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Victor Cancino, S.J.March 08, 2023
Photo from Unsplash

In a recent article, Timothy Radcliffe, OP, recommends that Christians preach the kingdom of God by reaching out in friendship ("The Art of Friendship," The Tablet, 4 Feb 2023). “Today relationships between men and women,” writes Radcliffe, “have often become uneasy, fractious and fraught. Studies show that in America, men and women have become afraid of intimacy. We preach the Kingdom by reaching out in friendship” (“The Art of Friendship,” the Tablet, 4 Feb. 2023).

“How can you, a Jew, ask me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?” For Jews use nothing in common with Samaritans. (Jn 4:9)

Liturgical day
Third Sunday of Lent (A)
Readings
Ex 17:3-7, Ps 95, Rm 5:1-8, Jn 4:5-42
Prayer

What things hinder your deeper intimacy with others?

How do your friendships help you preach the Kingdom?

With whom today might you share the intimacy that Christ has shared with you?

Intimacy is at the heart of this Sunday's passage from John's Gospel, in which one finds a gentle exchange of ideas between Jesus and a Samaritan at a well. This gentle encounter between a Jewish man and a Samaritan woman will become the spark that leads to a meaningful transformation. 

Today’s Gospel passage, however, reminds the reader of the fraught relationship between their respective cultures, “For Jews use nothing in common with Samaritans” (Jn 4:9). As the Gospel passage begins, Jesus arrives in Sychar, a town in Samaria. Sychar was a city on the road from Galilee to Jerusalem. Known as Shechem in the book of Genesis, the site today is on the outskirts of the Palestinian city of Nablus in the West Bank. In Jesus’ day, it was an important Samaritan settlement. The separation between Samaria and Judea is geographical as much as it is cultural. Jewish believers hold Mt. Zion in Jerusalem to be the only true site of worship. Samaritans, by contrast, revere Mt. Gerizim, a site to the north of Jerusalem and very close to Sychar. Even though both groups followed the Law of Moses, differences in the interpretation of purity laws led to a strict separation between them. 

Ancient readers would have been aware of two important features of today’s Gospel passage. First, they would have known that Jews and Samaritans have a fraught relationship. Second, they would have recognized the importance of time and place in this story. Jesus meets the Samaritan woman at noontime at a public well. The two strangers enter into an intimate dialogue in broad daylight when any passers-by could observe. The setting at a well would have been even more resonant for ancient readers, who associated wells with consequential meetings.

The Samaritan woman, socially marginalized by her impurity according to the Law, becomes a model for all Christians.

In the Old Testament, for example, meetings at wells often lead to marriage. Moses first discovers the seven daughters of the priest of Midian near their family well, where he protects them from rogue shepherds (see Ex 2:17-22). “He even drew water for us,” the seven daughters explain to their father, “and watered the flock!” (Ex 2:19). Moses then marries Zipporah, one of the seven women he protected. Another important meeting at a well is the romantic encounter between Jacob and Rachel (Gn 29:1-30), which began a fourteen-year quest that resulted in the birth of the Israelite nation. Consequential things happen near wells in the Bible.

The encounter between Jesus and an unnamed woman of Samaria near a well would not go unnoticed by the first readers of John’s Gospel. They would have been sensitive to the way this story shifts the romantic motif to one of spiritual intimacy in order to highlight the friendship between Christ and the woman. The woman becomes the first missionary, telling others about Jesus, “Come see a man who told me everything I have done. Could he possibly be the Christ?” (Jn 4:29). The intimacy is mutual as Jesus ignores her marital history and instead shares eternal truths about life in the Spirit. She is changed by this encounter. It is genuine and she shares this story with others.

The Samaritan woman, socially marginalized by her impurity according to the Law, becomes a model for all Christians.

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