A number of years ago I heard a Samaritan scholar (one of the five hundred or so Samaritans alive on planet Earth) address an audience at the local Jewish community center. I was stunned when he told those assembled, “We Samaritans and you Jews are both heirs of the ancient Israelite tradition. But the Torah says nothing about centering worship in Jerusalem. In Deuteronomy, God says to worship ‘in the place where I will cause my name to dwell.’ We know where that place is, Shechem, at Mount Gerizim, where Joshua first set up an altar. So we Samaritans are the authentic exponents of the Israelite tradition. You Jews are the heretics to the south.” I was shocked. But the mainly Jewish audience around me did not seem disturbed. After some twenty-seven hundred years of shared history, they knew perfectly well what Samaritans thought about the right place to worship God. So they were not surprised. For me, the remark was a vivid reminder of the background that underlies part of the dialogue between Jesus and the woman at the well in this Sunday's Gospel.
The topic of Samaritans and Jews leads naturally to thoughts about what divides and what unites human beings generally. And today's Gospel story centers around what we have most in common—thirst for God. The perfect symbol for the thirst for God is our common thirst for water. Next to carbon, the thing that all life-forms we know about have most in common is water. We human beings begin our early development floating in the amniotic fluid of our mother's womb. Once out of that sea-like environment, our bodies insist that we continue to imbibe water, first in our mother's milk, then wherever we can find it, all the days of our lives.
One of the best places on earth to get in touch with this human need for water is Israel and the Occupied Territories. There, fresh water sources are scarce and the precious rainwater that falls during the winter must be captured and kept in cisterns for use during the dry part of the year. Since water held in cisterns can get stale and contaminated, people came to call the fresh water of spring-fed sources “living water,” to distinguish it from the relatively “dead” water kept in cisterns. In that setting, it is easy to understand how water, especially “living water,” came to be a powerful metaphor for God's relationship with human beings. Take, for example, Jeremiah's words,
Two evils have my people done:
they have forsaken me, the source of living waters;
They have dug themselves cisterns,
broken cisterns, that hold no water. (Jer 2:13)
One of the tourist sites in the Holy Land with the best claim to authenticity is the well at Nablus (near ancient Shechem or Sychar). It is the only well of spring-fed water in the area, and it is likely thousands of years old.
When the woman refers to the ancient sore point between Jews and Samaritans about the right place to worship (Jerusalem or Mount Gerizim), Jesus says,
The hour is coming, and is now here, when true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth. … God is Spirit, and those who worship him must worship in Spirit and truth. (Gospel)
This encounter prompts the woman to abandon her jar and proceed to evangelize her village, who come to believe that Jesus is “the savior of the world,” we are told.
This passage speaks powerfully to our project of evangelization today. It reminds us that the Good News of God in Jesus is meant to overcome ancient hostilities and cross-cultural barriers. Though its source is concrete and specific (“salvation is from the Jews”—John 4:22), the gift of God in Jesus is meant for all who thirst for God. Jesus is the savior of the world.