Alessandro MORETTOLombardy 1478 /1518 – Brescia 1554
Christ and the woman of Samaria[Cristo e la Samaritana]c.1515-20
Jesus answered and said to her, “If you knew the gift of God"
This Gospel fragment forms part of the dialogue between our Lord and the Samaritan Woman which is given in the fourth chapter of the Gospel According to St John. The more famous second half of the sentence goes like this "...and who is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” A great deal has been said about the living water and rightly so but we are in danger of overlooking an important point if we focus too exclusively on it. What Jesus gives us in this sentence is a model for contemplation, of 'the gift', acting as a springboard for action, 'asking', which produces a reaction, 'He would have given.' We live in an active world and contemplation is often sidelined as unnecessary or even self-indulgent but here it is presented as foundational to developing and enriching our relationship with God and moving it out from the purely personal into the realm of practical activity be it ever so small.
There are three obvious questions which arise from our Lord's words. What is the gift? How can we know it? What difference will it make? In many parts of the Christian Scriptures we see reference to the gifts of God, the plural being used because the gifts are many. Here there is but one gift but it is the root and source of all the other gifts. That is to say it is Himself. God gives Himself entire and whole as a gift to humanity (or Man for short.) It is the essence of a gift that once given it belongs to the recipient to do with as they will. Having given Himself into the hands of Man Jesus was and is used or misused as each individual man or woman chose or chooses to use or misuse Him. He did not refuse the humiliation of being born into poverty, becoming a refugee, being scorned and cursed, being arrested, tortured and executed. Nor does He now refuse to be rejected. But what is the value of the gift of a man, even if He be a God, who allows us to do what we will with Him?
It is customary to think of the giving and receiving of a gift as a single transaction which confers an absolute dominion upon the recipient but it is not always so. Sometimes we can only enjoy the gift to the full if we resign our dominion over it. A child is a gift and we can only make that gift flourish if we allow its needs to override our needs and if we not only make sacrifices on its behalf but do so gladly and cheerfully. Moreover the gift becomes greater still if we sacrifice not only to meet its necessities but to meet its superfluities as well, to bring a smile onto their face, to bring a light into their life how many parents go the extra mile and more besides. Friendship too is a gift and this can only be enjoyed to the full if it is reciprocated. The more we respond to the gift with a counter-gift the greater the gift becomes. So our Lord comes to us as a gift which we can ignore or despise or cherish and love. If we do the first it does us no good, indeed it does us harm not only in eternity but here and now in time since each time we harden our hearts we darken our own lives. If we do the second we become rich, and the more we do it the richer we become.
So how can we come to know Him, this gift which is so powerful to change lives? Christianity proposes many ways, Scripture, Sacrament, prayer and so on. There have been millions of words written on the subject and I do not propose to add to them here. Instead I will look at what are the barriers that prevent us knowing Him. The Samaritan Woman stands in a sense for all of us but she is a person in her own right and with her own history. By considering the barriers that she considered stood between herself and Jesus we can perhaps learn something about our own case.
