Third Sunday of Lent
Readings: Exodus 17:3–7; Psalm 94(95):1–2, 6–9; Romans 5:1–2, 5–8; John 4:5–16, 19–26, 39–42
12 March 2023
GOSPEL REFLECTION with Fr Mark De Battista
Reaching the lost
The exchange between Jesus and the Samaritan woman begins as an unexpected encounter. The cultural and spiritual distance between the two of them could not have been further apart. First, there was a cultural norm that a man and a woman do not speak unaccompanied by another. Second, Jesus was a Jew and the woman was a Samaritan (Jews and Samaritans never mixed.) Third, Jesus was a rabbi and the woman an adulteress with a bad name in the town.
Yet, thirsty for her faith, Jesus initiates the conversation by asking for a drink of water, thus going against the cultural norms. Gradually, the discussion progresses from physical water to living water that never runs out, although she still thinks he is talking about actual water. She desires this living water so that she would not have to come and draw water each day and thus avoid encountering anyone who would judge her for her lifestyle.
Eventually, Jesus breaks through to her personal life and asks her to call her husband which in Hebrew is “baal” (the name of a false god in ancient Israel.) As a Samaritan talking with a Jew, this would have had an additional significance. Her honesty elicits a prophetic response from Christ who reminds her of a profound aspect of her personal life. The woman, who remains nameless, shows her openness to receive the gift of faith by responding to Jesus’ questions while at the same time revealing her own inadequate, yet present, faith in the future Messiah (Christ).
The discussion now becomes explicitly religious. Jews believed that the proper place to offer sacrifice was in Jerusalem, whereas Samaritans, who only believed in the first five books of the Old Testament as divinely revealed, believed that Mount Gerizim was the proper place to worship. Next comes the most explicit admission by Jesus of his of own identity anywhere in the Gospels—“I am he”, referring to himself as the Christ.
Up until this moment, the woman had been led through a gradual process from natural water, to living water, to personal life, to faith in the future Messiah. She had forgotten the entangled cultural/religious world from which she had come where a man and a woman could not speak privately and where there was a religious divide. After the disciples arrive, she is immediately drawn back into this world and she withdraws back to her town so as to avoid any potentially awkward moment with the disciples.
Yet, now it’s too late! She has been touched by Christ. She is not only unafraid to go back and face her town’s folk whom she formerly wanted to avoid, but she is willing to evangelise them. She is filled with conviction because Jesus has revealed the truth to her, and she has been set free. “I wonder, if he is the Christ?” (Jn 4:29) she asks. And this was enough to draw out the town’s people to come and see for themselves. After staying an additional two days with them, many people from that town are now convinced that he is truly the Christ, not because of her testimony, but because they had seen for themselves.
The journey is now complete. Jesus takes the initiative and crosses the cultural, religious and moral boundaries in order to reach those who are lost. He kindles their faith and turns them into evangelisers of others. As we journey with Christ to Easter, may we grow in our faith, share it with others, and prepare us to partake in his triumph.
ARTWORK REFLECTION with Mgr Graham Schmitzer
Christ and the Samaritan Woman – Annibale Carracci (1560–1609).
“Christ and the Samaritan Woman”, c. 1593–1594. Oil on canvas, 76.5cm x 63.5cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest, Hungary. Public Domain.
Annibale Carracci is hailed as one of the founding fathers of what would become recognised as the Baroque period, and though his career was short (he died in 1609 at the age of 49), he left a legacy of bold experimentation. Together with his cousin, Ludovico, and his older brother, Agostino—each an outstanding artist—Annibale set out to transform Italian painting. The potential of this new kind of painting would be taken up over a decade later by Caravaggio who must have seen the Carracci’s work while travelling from Milan to Rome in 1592. The success of the Carracci led to Annibale being invited to Rome to work for the powerful Farnese family. In Rome, Annibale’s painting was transformed through his first-hand encounter with classical antiquity and the art of Michelangelo and Raphael. In his turn, Annibale influenced a new generation of artists—Rubens, Poussin and Bernini were deeply indebted to him.
Christ and the Samaritan Woman was created between 1593–1594 before Annibale went to Rome. It was commissioned by Abbot Astorre Sampieri in a time when a considerable number of religious paintings were executed by artists for devotional purposes. It was part of a cycle of works showing Gospel scenes of Christ meeting women—Christ and the Canaanite Woman by Ludovico and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery by Agostino. This work and Saint Roch Giving Alms were reproduced in print during the painter’s lifetime.
