To be thirsty is often an all-consuming experience. After a long walk or run, the promise of a glass of water increases our thirst, as we long to be sated.
Israel’s experience of thirst in the desert is all-consuming. As they pilgrim through the dry wilderness, they grumble against Moses, longing for water: “‘Why did you ever make us leave Egypt?’” (Ex 17:2).
The very God who rescued Israel from Egypt, who led them through the river dry-shod, is not yet trusted by Israel, who remain hard of heart. Grumbling to Moses, they doubt the power of God and thus the merciful compassion of the God of their forebears.
Yet, God responds not with disdain but with the gift of water flowing from the rock. Although their hearts may be hard, God’s heart flows with merciful drink to sate the thirst of the wandering pilgrims.
In the Gospel of John, the Word made flesh continues to quench the thirst of disciples. Yet, our Lord is not interested in giving mere water to the woman at the well. He wants to give his very self as an act of love.
It is not unimportant in the Gospel that Jesus meets the woman at Jacob’s well. At this very well, Jacob meets Rachel, his wife (Gn 29). The apostles would have been right to wonder why Jesus was speaking alone with a woman at a well.
They would naturally come to the conclusion that Jesus was on his way to marrying this woman. And Jesus is, for he is the Bridegroom that supplies abundant wine at the wedding at Cana.
Then, the conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan turns to drinking. The woman longs for “living water” rather than the stagnant water of the well.
This is actually a moment of confusion. Jesus is promising the water of eternal life, while the woman at the well is looking for an easier way to procure drinking water.
Yet, Jesus has not come to this Samaritan village to give water to sate thirst. Jesus has come to give himself, to give the living water of salvation. “‘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 he, the one speaking with you’” (Jn 4:25-26).
And like Rachel in Genesis, the woman runs to tell her village that the Bridegroom has come to town. The desire of every human heart, the Word made flesh, wants to enter into relationship with them: “When the Samaritans came to him, they invited him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days” (Jn 4:40).
This reading from John is chosen on the Third Sunday of Lent as we invite the elect to reflect more deeply on the desires of their heart, to long for the “living water” of salvation.
But during Lent, each of us is to enter once again into the desert, to receive living water from the Word made flesh. As our life in Christ grows mature, we may forget to thirst with desire for the living God. We may grow complacent, pleased with drawing water from the dry wells of our hardened hearts.
For this reason, let each one of us go with the Samaritan woman to the well. Let us meet Jesus our Bridegroom there, who gives to us the water of salvation. Let us run forth to the world to announce that the desire of every human heart dwells among us in the Eucharist, in the Scriptures, in every hidden parish church in town.
Let our souls, let the entire world, thirst for the living God.
Timothy P. O’Malley is the director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy.