Saturday, March 06, 2010

Wooing the Woman at the Well: Gospel for the Third Sunday of Lent

The Gospel reading for this Sunday, if your local parish is following the readings for RCIA, is the "Woman at the Well" (John 4).

This is one of the key texts in the Gospel of John that present to us Jesus as the Bridegroom Messiah.

Recall that the Gospel of John begins with an enumeration of seven days, with a wedding on the seventh (the Wedding at Cana, John 2:1-11). There is probably an intentional parallel here to the creation story, in which Adam is created on the sixth day, falls asleep, and wakes up (on the seventh day?) and, seeing Eve, pronounces the covenant words ("bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh") with establishes the first marital covenant. The only identified characters at the Wedding at Cana are Jesus and Mary, whom the Church recognizes as the New Adam and New Eve.

In the following chapter (John 3), John the Baptist explicitly identifies Jesus as the Bridegroom.

Now in chapter 4, Jesus is traveling through Samaria and sits down by a well.

The minute Jesus sits down by the well, the reader familiar with the Old Testament expects a woman to show up. The reader is not disappointed: here she comes (John 4:7). Recall that Jacob and Moses both met their wives at a well, and that Abraham's servant found Rebecca for Isaac at a well. Moreover, the well in John 4 is identified as "Jacob's Well". Although it was clearly not the same well where Jacob met Rachel (which would have been in Northwest Mesopotamia), there was a tradition that this well near Sychar was in fact that very same well, which had now moved to the Land of Israel. In light of all this, it seems like John is telling this story in such a way as to evoke a betrothal scene in the style of the Old Testament.

Jesus' request of the woman, "Give me a drink," (4:7) recalls the request of Eliezer (Abraham's steward) to Rebecca when he was seeking to determine if she was the Lord's intended bride for Isaac. This serves to heighten the nuptial atmosphere of the whole passage.

Jesus and the woman begin to discuss water, living water in particular. At one point, Jesus implies that anyone who drinks of the water he provides will him- or herself become a well of living water (John 4:14), which calls to mind one of the images that the Bridegroom uses to describe the Bride in the Song of Songs (Song 4:15).

Finally, the conversation turns explicitly to marriage (4:16): "Go, call your husband, and come here." We discover that the woman has had five husbands, and the man she is living with now is not properly her husband.

It is probably not coincidental that the Samaritans were the ethnically-mixed descendants of poor Israelites left behind by the conquering Assyrians (8th cent. BC), and FIVE other ethnic groups (each with their own male patron deity) brought in by the Assyrian to repopulate northern Israel (2 Kings 17:24). Apparently, the Israelites left behind intermarried with the five immigrant peoples and worshipped their gods, until some point in history, perhaps after the return of the Judeans from Babylon, when they quit the paganism and returned to the worship of the God of Israel--but not in the authorized way or place! Instead of going down to the legitimate temple in Jerusalem, they built their own sanctuary on Mt. Gerizim and altered the text of Deuteronomy to make it appear that Gerizim was the LORD's intended site for a central sanctuary. So the Samaritan people, after having participated in five different foreign cults, were now back "living with" the LORD, but not in a proper covenant relationship. The experience of this woman of Samaria mirrors the spiritual history of her people.

Trying to change the subject of conversation to something else besides her personal life, the woman tries to distract Jesus with a theological question (v. 19). Jesus responds, speaking about the true manner of worship, but his answer goes over the woman's head. All she can say in response is to make a profession of faith in the coming Messiah, whom she hopes will be able to explain everything. Jesus answers: "He who speaks to you, I AM!"

At this point the woman drops her water jar in amazement and wanders dazed back into town, telling everyone to come out and see this man who has told her everything she did. Can this really be the Messiah? Jesus stays with the villagers two days and many come to place their faith in him.

So what has happened in this story? Jesus, who is the LORD, the God of Israel, has come to woo these descendants of northern Israel (the Samaritans) back to himself, as he promised to do in many prophecies, notably those of Hosea:

Hos. 2:14 “Therefore, behold, I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her. 15 ... And ... she shall answer as in the days of her youth, as at the time when she came out of the land of Egypt. 16 “And in that day, says the LORD, you will call me, ‘My husband,’ and no longer will you call me, ‘My Baal.’ 17 For I will remove the names of the Baals from her mouth, and they shall be mentioned by name no more. 18 And I will make for you a covenant on that day ... 19 And I will betroth you to me for ever; I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love, and in mercy. 20 I will betroth you to me in faithfulness; and you shall know the LORD."

The woman is a type and image of her people, the people of Samaria, whom the LORD did not forget, but return to woo them to himself.

Christ the LORD, the Bridegroom Messiah, comes to woo each one of us at the Eucharistic Liturgy (Mass). Despite our sins, shames, and checkered histories, he comes suddenly under the images of bread and wine, offering himself to us, calling himself to us, to be his spotless bride (Eph 5:25-27; Rev 21:9-11).


Sister Mary Agnes said...

Thank you for this beautiful post. Since I am a bride of Christ (a religious sister) the topic of Jesus as the Bridegroom Messiah is one of my favorites!

Elzbieta11 said...

John, I really like this. I find it especially hearting in a post-Christian culture that the heart of Jesus is calling those whose ancestors may have once worshipped Him, but are now far away.

Nick Norelli said...

John: You have no idea how inspirational this post was for me! As I just said on my blog:

"For one to see the allusions and parallels that John has seen they have to spend a lot of time in Scripture—not simply reading—but meditating as well. This post has made me realize that I’ve been slacking in this area. I read the Bible daily but the time I spend meditating upon it has decreased over time. This post has been a wake-up call for me to spend a little less time in academic books about the Bible and more time in the Bible itself!"

Great stuff!

Jon Hansen said...

Thanks for this post. I had heard of the image of Christ as Bridegroom in this passage before but have never read it explained so well. I will be giving a mission sermon on this passage at the end of the month and I am sure your post will inspire my own thoughts on this beautiful piece of scripture.

John Bergsma said...

Thanks everyone for the kind comments. Keep in mind that most of the insights in the post have already been made by other scholars--only a couple are original to myself. For the most part, I'm just passing along insights I've learned from others that I have found helpful in my own life.