3/23/2017 9:00:00 AM BISHOP'S COLUMN Real love goes deep On breaking toxic patterns: Jesus and the woman at the well
BY BISHOP EDWARD B. SCHARFENBERGER
The story of the woman at the well (Jn 4:5-42), the subject of the Gospel last Sunday (the third Sunday of Lent), might be called a primer on evangelization.
Like every Gospel parable and narrative encounter with Jesus, its meaning lies deeper than what at first meets the eye. It has as much to do with how Jesus reaches all of us as it does with this particularly endearing woman whose quandary attracted Jesus to her.
Much more than just a moral exhortation or even a doctrinal lesson, the effects of this encounter, if allowed to take root, will be life-changing. But that is how it is with real love, which is what every encounter with Jesus offers us.
This Gospel account, if we only touch its surface, could be mistaken as a sweet little tale about how a woman with a past showed kindness one day to a thirsty Jesus by giving Him a drink of water. Jesus gets His drink and decides to "reward" her with a bit of His magic, reading her sordid past back to her.
This startles her, as it would any of us if someone we never met blurted out to us personal things in our life that might be a source of personal or public shame.
What would be the point of Jesus doing this: to impress her with His mind-reading skills?
Is it that He just wants her to know that He knows she is hiding something, but shouldn't feel guilty and judged by others, like those self-righteous townspeople? She doesn't need to change; they do.
Is he just trying to make her feel better: "Don't worry; everything's okay; it doesn't matter about being in non-marital liaisons, living with someone not your spouse"?
Aside from the fact that this would be a contradiction of His clear teaching on marriage, wouldn't that be abandoning her to keep searching for love on her own without much concern for whether she might ever find it? Why leave her there, when He has so much more to give her?
Of course, this is the whole point of the encounter. Jesus goes out of His way because He loves this woman too much to just "feed" her the junk food of platitudes. He wants to give her the real thing: Himself.
His thirst is much deeper than His dry mouth. He longs for this woman's soul. He knows it is His love that she really needs, without yet knowing it.
So it is with all of us: Jesus is the love we are looking for, and His thirst is to come to us so that we might drink of it. He is that living water.
Real love goes deep. It is much more than trying to make another person feel good, much less affirming another's state in life or "lifestyle" -- especially when, as in this case, that pattern is not leading to happiness and holiness.
That the woman had been through five relationships tells us that she was not finding the love she was looking for. She is, in fact, a social outcast. Yet, even if Jesus shows her great tenderness and compassion, this alone would hardly change her life or her position in the community.
How do we know that? Well, she is isolated and shunned. No woman wants to be near her. They know her sordid story. Everyone in town does. Women normally gathered around the well early in the day, when it was cooler. At noon, at the height of the day's neat, no sensible person would want to be there.
Jesus approaches the woman gently. He asks her for a drink. What could be less intimidating? The woman is perturbed, though: Why would any man talk to a woman alone, especially one like her? What were His designs on her? Plus, He is a Jew and she is a Samaritan. None of these people talk to each other.
It soon becomes clear that Jesus wants more from her than a drink of water. He wants to give her something that will change her life and break the sinful patterns in her life: Himself!
Jesus quickly gets to the point that He has come here because He has another kind of thirst that He wants to satisfy. Given her history -- which she soon cannot help but reveal, as Jesus goes deeper in his discussion with her -- she would quite likely suspect that, like herself, Jesus is seeking what she has been searching for so desperately in five consecutive relationships.
Little does she realize the kind of love she is encountering in Jesus is the real love that has eluded her all her life.
Unlike the other men who wanted her only on one level, Jesus is passionate after this woman's inner, truest self. His thirst is for what He can do for her. This is what brings Him to the well -- and this is what draws Jesus to each of us. The greater the pattern of unfulfilled or distorted love in our life, the more Jesus yearns to heal us and make us whole with the transforming power of His love.
It does not take long for Jesus to draw out of the woman what is not right in her life. When Jesus promises the woman "living water" -- something that seems too good to be true, if not downright bizarre -- her curiosity gets the better of her. Something irresistible in Jesus is the power of His word. He is so true to it, so united with the will of His Father, that to hear his promise is almost to receive it at once.
The promise, of course, is not fulfilled at once, but it need not take long. First, the woman has to face Jesus truthfully and openly as He faces her. She has to let Jesus look into her. Jesus must first invite her to loosen her grip on the addictions to sinful actions and patterns in her life that have been ruling her.
We do not know what led her to seek happiness in those serial relationships or how this particular pattern of subjugation began, but Jesus wants her free of it. It is amazing to learn here that all it takes is a willingness on her part to admit the toxic pattern in her life -- to name her sin.
In a matter of minutes, this woman, in the presence of Jesus, turns from being a creature of dependency and lust into a person of joy and trust -- and courage! No sooner does Jesus free her than she races back to a village where she was never quite at home to tell everyone of her encounter.
The town sinner becomes the evangelist! The one who encounters Jesus leads others, in turn, to Him.
To experience the power of Jesus to change our life, we have to let Jesus look deeply into us like He did with this woman. It might at first be frightening to experience His penetrating gaze shedding light on vices or long suppressed attitudes, fears and hurts within us. But, for His love to heal us, it must go deep.
What a wonderful thing to know that it is not only our souls that long for Jesus, but that the heart of Jesus is thirsting for our heart. Why resist this love if it has the power to change our life?