Third Sunday: the Samaritan Woman and Baptism: New Love, New Desire
Fr. José Granados, dcjm
This Third Sunday opens a new stage in Lent. We begin to read three of the great discourses of the Gospel of John: the Samaritan woman, the healing of the man born blind and the resurrection of Lazarus. They belong to cycle A, but can also be chosen from the other cycles or read during the week, given their importance, since they are part of the preparation to receive the Sacraments at Easter: mainly baptism, which is the threshold to the others.
We have chosen the Gospel of the Samaritan woman because our journey to understand the language of the body stops at the sacraments. We usually think that in the sacraments we receive the communication of light and power, grace. We are not so used to thinking a new body is also communicated to us in the sacraments, and new affections, and new desires.
We can read Jesus’ encounter with this woman from a spousal perspective. The reader knows Jesus is the Bridegroom since John the Baptist said it just a little earlier: “The one who has the Bride is the Bridegroom”.
Moreover, the encounters at the well are an Old Testament classic in the search for a bride (Gen 24; 29; Ex 2). Some exegetes have pointed out that, like Moses, Jesus sits at the well (Ex 2:15b); like Jacob, the scene takes place at noon (Gen 29:7); like Abraham’s servant, he asks for a drink (Gen 24:17-18).
Water, moreover, is a symbol of a desire to give oneself fully, as husband and wife. The book of Proverbs (Prov 5:15-18) speaks of the man as a spring of water, who must water his one wife, like a fertile garden; and the woman is described as water from the well, the only one from which the husband can drink.
This woman is going out to get water, and so the image of the love between man and woman stands out in the background. When she introduces herself to Jesus, she emphasizes that she is a woman, “a Samaritan woman.” The woman understands the water Jesus asks for and the water that Jesus promises to give, as the key to the desire for a full love – which she goes on searching for, from husband to husband. As an adulterous woman, she “drinks from any water nearby” (Sir 26:12).
Jesus plays along with her and, in order to break the misunderstanding, says to her, “go call your husband.” She replies, “I have no husband,” just as the Lord had previously said to her: “you really do not have any water.” In this “I have no husband” there is, once again, the game of the search for love, which the woman expects to receive from Jesus.
Jesus is going to heal this woman’s desire for the truth. This is the great revelation, which clarifies the whole of the previous passage: “You have had five husbands….” The woman is to recognize herself as understood by the Lord. Then she will tell the people of the village: “He has told everything I have done.” Jesus, with his word, discovers the desire that is dispersed here and there, among cracked cisterns.
Desire is born from an original love; it is born because we have been loved first. And if we do not recognize the love’s origin, desire will spread here and there, without being satisfied. Jesus appears as the Bridegroom because he can reveal the origin of love.
The woman acknowledges it: you are a prophet, you speak in the name of God. You speak of God’s place in love. This is particularly important for the Church: to speak of God in human love. This makes the woman raise the question of worship, according to an ancient dispute between Jews and Samaritans: should we worship in this temple or in Jerusalem?
The Christian who reads the Gospel knows that the new worship of which Jesus speaks will take place in the body of Jesus, the new Temple (cf. Jn 2:21), which is the body of the Bridegroom. Worship will no longer take place in this temple or in Jerusalem, but in Spirit and in truth, that is, in the Spirit or love that dwells in the truth of Christ’s flesh, where his glory is displayed. The body worships as well, when our desires recognize where they come from and where they are called to.
Then Jesus reveals himself to the woman as Messiah, as the fullness of the love that has become present and is speaking with her. “The one who is speaking with you” is a good definition of Jesus, “the one who speaks to everyone who seeks true love.”
In this water the Church has perceived the sacrament of baptism. Baptism thus appears as a transformation of desire. Someone once jokingly said that his conscience was very clean, since he hardly ever used it. Maybe we could say the same of our baptism, that it is clean because we use it so little. For baptism was not just a past event, a rite that remains only in pictures. Baptism is still present, it is a spring inside the heart, and it flows with living water, the water of love.
In the first place, with baptism we receive a new potential to be touched by the love of God and of our brothers and sisters. It is a more vulnerable heart, yet at the same time more dilated so it can contain God’s gifts. That is how it can recognize God’s gift. The woman did not recognize it, nor did adulteress Israel, of whom the Lord says, “she did not know that it was I who gave her” (Hos 2:10).
In turn, baptism transforms our readiness to respond to love. Living water leaps into eternal life, because it becomes capable of total love, exclusive love, love forever. Through baptism we can pronounce the “yes” of the Sacrament of Marriage. And through baptism we can be called to virginity and pronounce the “yes” of consecration.
Moreover, baptism not only affects our own personal body, but it gives us a new network of relationships in the body, because we are born into a new family, with new parents, brothers and sisters. This is the new temple of which Jesus speaks to the woman. The woman herself is a symbol of Samaria, and a symbol of the Church. Hence we can read this passage of Jn 4 in parallel with Hos 2. Your desire will not be alone, but accompanied and sustained, like a tree in fertile ground.
Finally, baptism makes our love fruitful, capable of enriching others. The woman announces the message to her village. And Jesus indicates to the Apostles that the harvest is ready. It is the image of the fecundity of love, of love’s fruit. The Lord had also said to Hosea, where God is called “God sows,” that “he will sow us for himself in the land” (cf. Hos 2:24-25). May our desire for great and beautiful love reach its goal in Christ.