Gospel reflection for March 12, 2023, Third Sunday of Lent
Father Koch: Water runs deep in our religious symbols and imagination
The Egyptian people have lived for thousands of years along the narrow stretch of the Nile River. It was and remains the source of their fresh water supply, and the essential means of irrigation for agriculture. As a result, they have been able to flourish even in a harsh desert and through extended periods of drought.
When the Israelites left Egypt and entered deeper into the wilderness, they often struggled to find enough fresh water to care for themselves and their limited livestock. As they struggled to survive, we see also a struggle in their relationship with God, which is often expressed in their contentious treatment of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.
In the midst of their sojourn, they become fearful for lack of water, of lack of bread, and the lack of meat. God, through various miracles and means, sends forth water, manna – the bread that comes each night – and enough quails so that they quickly tire of how much meat they have. As they move through the desert there will be more than one occasion when they cry out for water.
As with almost any desert culture, water is important within their religious and cultural imagination.
As they settled in the Promised Land water became less of a concern. Large wells served many of the communities. There are some magnificent archaeological sites that reflect these wells: the well at Nazareth where a tradition holds that Mary encountered the Angel Gabriel; the two great Jerusalem wells referenced in the Gospels: Bethsaida and Siloam; and the well we hear about in the fourth chapter of John’s Gospel: Jacob’s Well in Samaria.
As he travels through Samaritan territory Jesus stops in Samaria, an unusual stop for a Jewish person of that time period. Sending the disciples off to the town to get some food, Jesus stays alone at this well presumably awaiting their return. We learn, however, that Jesus had another reason to stay by the well.
In a most unlikely way, a woman arrives at the well alone at noon time to get water for the day. Whether this is her usual routine or for some other reason today she happens to be at the well at this time is unclear. What seems to be clear is that Jesus is awaiting her arrival.
Jesus, in encountering a woman at a well, taps into this imagination as he offers her the promise of eternal water.
The conversation between them is rather mundane, and they are not exactly on the same page at first.
Jesus asks her for a drink of water. This startles her. She finds it odd to see a Jewish man there. She is uncomfortable speaking with a man whom she does not know. She is confused when he doesn’t have his own flask from which to drink. Jesus does his best to settle her fears and concerns, but he also works towards making her even more uncertain as he offers her something she thinks unimaginable: eternal water.
While at first she thinks it would be great not to have to make that trek to the well each day, Jesus emphasizes that theirs is a different conversation. He is offering her the water that leads to eternal life; the waters of Baptism.
Water exists then for us as not just the very sustenance of this life but of life eternal. Jesus transforms water, as he later also transforms bread and wine, into new substances. Water now no longer is merely symbolic; it is itself transformed into something that has both meaning and power.
The prayer blessing the baptismal font reminds us of the power of water throughout salvation history. Now water itself has the power to affect what it claims. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, and the pronouncement of the Trinitarian formula, water becomes the means by which a person dies to Christ and is raised to new life. That same water is used to transform something ordinary into something extraordinary, as objects are blessed for sacred use.
We remind ourselves of our Baptism as we reach into the font and sign ourselves each time we enter or leave a church.
Water is now no longer static, it is a sign of the promises of life to come.
Father Garry Koch is pastor of St. Benedict Parish, Holmdel.