THE WEEK OF PRAYER FOR CHRISTIAN UNITY
JANUARY 18–25, 2015
PRAYER / WORSHIP: Commentary on the Scriptural Text
“Jesus said to her: ‘Give me a drink’” (4:7).
By Rev. Gerald O’Collins, SJ,
Professor Emeritus Gregorian University (Rome).
Experiencing Jesus Empowers Ecumenical Commitment
The text for this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is taken from an account of Jesus coming to a Samaritan town called Sychar and meeting a woman at the well of Jacob. It seems like an accident that the woman encounters Jesus at high noon. She could have gone to draw water earlier or later in the day—before he had yet arrived or after he had left with his disciples. The midday encounter at the well seems a perfectly chance meeting. But what begins like a random exchange ends very differently.
The Promise of the Living Christ
In the previous chapter of John’s Gospel, Nicodemus goes looking for Jesus at night and starts a conversation with him (John 3:1–21). But with the Samaritan woman, it is Jesus who takes the initiative and opens the dialogue with her: “Give me a drink.” To begin with, their interchange centers on something which is not only simple and basic but also an elemental necessity for human beings and their world: the fresh and flowing water that creates and maintains life. The first part of the dialogue ends with Jesus’ promise: “Those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” Those who turn to Jesus and accept him will be permanently satisfied now and for ever. Both here and hereafter their real and deepest needs will be met through Jesus and the gift of his Holy Spirit.
Whenever I read that promise I always think of the fountains of the Villa d’Este in the hills outside Rome. The spouts of crystal-clear water leap into the air and become charged with Italian sunlight. Like those fountains Jesus gives himself away with joy. The Samaritan woman and the rest of us are not asked to search and dig for water, let alone store it up in a well. We simply have to cup our hands and drink.
The encounter a high noon abruptly moves on when Jesus says to the woman: “Go, call your husband.” Jesus has touched on her irregular home situation. She has had five husbands, and is now living with a man who is not her husband. But she does not break off her dialogue with Jesus in embarrassment. Little by little she lets him lead her on, right to the point where he no longer speaks merely of living water but reveals himself as the living Christ.
The Missionary Impulse
Now we see the missionary impulse in a person who has experienced Jesus at such depth and moved towards becoming his follower. The Samaritan woman does not keep the good news to herself but brings it to the people of Sychar. Like John the Baptist before her (John 1:6–8, 15, 19–36; 3:25–30), she fulfills the call to discipleship by witnessing to Jesus. Many are so impressed by the woman’s testimony that they come to believe in Jesus. Later on, others tell her that she is now redundant: “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe. We have heard for ourselves and know that this is truly the Savior of the world.” They no longer need the woman’s witness to her own experience. They have “known” or experienced Jesus for themselves, and they call him by a magnificent title we find nowhere else in the New Testament: “the Savior of the world.” They believe in Jesus as the One through whom God wills to save the whole of humanity. Jesus is not merely the Messiah for the Jews and Samaritans but also the very Savior of the world.
While Nicodemus shows himself a slow learner and does not throw in his lot with Jesus until after the crucifixion (John 19:29), the Samaritan woman has proved quite the opposite. This might seem all the more surprising in someone who is no impressionable teenager but a grown woman with a steady habit of getting married. In the encounter with Jesus she lets herself be touched, changed, and loved by him. Within a few hours she has become a public missionary for Jesus.
This is the story of someone who gets up in the morning expecting nothing special and out of the ordinary. The day ends with her a totally changed person. She has let Jesus encounter, challenge, and reveal himself to her.
Christ’s Thirst for Us
Like so much in John’s Gospel, the story of Jesus meeting the Samaritans enjoys a richly symbolic character. From the time of ancient Christianity, commentators have looked below the surface meaning of Jesus’ request, “Give me a drink.” He deeply thirsts for our accepting him in faith and giving him our love. Ultimately that is what he thirsts for: the chance to reveal himself to us as the Messiah and the Savior of the world. To receive from him the gift of faith and then love him in return, we need only to open our eyes, cup our hands, and drink what gushes out of a crystal-clear fountain.
It is through experiencing Jesus and coming to faith in him that the people of Sychar are united in a new way. They begin living together no longer as residents of the same town but now transformed into followers of Jesus Both then and today, a deep experience of Jesus can bring about such spiritual unity between human beings. To the extent that Christians, like the people of Sychar, truly “know” Jesus, they will be drawn together through encountering the One who is nothing less than “the Savior of the world.” Closeness to Jesus transforms Christians from being mere “fellow travellers” into becoming fellow pilgrims en route to full unity in their faith, their lives, and their worship.
The Need for Witnesses
Those who give themselves in a special way to the cause of Christian unity should find a shining model in the Samaritan woman. In speaking to her and asking her for a drink, Jesus crosses the boundaries of orthodox Judaism. But as a person very much on the margins of her society, she too crosses the boundaries of her culture and time. As a most unlikely religious leader, she witnesses courageously to Jesus and brings the people of Sychar to faith in him. More than ever, the cause of unity among Christians needs her kind of courageous witness.
Charles Kingsley Barrett, The Gospel According to St John (London: SPCK, 2nd edn 1978)
Brendan Byrne, Light Abounding: A Reading of John’s Gospel (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 2014)
Andrew T. Lincoln, The Gospel According to John (London: Continuum, 2005)
Francis J. Moloney, The Gospel of John (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1998)
Emeritus professor of the Gregorian University (Rome) where he taught theology for 33 years, Gerald O’Collins is well known as a lecturer and visiting professor in the United Kingdom, the United States, and many other countries around the world. He has published hundreds of articles in professional and popular journals, and has authored or co-authored 63 books. The latest include: The Spirituality of the Second Vatican Council (Paulist Press, 2014), The Second Vatican Council: Message and Meaning (Liturgical Press, 2014), and The Second Vatican Council on Other Religions (Oxford University Press, 2013).