March 19: Third Sunday of Lent
Ex 17-3-7; Ps 95:1-2, 6-7, 8-9; Rom 5:1-2, 5-8; Jn 4:5-42
Seventy-one percent of the earth’s surface is water. The human body is about 60 percent water. A human can exist for a month without food but only a week without water. No wonder in the Genesis account of creation, water is already there when God starts his divine work of bringing order and beauty out of the primeval chaos.
The Middle East where the Bible was born is perennially short of water. So it is no surprise that water is a cherished, vital commodity and takes on great symbolic meaning in the Bible. Water is the source of life, necessary for humans to endure. Water refreshes and cleans. Without water, humans and the earth itself wither and die.
All of these dimensions of water are evoked in the readings for this Lenten Sunday. In the first reading from Exodus we find the famous incident during Israel’s desert trek when the people, stricken with thirst, lament having even left Egypt. The prospect of future freedom was no match for the longing for a good drink of water in the parched desert.
The people bring their complaint to Moses who seems at his wit’s end: “What shall I do with this people?” he complains to God. “A little more and they will stone me!” The Lord instructs Moses to strike a rock with his staff and the water gushes from it so the people can drink what they need. But the Bible doesn’t forget the fact that the people’s trust in God and Moses had wavered. Their question echoes down the ages for us, too: “Is the Lord in our midst or not?”
Of course, water plays a central role in the Gospel of John’s beautiful passages about Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. Weary from their journey, Jesus and his disciples stop to rest in the somewhat alien territory of the Samaritans.
While the disciples go to get some food, Jesus himself sits by the village well. When a woman comes to draw water, he asks her for a drink from her bucket — and so begins one of the most artful and touching exchanges in all the Gospels, as Jesus and this Samaritan woman interact with wit and a certain playfulness.
When she questions why a Jew would ask her for a drink, Jesus challenges her to realize he is the one who can give her “living water” and she would never thirst again. Then Jesus challenges her to go and bring her husband. Giving a certain tension to this whole exchange — as the disciples later surprised reaction confirms — is the fact that it is unusual, even provocative, for a man and a woman to be alone at the village well. Jesus gently confronts her with his awareness that she has had five husbands and is not legitimately married now.
Finally, the woman realizes that this Jew who knows her soul and who yet interacts with her respectfully is someone far more mysterious and compelling than she had ever dreamed. She runs to tell her fellow Samaritans about Jesus the Messiah and “because of the word of the woman who testified” many of them would believe in him. In John’s Gospel, this Samaritan woman becomes the first missionary witness to Jesus. She has been made new through the “living water” provided by Jesus.
Thinking about water during Lent, of course, reminds us of the waters of baptism. At the Easter Vigil, the catechumens, like the Samaritan woman, will be immersed in “living water” and their lives will take on new meaning. At the climax of the Lenten season, all of us, too, will be invited to renew our baptismal promises. Today’s second reading from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, affirms what the cleansing and renewing waters of baptism do for us: we have hope “because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” Baptism answers the question of the Israelites: “Is the Lord in our midst or not?”
Senior is past president of Catholic Theological Union and a New Testament scholar.