Samaritan Woman at the Well: A Different Perspective
The woman said to Him, ‘Sir, I can see that you are a prophet? Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain; but you people say that the place to worship is in Jerusalem.”
In 1923, the Jewish theologian Martin Buber wrote an immensely influential little book entitled I and Thou. Buber’s main point is that there are two ways of relating to other people in our lives: We can see them as objects to be used – what Buber calls an “I-it” relationship; or we can see others as having feelings, dreams and needs as real and as important as our own that can be the basis for dialogue and relationship – an “I-Thou” relationship.
In his memoirs, Buber tells the story of how he came to his theory of I-Thou and I-It. When he was a professor of philosophy at a university in Germany, a young student came to see him. The student had received his draft notice to serve in the German army in World War I. He was a pacifist by nature and afraid of being killed in battle, but, at the same time, he was a loyal and fiercely patriotic German. He asked Buber what he should do: serve his country and risk being killed or claim conscientious objector status and perhaps leave another young man to be killed in his place.
Buber was in the midst a difficult theological-philosophical treatise and was annoyed at the young man’s claim on his time and attention. The professor said something along the lines of “That’s a serious dilemma: do what you think is right.”
The young man, in despair for lack of guidance, committed suicide, and Buber, for the rest of his life, felt a measure of guilt for not being more present to that young man, for seeing him only as an interruption and not as a human soul in torment. Buber felt he had sinned against the image of God in that young student by treating him as an object without needs and feelings.
In today’s gospel, we hear the conversion story of the Samaritan women at the well. We have heard how the woman jestingly asked Jesus to give her the living water in order that she should not thirst again and might be spared the tiring journey to the well. Suddenly and stabbingly Jesus brought her to her senses. The time for verbal by-play was past; the time for jesting was over. “Go,” said Jesus, “and fetch your husband and come back with him.” The woman stiffened as if a sudden pain had caught her; she recoiled as if hit by a sudden shock; she must have grown white as one who had seen a ghost; and so indeed she had, for she had suddenly caught sight of herself.
She was suddenly compelled to face herself and the looseness and immorality and total inadequacy of her life. There are two revelations in Christianity: the revelation of God and the revelation of ourselves. No person ever really sees themselves until they see themselves in the presence of Christ; and then they are appalled at the sight. There is another way of putting it – Christianity begins with a sense of sin. It begins with the sudden realization that life as we are living it will not do. We awake to ourselves; and we awake to our need of God. Some people have held, because of this mention of the five husbands, that this story is not an actual incident buy an allegory. We know from the second book of Kings that, when the original people of Samaria were exiled and transported to Media, people from five other places, were brought in. These five different people brought in their own gods; and it has been held that the woman stands for Samaria and the five husbands for the five false gods to whom the Samaritans, as it were, married themselves. The sixth husband stands for the true God, but, they worship him, not truly, but in ignorance; and therefore they are not married to him at all. It may be that there is a reminder of this Samaritan infidelity to God in the story; but it is far too vivid to be a manufactured allegory. It reads too much like life.
Someone has said that prophecy is criticism based on hope. A prophet points out to an individual or a nation what is wrong; but he does so not to push them into despair, but to point the way to cure and to amendment and to rightness of life. So Jesus began by revealing to this woman her own sinful state; but goes on to tell her of the true worship in which our souls can meet God.
The woman’s question comes strangely to us. She says, and she is obviously troubled when she says it: “Our fathers say that we ought to worship here on Mount Gerizim; you say that we ought to worship in Jerusalem; what am I to do?” The Samaritans adjusted history to suit themselves. They taught that it was on Mount Gerizim that Abraham had been willing to sacrifice Isaac; they taught that it was there that Melchizedek had appeared to Abraham; they declared that it was on Mount Gerizim that Moses had first entered an altar and sacrificed to God when the people entered the promised land, although in fact it was on Mount Ebal that was done. They tampered with the text of scripture and with history to glorify Mount Gerizim. The woman had been brought up to regard Mount Gerizim as the most sacred spot in the world and to despise Jerusalem. What was in her mind was this. She was saying to herself: “I am a sinner before God; I must offer to God an offering for my sin; I must take that offering to the house of God to put myself right with him; but where am I going to take it?” To her, as to all her contemporaries, the only cure for sin was sacrifice. Her great problem was, where was that sacrifice to be made? By this time, she is not arguing about the respective merits of the Temple on Mount Gerizim and the Temple on Mount Zion. All she wants to know is: Where can I find God?
So the message is clear. Before any of the other prayers that the Samaritan woman might choose to make could to help herself or to help others, before any of the promises made by Christ, the bread of life, the living water, a sense of fulfillment and satisfaction, a sense of rightness about one’s life, before any of that could take root in her, there was something that had to be done first, another act had to take place…, an act of reform.
And the same thing, really, can be said of any weakness, any failure, and any sin in our lives. If there is for us, as there was for the Samaritan woman, a thirst, an emptiness, or a weariness in our lives, it’s so because there is something at home, something inside of us, where we live, that is not right. Exactly like the Samaritan woman in the Gospel, before we can come to Christ and hope to be satisfied, we must first follow His direction to go home, turn to the center of our lives, face what is wrong there, and reform it.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, it’s so easy to treat others as objects, to measure their worth by what they are able to do for us. We carelessly dismiss as unimportant if not undesirable those who distract us from our own agendas, who demand too much from us, who make us uncomfortable, who fail to live up to our expectations. We expect a great deal from one another – sometimes too much – and it seems there is no end to our disappointment in our spouses, our children, our parents, our co-workers, or our neighbors. Our standards of what is right and proper often drive some people to the edges of society, far away from us. Like the student in Martin Buber’s class, the Samaritan woman is one such victim. Her religious background and her nationality make her a non-person in the eyes of Judaism; her lifestyle makes her a pariah among her own. But rather than reject her Jesus calls forth from here a sense of faith and joy that enables her to confront her life, and in telling others of her encounter with Jesus, she becomes a source of faith and joy for others.
May we be able to do the same: to resolve to reform our lives and correct any emptiness that is not right, so we can move beyond the failings of others, and our disappointment in them, in order to call forth the good they possess, and make it possible for them to use those, gifts for the good of all.
Mary, Refuge of sinners, pray for us!
3rd Sunday of Lent – Cycle C
Sunday, February 28th, 2016
Exodus 17:3-7 Romans 5:1-2, 5-8 John 4:5-42
First Scrutanies (Cycle A Readings)