Writing about the readings of the Third, Fourth, and Fifth Sundays of Lent is a bit tricky, because priests have a choice of two possible sets. One can always use the readings of Year A, which feature the Gospel of John (the Samaritan woman on the Lenten Sunday III, the man born blind on Lenten Sunday IV, Lazarus on Lenten Sunday V) and have direct connections with the preparation of catechumens for the sacraments of Initiation at the Paschal Vigil. Or, this year, one can use the readings of year C (Luke on the barren fig tree on Lenten Sunday III, Luke on the Prodigal Son on Lenten Sunday IV, John on the woman caught in adultery on Lenten Sunday V). This week, I’ll follow Year A.
Hunger and thirst affect people powerfully. I recently underwent a medical procedure that required not eating solid food for at least 24 hours. Believe me, popsicles do not a meal make. Three weeks ago we marked Ash Wednesday, where most Catholics should be eating but one full meal for the day. Why did we suddenly get hungrier?
Jesus fasted in the desert, and the Devil’s first temptation is most basic: change the stones to bread. In today’s first reading the Israelites, in the desert of Sinai on the way to the Promised Land, are about ready to stone Moses because they want water. The same people who witnessed God’s action in ten plagues, including the death of Egypt’s firstborn, who saw God rescue them through the Red Sea and make them His People as He gives them the Ten Commandments, are now quarreling about “is God with us or not” because they’re thirsty. Elsewhere, in Exodus 16, the Israelites complain about the lack of food in the desert, voicing the same objection they did as they saw Pharaoh’s army pursuing them (14: 12) with their backs against the Red Sea: we could have died comfortably and well-fed in Egypt, not starved or slaughtered in this wilderness.
Jesus is tempted—and refuses—to follow His way, not His Father’s. The Israelites do not want to be transfigured: while they sometimes like being free Israelites who are God’s People, they also like being sated Hebrews by the fleshpots of Egypt. They want God’s Promise on their terms.
In Proverbs (9:1-18), Wisdom offers true food and drink, while warning against the ill-gotten morsels Folly offers. In Isaiah (55:1) the prophet offers water, wine, and milk without cost to those wise enough to receive the invitation.
Which brings us to the Samaritan woman.
Jesus comes to a Samaritan village and takes a seat by Jacob’s well. The apostles go off to get food. When the Samaritan woman comes to the well, He asks her for a drink, which surprises the woman, given the antagonism between Jews and Samaritans. When she notes their religious animosity, Jesus shifts the discussion from a ladle of refreshing well water to one of the refreshment of grace, “springing up to eternal life.”
She wants this, although she doubts Jesus can produce: “the well’s deep, and you have no bucket.” Still, she’s intrigued: it will save her work in the midday sun. Gradually, though, she begins to get the shift from H2O to the spiritual life. It’s interesting that her way to Christ comes through marriage: when Jesus tells her to come but bring along her husband, she demurs, politely pretending “I have no husband” when she has had multiple husbands and lovers. In holding up her irregular situation to her, she is challenged to correct her life in conjunction with receiving Christ’s living water.
She has come to realize that she is thirsty, but parched for more than physical water. The Psalmist (42:1-2) reminds us that, just as deer seeks a babbling brook, so we seek God. St. Augustine reminds us that we are restless until we find rest in God.
Lent calls us to let God transfigure our lives so we can rest in Him. That is what God wants. That is what Jesus thirsts for. When Jesus declares on the cross, “I thirst” (John 19:28), some saints have said it points to His thirst to save those who decline the offer of salvation, refusing to let God into their lives. They may not thirst for God, but God thirsts for them.
The Polish-Jewish author Roman Brandstaetter, in his poem “God and the Samaritan Woman,” notes that after having encountered Jesus and heard everything He told her, she may have gone back home and “lay down on the bed//still warm from a sleepless night.//But she no longer felt any pragnienie//for she was a spring of pure angels//rising up from her stony body.” “Pragnienie” is a play on words: it means both “thirst” and “desire,” an allusion to “the man who is not your husband.” Brandstaetter suggests her body has been transfigured, changed from our “lowly body” (Philippians 3:21) and living not according to the flesh and its desires, but the Spirit (Romans 8:5). God has given her a natural heart for her stony heart (Ezekiel 36:26), and having chosen now to rest in Him, becomes a wellspring springing up to eternal life (John 4:14).
All views herein are exclusively those of the author.