By Father Thomas R. Hurst, S.S. - The Priest, 2/1/2013
In his motu proprio “Porta Fidei” of Oct. 11, 2011, which introduced the Year of Faith, Pope Benedict XVI speaks of faith as a journey. “The ‘door of faith’ (Acts 14:27) is always open for us, ushering us into the life of communion with God and offering entry into the Church. It is possible to cross that threshold when the word of God is proclaimed. . . .To enter through that door is to set out on a journey that lasts a lifetime.” This journey, which the Holy Father describes, is, at its center, an encounter with Jesus who is the very presence of God among us.
On our own we can often feel lost on this journey toward God, and so in our lives, we often look for models for that encounter with Him. I would suggest that the Gospel of St. John provides just such a model in the call of the disciples in John 1:35-51 and the meeting of Jesus and the Samaritan woman in John 4. You may wish to read John 1:35-51 now before continuing with my reflections in this article.
In the first chapter of the Fourth Gospel we hear of John the Baptist sending his disciples to follow after Jesus. As they do so, Jesus, who has been described in the Prologue as the Word “who is with God and the Word who is God,” turns around and speaks a human word for the very first time. He asks, “What are you looking for?” It is a simple question, but one of the most fundamental questions of life.
The two disciples call Jesus by the title “Rabbi” and answer His question with the question, “Where are you staying?” At a surface level their question is also simple — they want to know where Jesus is spending His time. At a deeper level, a level always present in the Fourth Gospel, the reader is directed to look where Jesus always stays/dwells. His true dwelling place is with God. He is the one that the Prologue has already described as “ever at the Father’s side.”
Jesus’ response is that they should, “Come and see.” Again, at one level this is a simple instruction to follow after Him for a time. At the deeper level, it is an invitation to be with Jesus who is God’s very presence among us. The Gospel then rather matter of factly tells us that the disciples stayed with Him that day.
However, there is one more element in the disciples’ encounter. The Gospel describes how the first thing that one of the disciples, Andrew, did was to go to his brother Peter and tell him that he had found the Messiah. He then brings him to Jesus so that Peter too may have his own encounter.
With this movement, the encounter of the first disciples with Jesus both ends and begins again. The Gospel story sets out a series of movements in the encounter. These movements involve an invitation from Jesus, and a response from the disciple, which includes recognition of who Jesus is. After that recognition, a communion, or staying with Jesus, follows, which then sends the new disciple forth to bring someone else to Jesus.
This pattern repeats itself with Philip who, after encountering Jesus, brings his brother Nathanael to Jesus. Philip tells him that they have found the one spoken of in Moses and the prophets. In his encounter and dialogue with Jesus, Nathanael grows in his understanding of Jesus and calls Him, “the Son of God and the King of Israel.”
Each disciple in this scene encounters Jesus and establishes a relationship with Him that leads to further insight and strength for mission. But more goes on in this paradigmatic story. The titles given to Jesus by the various disciples are progressively more solemn. We move from Rabbi (Teacher) to Messiah (Anointed), to the one who fulfills the law and the prophets, to the Son of God. In this model encounter described by the Evangelist we, the readers, receive an instruction in who Jesus is for us too. However, this Christological lesson does not end with the mere human insights of disciples.
In the last verse of the chapter, Jesus, the Word of God, speaks a solemn conclusion — not just to Nathanael but to all the disciples that have gathered around Him. He says, “Amen, Amen, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” Jesus speaks with divine authority and reveals that He is the true and only connection between God and human beings.
Using the image of Jacob’s ladder from Genesis 28, Jesus shows how God and humans are now in union through and in His very person and presence. The description of this union is the end of the story of the call of the first disciples; the union itself is the goal of all discipleship.
In the Fourth Gospel, the call of the first disciples is just the initial model encounter of call, response, communion, insight and mission. This pattern is repeated in chapter four with the Samaritan woman. Again, I suggest a pause in reading this article to read God’s very Word.
An unnamed Samaritan woman meets a tired Jesus sitting at a well near her town. The narrative is different from the call of first disciples in John 1 who seek Jesus out and follow Him easily. The story of the Samaritan woman has elements of banter and arguing, an undertone of some hostility, and attempts at one-upmanship.
The encounter begins with a request, really a demand, from Jesus for a drink of water. The woman is no meek character but rather quite feisty with her challenge to Jesus about interacting with her, a woman and a Samaritan. In this challenge she presents herself as someone from whom He should have kept His distance.
Undeterred, Jesus presents himself as someone who has a special source of water that flows and gives life. In what I imagine as a barely civil tone, the woman again challenges Jesus and questions His ability to obtain such special water. She asks Him if He thinks He is greater than her ancestor, the patriarch Jacob who found this well.
Jesus continues to insist that He has this special water which will give her eternal life and in this insistence indicates that He, in fact, is greater than the patriarch. The woman, who has so far only conceded the title “Sir” to Jesus, finally asks for the water. The encounter has remained at a standoff.
The breakthrough occurs only when Jesus changes the topic and asks her to call for her husband. Now, in a second conversation, Jesus reveals His knowledge of her past life and she calls Him a prophet. However, she remains feisty and tries to challenge Jesus again.
This time she employs a “trick question.” She wants Jesus to act as a prophet and answer her question of the right place to worship. Is it the Samaritan Mt. Gerizim or the Jewish Jerusalem? Whichever way Jesus answers, one group will be offended. Jesus’ answer about true worship finally so impresses the woman that she implicitly sees Jesus as the expected Messiah. This encounter is interrupted with the appearance of Jesus’ disciples, and the woman returns to town.
The basic elements of the call and response are present in the meeting of Jesus and the woman. There was an initiative of Jesus, she did stay with Him, and she saw who He was, albeit slowly and with some real hesitation. She moved from no title for Jesus, to Sir, to prophet, to Messiah.
The encounter, however, did not end when she returned to town. It is there that she acted like the first disciples and announced Jesus to her neighbors and brought them to Him. They too acted their part and invited Jesus to “stay” with them and in the end recognized Him as the “Savior of the world.”
And so, with the Samaritan woman’s meeting with Jesus, we have come full circle again: an initiative of Jesus, a staying with Him, a growth in recognition, and an act of mission to bring others to Jesus.
What was the pattern in two instances in the Fourth Gospel, I suggest that in this Year of Faith may be a pattern for us. The Lord takes the initiative in our lives. He is always calling us to “come and stay” with Him, to enter into a deeper communion with Him so that we may know Him more deeply and intimately. This deeper communion will give us insight to call Jesus by name, showing our growing knowledge of Him and His role in our lives.
Finally, this communion should then lead us to the great work of evangelization — to the bringing of others to the Lord. When we have brought others to Him, we then — like the Samaritan woman — step out of the way so that the Lord Himself, who is the true connection to God, may call them and have them stay with Him too.
I pray that these models proposed to us by the Fourth Evangelist may help to guide you on your journey and assist in deepening your faith in He who is the Way, the Truth and the Life. TP
FATHER HURST, S.S., is President-Rector of St. Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore, Maryland, where he also teaches Sacred Scripture.
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