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Scrutiny: The Woman at the well

The Scrutinies, just as the name would imply, are points of the most serious and deep reflection into the mysteries of the Gospel for catechumens (those who are preparing for adult baptism) and candidates (baptized Christians who seek the sacraments of Confirmation and Eucharist) during the Catholic RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) process. They are celebrated on the Third through Fifth Sundays of Lent in the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, as in most of the Church. In order to facilitate contemplation, the three Gospel readings for those Sundays are drawn from three stories told by John: The Woman at the Well, The Man Born Blind, and The Raising of Lazarus.

Jesus was in Jerusalem when John the Baptist was arrested and killed. Already there was a clamor to identify this strange Jew, who John had spoken of. The first enemies of the Lord’s ministry knew that Jesus had already garnered many followers. The danger for Jesus and anyone who stood too close to him was very real. He made a conscious decision to leave the area for more friendly digs in Galilee, the northernmost part of the Jewish kingdom, the region that was home.

For most Jews, traveling from Judea to Galilee meant crossing the desert mountains that descend into the Jordan River Valley, then following the water to the northern reaches, avoiding the region of the Samaritans, who the Jews did not trust and would have nothing to do with. Jesus made no such distinction between Jews and Samaritans and he chose the most direct route to Galilee, which not only passed though the heart of Samaria, it crossed the city of Sychar at the foot of Mt Gerizim, where Samaritans worshipped, and near the well founded by Jacob in ancient times. It may have been direct, but the journey was long and tedious. Jesus was tired, and he stopped by the well on the hill facing Gerizim, and his disciples went into town to find food.

A woman approached the well all alone, and was taken aback at the sight of someone sitting there…not just someone, but a man she immediately determined to be Jewish. The woman had come to the well at midday because no one else would be there. Since ancient times, the gathering of water was the duty of women. The water source became a place of social gathering, where women could share their lives with each other. This was a shamed woman; so, when Jesus asked her for a drink, she questioned his motives since he was obviously a Jew and she was a Samaritan.

Jesus used the moment to tell her that he could give her living water. The Samaritan woman did not understand that he was talking of the ever-flowing graces that lead to eternal life. Water is the substance of life whether in the opening words of The Book of Genesis or in a scientific laboratory, and without it physical life does not exist. But the woman questioned how he could draw water from a deep well with no bucket. Jesus repeated the lesson: well water would never fully quench one’s thirst, but the inner fountain of God’s presence would.

The woman hung on Jesus’ every word. She took it to heart and asked that she may have some living water. The Lord told her to get her husband and come to drink. It was then that the woman began to open herself personally, confessing that she had no husband. Jesus confronted her way of life when he said, she not only previously had five husbands but was now living with a man out of wedlock. Suddenly, the Samaritan woman was faced with the very shame she wanted to hide. Because he knew her sins, she believed him a divinely inspired prophet, and she tried to shift the conversation to theology and worship.

In the days when Ezra and Nehemiah led the exiled Jews of the Babylonian Captivity back to Judea with the blessing of the Persian rulers to rebuild the Temple of Jerusalem, the greatest opposition to the project came from Sanballat, the Governor of Samaria. Ever since those days, the Samaritans worshipped on Mt Gerizim, which the Jews refused to acknowledge. Now, this Samaritan woman raised the same question for Jesus, and he told her that where one worships is not important, but that he or she worship in spirit and truth is. Because the Samaritans believed in more than one god, Jesus pointed out that they did not understand who or what they worshipped.

The woman told the Lord that she heard of a coming Messiah; she believed and trusted that things would change with him. Then, using the same words the Father had spoken to Moses, Jesus told her that it was he she sought, “I AM.”

The disciples returned, and the woman scurried off as they began to confront Jesus about talking to a Samaritan woman. They insisted that he eat and drink. Jesus began to reveal to them that he was the Bread of Life, a point that John would greatly elaborate on later in his Gospel (Chapter 6). The Bible does not tell what the woman said to the people of Sychar, only that she convinced them to return to the well with her and hear this great prophet. They arrived as Jesus was speaking to his disciples. After they heard his words, they believed. They called him Savior of the World, an expression that only appears one other time in John’s writing. This was a declaration that Jesus was for all people, and he stayed in Sychar for two more days.

For catechumens and candidates (and everyone else), this is the story of a woman, who had many strikes against her. She was ashamed and confused, but found solace in the compassionate words of the Savior. She drew strength from the image of Jesus as the sustenance of life and was converted. She learned to worship God in her heart and mind with spirit and truth. She received Jesus and went forth to evangelize his great word.

This writing represents a general outline of the story of the Woman at the Well, but the depth of this Gospel story can be explored even further. It is recommended to the RCIA ‘elect,’ that they read this story again (John 4:1-42), now that Sunday has gone by, and they’ve heard the story and the homilies that go with it. Perhaps read it in small parts, taking time to think of the personal meaning, and then write down your impressions in your spiritual journal.

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