Homily for the Third Sunday of Lent
Readings: John 4:I-42
7 March 2021
In 1995, I spent a couple of months in a Sudanese refugee camp in the West Nile region of Uganda. Early each morning and at dusk, you could always see a stream of women carrying jerry cans and water pitchers, gathering at the well. It was hard work, carrying large containers of water. There, it was women’s work. It was also a social occasion. Walking past, you could always hear a lot of conversation going on, a bit like hearing things on the grapevine.
Since that experience, I have always had a heightened sense about the scene in today’s gospel where Jesus meets a lone woman at the well, not in cool of the early morning, not in the breezy late afternoon, but at midday when the sun in that part of the world is as hot as blazes. What woman in her right mind would go to the well at the hottest part of the day? It could only be one who wanted to avoid the social kerfuffle at the cooler parts of the day. This woman was an alien, an outsider in every sense.
Yes, she was a Samaritan, and Jesus a Jew. And in those days, Jews did not socialise with Samaritans. A man would not seek the company of a woman alone in such circumstances. This woman was an alien to the Jews, as were all Samaritans. She was an outcast amongst her own. We find out later in the story why this was the case. Having had five husbands in a small village, she had a history and a profile. She was the topic of conversation at the well during the cooler parts of the day even if she were not there. The writer of John’s gospel wants us to understand that no self-respecting Jewish man would be seen dead talking to such a Samaritan woman.
How does Jesus get to be there? We are told that Jesus was travelling from Judaea to Galilee as he sometimes did, and as Jews often did. We are also told: “He had to pass through Samaria.” But, as the scripture scholar Francis Moloney points out: “The route through Samaria was rarely taken, as Jews normally took a longer safer route along the other side of the Jordan River to avoid the hostility of the Samaritans and of the bandits who roamed the area. … Theologically speaking, it is the God-appointed time for Jesus to make his way out of Jewish territory into the wider world. Thus, Jesus and his disciples move into Samaria and make their way to the village of Sychar, the place that Jacob had given to his son Joseph, and Jesus rests from the heat of the day at the well there.” Jesus by going into Samaria is going to the whole world, taking his mission and his message beyond the Jewish confines. His disciples are already charged with extending his mission and message as we are told that by now “in fact it was his disciples who baptised, not Jesus himself”.
The Jews thought you needed to worship Yahweh at the temple in Jerusalem. The Samaritans had constructed their own temple on Mt Gerizim near Sychar and thought that was the place to worship God. Jesus and the woman engage in some fine Johannine banter. Jesus speaks of living water. The woman rightly points out that Jesus has no bucket so how could he possibly retrieve any sort of water from the well. Jesus tells the woman and he tells us: “the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. But the hour is coming – indeed it is already here – when true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth”.
As soon as the disciples reappeared, the woman skittles back to her village but leaves her water jar at the well. Perhaps she was leaving it for the thirsty group of Jewish men who had just arrived looking askance at her talking alone with their master Jesus. I doubt it. Clearly, she intended to return but she wanted to hurry back unencumbered to tell her townsfolk what she had experienced with this amazing man who had told her everything she had done. Just as the woman became confused about what water Jesus was describing, so too his disciples become confused about what food he is talking about after they tell him to have something to eat. He tells them, “My food is to do the will of the one who sent me.”
Not only the woman comes to believe. Jesus actually goes into the Samaritan village and stays there for two days after which many Samaritans declared: “we have heard him ourselves and we know that he is indeed the Saviour of the world.”
Bishop Bede Heather’s funeral mass took place at the Parramatta Cathedral this past week. Bede insisted that there be no bishop’s mitre placed on his coffin. The eulogies were delivered by Bede’s longtime friend Leona Sweeney, his nephew Peter Downie and his bishop Vincent Long. Vincent spoke of Bede’s prophetic leadership, simplicity and poverty. Bede once told Vincent, “If you ever have the Pope’s ear, tell him to get on with it.” Vincent spoke of Bede as a model for an inclusive, synodal Church grounded in the wisdom of the Word of God and in the Tradition while being open to the signs of the times. He insisted that the place of women was indispensable. Leona spoke of her love and admiration for Bede who shared with her the vision of his death, hoping for a beam of light to highlight what the Book of Revelation describes as “the two olive trees and the two lamps in attendance on the Lord of the world” (Rev. 11:4).
Bede’s nephew Peter recalled that Bede delighted in attending the local Catholic Church on the central coast but that he also enjoyed attending the eucharist at Fr Rod Bower’s Anglican Church which often features political messages displayed prominently on the church billboard. Rod was in attendance at the funeral. When Peter was working as a diplomat in Moscow, Bede urged him not just to attend the mass at the US Embassy but to participate in all the sacraments at the Russian Orthodox Church. The nephew opined that Bede saw ecumenism as an organic process rather than a goal. Bishop Pat Power was an apology at the funeral. There were only four bishops accompanying Bishop Vincent. None of them concelebrated. They appeared in splendid choir dress. Vincent shared Bishop Peter Ingham’s joke that Bede would roll in his grave if he saw the regalia that the bishops were wearing to his funeral. Vincent read out the standard greeting from the Pope on the death of a bishop.
I had a sense that, like the Samaritans who encountered Jesus, Bede, Vincent, Leona and Peter encountered Jesus at the well and in the familiarity of their own homes and villages knowing that he is indeed the Saviour of the world.
Also this past week, we have heard the loud clear voices of women like Brittany Higgins, Australian of the Year Grace Tame, and Jo Dyer whose friend committed suicide last year. Like the Samaritan woman in today’s gospel, they have experienced alienation, exclusion, and powerlessness in the past. Like the Samaritan woman at the well with Jesus, they have found their voice. They have given back as strongly as they have received. They have been heard. They too have left their jar at the well. They will be back, unafraid to confront anyone on that road from Judaea to Galilee. They are seekers of truth. “True worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth”. The Instrumentum Laboris, the Working Document for the Australian Church’s Plenary Council commencing in October has now been released. Unfortunately, it reads rather limply on the role and place of women observing:
“[T]he perceived underrepresentation of women in formal leadership and decision-making roles is a challenging issue for many in Australia. So too, for some, is the exclusion of women from ordained ministry, notwithstanding the Church’s formal teaching on this matter. In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis spoke of a need for greater discernment on “the possible role of women in decision-making”.’
The perceived underrepresentation is very real. Let’s remember that the young Grace Tame received a standing ovation at the National Press Club this past week when she declared, “Let’s keep making noise, Australia.” At the well and in our Church, let’s be more attentive to those voices. Jesus was always willing to engage with the one who was other.
 Francis Moloney, “John”, in The Paulist Biblical Commentary, Paulist Press, New York, 2018, p. 1105 at p.1130
 Instrumentum Laboris, Plenary Council, #35 available at https://plenarycouncil.catholic.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/IL-document-spreads.pdf
Fr Frank Brennan SJ is the Rector of Newman College, Melbourne, the Distinguished Fellow of the PM Glynn Institute, Australian Catholic University, and the former CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia (CSSA).