"People are like stained-glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in their true beauty is revealed only if there is light from within." - Elisabeth Kubler-Ross
The past few days have been busy ones in Seoul, Korea. The Maryknoll Asia Regional Council has three days of meetings. On Saturday, March 18th, we attended the 90th Anniversary of the founding of Pyongyang Diocese in North Korea. I also had the opportunity yesterday to meet with Kim Yunee and her son and daughter. Yunee is the sister of Kim Hyeyoen who remains in a coma (now three years after the medical mishap) here in Seoul.
The 90th anniversary banquet.
Pyongyang Diocese seminarians who served with Maryknoll in China.
The seminarians and their moms!
With Kim, Yunee and her son and daughter.
Today's Gospel and some comments:
Jesus came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob's well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.
A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, "Give me a drink." (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, "How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?" (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, "If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, 'Give me a drink,' you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water." The woman said to him, "Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?" Jesus said to her, "Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life." The woman said to him, "Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water." Jesus said to her, "Go, call your husband, and come back." The woman answered him, "I have no husband." Jesus said to her, "You are right in saying, 'I have no husband'; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!" The woman said to him, "Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem." Jesus said to her, "Woman, believe me, 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 know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth." The woman said to him, "I know that Messiah is coming" (who is called Christ). "When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us." Jesus said to her, "I am he, the one who is speaking to you."
Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, "What do you want?" or, "Why are you speaking with her?" Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, "Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?" They left the city and were on their way to him.
Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, "Rabbi, eat something." But he said to them, "I have food to eat that you do not know about." So the disciples said to one another, "Surely no one has brought him something to eat?" Jesus said to them, "My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. Do you not say, 'Four months more, then comes the harvest'? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, 'One sows and another reaps.' I sent you to reap that for which you did not labour. Others have laboured, and you have entered into their labour."
Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman's testimony, "He told me everything I have ever done." So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, "It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Saviour of the world." John 4:5-42
A thirst could be physical or spiritual. Often it is both, as in the case of the unnamed woman whose meeting with Jesus by Jacob's well gave us today's gospel story. Physically she is thirsty, thirsting for water, and that brings her to the well day after day. But spiritually also she is thirsty, an inner thirst which drives her from one man to another and for which she can find no satisfaction. By the time she meets Jesus she is in her sixth marriage, and yet she is able to tell Jesus "I have no husband," indicating that she is probably already looking for the seventh.
Numbers are often significant in biblical interpretation. According to the biblical symbolism of numbers, six is a number of imperfection, of lack, of deficiency. The woman in her sixth marriage is, therefore, in a situation of lack and deficiency. Seven, on the other hand, is a number of perfection, completion, finality and sufficiency. Jesus comes to this woman as the seventh man in her life. She opens up to him and finally experiences the satisfaction of all of her soul's desiring, the full assuaging of her spiritual thirst. Isn't this the kind of experience we wish for ourselves and for all in this season of Lent? It might, therefore, be useful for us to look at the mechanism of this profound turnaround in life that we call conversion.
First, someone must be ready to break boundaries. Human society organizes itself by erecting boundaries - national, ethnic, religious, and gender. Jesus shows in today's gospel that in order to reach out to the other and create the necessary conditions for conversion, one must be prepared to challenge these man-made boundaries and break the dividing walls of prejudice. This is exactly what Jesus does to get to this woman.
According to the convention of the times, Jews were not supposed to interact with Samaritans. Walls of prejudice built on the foundations of ethnicity and religion kept them apart. Jesus broke these boundaries when he asked the woman for a drink, as her reaction shows:
"How is it that you, a Jewish man, ask a drink of me, a Samaritan woman?" Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans" (John 4:9).
That was not all. It was also against the moral norms of the day for a man to engage a woman in dialogue in a public place. And yet Jesus engages this woman in the longest dialogue we have in all the four Gospels, an act which even his own disciples saw as morally questionable:
Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, "What do you want?" or, "Why are you speaking with her?" (John 4:27)
If Jesus had kept within the bounds of the expected behaviour of his day, there was no way he could have gone beyond a superficial brush with the woman, which would invariably lead to superficial results. Note also that, unlike many evangelists of our time, Jesus never tries to condemn, threaten, or intimidate the woman. All he tries to do is invite, challenge and affirm her, patiently trying to enlighten her doubts in no uncertain terms.
Why does Jesus make such a tremendous impact on the woman? Because for the first time in her life she meets a man who really understands her. In her excitement she forgets her water jar and physical thirst (and so also does Jesus) and runs back to the village inviting the villagers to come and see "a man who told me everything I have ever done" - probably the first man to know her so well without rejecting her. Before you know it the convert has become a missionary bringing others to Jesus and to the joyful experience of conversion.
Before we close our refection on the gospel story I would like us to pay attention to the words of those other Samaritan villagers that the woman brings to Jesus.
They said to the woman, "It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Saviour of the world." (4:42)
There are two stages in the believing or conversion process: First we believe because of what someone told us about Jesus, and then later we believe because we have come to personally know Jesus ourselves. Lent is the period when the Church invites all her children who still believe on the strength of someone else's witnessing to come to Jesus personally and believe, not because someone told us, but because we have known him and experienced his love personally in our lives.