“Jesus said to her, ‘Go, call your husband, and come here” (Jn 4:16). Why this sudden transition in the conversation? On the surface it appears that Jesus is entirely changing the subject from the living water, but in reality he is simply uncovering a deeper level of the discussion. “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 he whom you now have is not your husband; this you said truly.” Jesus, with his intimate knowledge of every person, sees into the depths of this woman’s heart and knows the story of her life. Imagine what she is feeling, completely exposed to the eyes of this stranger! She came to the well isolated and closed in upon herself, burdened by the weight of her solitude and her estrangement from the community. But this Man begins a conversation with her, and very soon he has laid her life open, has thrown open the doors of her heart which she had so tightly sealed shut.
But the mysterious thing is the way that the conversation proceeds. She senses something in the way that Jesus addresses her, in the way that he sees her. There is not a hint of accusation in his voice, not the slightest trace of condemnation in his glowing eyes. No, as the good Physician, he lays bare the wound only to heal it; he touches the brokenness of the heart only to pour into it the gentleness of his saving love. In this light, we could almost see this as the first Confession—but Jesus is the one who does the confessing for the woman! He comes to open the enclosed heart, and, opening it, to forgive all the sins which hold it bound to guilt and shame. But not only this: he yearns to heal it entirely, gently, by the love and acceptance that he, the eternal God, can alone perfectly give.
But the implications of Jesus’ words go deeper than this. And the woman seems to recognize it in her response: “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet.” Unveiled before her eyes is not only her own life, but also the life of her people. Five husbands. One who is not my husband. This is what I have done, and where I stand—but my own life reflects the history of my people: the gods of five nations whom we have worshiped, and the God of Israel, whom we do not worship according to the full truth of his law. She says: “Our fathers worshiped on this mountain; and you say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.” Worship? Yes, this really has everything to do with the talk of “husbands.” Listen only to the verses of Hosea:
Therefore, behold, I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her. And there I will give her her vineyards, and make the Valley of Achor a door of hope. And there she shall answer as in the days of her youth, as at the time when she came out of the land of Egypt. And in that day, says the LORD, you will call me, “My husband,” and no longer will you call me, “My Baal.” For I will remove the names of the Baals from her mouth, and they will be mentioned by name no more. … And I will espouse you for ever; I will espouse you in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love, and in mercy. I will espouse you in faithfulness; and you shall know the LORD. (Hos 2:14-17, 19-20)
This prophecy is at last being fulfilled in the encounter between Jesus and this woman of Samaria! Worship is the heart of the nuptial union between God and his beloved people—the consummation of the covenant of their union. The woman is very aware of her identity as a member of the chosen people, but also equally aware of the divisions that cut through this people. She brings this up in her words about the right worship of God, and in doing so expresses her awareness of being an adulteress, a harlot, both in her own human relationships, but, more deeply, in her relationship with the one true God. “Your renown went forth among the nations because of your beauty, for it was perfect through the splendor which I had bestowed upon you, says the Lord GOD” These are the words of God speaking through Ezekiel, addressing Israel as his unfaithful bride. When Jesus encounters this woman, it is this beauty that he sees! And the woman feels it. In that piercing gaze, she encounters the bridegroom-love of almighty God; she knows that she is loved and desired. But she also feels keenly the truth of the words that follow: “But you trusted in your beauty, and played the harlot because of your renown, and lavished your harlotries on any passer-by” (Ez 16:14-15).
It is significant that these words are not addressed to Samaria, but to Jerusalem. The whole chosen people has turned away from their God, a God who in the greatness of his love made a covenant with them and espoused them to himself. By touching the lowliest and most estranged, Jesus shows that he is opening himself to all. “God has consigned all men to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all” (Rom 11:32). In the incarnate Son of the Father, the Bridegroom has come to seek and to save his unfaithful bride. He will draw her away from her idols; her will gather her together in his love. He will unite her to himself, to his own perfect love for the Father, and thus will teach her the new and perfect worship. At the heart of this worship is his own perfect nuptial gift of his Body and Blood to her and for her, the Holy Eucharist. In union with him, she finds her own deepest truth as bride and as child of the Father, and she comes to worship in spirit and truth. This is the worship which is identical with love, with the purity of marital fidelity. It is the heart of the new covenant which God establishes in Christ.
