Monday, February 25, 2008

The Woman at the Well

The Sunday's gospel reading reminds us of a painting, where Jesus sat opposite the Samaritan woman, who was about to fetch water. One could see that there was an on-going conversation, a dramatic encounter locked on their faces. It was midday, the sun was scorching far above their heads but under the shadow of a tree, and Jesus would have been thirsty, when he got to the place. As part the background reflection, it is said that she has had five husbands; in a sense, it is sort of saying, she is muddled in the quamire of adultery. In this scene, it did not take the woman to introduce herself; Jesus himself had known her. It is quite remarkable that the Gospel writer knew what was beyond the obvious dynamics of the encounter: the woman in her particular sinful situation and the whole range of historical implication that this narrative has brought to and its effect it caused to the whole audience - the nation of Israel. The symbolic imagery becomes replete in the geographical environment, that it added to the force of the elements being used. The whole picture is rather hard and difficult both to Israel living in those days and to Christians two thousand years distant.

At a certain basic level, it appears Jesus a Jewish male communicates with female Samaritan. The unfamiliarity exists imposed by the demands of their culture and the difference brought by history itself, though the breach was opened with a question: "Give me a drink". Somehow, the approach was carried from the heavenly to the earthly; it is obviously incarnational naturally. The words that open a conversation did not arise from the woman's lips, but comes out from the mouth of the "one who is to come". The movement, as it were, descends to dwell not just to a fellow Jew but to a woman, consigned as despised by the faith of Israel.

The opening of an encounter came as a surprise to the woman. Here, she perfectly knows the great divide that exists between them, and she did not hesitate to acknowledge such insurmountable delineation: “How can you, a Jew, ask me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?” Here we can glimpse how such passive discrimination exists as lifeblood oftentimes that sustains communities in those days. Not to mention that well within our days, we still have such kind of culturally-imposed boundaries. Her actuations are not foreign to Jesus, and in one other parable about the Good Samaritan, it is more than a casual knowledge because such contrast gives a formal existence of Israel itself, which has been passed from generation to generation. The difference is lived within the social network of the Jews as against those whom they do not share their faith. As such, it does not strike too detached for Israel because they shared history with Samaritans in the days long ago.

However, Jesus again breached the divide: "“If you knew the gift of God and who is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,‘you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” We could almost perceive the aggravation that the woman would have felt at such gross misstep into the dialogue. It was gross because the imposition of clear division had been blurred, and the words for her did not sound just right - something was amiss. This is quite evident in her reply, since she did not follow the words of Jesus going to the abstract and higher as is obvious and take that as a point of departure to connect the conversation to the identity of the Christ, whom she is talking. It is as if Jesus initiated an opening to the portal of the divine, immateriality, and spirituality, albeit off set by the difficulty of the woman to catch where it was leading. Though her response was always a check to the focal point of the dialogue - the water in the well. It is as if to say, "are you referring to the water? and would you like to drink?", which such reply brings back to the temporality of the dimension of the story. More importantly, the woman went on to inject an important element of her response; she brought up the historicity of the place to the fore, thereby pointing an implication that would unlock the personality of the Christ, the messiah: "Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us this cistern and drank from it himself with his children and his flocks?”

The character of the patriarch Jacob, which is situated well within the geographical context of the well, evokes scenes of the accounts in Genesis. This coming into the story has met the presence of the one who has been promised by the prophets themselves. Jacob when he met God was challenged in a duel. However, Jesus the promised one had a duel in the person of his descendant, and by extension, to humanity, parched for the water of life.

In one sense, we insert ourselves in the story through the lens of the woman, whose feeble mind tries to grasp the mystery before her. We found ourselves divided in thoughts as we grope to accept such affrontery - an affrontery that brings relief of our restlessly seeking mind. We hope in a conversation of the "I" whose heart is always pierced in seeking those whom he has come for. May we find ourselves in haste, returning to our lives and quickening our responses to His call of repentance and mercy. May we draw ourselves to Him who arrives at a most propitious time.