It was a conversation that should not have taken place; it was a conversation started by God’s thirst.
St. John wrote that Jesus “had to pass through Samaria” (Jn 4:4). Samaria was indeed located between Judea and Galilee, but most Jews avoided going through it, traveling instead around the eastern edge of the region. The “had to,” then, suggests a divine imperative. Traveling through Samaria was part of the Messiah’s mission; it had to be done.
But why? The Samaritans and Jews had an intense dislike for one another. The Samaritans claimed to be descendents of the patriarch Joseph, but they were most likely a mixed population, the offspring of Israelites who had not been deported to Assyria during the exile and various Mesopotamian peoples. The Samaritan, put simply, was the half-breed sibling who had no place at the family table and whose existence was only acknowledged in insult (see Jn 8:48).
The Samaritan woman, when told by Jesus to give him a drink, made a reply reflecting this animosity. But it also revealed her understanding that Jewish men did not, under any circumstances, talk to Samaritan women. It was a conversation that shouldn’t have taken place. But God was thirsty — for souls.
Jesus, as he did so often, used a physical, temporal need to get to the root of the spiritual problem. “Whenever Our Lord wished to do a favor,” wrote Archbishop Fulton Sheen of this encounter, “he always begins by asking for one.” At first, his questions seemed intrusive, even rude, but in the end they opened the door to the answer. Jesus suggested the answer when hinting at his identity (see Jn 4:10). But the woman, likely perplexed and curious, was focused on the practical, material challenge at hand: the need for a bucket, the depth of the well.
Her small world was a failing mixture of moral laxity, legal rigidity and ethnic discord. She had little in common with upright, ethnically and ritually pure Jews. This woman, wrote St. Augustine, “who bore the type of the Church, comes of strangers: for the Church was to come of the Gentiles, an alien from the race of the Jews.” Therefore, the great Church Doctor explained, we must recognize this woman. She is us; she is everyone who is in desperate need of the living water.
Whatever her faults, the Samaritan woman was not hardheaded or hardhearted. She quickly realized that Jesus was a prophet; she then said, “I know that the Messiah is coming, the one called the Christ; when he comes, he will tell us everything.” Aware of the Pentateuch, the essential sacred text for Samaritans, she expected a prophet like Moses (see Dt 18:15) who would perfectly explain and live the Law. Even in the midst of a messy, immoral life, she believed the Messiah was coming.
What is striking, in relation to Lent, is her amazed statement to the people of the town: “Come see a man who has told me everything I have done.” Through prayer, fasting and repentance, we come closer to the man who knows everything about us: our sins, our needs, our hopes, our fears. “The wonder of prayer,” remarks the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “is revealed beside the well where we come seeking water: There, Christ comes to meet every human being.” Why does he meet us? Why does he start the conversation? Because he is thirsty: “God thirsts that we may thirst for him” (No. 2560).
Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.