lent The Sánchez Archives


Patricia Datchuck Sánchez

Living Water

EXODUS 17:3-7
ROMANS 5:1-2, 5-8
JOHN 4:5-42

As early as the fourth century C.E., the period of preparation for the sacred Triduum and for the immediate baptismal preparation of catechumens was dominated by three important scripture texts. In Year A of the three year liturgical cycle, these texts constitute the gospels for the Third, Fourth and Fifth Sundays of Lent. Each of these gospels has been coupled with a reading from the Hebrew Scriptures designed to place the gospel proclamation in the framework of salvation history. Because each of the persons featured in the gospels, e.g. the woman of Samaria, the man born blind and Lazarus, is a paradigm of conversion, their stories offer excellent catechesis for Lenten penitents. Each gospel also features the transforming love of Christ for those whom he calls to salvation; he is living water, light and sight for the blind, and the source of life for all who believe.

Fresh, potable water is a necessity of life which most readers of this publication can probably take for granted. As near as the kitchen sink, cooler or fountain, water is also available in different flavors and at various prices for more sophisticated and/or jaded palates. For this reason, Thierry Maertens and Jean Frisque have suggested that “for many, water has become desacralized”. Although the need for water has not changed, it is a natural element over which we have gained control. “Is it possible, under such conditions, for water to retain its salvific significance? The symbolism we use in catechumenal and baptismal liturgy, is it not perhaps irrelevant for people?” (Guide for the Christian Assembly, Fides Publishers, Notre Dame: 1971).

However, not all of this world’s people enjoy the same advantages. The country of Bahrain, for example, is one of the hottest regions on earth. Located on the Persian Gulf, Bahrain’s comparatively numerous population has no fresh water supply. Survival is possible only because of copious springs at the bottom of the sea. Each day, divers with large goatskin bags wound around their left arms, take heavy stones in their right hands and plunge deep into the sea. When they reach the undersea springs, they release the stone which has helped them to descend, open their bags over the strong jet of water and close them quickly; then, buoyed up by the ascending current from the springs, the rise to the surface where they are given a fresh bag and stone in order to dive, again and again, until sufficient water has been collected for the day. Because of the arduousness of this process, water is a valued and precious commodity in Bahrain and its people are appropriately sensitive and respectful of its significance for their lives.

Today, the church, in an effort to renew a similar sensitivity and respect among us, puts before us for our reflection, the scriptural motif of water. In both the first reading and the gospel, water is presented as a gift, necessary for life, a gift which God, who alone is the source of life, can give.

With water in the wilderness, God sustained the people he had called forth from slavery, blessed with freedom, and graced with an abiding relationship (covenant) with himself. Master and creator of the universe, who made the “waters above” and the “waters below” (Genesis 1:7), Yahweh was also the keeper and creator of the history of his people. For Israel, water became a symbol of Yahweh’s constant care and attentive presence. In order to have their every thirst slaked by him, Israel had only to believe (Exodus).

Paul, in his letter to the Romans, described the saving water of God’s love as a gift poured out into the hearts of powerless but believing sinners. In the gospel, Jesus’ exchange with the woman at the well awakened in her a thirst for the wholeness and integrity which she had lost and which he had come to satisfy. Her joy was contagious and instilled in others a similar thirst for the living water he offered and continues to offer to all who believe.

Today, this assembly is gathered together by a shared need for the water of salvation. Washed in it at baptism, renewed by its abundance at each Eucharist, alerted to it in every proclamation of the Word, and daily empowered by the Spirit, we are challenged to remain thirsty for the living water which only God can give.

EXODUS 17:3-7

Because of its elemental importance for human existence, water is an apt symbol which has been readily incorporated into every aspect of the story of salvation. At creation, God’s spirit (breath) hovered over the primordial waters which began to teem with life. The flood which covered the earth was understood as God’s purification of sinful humankind. Israel’s exodus from Egypt, the pivotal event which marked its origins as a free people covenanted with Yahweh, was portrayed as a watery passage through the Sea of Reeds. Chroniclers of Israel’s history and its prophets interpreted an abundance of water (rain, spring, fountains) as a sign of God’s favor and the lack of water (drought) or an unwanted abundance of water (flood) as a message of his displeasure and judgment upon his people. Recognizing the divine mastery over the waters which sustain physical life, Israel was also appreciative of its spiritual need for the life-sustaining water of God’s word and presence. Both of these needs are illustrated in this pericope from Exodus; they grumbled for water to slake their physical thirst, while their spiritual hungers for him caused them to cry out, “Is the Lord in our midst or not?” (vs. 7).

Variants of this incident occur elsewhere in the pentateuchal literature (Exodus 15:22-27, Numbers 20:2-13) and underscore the constancy of God’s care and concern despite the continuing ingratitude an contentiousness of Israel. Israel’s attitude of discontent and its posture of rebellion against God and his representative, Moses, are further attested in the names given to the location of the incident, viz. Massah, from the Hebrew verb nissa, means to test or to challenge, and Meribah, from the verb rib, means to quarrel.

In later Hebrew literature, the rabbis taught that the rock, which God commanded Moses to strike, traveled with the Israelites and provided a steady supply of water in the wilderness. Some traditions identified the rock with Yahweh himself (Psalm 18:2), and Paul, who attributed the qualities of Yahweh to Jesus, identified Christ as the rock who offers spiritual food and drink to all who are baptized in his name (1 Corinthians 10:4).

ROMANS 5:1-2, 5-8

Israel’s grumbling against God and Moses in the wilderness (first reading) is starkly juxtaposed to Paul’s exuberant celebration of the joys of the redeemed. According to Paul, redemption or justification (vs. 1) is the gratuitous gift of God manifested in Jesus’ saving death on the cross. By virtue of his death, Jesus has made just, or put in right relationship with God, every sinner who will appropriate his saving gifts by faith. Justice, or righteousness, is first and foremost an attribute of God. Not merited or achieved by any human accomplishment, justice is a grace, a gift which enunciates the wondrous extent of God’s mercy.