Ezekiel continues: “I will remember my covenant with you in the days of your youth, and I will establish with you an everlasting covenant. … I will establish my covenant with you, and you shall know that I am the LORD, that you may remember and be confounded, and never open your mouth again because of your shame, when I forgive you all that you have done, says the Lord God.” (16:60, 62). And Isaiah: “Fear not, for you will not be ashamed; be not confounded, for you will not be put to shame; for you will forget the shame of your youth, and the reproach of your widowhood you will remember no more. For your Maker is your husband, the LORD of hosts is his name; and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer, the God of the whole earth he is called” (54:4-5). Our mind goes forward from the prophecies of the Old Testament, of which these are only a taste, to the fulfillment that awaits us at the end: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was not more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Rev 21:1-2).
As we have seen, the new temple of God, replacing and perfecting the mystery of the temple that stood at the heart of the old Jerusalem, is the Body of Jesus himself. This Body, given totally in love, is the place of perfect intimacy, the meeting-place between God and humanity. Taken up into him, we share in his own love, his own intimacy, and our lives become true worship, the true glory of God. Held in the gentle arms of the Bridegroom Christ, our whole being begins to shine with the beauty of the Father, for we belong, forever, to him, and he to us. “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying not pain any more, for the former things have passed away” (Rev 21:3-4).
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“Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. … The hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him.” Jesus slowly begins introducing the woman into the newness that he has come to bring. At this point her defenses have entirely fallen, overwhelmed by the presence and the mystery of this Man. What does she encounter in him—this humble and exhausted person who is sitting beside the well to which she continually came seeking water? What is it about him that has so touched and captured her heart? At first she simply called him “a Jew,” but then addressed him as “Sir.” Then she becomes aware that he is a “Prophet.” Now, at last, she says to him: “I know that the Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ when he comes, he will show us all things.” And Jesus simply replies, “I who speak to you am he.”
What is her response? She immediately leaves her water jar and goes into the city, saying to the people: “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” She leaves her water jar… This empty jar that she has been lugging around every day of her life. Now she completely forgets about it. She has found the Living Water!
Meanwhile, the disciples have returned and speak with Jesus, while the Samaritans from the village make their way out to see him. The disciples beg Jesus to eat the food that they have brought from town, but he answers, “I have food to eat of which you do not know.” Did someone bring him something? They confusedly ask among themselves about the meaning of his words, but, just as he did with the woman regarding the true thirst of the heart, Jesus is speaking of a deeper food, of a deeper hunger. “My food is to do the will of him who sent me, and to accomplish his work.” Beautiful. The woman goes off, her desire satisfied. And now Jesus too expresses his own satisfaction: that he too is receiving what he sought, accomplishing the Father’s will. We can hear the joy bubbling up in his words as he continues, “I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see how the fields are already white for harvest.” What’s this talk of fields, yielding grain for bread? What does he mean by the harvest being already ripe? We imagine him gesturing out over the surrounding fields, ripe not with earthly grain, but with the Samaritans making their way towards him, their robes reflecting the light of the midday sun!
This is the harvest he came to Samaria to seek, and he receives it in abundance. This woman, who was touched so unexpectedly by this complete stranger, encounters the Love that gives meaning to her life. Yes, she encounters the Lover whom she has for so long been seeking. And this encounter she cannot keep to herself, but runs to share it with her people, and with them she knows the harmony of reconciliation. She, the cast-away, becomes the catalyst for their conversion, the seed of transformation for her people.
John concludes his narrative with the beautiful words:
Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me all that I ever did.” 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 your words that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.” (Jn 4:39-42)