People who are preparing to receive the Sacraments of Initiation at Easter (called the Elect) have read to them three long Gospel stories beginning this Sunday. Each has a contrast: thirst and water, blindness and seeing, then death and life. These Gospels are read at the Masses at which the Elect undergo the rites of purification called the Scrutinies, on the third, fourth, and fifth Sundays of Lent. Every third year (as this year), they appear in the regular rotation of Lenten readings for everyone. So let’s take a look at today’s Gospel, often known as ”The woman at the well,” in the context of Easter baptism.
Perhaps the key thing to notice is that the Gospel shows Jesus in a respectful conversation with someone who could barely be more of an “outsider”: different (and hated) ethnic group, gender considered inferior by the culture (and incapable of serious reflective conversation), and known as living a morally irregular (to say it mildly) life. Yet Jesus does not dismiss her; does not condemn her; and sees in her more potential than she seems to see in herself.
This welcome of the “outsider” is a message for those who are about to join the communion of the church – that they are welcome despite any differences of upbringing or culture; that the community will seek to understand and appreciate any differences, seeing them as gifts brought to it by the Holy Spirit; and that there is no “second-class citizenship” in the household of faith.
The Gospel shows that Jesus’ own disciples had to learn a lesson about that. The writer says that “they were surprised to see Him talking to a woman.” Those of us who are in any sort of “majority” in the church throughout its history have had to learn that same lesson. At the very beginning the (then all-Jewish) believers had to accommodate themselves to non-Jews joining the church as equals. During the age of exploration the church often failed because it tried to make people of other cultures into Europeans in the course of making them disciples, and was rightly resisted. During the waves of immigration into our country since the late nineteenth century immigrants have had to struggle to be welcomed into “settled” churches when they brought new customs, different languages, and unaccustomed expectations. It’s not unknown in churches even today that newcomers get “second-class” treatment (often perhaps unwittingly). If you’ve ever noticed a church with three, four, or five English-language Masses in the main church, and a Spanish- (or Polish-, or Italian-) language Mass “downstairs,” or “over in the parish hall,” you’ve seen this in action. It’s not just that soon-to-be Christians need to hear this Gospel to understand that they are welcome; we long-serving disciples need a reminder as well that the Holy Spirit acts in ways different from our expectations.
The “living water” Jesus promises to the woman in the story is, of course, the life-giving Sacrament of Baptism and the spiritual home in God’s church it offers. The Gospel story which is the context of the offer reminds those seeking the living water that a home awaits them; and it reminds us who have in the past been made members of the household of faith that it is our task to make the new members truly welcome. More next week: Until then, peace.