The story of the Samaritan woman has been a powerful draw for me ever since I began to pray with scripture. It’s probably my favorite gospel story. Yet, I have never been able to say why that is so.
I’m guessing that it is something about the character of the woman and her story. A story that I understand to be the story of a woman who is the quintessential outsider. A woman who can only exist at the boundaries of her own society. In it, but not of it. This woman, who has had five husbands and now fornicates with one who is not her husband, lacks essential respectability. And simultaneously, she is a religious pariah to the dominant religious establishment that surrounds her and her homeland. This woman who can only exist at the margins. Outside the bounds that hold both respectable society and respectable religion together.
The outsiders’ story, the story of the alienated, the story of people marginalized by both religion and society form central themes in the biblical narrative. Scholars from a wide variety of disciplines,in studying the stories of the Bible, often claim that this is the central narrative of the entire biblical text. Bible stories take up the theme again and again of who stands in God’s favor and who does not and why that is so.
In our own day, in a climate of fear and foreboding, people generally and religious people particularly, remain caught in that narrative. A narrative in which orientation to both self as well as bearing and orientation toward others rests heavily on our ability to say how we are not like other people.
And then there is Jesus.
What can we say?
As catholic Christians, we believe that Jesus is the very incarnation of the Divinity itself. We’ve liked saying that Jesus shows us the face of God. Except that he doesn’t show us the face of God. Not really. Because like Moses, we can’t see God’s face. We can’t even begin to imagine what God is or what God is like. Both thought and language fail us.
But Jesus does show us a face. And I think the face that Jesus shows us is the face of Love. Not any love but First Love; primordial love. Love that brings forth creation. The original source of all that is and that will be. Jesus shows us the fountainhead of Love.
And what does the face of Love look like?
It looks like many different things in today’s story of this encounter at Jacob’s well. In today’s gospel, the face of Love appears as a man flush, hot, tired, hungry and thirsty. Love is a vagabond, wandering, preaching the good news of primal love from one backwater village to the next in a backwater province of the Roman State. Traveling across a countryside at times welcoming and at other times hostile.
And in today’s story, Love finds itself in alien territory. Today Love is beginning to allow religious identity that holds others at bay to be undone. Today Love begins to unravel for us the old stale formulas and human inspired-rivalries. Love perceives that they won’t work because they have never worked. Theold narrative depends on people set in opposition to one another. Love knows that it is never going to get us back to where we long to go; to the one place we all long to return to. To before the original narrative began to unravel. On the day when a piece of fruit taken from a tree in a garden opened human eyes to shame and guilt. Shame and guilt that forces us to cover our nakedness and hide.Love knows that we will never get back as long as religion and society continue to make God an idol that serves its needs by keeping God puny, jealous, vengeful, miserly, and one-sided.
Fear and guilt inexplicably generated out of the created order in a woman and man eating a Tree’s fruit. It is not going to go away unless something changes and changes radically. So what does Love do? Love speaks because Love must speak. Love speaks to a lowly woman of Samaria. A woman doing a common, mundane ordinary thing like filling a water vessel. The lowly woman, performing a job reserved for her caste,in a culture gripped in caste-consciousness.
Who were the Samaritans? The Jews were certain that they were aliens living in their very own land, and even worse, claiming to be Moses’s true followers. A threat to be shunned.
But Love risks its own purity and speaks to this pariah. A woman of Samaria who embodies in her very self and in her very presence attests to the heresy that God’s chosen, the Jews are frauds. Not God’s chosen but usurpers of the priestly order established by Moses, practicing a cult that Jews were certain could only be abhorrent to God and destructive of the covenant established in the desert with the wandering Israelites.
But Love won’t be satisfied. Love always wants more. “Who are you, woman of Samaria? I want to know you, woman of Samaria. I want to know everything about you.” So Love says, ‘Go and call your husband…and come back here.’1 BecauseI want to know you,” says Love. “Who are you, really?”
“But you can’t know me,” says the woman, “because if you knew who I really am you could not love me.” So she must answer, “I have no husband.”2Andthe fruit is eaten again. Shame and guilt.
“You are right to say, ‘I have no husband’; for although you have had five, the one you now have is not your husband. You spoke the truth there.”3 No accusation, no retribution, no condemnation. Love only speaks love.
And what does Love say? Love gives the only answer Love can give. Love says, “I’m going to love you even though you are trying to deceive me. I’m not going to accuse you, I’m not going to cast you away. I am going to be Love to you because I can do nothing else.”
And now the ground on which this woman is standing begins to slip out from under her feet as though a chasm is opening beneath her. “Who is this who speaks words I have never heard before?” This woman is afraid. Whatever is happening here should not be happening. And so to keep Love from getting too close, she answers, “Our fathers worshipped on this mountain, though you say that Jerusalem is the place where one ought to worship;”4 a non sequitur, if there ever was one.
But, Love cannot be deterred. Love speaks what love must speak. Love speaks Truth: “Believe me woman, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation comes from the Jews. But the hour is coming – indeed is already here – when true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; that is the kind of worshipper the Father seeks.”5 Only love can make known the God that neither she nor her ancestors ever considered. And here in the story’s culmination,Love surmounts all obstacles radically undoing both Samaritan and Jewish idolatry about the nature of God and how God is to be worshiped.
Love knows this Truth as only this Truth can be known. God is to be worshiped in Spirit and in Truth, a direct experience of God.And only Love can make that possible. In a way that only Love can know.
“Love bade [her] welcome. Yet [her]soul drew back
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing [her] grow slack
From Love’s first entrance in,
Drew nearer to [her], sweetly questioning,
If [she] lacked any thing.
A guest, [she] answered, worthy to be here:
Love said, You shall be [she].
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee.
Love took [her] hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?
Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
So [she] did sit and eat.”6
And Love says at last, “That is who I am, I who speak to you.”7 And I set you free.
- John 4:16. The New Jerusalem Bible. Garden City: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1985.
- John 4:17.
- John 4:17-18.
- John 4:20.
- John 4:21-23.
- Paraphrase of George Herbert’s “Love,” The Oxford Book of English Verse 1200-1900. Arthur Quiller-Couch, ed., 1919.
- John 4:26.