All the gospels for the penitential season of Lent are gems, not least today’s passage about the encounter with the Woman at the Well (John 4:5-42). Here is the Bible Alive commentary.
John presents us with a dramatic, even theatrical, encounter. Jesus is described in very human terms, sitting at the well, exhausted from his journey. The woman too is very human. Her appearance at the well at about noon, long after the other village women would have replenished their water supply for the day, may indicate her isolated position in local society. She was shunned because of her many sins. Yet it is she who becomes a missionary to her people.
Jewish/Samaritan relations were historically conditioned. About 722 BC the Assyrian army descended on Northern Israel, took its population into exile and colonized its land with foreigners who partially adopted Israel’s religion over the centuries but were always viewed by the Jews as hated, semi-pagan invaders. The woman was therefore very surprised when Jesus spoke to her, and even more astonished when he asked her for a drink, since Jews did not share food or drink with Samaritans in case of ritual defilement.
Water becomes the sign by which both baptism and faith are explained to us. Water is the means, but the Holy Spirit flowing into us is the reality. There is a vital connection between the flowing of water and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The ‘living water’ of which Jesus speaks [this is a beautiful phrase to ponder] brings not only awareness of her sin to the woman but forgiveness, hope in the person of Jesus as the Messiah, and faith in his words.
The water Jesus offers is not something that human effort can achieve. It is pure gift of God, water which, when drunk, becomes within a spring of life. Jesus is referring in the first place to his own words of salvation, words that are spirit and life, because whoever listens to them and lives by them will continue to share in God’s life. The water has a deeper meaning as a symbol of the Holy Spirit (John 7:38-39). The Spirit enables us to understand the words of Jesus and to respond to them with a willing heart.
‘The wonder of prayer is revealed beside the well where we come seeking water: there, Christ comes to meet every human being. It is he who first seeks us and asks for a drink. Jesus thirsts; his asking arises from the depths of God’s desire for us. Whether we realize it or not, prayer is the encounter of God’s thirst with ours. God thirsts that we may thirst for him.’ (Catechism of the Catholic Church #2560)