A woman who was a devoted member of a small church that was part of a regional cluster of churches came toward the bishop with fire in her eye. "So, when are you going to send us a priest?" she demanded. The bishop replied, "You're asking the wrong question. The question is, 'How is St. Timothy's going to take responsibility for its own mission and ministry?'"
The dialogue continued along these lines for awhile, and finally the woman said, "Well, I guess we just have very different views about ministry." The woman spoke the truth there.
This story is not unlike the discussion Jesus had with the woman at the well. They were both talking about water. She wanted the "living water" which would enable her never to be thirsty again, never have to come daily to the well for water. Jesus offered her spiritual water, a flowing well which would provide her with the river of eternal life.
In both accounts, the people are asking for practical needs to be met. One wants a priest, another water to quench her thirst. In both cases the dialogue is marked by the quest for basic needs and the challenge to move the conversation to significant issues of ministry and spirituality.
The interesting thing is that while both conversations seem to conclude in a standoff, in fact there is a lot of movement toward a new understanding. The woman asking for a priest eventually realized that her expectations were unrealistic and she became much more supportive of the model of ministry which was financially feasible for her church. The woman at the well, despite her confusion over what kind of water Jesus was talking about, stated her faith that the Messiah was coming, then discovered she had met him in the flesh. After that, water and thirst would never be the same for her.
Have you felt any connection with either of these women so far? Can you think of times in your life when you've been on a totally different beam from the person you're talking with? And what about God? Have you ever puzzled over why your obvious needs seem to be ignored in prayer? Or have you experienced that strange feeling that you're being pushed in a direction you don't want to go, being led on a journey you aren't certain you want to make? If you have felt these things, then you are in a great company of faithful folk who wonder if they are praying the right prayers or thinking about the right things. God seems so baffling at times.
Now let's return to the story of Jesus and the woman at the well, the woman of Sychar in Samaria. This story is a dialogue between two people who have very different backgrounds and are even potential enemies. They start out from different assumptions. The woman knows certain things about Jews, and she expects Jesus to behave toward her like others have. Jesus knows about Samaritans, and assumes her to be ignorant. "If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, 'Give me a drink'â¦" But as the conversation continues both begin to realize the other has something to say. The woman begins to see Jesus as an individual person. She even tells him things about herself that are very personal. Jesus sees the woman is a truthful person of faith. It is with mutual awareness that the dialogue can continue.
Applying this Gospel to our own experience provides some observations from which we can learn. First, this passage teaches us something about God. While we believe God to be wholly other from us and very different, we see in Jesus the image of God, the patient person of conversation who wants to know what is really going on in our lives. What issues are facing us? What obstacles beset us? God wants to know. Jesus wants to listen to our story.
There is also a bold teaching that we can apply directly in today's climate of increasing racism. We have some things to say to each other, the black to the white, the gay to the straight, the worker to the manager. At first it's like the opening conversation between Jesus and the woman, but if we keep listening eventually we find we have things to offer. A white man grew up with "colored" help in his home. When he became a student at a university, he was assigned a black roommate. Their relationship was very cool at first, but eventually they developed a friendship based on mutual respect and a common interest in athletics. They have since become fathers and their children are now friends. Each is godparent to the others' offspring. They worked at their relationship, and still do.
There is also a profound teaching about the way that we approach issues in which we differ. Our culture tends to encourage the attitude that values and norms of the majority should always prevail. The recent legislation making English the official language is but one example of this attitude. But English has always been enriched by its encounter with other languages. Its very roots are from other tongues. And there is much more that other languages and cultures can offer if they are seen as gifts from God.
God has some things to say to us. If we are closed to the methods he uses such as communication with others, reading of Scripture, and, especially, listening to those who differ from us, we may very well be ignoring God's attempts to communicate. Jesus' encounter with the woman of Samaria is the kind of thing that can happen to any of us. It happened to the woman who asked her bishop when he would send the parish a priest. His response to her challenged her thinking and assumptions.
God is challenging our thinking and assumptions all the time. Jesus' whole ministry can be seen that way. He ate with sinners, spoke to women, healed on the Sabbath, and did all manner of things which shook up the power structure and the people he was sent to serve. He didn't do this just because he liked upsetting people. He did it because he was God, trying to break through the barriers people have erected to protect themselves from the wholly other, God who loves us, and wants us to be whole.
And whole we are not. We value careful and cautious living, we spend a lot of money to protect our way of life as if it were the only way. We often show contempt toward others who differ from us, and we surround ourselves with friends who are like us. Is it any wonder we get bored? Is it any wonder we start asking if God is really doing anything in our lives?
In the play Auntie Mame the heroine remarks: "Life's a banquet, and a lot of people are starving to death." This was the situation of the woman at the well. Here she is, present to the Water of Life, and all she can think about is water to drink. But the encounter with Jesus doesn't end that way for her. She begins to discover her real thirst, and it is quenched by the only one who can, Jesus the Christ.
Look for the places that are strange and the people who differ from you as sources for God to address your deepest longings. Listen for words that cause you to react. Be aware of times when you want to retreat from opinions and issues that make you uncomfortable. Then try to enter into conversation at these points. You may identify your hunger and thirst for the first time, and realize God is there, waiting to feed you and quench your thirst forever.