by Father Jean-Pierre Ruiz
Are you an extrovert or an introvert? I proudly admit that I’m an introvert to my very core. Isn’t a priest supposed to be a people person? Yes, and the seminary did what it could to unleash my inner extrovert with classes on public speaking and homiletics. In college seminary at Douglaston, I even mustered the courage to audition for lead role in our production of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific. Fortunately for me and for the success of the show, Father Charles Matonti persuaded me that I was better suited for the role of Henry, the servant of plantation owner Emile de Becque, the leading male character. Henry has just six lines, all at the beginning of act one, scene one. Once that was over, this introvert could retreat backstage and contentedly read a book until the time for curtain call!
It’s the deep-down introvert in me that is awestruck when I read the Gospels and see how easily Jesus interacted with all sorts of people. From the crowds he taught at the shore of the Sea of Galilee, to scribes and Pharisees with whom he engaged in lively debate, to sinners and tax collectors who invited him to dine at their homes, to the sick and tormented people who approached him in their need, he always knew what to do. He always had the right thing to say, precisely what people needed to hear, even when it wasn’t what they expected. I am especially impressed by the people skills that Jesus brings to Jacob’s well in this Sunday’s reading from John’s Gospel.
I am equally impressed by the people skills that Jesus’ interlocutor demonstrates in encountering the stranger who starts their conversation so brusquely. “Give me a drink,” Jesus says, not “please may I have a drink,” or “I would be grateful if you would give me a drink.” Her answer amounts to something like, “You’re not from around here, are you?” Jesus sidesteps her question and turns the conversation around: “If you knew the gift of God and who is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” Unfazed, she persists: “Sir, you do not even have a bucket and the cistern is deep; where then can you get this living water?” With a deft who-do-you-think-you-are follow-up move, she presses: “Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us this cistern and drank from it himself with his children and his flocks?”
Back and forth they go, with their conversation taking them far beyond the literal circumstances of Jesus’ own thirst with which it began. The woman’s exclamation, “I can see that you are a prophet” has nothing to do with Jesus having any privileged insight into her married life in declaring “you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.” That she calls Jesus a prophet is a matter of his familiarity with Samaria’s history of religious infidelities, for which the prophets often used the language of marriage as a metaphor. Only that explanation makes sense of the woman’s follow-up query about whether Mount Gerizim or Jerusalem was the proper place for worship. There’s nothing trivial about this: she is asking Jesus to settle a centuries old debate between Judeans and Samaritans about which of them had bragging rights to the one place where the one true God should be worshipped. It is Jesus’ careful response to this question that opens the door for her to affirm, “I know that the Messiah is coming, the one called the Christ; when he comes, he will tell us everything.” With this profession of faith, Jesus finally reveals his identity, telling her “I am he, the one speaking with you.”
That’s where their conversation ends, but it isn’t the end of the story. Without any prompting, she leaves her water jar behind and returns to Sychar to share the story of this enlightening encounter. John tells us, “Many of the Samaritans of that town began to believe in him because of the word of the woman who testified.” That makes this Samaritan woman the first evangelizer, the first to share the Good News of Jesus with others and by her testimony to lead them to recognize Jesus as “truly the Savior of the world.” While the Samaritan woman goes unnamed in John’s Gospel, Christian tradition has baptized her as Saint Photina — which means light — and honors her as “equal to the apostles” because of her singular achievement. Saint Photina, pray for us — introverts and extroverts alike — that we might have the courage to proclaim the Good News as you did!
Readings for the Third Sunday
Exodus 17: 3-7
Psalm 95: 1-2, 6-7, 8-9
Romans 5: 1-2, 5-8
John 4: 5-42
Father Ruiz is a professor of theology at St. John’s University, Jamaica.