February 26-27, 2005, Third Sunday in Lent, Cycle A
A religious ed teacher was quizzing his class on the New Testament. He said, “Who can tell me what the Epistles are?” One of the girls in the front row threw up her hand and waved it wildly. The teacher nodded for her to answer. In a loud voice filled with conviction, the little girl stated, “The epistles are the wives of the apostles.”
The question I have for you is, “What are apostles?” The word apostle means the one who is sent. What do you think are the qualities needed to be an apostle? Who here is an apostle?
Over the centuries, the word apostle has come to mean specifically one who is sent by Jesus. Some of the more famous apostles are people like St. Peter and St. Paul but today’s Gospel story tells us about one of the earliest apostles, the Samaritan woman. The gospel does not name her but the Orthodox tradition honors her as St. Photini or St. Photina, or in Russia, Svetlana. The name means “equal to the apostles”.
In chapters 3 and 4 of John’s Gospel, we see Jesus reveal to us the depth and breadth of this kingdom of God he has come to proclaim. Unlike the narrowness that we often have toward faith and God, Jesus demonstrates that the love of God is for all kinds of people, from the members of the religious establishment like Nicodemus who came to Jesus in the dark, to the royal official from Capernum he will heal in the following passages, and even this woman who is on the margins of the Jew’s social sensibilities.
As you probably know, the Samaritans were the remnants of the ten tribes of Israel who lived in the northern kingdom after the split of Israel in the 8th century BC. The Jews despised them because they had intermarried after being conquered by the Assyrians in 722 BC, and so had lost their racial purity. The Samaritans despised the Jews because, after the Jews returned to Jerusalem from their captivity in Babylon, they refused to let the Samarians help rebuild the temple. So the Samaritans built their own temple on Mt. Gerizim.
On top of that, it was considered very bad form for a Jewish male to talk to a woman in public, let alone a stranger, and a Samaritan on that. So the woman must have been shocked when Jesus not only addressed her, but actually asks for a drink from her.
As they start to talk, she misses the point of what Jesus is saying, taking literally what Jesus is saying metaphorically. She tests Jesus to see if he will dismiss her as unworthy because as a Samaritan she does not worship in Jerusalem.
Then Jesus touches her heart by telling her about herself. Now there are all sorts of traditions that have grown up around this woman, most of them completely unsupported by the facts given in the gospel. Some say that she is coming to the well alone at noon rather than with the other women in the cooler early morning because she is shunned in her own community as a sinner because she has had so many husbands. Of course, I am sure that there are people here today who would say that anyone who has had five husbands is more likely to be a saint!
Jesus points out these details of her life, not to condemn her, but to awaken her to the fact that she is trying to fill the wrong hunger, to satisfy the wrong thirst. How true is that for so many of us today, spending our whole life chasing after the American dream of material riches, and never satisfying the real hunger in us? Something in the way Jesus talks to her opens her eyes and she sees him for who he truly is. There is often this contrast between the sight of those who are on the fringes who see Jesus truly, and the blindness of the apostles who keep missing the point. The woman runs back to the village and, on the strength of her testimony, the townspeople come out to see this Jesus who might be the Christ.
In the story of this Samaritan women we see more clearly what it takes to be an apostle. This is important for us because all of us are called to be apostles, sent forth from the baptismal font to share the good news that Jesus is savior of the world. No one can opt out of this mission because they are unqualified. It is not our qualities or position in life that matter; Jesus is the one who gives us the courage and the wherewithal to be effective. The story makes it clearer that to be an effective apostle we must have an personal relationship with Jesus. It is not enough to hear about someone else’s relationship
At the end of each mass, we are sent forth in the dismissal, to be apostles. After renewing our own relationship with Christ in the Eucharist we are sent to bring the people we meet to Jesus, by sharing with them our own encounter with Him.