March 10, 2023

Christ the Cornerstone

May we encounter Jesus in those who are different from us

Archbishop Charles C. Thompson

In the Gospel reading for the Third Sunday of Lent (Jn 4:5-42), the story of the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus confronts three prejudices of his time: 1) the relationship between Jews and Samaritans, 2) the relationship between women and men, and 3) the relationship between righteous people and sinners. In each case, our Lord shows us how we should interact with people who are different from us.

In Jesus’ time, Samaritans and Jews despised each other—not unlike Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland or Sunni and Shiite Muslims in the Middle East. Although members of the same religious family (Judaism, Christianity and Islam respectively), the differences that separate these groups from within (and without) often seem insurmountable.

Jesus refuses to accept the artificial barrier of religious difference between the Samaritan woman and himself. When she says to him, “How can you, a Jew, ask me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?” [for Jews use nothing in common with Samaritans] (Jn 4:9), his reply calls attention to a much greater difference: “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” (Jn 4:10).

If the chasm that separates human beings from God, who is the source of life itself, can be bridged by the one who is speaking to her now, no earthly barriers can divide us from each other. “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again,” Jesus tells her, “but whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst; the water I shall give will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (Jn 4:13-14).

Jesus’ disciples are scandalized because their Master has been conversing (unchaperoned) with a woman. This was not socially acceptable behavior for a single man, especially since the Samaritan woman had a reputation for being promiscuous. Jesus ignores this cultural prejudice. If he is willing to cure the sick on the Sabbath, why wouldn’t he engage in conversation (counseling, really) with a woman who needs to hear the word of God spoken from his lips? Jesus knew that women and men were created by God with equal rights and dignity. The customs and laws of his time and place could never abrogate the truth that men and women, while different, are equal in the sight of God.

Finally, Jesus confronts the woman with the fact that the man she is currently living with is not her husband:

Jesus said to her, “Go call your husband and come back.” The woman answered and said to him, “I do not have a husband.” Jesus answered her, “You are right in saying, ‘I do not have a husband.’ For you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband” (Jn 4:16-18).

He doesn’t scold her, or look down on her, or shy away from her because she is a sinner. He simply speaks the truth with love.

Time and again, Jesus, the most righteous person who ever lived, refuses to treat sinners as unclean outcasts. “Those who are well don’t need a physician,” he repeatedly says, “but sick people do” (Mt 9:12).

Jesus is the divine physician. His place is with people who are hurting in mind, body and soul. “The hour is coming, and is now here,” Jesus tells the woman, “when true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth; and indeed the Father seeks such people to worship him. God is Spirit, and those who worship him must worship in Spirit and truth” (Jn 4:23-24).

Jesus’ personal encounter with a woman from Samaria, an acknowledged sinner, breaks down the cultural barriers of prejudice and fear:

The woman said to him, “I know that the Messiah is coming, the one called the Christ; when he comes, he will tell us everything.” Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one [who is] speaking with you” (Jn 4:25-26).

In fact, the encounter with “the one called the Christ” (Jn 4:25) initiates a profound change in the Samaritan woman. She becomes a different person because God’s Word has spoken to her heart. And the change in her impacts the people around her:

When the Samaritans came to him, they invited him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. Many more began to believe in him because of his word, and they said to the woman, “We no longer believe because of your word; for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the savior of the world” (Jn 4:40-42).

This Lent, may we encounter Jesus and allow his Spirit to change the way we think and act toward others, especially those who are different from us. †

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