One of the most striking images we find in the entire Bible is the image of thirst. It’s very strong – very visceral – and very immediate. And, of course, once you feel it – you just have to address it. It’s just the very nature of the thing! And so, it’s probably no coincidence that this image is typically used in the Bible to represent our own very deep, intrinsic thirst for the living God. And so, for example, as we hear in Psalm 42: “As the deer yearns for running streams, so my soul longs for You, my God.” (Ps 42:21). Likewise, in today’s First Reading (Exod 17:3-7) from the Book of Exodus, we hear the Israelite people crying out to Moses in the heat of the desert that they are basically dying of thirst (cf. Exod 17:3). And so, again, we have this image of a thirsty people – a people who are thirsting not just for water, but for the presence and direction of God Himself. And, of course, one of the most dramatic scenes in the entire Gospel is when Jesus speaks of His own thirst. And so, as we hear at the end of the Gospel of John, when Jesus is basically dying on the Cross, He simply cries out: “I thirst” (Jn 19:48)! And you’ll notice what’s going on here: Jesus is not only sharing in our own thirst for the living God – but He is also giving expression to God’s own very deep, intrinsic thirst for us.
Now, keeping all of this in mind, what do we find in today’s Gospel (Jn 4:5-42) – which, of course, recounts that very famous story of the woman at the well? We find a woman who goes to a well searching – as we all do – for something that will satisfy her thirst. And so, right away, we can see that this woman effectively embodies this whole tradition that we’ve just been talking about—this tradition of human beings thirsting for the living God. And who does she meet? She meets Jesus Christ Himself – who says onto her: “Give Me a drink” (Jn 4:7). And you’ll notice the irony of the situation: even though she has come to the well looking for something to drink, Jesus is the One who says to her: “I am thirsty.”
But you’ll notice how the woman responds. She seems a little surprised – if not somewhat put off – by what Jesus is saying. And so, she says to Him: “How is it that you, a Jew ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria” (Jn 4:9)? Now, how can we translate these things in terms of the spiritual life? Isn’t it true that sometimes we too are a little bit surprised by the type of language that Jesus is using? And so, perhaps we too might find ourselves saying to the Lord: “You – You God – You are thirsting for me? You’re asking me for a drink?” And, of course, the answer is: “Yes! Yes!” God is truly thirsting for our faith – and for us to respond to His love.
And, you see, this is precisely why Jesus says to the woman: “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water that I shall give will never be thirsty” (Jn 4:13-14). Now, of course, what Jesus is talking about this ongoing tension which exists between our concupiscent desire and our desire for God. Because, as we all know, each one of us has been truly made to love and serve the Lord. And so, we have been “hardwired” for God, so to speak – such that God alone can satisfy our hearts. And yet, as we also know, we so often deviate from the path that has been set before us – whenever we go about trying to fill the bucket of our infinite desire with something or someone else less than God.
And so, for example, perhaps we might say to ourselves: “Well, money will satisfy my infinite desires.” And so, we seek it – we seek it – we seek it. And maybe it satisfies us for a while, but then it doesn’t – and we’re left feeling empty. And so, we go back – we go back – we go back. Or perhaps we say to ourselves: “Well, sex will satisfy me.” And so, we seek it – we seek it – we seek it. But, again, it doesn’t satisfy us – it can’t satisfy us. So we want more – and more – and more. Or perhaps we say to ourselves: “The love of other people will satisfy me – if I’m popular, famous and well-liked.” And so, we go about trying to drink from that well over – and over – and over again. But, again, it doesn’t satisfy us.
And, you see, this is why Jesus engages the woman in this very interesting and mysterious discussion about the subject of her five husbands. And so, as you might recall, Jesus says to her: “Go, call your husband, and come back” (Jn 4:16). The woman says: “I have no husband” (Jn 4:17). Jesus says to her: “You are right…for you have had five husbands, and the one you’re with right now is not your husband” (Jn 4:17-18).
Now, what’s going on here? Many scholars, of course, have offered their own interpretation as to what this conversation is all about. But St. Augustine suggests that Jesus is basically asking the woman: “Who or what is at the center of your life?” Now, he goes on to say that the woman’s five husbands actually represent her five senses. And so, what has she been looking for her whole life? The beautiful sights her eyes bring in – the beautiful sounds her ears bring in – the beautiful things that she can touch – and so on and so forth. In other words, her life is being dominated by her desire for sensual pleasure. And so, Jesus responds to all of this by saying to her: “Look, I want to be the center of your life. Let Me live in you – such that I might govern your heart, your will and your mind. Let Me be your husband!”
Now, as we all know, the Church Fathers often speak about our relationship with God in terms of a marital relationship – with Christ as the bridegroom and the Church as his bride. But, you see, we often forget that – throughout the Old Testament – there’s also this whole tradition of husbands meeting their wives for the first time in front of a well. And so, we see this in the case of Isaac (Gen 24:10-67), Jacob (Gen 29:1-30) and even Moses himself (Exod 2:15-21). And so, you see, it’s no accident that today’s Gospel is also situated in the context of a well! Because what we’re seeing here is a sort of marriage proposal – whereby the woman at the well – who, again, represents each one of us – is standing for the bride, and Christ is proposing Himself as the bridegroom.
Now, of course, this begs the question: “How does the woman respond to this marriage proposal?” Now, it’s very subtle – but if you look closely at the Gospel, you’ll notice that she responds with an ever-deepening sense of interior conversion – as reflected by this ever-deepening sense of formality with which she addresses our Lord as the story moves along. And so, for example, at the beginning of the story, you’ll notice that she simply refers to Jesus as “a Jew” (Jn 4:9) – as in: “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria” (Jn 4:9)? Later on, you’ll notice that she addresses him as “Sir” (Jn 4:15) – as in: “Sir, give me this water [to drink], so that I may never be thirsty” (Jn 4:15). A few lines later, she calls Him “a prophet” (Jn 4:19). And then, by the end of the Gospel, she basically says this: “Could it be – could it be that this man is the Messiah – the One that we’ve all been waiting for – the One we’ve all been thirsting for” (cf. Jn 4:29)?
So then, what does she do? Well, first of all, the Gospel says that she leaves behind her water jar (cf. Jn 4:28), which is very important – because, of course, this points to the fact that she has abandoned her former ways of trying to satisfy her thirst. But then, the Gospel says that she goes back to the town from where she came (cf. Jn 4:28) – and she says to the people living there: “Come and see a man who [has] told me everything I have ever done” (Jn 4:29)! Now, has Jesus literally told her everything she’s ever done? Well, no – of course not! But what has He done? He has essentially uncovered the biggest secret of her entire life – the governing principle of her entire life – by exposing her concupiscent desire. In other words, He has revealed to her that she has been looking for God in all the wrong places – by allowing her concupiscent desire to govern everything she has ever done.
Now, how do the local townspeople respond to all of this? They respond by going out to meet Jesus – by conversing with Him – and by ultimately inviting Him back to stay with them for two days (cf. Jn 4:40). And then, they turn to the woman and they say to her: “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world” (Jn 4:42). And so, at the end of the Gospel, what ends up happening is this: the woman essentially becomes the first evangelist. In other words, because she has allowed herself to truly encounter and be transformed by the person of Christ, now she cannot help herself – she simply must proclaim Him to the whole world. And, of course, we too are called to do the same.