What a timely Gospel for the last Sunday of the Epiphany for this liturgical year. This is the Gospel of Jesus and the Samaritan women at the well.
The Samaritan woman at the well harks back to other women at the well from the Old Testament. The Old Testament encounters result in a marriage. Rebecca the wife of Isaac, Rachel the wife of Jacob and Zipporah the wife of Moses. This is a parallel in which Christ finds his bride, the Church, at the well which symbolise the waters of Baptism. The unnamed Samaritan women is the Church which is to become the Bride of Christ.
Prior to meeting Christ, the Samaritan woman, the bride, is a “heretic” and a “foreigner” who mingled with pagans and other foreigners. The Israelites were forbidden from marrying and mingling with foreign women as they were associated with these pagans who worshipped other Gods. In Proverbs 5, King Solomon warns about “loose” or “strange” woman at a well.
The reader and listener of John would have been familiar about warning about loose women and not drinking from the well.
3 For the lips of a loose (strange) woman drip honey,
and her speech is smoother than oil;
4 but in the end she is bitter as wormwood,
sharp as a two-edged sword.
5 Her feet go down to death;
her steps follow the path to Sheol.
6 She does not keep straight to the path of life;
her ways wander, and she does not know it.
7 And now, my child, listen to me,
and do not depart from the words of my mouth.
8 Keep your way far from her,
and do not go near the door of her house;
9 or you will give your honor to others,
15 Drink water from your own cistern,
flowing water from your own well.
16 Should your springs be scattered abroad,
streams of water in the streets?
17 Let them be for yourself alone,
and not for sharing with strangers.
The Samaritan is the strange woman of Proverbs 5, she is a combination of a strange and a loose woman. She is a foreigner who does not expect a Jew to talk to her. She has had five husbands and is living with a man she has not married. Christ is doing exactly what the Proverb warned not to do and instead is offering the Samaritan women of his own living water.
Jesus said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’
It is here that we recognise why this Gospel is placed in one of the Sunday’s of Epiphany. Christ is the only one who can “marry the foreign woman” without being ensnared by her as warned by the Proverb. Instead Christ will lead her, his Church to salvation.
The well has become the baptismal font, the water of the well of the Samaritan women which once symbolised death, has now become, as we are reminded by the liturgy, “sanctified” by Christ.
Modern translations of the Gospel state that the encounter occurred at noon. Older translations state it occurred at the “sixth hour”. They are the same time as noon is the modern way of counting the day from midnight and midday rather than from the setting and rising of the sun. The Samaritan women is also with her “sixth” man. Christ has come as her seventh and what will be here final husband, her Sabbath, her rest. The sixth day is also Great Friday, the day of redemption through the death of Christ. This powerful image shows the paradox of the story of salvation. The sixth hour (noon) is the sun is the highest in the sky. While the women being onto her sixth man is at its lowest. Christ has come to his Church to raise it to its highest.
Jacob of Serugh, one of the Syriac Church Fathers, in his Homily on the Samaritan women, presents her as an intellectual. She is well read in scripture, intelligent and logical in her reasoning and the one who recognised the coming of the Messiah. She runs to proclaim the good news to her city and she preaches the good news with zeal. All this is symbolic of Christ’s bride the Church.
Jacob’s homily ends with a warning to us and with the Samaritan women being rebuked by the other Samaritan’s:
“Be quiet, O Woman,” they said to the one full of blessings,
“let us hear the teaching of life.
Thenceforth, O Woman, not from your word do we know Him,
For we have learned from the signs and wonders He has done.”
The blind who see despise the one who does not love Him,
The deaf who hear find fault with the one who does not worship Him.”
This appears a timely warning to us as the Church. While the women went out to proclaim good news to the others who did not know Christ, those within it were condemning them. We all have a responsibility, like Christ, to love those who do not love Him (or us) and not to simply find fault in those who do not worship him. We are called to share with them the witness of Christ. We are not called to condemn, the divorced women, the adulteress or the sinner. We are called to welcome them and like Christ with reason, intelligence and dignity proclaim to them the love of Christ who has sanctified the living waters for all our sakes.