Without wishing to belabour the obvious two important facts to consider about the Samaritan Woman are 1) she was a Samaritan and 2) she was a woman. The hostility between Jews and Samaritans was proverbial, Jesus later made it a subject of one of His most famous parables (Luke 10:29-37) and, what is less well known, not long before telling the parable He had rebuked two of His Apostles, including the author of the passage we are now considering, for wanting to destroy a Samaritan village (Luke 9:51-55.) So this hostility was near universal felt by both the good and the bad and on both sides. The Woman's first words to our Lord are an expression of surprise that He should speak to her at all, but He did. It may be no profound thought to us now that ethnicity is no barrier to becoming a Christian however revolutionary it may have been in the beginning but this does not exhaust the significance of the Samaritan-ness of the Woman. As the subsequent dialogue revealed there was a religious difference. As is often the case to belong to a particular ethnic group inevitably meant also to belong to an associated religious faith. The Samaritans rejected the Temple in Jerusalem and most of the Books of the Jewish Bible. But, in the end, this proved no barrier to the Woman recognising Jesus for what He was and believing in Him. Within the scope offered to her by her religion she was able to perceive that a Messiah would come and that He would have certain characteristics. In her encounter with Jesus she had her horizons broadened but still some of the necessary groundwork for accepting Him had been done through her own religion. Saint Augustine wrote
"you have made us and drawn us to yourself, and our heart is unquiet until it rests in you"
Again, it may be no profound thought to us that both women and men are equally invited to participate in the Kingdom of God (which doesn't necessarily mean participating in identical ways) however revolutionary that may have seemed at the time but this does not exhaust the significance of the Woman-ness of the Samaritan. Jesus and she engage in a lively discussion about the Jewish religion. Historically, and still today, the characteristic Jewish way of coming to a conclusion or not coming to a conclusion about the meaning of the Torah was to have arguments. This was classically how Rabbi's operated and before that how they were trained. It is the form which we find embodied in the Talmud the Jewish summation of how Jews should live in the world. Jesus often engaged in this way with the Pharisees, the Sadducees the Herodians and His other educated opponents. Here He is doing it with a woman something that the Yeshiva, Jewish schools for studying the Talmud,which use the Chavruta method did not allow for more than a thousand years after this time. The point here is that Jesus was not only affirming that women were equally invited to the Kingdom but also by arguing as an equal with a person who not only had not studied the Torah but in all probability could not read or write was affirming that lack of education was not a barrier to coming to know Him and understand Him well. Moreover, it is likely enough that the Woman had internalised the belief that she was of less intelligence than men, here Jesus is affirming that to know Him lack of intelligence alone is not a barrier. For us the Samaritan Woman stands for all those who are looked down upon because they lack academic qualifications or because they are not conventionally intelligent and she demonstrates that wisdom can flourish wherever there is a heart and mind willing to accept it.
Another fact to emerge from this conversation is that the Woman was what a less politically correct generation would have called a 'notorious sinner.' Liberal opinion would no doubt suggest that having had five husbands and living in an informal civil partnership with a sixth significant other life partner was not prima facie evidence of sin. I don't intend to argue the point (although Liberal opinion would be wrong) because the barrier I am looking at here is the one which the Woman would have assumed existed on the side of Jesus. From the get go she would have assumed that she could not get to know Him because she was a Samaritan, a disbeliever in the Temple Cult, a woman and uneducated and relatively less intelligent. The one barrier that she could not have imagined existing was her life history which she thought unknown to our Lord. Whether she considered it sinful or not she would have known that He would and for that reason alone would not have anything to do with her. But Jesus revealed that He did know and that He still wanted to give her the gift of Himself. For us the significance is this; many people know that the Church regards as unacceptable some of the ways that they lead their lives and therefore they make no move towards it expecting rejection. The Church rejects no one, she is kind to all as Jesus is kind to all. She proposes as He proposed that some things are right and some are wrong and that persistence in wrongdoing will keep you at a distance from Him, you will not come to know Him so well as you might, but nothing you have done will stop Him loving you and showing you kindness and as with the Head so with His body the Church.
So, the gift is God and the only barriers to us knowing it are those we choose to erect. What difference does it make? In part the answer is given by our Lord Himself, He will give you living water, in part you can deduce the benefits from what I have already said. In the end though as you can only eat something by eating it or love someone by loving them you can only know the difference that being in Christ Jesus makes by being in Christ Jesus. Lower the barriers, allow yourself to be flooded, drown in the ocean of Christ. And then you will know.
In the figure of Mary, the mother of Jesus, we can see one who knows the gift, accepts the gift and displays to the full the effects of the gift. Our Lady accepted the gift as her child, for whom she made sacrifices. As her friend between whom and her love flowed and grew from perfection to perfection. With Him she walked the way of the Cross and through love shared His agony. She set no barriers to Him nor He to her. And, to end as we began, Mary was a contemplative, her world changing Yes to Jesus, her life as mother, teacher, companion, friend, advocate were all preceded and accompanied by a pondering in her heart of the things of God and the needs of her neighbours. Contemplation was the wellspring from which action came. Action brought forth the reaction from God. In the world of things actions bring forth equal and opposite reactions in the world of Spirit actions bring forth reactions a hundred a thousandfold greater than the the original impetus so generous is our God and as no actions were more responsive to the love of God than those of our Lady so more grace has been poured upon her than upon any other mere creature of God. May she convey our prayers through her grace filled hands to Jesus her Son that we through her intercession can share in the joys of the Father's Kingdom.
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