sir, you do not even have a bucket and the cistern is deep; where then can you get this living water?

Jesus doesn’t go to the logic of what she says.  He speaks to her heart:

Whoever drinks the water I give will never thirst; the water I shall give will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.

"The water I shall give will become a spring of water welling up with life!"  He offers her something that will change her life forever.  When she heard Jesus say this, the Samaritan woman was looking at Jesus, standing with him and she could feel that he was offering her something she had never had before.  A new way of life.  The invitation was to her heart, not her head and she began to listen in a different way. She says,

“Sir, give me this water, so that I may not be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”

We can say that to Jesus, too.  Give us this water. We can ask Jesus to be with us in everything we have ever done. 
The things we are proud of; the things about our lives that make us ashamed. 

I could say, “Lord, I hang out at the well at noon - I try to avoid deep interactions with people - especially you.  I live with a kind of self-denial about the inconsistencies of my life.  I don't have five husbands, but I have a dozen areas where I fall short of living the life of faith and trust in you that I profess with my lips.  In fact, others think I'm together, but at home, or with relatives and friends, I'm not so together.  All you ask me for is to let you give me the water you offer me. 

All you ask me is to come back to you this Lent and remember I'm baptized in you already.  All you ask is that I let you "tell me everything I have done."  You ask me this year to really open my heart to you in a new way - and I have been avoiding it for years.  I know that if I turn to you, it will give my life a great peace, and a sense of love and will give witness to my whole family."

The woman left her water jar and went into the town and said to the people, “Come see a man who told me everything I have done. Could he possibly be the Christ?”

She opened her heart to Jesus and her life is different.  She left her water jar! What had been her lifeline -- her water jar -- she forgot about it. She has a new water and a new life.  She goes to town, a town in which she had been humiliatingly rejected, and she boldly calls people together to tell them about this incredible man she has met.  She says: he told me everything I have ever done. Suddenly she is no longer burdened by her past life.  Her guilt and sin are not the focus.  She has heard Jesus say, “Look at me!  Put your focus on me, not on your past life” and her life is changed!  She goes through town boldly with this news of a new life.

And what is the response? 

Many of the Samaritans of that town began to believe in him
because of the word of the woman who testified,

“He told me everything I have done.”

Jesus shows us who we really are.  Not who we WANT to be, but who we are.  Imperfect. Crabby.  Selfish. And utterly lovable in God’s eyes.

It’s not a message we can hear with our brains.  It’s one that Jesus asks us to open our hearts for.  “Look at me,” he says, “and jump into the deep water.”

- Maureen McCann Waldron

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