Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Samaritan Woman: A Restless Soul in Search for Rest

Living the sensual life, or as some say- “living in the fast lane,” is, no doubt, exciting. I had a taste of it myself in college. Thankfully for me it was a temporary phase. But for a lot of people, the lifestyle of partying and sleeping around begins in college but never ends. Perhaps, this is why there are so many restless souls; never quite content with the spouse they married, the partner they are with or the job they have. Having been disillusioned so many times with the choices they made, they are continually led to believe that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence. Like a bird in flight without a nest these souls live for the next exciting night or a pleasurable moment. But in the interim, that is, between episodes of fun and frolicking, life becomes monotonous and wearisome. Indeed, living the wildlife, even if it is only on Friday and Saturday nights, does not lend itself to a happy and well-ordered life during the week. This brings us to the Samaritan woman at the well.

For context, here is some background to the Woman at the Well story: In the first century, Palestine was divided up into the northern region of Galilee, where Nazareth was located, and the southern region of Judea, where the city of Jerusalem was situated. However, in between the northern and southern region of Palestine was Samaria. Approximately one thousand years before Christ, the Assyrians conquered ten out of the twelve tribes of Israel. These ten northern tribes (also known as the 10 lost tribes) became intermingled with the Assyrians later to be known as the Samaritans: half Jewish and half Syrian. Now, these Samaritans worshipped Yahweh, the true God, but they also worshipped other gods as well. With that, they fell into the errors and superstitions of paganism. The Jews and the Samaritans, as can be garnered from the Gospel of John chapter 4, were rivals. Needless to say, they didn’t like each other very much. For that reason they stayed cleared from one another. During their travels from Judea and Galilee, the Jews would go around Samaria but the Lord refused to play that game.

One day, passing through Samaria, Jesus sat down at Jacob’s well where he would eventually introduce himself to the Samaritan woman. As Bishop Fulton Sheen would say in his television program, Life is Worth Living, one would think that our Lord and this sinful woman had little in common. But they did share two loves: A love for water and a love for their common father, Jacob the Patriarch. As the story goes, a woman of Samaria came to draw water. Jesus said to her, "Give me a drink." After an incredulous and somewhat condescending response from the Samaritan, the Lord appealed to her thirst for water only to lead her to a more important topic: the salvation of her soul. Jesus claimed to have another kind of water to offer- heavenly water which quenches the thirst of the human spirit. He said, "Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again; but whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst; the water I shall give will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life."

Before he could offer this water to her (the water he referred to was undoubtedly an allusion to the Holy Spirit), he had to provoke a confession out of her. To be sure, before the remedy could be applied and take effect, her sin had to be laid bare. After the Samaritan woman asked for the above mentioned water, Jesus instructed her to first go and bring back her husband. Of course, she didn’t have a husband; the man she was with at the time was only a "lover." In fact, our Lord knew that she had five husbands in the past.

Like many today, the Samaritan woman had gone from one lover to another; sacrificing a lifetime of peace and joy for periodic moments of pleasure. Of course, one thing that gets in the way of such a lifestyle is children. Since abortion and infanticide were common in ancient times, it is not unreasonable to think that she might have resorted to such measures. In any case, our Lord came to relieve this soul from "looking for love in all wrong places." Indeed, the Samaritan woman had grown weary and confused. Having been the object of men’s lust and used for all of the wrong reasons, the burden of her sins kept her from knowing the truth about God, morality and her own dignity. In her spiritual darkness, she simply gravitated towards men who would manipulate her. St. Paul would later give an apt description of this kind of servility:

“But understand this: there will be terrifying times in the last days. People will be self-centered…irreligious…lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, as they make a pretense of religion but deny its power. Reject them. For some of these slip into homes and make captives of women weighed down by sins, led by various desires, always trying to learn but never able to reach a knowledge of the truth.” (II Timothy 3:1-7)

Can it not be said that the Samaritan woman was “weighed down by sins, led by various desires, always trying to learn but never able to reach a knowledge of the truth?” Religious confusion begets sexual turmoil and a life of restlessness. After she discussed the religious differences between the Jews and the Samaritans and where they worshipped, Jesus responded by getting straight to the point: “You people worship what you do not understand; we worship what we understand, because salvation is from the Jews.” But worshipping what the Jews understood would cease to be confined to a place or a race. Our Lord then said, “True worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth; and indeed the Father seeks such people to worship him. God is Spirit, and those who worship him must worship in Spirit and truth.”

This theological truth is the answer to her plight; her plight of restless wandering from lover to lover. The Messiah, in just a few short years, would transform her body from an object of men's lust to the temple of the Holy Spirit. Illumined with his grace, she would come to know her own dignity as a woman of God and also learn what real sacrificial love is; the kind that last forever. Indeed, before she could discover the truth of romantic love, she had to first encounter divine love.

As the Samaritan woman walked away from the well, and in reminiscing of her encounter with Christ in the years to come, I cannot help but think she experienced similar sentiments to that of St. Augustine. Upon his conversion, he prayed the following: "Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you...You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you...You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more."

Jesus came to Jacob’s well in Samaria in order to give a woman rest. What he did for her he also does for men and women in our day. Following in the foot steps of our Lord, we cannot apply the remedy without turning from the sin. Only by turning from sin and turning towards the face of Christ can the soul be free.


Postscript: One of the few laymen given the title, "Father of the Church" was St. Justin Martyr, a Christian philosopher and native of Samaria. Martyred in 165 A.D. in Rome and likely born before the turn of the century, St. Justin, no doubt, benefited from the faith and the evangelization of the Samaritan woman. It was from Samaria that the title "Savior of the World" was given to Jesus. And it was in this region that St. Justin- a restless wanderer in search for truth -was inspired by the witness of those Christians who greeted their execution (meted out by the Roman government) with courage and a smile. He would later say that this is why he became a Christian.