Earlier, in what has been called his gospel to the Romans, Paul had detailed the situation of humankind before Christ. Indicting both gentiles (1:18-32) and Jews (2:17-29), Paul explained that because of its universal sinfulness, the whole world stood liable to divine judgment (3:9-20). But, with Christ, and because of God’s merciful love, a new era of salvation has begun. The “But now” of 3:31 and the “Now” of 5:1 signaled the end of the reign of sin and the ever present realization of the good news of salvation. “History has taken a new and radical turn because of an action of God, and we as believers are in that now point of time” (Eugene H. Maly, Romans, Michael Glazier, Inc., Wilmington: 1987).

In his excerpted text from Romans, Paul describes the effects of justification in terms of peace, access, hope, love and life. Peace (vs. 1) results when the alienation due to sin yields to the joy of reconciliation. Access (vs. 2) or prosagoge in Greek is a vivid term which means being introduced or ushered into the presence of royalty. By his cross, Jesus had made possible our entrance into the presence of the Father and as William Barclay has explained, “when that door is opened what we find is grace; not condemnation, not judgment, not vengeance, but the sheer, undeserved, incredible kindness of God (“Romans”, Daily Study Bible, St. Andrew Press, Edinburgh: 1975). Prosagoge, also described a safe harbor or haven where ships can find safe mooring during storms. Humankind, left to fend for itself, is susceptible to the effects of sin which can be overwhelming. But because of the access to grace afforded by Christ, there is safe haven for the faithful. Hope (vs. 5) is not simply a desire for an illusory future but the solid assurance that God, who is true to his words will never disappoint those he has justified. Christ’s death for sinners and the gift of the Holy Spirit attest to the magnanimous love of God (vs. 8).

As a result of his loving gifts, the status of sinners is changed. But, as Barclay (op. cit.) explained, that is not enough. Not only our status, but our state must also be changed. The justified sinner cannot continue sinning; he/she must begin to live in goodness. Christ’s death changed our status; his risen life within us changes our state. Jesus begins by putting sinners in right relationship with God; this change in status is called justification and that is where the whole saving process begins. Christ continues, by daily gifts of grace, to help believers to change their state; this change of state is sanctification and that is where the saving process continues until the glory for which we hope is realized.

JOHN 4:5-42

Venerated as a saint among the Greek and Russian Orthodox and given the name Photeine (Greek) or Svetlana (Russian), which means radiant or shining (from the Greek noun phos or light) the woman at the well has been variously praised by Origen, John Chrysostom, Augustine and Teresa of Avila as: (1) an “apostle,” (2) one who “left her water pot at the well in order to go off and preach the gospel,” (3) “the first apostle to the gentiles who invited her neighbors to ‘Come and see’.” Legend has it that when the woman left Samaria to preach the good news, she eventually made her way to Carthage in Africa where she was imprisoned for the faith and died a martyr. Another legend, preserved in Spain, says that Photeine (also Photina) converted and baptized Nero’s daughter and 100 of her servants (Margaret Hebblethwaite, Six New Gospels, Cowley Publications, Boston: 1994).

Fascinating legends and traditions notwithstanding, the woman of Shechem offers veteran believers and catechumens a living example of the dynamics and ramifications of Christian baptism including: (1) the overture of God to the sinner Notice that Jesus initiated the conversation with the woman (vs. 7); notice also Pauline soteriology at work in this event. . .” it is precisely in this that God proves his love. . . that, while we were still sinners. . . (Romans 5:8). Aware of the woman’s less than pristine life-style, Jesus nevertheless extended to her the good news of salvation. (2) the sinner’s growing response in faith and consequent conversion. Open to the truth of Jesus’ words, the woman asked him for the water he had offered her. She also acknowledged him as a prophet and professed her faith in the coming messiah (vss. 15, 19, 25-26). (3) the mission of the disciple to proclaim the good news to others. At the woman’s invitation, her neighbors came out to see Jesus, and having heard him, came to believe (vss. 29, 39-42).

Also evident in this narrative are the fourth evangelist’s unique literary techniques and theological insights. By introducing various levels of understanding or misunderstanding into the interaction, the Johannine author was able to guide his readers to a fuller, deeper appreciation of Jesus’ purpose. For example, the woman misunderstood what Jesus meant by living water; this led to his explanation of Jesus’ gift of water “as a fountain within, leaping up to provide eternal life. So also, the disciples, concerned that Jesus should eat something, misunderstood his claim “I have food to eat of which you do not know.” Their confusion led to an explanation that Jesus’ food and sustenance was to do the will of the Father.

At work also in this gospel is Johannine replacement theology. In the literature of Qumran (CDC 29:34), the writings of the rabbis and scripture (Sirach 24:23-29), the Torah or law was described as water which both cleanses and sustains life. Those who wished to walk in God’s ways were called to drink deep and daily from its font. But Jesus’ gift of water was a superior source of life and nourishment which replaced the Torah and its significance for believers.

Scholars have debated as to precisely what Jesus meant when he referred to living water. As Raymond E. Brown has explained, there are two possibilities: living water means the revelation or teaching which Jesus came to give and it also means the Spirit which Jesus bestows (The Gospel According to John, Anchor Bible, Vol. 29, Doubleday, New York: 1966). Today, the invitation of the Samaritan women to “Come and see” reminds all thirsty sinners that we are daily called to be cleansed, taught, renewed and satisfied by Jesus’ great gift.

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Illustration prepared by Julie Lonneman.

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