Unusually, Annibale has depicted the moment when, pointing to her hometown of Sychar, Jesus tells the woman to go and get her husband. The woman is stepping down from the well. Amazed that someone she has never met knows her entire life story, she wonders if he could be the promised Messiah. Jesus declares, “That is who I am, I who speak to you” (Jn 4:26). She runs home, and in her excitement, forgets to pick up the water pot. She must have been very convincing because her story brought the people of the town out to the well to see for themselves. We regard Mary Magdalene as the “apostle to the apostles” for her testimony of the Resurrection, but here, long before, is a woman who converts a whole town even though she is a well-known sinner (hence her coming to the well at the hottest part of the day to avoid the women of the town.) This is early in the Gospel, and already a town of Samaritans (rejected by the Jews) is claiming Jesus as “the saviour of the world” (Jn 4:42).
St John sees great symbolism in Jesus’ description of himself as “living water”, as should we, for the Lenten season is all about Baptism—those preparing for it, and those soon to renew their vows. We are all searching for the meaning of life. Listen to St Bonaventure describing the symbolism of the water flowing from Christ’s pierced side: “Flowing from the secret abyss of our Lord’s heart as from a fountain, this stream gave the sacraments of the Church the power to confer the life of grace, while for those already living in Christ, it became a spring of living water welling up to life everlasting” (St Bonaventure, Lignum Vitae).
It is extraordinary that this woman, who we would presume was uneducated, could glimpse the truth behind Jesus’ words while the Jewish experts and scholars could not. This is one of John’s favourite themes throughout his Gospel. The encounter shows Jesus’ love for the world. The woman was well-aware of how others saw her low standing—gender, race and marital status—and yet here is the Saviour conversing with her almost as an equal.
This encounter takes place at a well. St John would have seen this as a pointer. We are looking here at marriage imagery. In the Old Testament, wells were the setting for betrothals. Isaac and Rebeca, Jacob and Rachel, Moses and Zipporah, all meet and pledge themselves to one another at wells. In John’s eyes, Jesus is declaring himself as the Bridegroom of the Church, symbolised by this woman. In the former covenant, Israel was described as God’s chosen people, his bride. But, she had so often prostituted herself by worshipping false Gods. But, time and time again, God took her back. Now, in person, God seeks out a woman who has so often been unfaithful. For her, and in her we see ourselves, Christ, “Like a Bridegroom went out from his heavenly chambers. He came with a presage of his nuptials into the field of the world. He came to the marriage bed of the Cross and there mounting it he consummated his marriage. It was bed not of joy but of pain, and he lovingly gave himself up and joined himself to the Woman forever” (St Augustine, Sermo Suppositus 120).
The nuptial imagery of this encounter is deepened when we recall that, in Jewish tradition, a bride was prepared for her wedding in a ritual bath. One problem we face today is that in infant Baptism we overly focus on original sin. Adult catechumens have the advantage of being aware that Baptism not only wipes away all sin, but immediately prepares them for the Eucharist—the bridal banquet.
The entire Christian life bears the mark of the spousal love of Christ and the Church. Our Baptism, our entrance into the People of God, is a nuptial mystery. “I have espoused you as a chaste virgin to Christ,” (2 Cor 11:2) Paul tells his converts. Jesus brings up the past of this woman’s life because that is what is keeping her from loving him. She must “come clean”. That’s all he needs. Worried because of your past? Come clean. Baptism, Confession (a kind of re-Baptism) is your entrance into the Kingdom.
Fr Mark De Battista migrated from Malta with his family in 1978. He completed his schooling in the Diocese of Wollongong and offered himself for the priesthood in 1988. He commenced his studies at St Patrick’s College, Manly in 1989 and was ordained priest in 1995, serving in various parishes across the diocese until 2002. From 2003–2007, he served in two assignments in the USA with university chaplaincy in the states of Illinois and Colorado. After some years back in the diocese, he undertook post graduate studies in Rome from 2010–2016 in the field of sacred Scripture at the Pontifical Biblical Institute (Biblicum), the Pontifical Gregorian University and the Pontifical Biblical Commission (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith). Since his return to the diocese, he has served in various parishes, and from 2018–2021, he was chaplain to the University of Wollongong. From 2018, he has also served in St Patrick’s Parish, Port Kembla, where he is now the parochial administrator. He is currently chaplain to Mass For You At Home broadcast on Network Ten and Foxtel each week.
Monsignor Graham Schmitzer is the retired parish priest of Immaculate Conception Parish in Unanderra, NSW. He was ordained in 1969 and has served in many parishes in the Diocese of Wollongong. He was also chancellor and secretary to Bishop William Murray for 13 years. He grew up in Port Macquarie and was educated by the Sisters of St Joseph of Lochinvar. For two years he worked for the Department of Attorney General and Justice before entering St Columba’s College, Springwood, in 1962. Mgr Graham loves travelling and has visited many of the major art galleries in Europe.
With thanks to the Diocese of Wollongong, who have supplied this reflection from their publication, Triumph – Lenten Program 2023. Reproduced with permission.