The beautiful gospel of the woman at the well, which we read, Sunday, has so many wonderful teachings that not all can be dealt with in a single sermon. Hence, I’d like to consider today just a couple of the teachings that relate to this gospel.
In this post, I’d like to deal with the question of the efficacy of Grace, which many struggle to experience when it comes to the promises that Jesus extends. Jesus promises the Samaritan woman water that will satisfy her, unlike the water of the world. Specifically, Jesus says, Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again; but whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst; the water I shall give will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life (John 4:13-14).
The Samaritan woman seems less than convinced, at one point even scoffing that Jesus doesn’t even have a bucket! While perhaps rude, her scoffing does give voice to legitimate questions people raise to the promises of Christ, and those of us who preach his message.
Even many faithful Catholics struggle to understand exactly what Jesus means when he says that we will never thirst again. Indeed, many who have accepted Christ still struggle, still long for completion, still feel thirsty.
How then, can we understand what the Lord is teaching here? What does it mean to never thirst again, and how do we lay hold of this promise? Let’s look at the issue in three stages.
I. Clarity – As the Gospel opens, we have a teaching from Jesus that helps us to clarify our desires. A woman (this means you) comes to a well (this means the world). She comes because she is thirsty (and this refers to all of our desires). She thinks the well will satisfy her, but it will not. For no sooner does she have a drink, than she’s on her way to being thirsty again. And thus the well (i.e., the world) can provide momentary pleasures, but no lasting ones.
Jesus is there waiting for her. He is also waiting for you and me who are filled with many desires and questions. He says to her, Everyone who drinks from this will be thirsty again (John 4:13). In this he is helping her, and us, to clarify that it is a simple fact that our desires are infinite and unlimited. Therefore, a finite in a limited world cannot satisfy us.
And in this, the Lord clarifies our desires. They are in fact infinite; we are never really satisfied. Therefore our desires are not really about the world at all; they are ultimately pointing us to God who alone is infinite, and who alone can truly satisfy our desires or fill the God-sized hole in our hearts. Yes, here is clarity: only God can satisfy us; the world simply cannot cut the deal; it is finite and limited.
Meeting us at the well of the world, where we come (once again) to draw from it, the Lord says in effect “How’s that working for you?” Indeed, how foolish we are! We really think that a new job, a new relationship, a little more money, the latest upgrade to the software, etc. will somehow satisfy us. It will not; it cannot. An old song says it well, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.” Everyone who drinks from this will be thirsty again.
So here is clarity about our desires:
- First, they are infinite.
- Second, the well, i.e., the world, cannot fulfill our infinite desires because it is finite.
- Third, our desires are thus about God who alone can satisfy us since he alone is infinite.
- Fourth, Jesus says he is the One; he is God who can give us living waters welling up to eternal life so that we will never thirst again.
Okay Lord, thanks for the clarity, but now along with the Samaritan woman we want to say to you, “Give us this water so that we will not be thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water!” (John 4:15)
In other words, how do we unlock this blessing? Do we simply answer an altar call? Do we simply accept baptism? Do we simply say “I believe, now give me my blessing”?
Some of us may be even more cynical, saying, “Look I’ve been doing this walk with Jesus for a while now, and I’m still thirsty; I still haven’t found what I’m looking for!”
And thus the questions “How do I unlock these blessings?” “How do I lay hold of this promise of Christ?” become critical ones for the Church, and for any who would preach this gospel.
The answer is twofold: conversion and conversation. Let’s look at each one in turn.
II. Conversion – When the Samaritan woman says, “Give me this water…” Jesus answers her by saying, Go call your husband and come back. (John 4:16).
In other words, Jesus wants to give her this blessing, but first there is an obstacle, an obstacle that must be dealt with. Most of us to know the story of the Samaritan woman and thus know that she has had five husbands, and is now simply living with a man outside of marriage. Though we do not have all the details, this personal history speaks to us of her many sorrows, sins, and struggles. Surely there are issues of sexual sin; she’s living together with a man outside of marriage. But there are any number of other issues that must have accompanied her many marriages such as struggles with forgiveness, patience, mercy, self-esteem, the list could go on. These struggles and sins must be dealt with before the living waters can fully flow.
Consider I have fifty gold bricks to give you, and you are holding a box, but it is full of sand. In order to make room for the gold bricks, I must first help you to empty your box of the sand. The sand must go in order to make way for the gold. So it is with us; our sins must give way to make room for the living waters of God’s grace. Conversion is necessary and essential to laying hold of the promises of Christ.
And so the Lord says to this woman “Go call your husband.” What does the Lord have to say to you? What conversions are necessary in your life? What obstacles must be removed for the living waters to flow?
And thus, the Lord’s promise of living Waters is not mere magic. It is a promise that stands, but simply answering an altar call, or thinking some perfunctory declaration will be enough is just not realistic. There is more involved here than simply cleaning a house. Human beings are complicated; we have many moving parts. Through conversion, we must increasingly turned to the Lord allow him to make way for these living waters.
III. Conversation – The Lord goes on to have a rather lengthy conversation with the Samaritan woman. We do not have all the details, and many of them are none of our business. Nevertheless, the conversation leads her, by stages, to greater joy, and finally to the point that she is able to leave her water jar (a very symbolic act) and run to town joyfully telling others of the glorious Lord and Messiah she has met!
Of course her conversation is a symbol for the longer conversation the Lord needs to have with us. “Conversation” can be understood here as a kind of journey we make with the Lord, who along the way enters into an ever-deeper dialogue with us through prayer and his presence in our life.
There is for the Christian the summons to enter into an ever deeper, living, and conscious contact with the Lord at every moment of our day. And thus, not only in our prayer, but throughout our day, in the people we meet, in the created world, and in the events of our day, we experience the Lord speaking to us, present to us.
Here then is described an ever-deepening conversation with the Lord, a transformative union in which his living waters flow ever more deeply. The increasing results, if we stay with him in the conversation, are deeper serenity, joy, freedom from sin, and ever-deepening satisfaction with the magnificence of his grace, and his word.
And so we, like the woman at the well, see less and less need for a water jar, that is, for our obsessive need to collect the things of the world and store them up. We, like the woman at the well, come to the point where we can leave the water jar behind. We live more simply, are less needful of the world’s false and empty promises. We live more simply and joyfully in the presence of the Lord, in the power of his Word and Sacraments, in the joy of knowing him, and in his Body the Church.
And thus, for those who might scoff or be cynical of the Lord’s promise of living waters wherein we will never thirst again, there comes a double call to be converted, and to embark on a lifelong conversation with the Lord.
It works only if you work it; so work it because you’re worth it! Of this, I am a witness. I am 53 years old, but I have only been serious about my spiritual life for the last 30 of those 53 years. Prior to that time I lived frivolously and the details are both unedifying and unnecessary. But 30 years ago I entered the seminary and began to pray for an hour every day, to read Scripture every day, to attend Mass every day, and to go to confession once a week. The result? My life has become simpler and richer. Less do the passing obsessions of this world interest me. The Lord is my strength and my song. Living Waters are in fact welling up within me; I am increasingly satisfied only by God and the things of God. Yes, the Lord’s word is true!