Sunday Scriptures

Called to Be Credible Witnesses

by Father John Cush

In today’s Gospel according to John, we read about Jesus and His encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well. It is a key Gospel for us to grasp if we wish to have a true Christian dialogue with our culture.

First, we need to understand the context of this Gospel because it will help us grasp what the message is for us today. Jesus is going back to Galilee and He passes through Samaria. In the Old Testament, the name Samaria usually refers to the capital of the Northern Kingdom. In the New Testament, Samaria refers to the region of Palestine between Galilee (where Jesus is from) and Judah. Samaria and the Northern Kingdom of Israel were conquered by the Assyrians around 722 B.C., and in due time, also by the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks and the Romans.

The people of Samaria intermarried with their conquerors and were considered to be less than the Jews. In fact, to be in contact with a Samaritan would render the devout Jew defiled. They were considered unfaithful to the law of Israel. These Samaritans believed themselves to be Jewish but the Jews considered them pagans. Yet, in our Gospel today, Jesus, an observant Jew, is speaking to a Samaritan.

Now add another layer to the story: The person whom the Lord Jesus encounters is a woman. Recall the social status of women at the time of Jesus, and remember that no man would dare speak to a woman in public. Now add yet another layer to this complex picture that John is painting for us: Not only is this a Samaritan and a woman, this is a Samaritan woman whose virtue is in question as she has had several husbands and the man with whom she’s living is not her husband.

So, what’s Jesus doing by having a conversation with her near this well? How is Jesus – He who is truth, goodness and beauty-made-flesh – going to have any level of dialogue with a person whose free choices have made her a woman inundated with sin? To bring it into contemporary times, how can the Church have dialogue with the world? How can we help bring others to the knowledge and love of Christ and His Church? I think we need to look to the example of Jesus.

First, let’s examine how Jesus meets the woman. How does He engage her? The Lord, who is one Divine Person in two natures, human and divine, first meets her in His humanity. He tells her that He thirsts and hungers. This human need brings Him into conversation with the Samaritan woman.

The Christian dialogue with culture is no different. We need to recognize the fact that the Church is in the world, yet not part of the world. We need to have the Church represented in the fields of arts, history, science and even economics and politics. We, as the Church, need to be able to dialogue boldly and on an equal level with all those in the world, even and especially to those steeped in sin, to present our teachings on faith and morals clearly and concisely. Let us not in any way mitigate or attempt to change unchangeable truth or doctrine, but rather engage the culture in the truth that is Christ Jesus. We need to have men and women, clergy, religious and laity, highly trained in academic fields, not only theology, but also in the secular sciences to assist the world in the transmission and the credibility of divine revelation.

Engaging the culture in a dialogue does not mean “watering down” the Gospel message or presenting Church teachings in a fluffy way. It means that the one doing the dialogue must know his or her faith, be fully converted to the faith in all aspects of life and be willing, at times, to exit his or her comfort zone to speak to people who may not understand us. And in misunderstanding us, they may choose to vilify both us and the Church. We have to be willing to suffer this rejection for the sake of the Kingdom.

Second, the lesson that we can take from the Lord Jesus with the woman at the well is that He is willing to see a person as a person. He sees this woman not as an object, but as a subject; not as a case to be solved, but as a patient to be treated. He sees her as one created in God’s image and likeness and despite sin in her life and in the world, she is capable of loving and being loved. He sees her as worthy of being saved. We can do this as well in our lives and in the New Evangelization. Seeing each person whom we encounter, those whom we like and those with whom we have a hard time, as a son or daughter of the Most High God, is a must.

Third, the Lord Jesus does not simply leave the woman where she is at this stage in her life. No, He challenges her to grow, to repent and to recognize the desire for God burning inside of her, which only the living water of the faith can quench. So too in our dialogue with the world. We have to challenge and remind the world that there is something beyond this life – a world to come – and the values of this world are nothing compared to the values of the world to come – the Kingdom values of peace, justice and joy. We need to see that our role as a Church is to bear prophetic witness in a world that has become a desert of relativity.

The Church is willing to be engaged in a world that may be hostile to the Gospel message but is still hungering for the bread of life that is Christ and the living water that is the Holy Spirit.

May we have the insight, each of us in our own unique vocations, to be the living, credible witnesses of the truth of the Gospel to the entire world.[hr]

Readings for the Third Sunday of Lent

Exodus 17: 3-7

Psalm 95: 1-2, 6-7, 8-9

Romans 5: 1-2, 5-8

John 4: 5-42 or John 4: 5-15, 19b-26, 39a, 40-42[hr]

Father John Cush is a priest assigned to doctoral studies in fundamental theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University, Rome, Italy.