Woman at the Well
Third Sunday Lent, Year A
The Israelites had been mired in Egyptian captivity for so long nobody could remember anything else. Moses, then, inspired by God, had a vision of the Promised Land . . . a land flowing with milk and honey. A place where God’s covenant with the People can flourish and live on forever. And Moses convinced them to strike out across the desert in search of this Promised Land, a whole new paradigm.
If paradigm is akin to a ladder on the wall, and we’re climbing as furiously and diligently as we can, what Moses did was convince us NOT:
- that we’re climbing poorly
- that we need a new ladder
- that we need to “think outside the box” and replace the ladder with scaffolding or a scissor lift
No, what Moses did was convince us that we need to put our ladder on a different wall.
While the vision of the new paradigm, the Promised Land, is compelling, and we’re caught up in the enchantment of it, we quickly discover that changing walls is much more difficult than we think, and there is always resistance. Think about it. You have climb down the ladder, which is harder than climbing up. You have to hoist the ladder across the desert to the other wall, the right wall. And then you have to begin climbing again, encountering low-rung problems—water, food—that you solved years ago when the ladder was on the other wall. Makes you grumble and think twice about what you’ve done.
Moses and God do not give up on the new paradigm. Rather, they exercise extraordinary leadership to empower the people to persevere.
A great leader not only helps the rest of us see the new wall, and imagine ourselves climbing up it; any encounter with that leader actually puts us in touch with it. Jesus was, is, such a leader. And our gospel story today bears that out.
While I haven’t done an exhaustive study of the Gospels, I’ve come to believe that anyone, with perhaps the exception of Pontius Pilate, who has a one-to-one encounter with Jesus experiences a change of paradigm, or at least a glimpse of a new paradigm. Their world is rocked, it’s a transformative encounter. And so often, Jesus uses just a few short words:
To Matthew: “Follow me.”
To Zacchaeus: “Come down, for I must stay at your house today.”
To the paralytic: “Pick up your bed and go home.”
To Peter: “Do you love me . . . feed my sheep.” (although he had to ask him three times!)
And, in our story today, to the woman at the well: “Give me a drink.” This is an extraordinary encounter!
She comes to the well with her ladder on that wall (old paradigm) which meant:
Jesus has his ladder on a completely different wall, i.e. “living water.” And he shattered her old paradigm in four simple words: “Give me a drink.” Through her one-to-one encounter with Jesus, through their dialogue, she eventually gets it, and once she does, she can’t hold it in, can’t keep it to herself, overcomes her shame, runs into town to literally proclaim the Good News!
If you were to meet Jesus at Jacob’s Well in the middle of a hot, dry day, what are four or five words that he would use to reach you, and beckon you out of your old paradigm over to his wall? Let me share a bit of my own story to help you respond to this question.
A few years ago, I would have answered that I hear Jesus calling me “to be for . . .” I often told people that my vocational call can be summed up in those three words/seven letters: to be for.
And I would have told you then that I received this call many years ago, when I was in college, having read Pedro Arupe’s short monograph to the Jesuits Men for Others. While I did not discern a vocation to join the Jesuits, I clearly resonated with that paradigm: to be for. That’s the wall upon which I placed my ladder, and, quite frankly, I climbed many rungs.
Yet, in recent years, and especially in recent months, my vocational paradigm has shifted. Still three words, now eight letters: to be with . . .
The old paradigm--to be for—implied it was up to me to save, to be the one who wins the day. Not only is that not possible, it implies a condescending attitude that reveals none of my own needs, shortcomings, and limitations. It implies that I am fully equipped to do the saving all on my own.
To be with . . . is altogether different, and freeing, and, I am convinced, much more effective.
So, picture yourself at the well, like the woman from our story. In three, four, five words, what does Jesus say to you that shifts your paradigm, rocks your world, points toward a wall you haven’t yet seen?
I’ll leave you with one woman’s reflection. The words she came to are:
To be known is to be loved, and to be loved is to be known.
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