The Bridegroom is the living denial of all loneliness and the Bridegroom is here.
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When we make bad choices and compromises, we get ourselves lost, mired — our life stuck in a slavery of desolation. The Samaritan woman at the well (Jn 4:5-42) is a perfect example of this. She’s had five husbands, and now she’s living with another man. But it’s clear that, still, she’s not happy. Because she doesn’t belong to anyone … which is anguish. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wrote that “the root of the human being’s wretchedness is loneliness, is the absence of love — is the fact that my existence is not embraced by a love that makes it necessary.” That’s the love we are waiting for: the love that says to us: It is necessary that you exist!
A terrible madness
This dilemma is dramatized by Evelyn Waugh in his novel Brideshead Revisited. A character caught up in an adulterous relationship, suddenly struck with qualms of conscience, obsesses about that “one little, flat, deadly word that covers a lifetime” — sin … and then experiences a kind of meltdown:
Living in sin, with sin, by sin, for sin, every hour, every day, year in, year out. Waking up with sin in the morning, seeing the curtains drawn on sin, bathing it, dressing it, clipping diamonds to it, feeding it, showing it round, giving it a good time, putting it to sleep at night. … “Poor Julia,” they say, “she can’t go out. She’s got to take care of her little sin. … Julia’s so good to her little, mad sin.”
The woman at the well shares in sin’s madness. Here she is coming to collect water at the very hottest time of the day—at noon—precisely to avoid running into anyone else at the well. She does not want to subject herself to others’ derision, to suffer their contempt. She opts for solitariness and alienation, even if it makes her life more oppressive and unbearable.
Sin makes a person realize as nothing else does the terrible loneliness of life. After an offense against God, human nature feels itself to shrivel up and become cut off from the rest of the world. The parched and thirsty soul feels the need of the dew of God, and rushes madly as the beasts wander in the jungle looking for the water they cannot find. The soul by sin is thus made solitary. My sins will not let me feel that inward presence that is the sole real source of peace here below. I was created by Love for love, and when by sin I act contrary to Love, my heart must necessarily feel his absence (Fr. Bede Jarrett, O.P).
So the Samaritan woman each day refills her water jar from the well under the hellish heat of the midday sun, and drags herself back to her personal hell, even more parched and arid. Until this day ….
Jesus cannot endure the Father’s children living bereft of God’s presence as a result of sin. So in his tenderness he undertakes exceptional measures to draw close to us. The Lord’s method of rescuing the Samaritan woman is the same one he offers us today.
What Jesus does
Jesus gets to the well before us and arrives tired. It is Jesus who takes the initiative in rescuing us from our patterns of bondage and self-destruction. And he comes tired so as to model for us in his flesh the fatigue and exhaustion that sin imposes on us. The word for “tired” here is the same used in Mt 11:28: Come to me all you who are weary.
Jesus says: “Give me a drink.” Jesus is thirsty for us to give him what we thirst for. In his beautiful book The Woman at the Well, Fr. Adrian van Kaam, C.S.Sp. imagines Jesus saying:
If you only knew that my longing for you surpasses infinitely your longing for me. If you only knew that I am burning with desire to fill you with the living water of grace and love, that my asking you anything is but a loving occasion for me to touch you, to make you into a new person. If you only knew that I cannot do so without your being receptive to me, then you would ask me to give you a drink of divine compassion and I would give you that living water. To really reach you, I need your asking. Without your receptivity I can do nothing, I am powerless in my love for you.
And then Jesus adds this: If you knew the gift of God. What is the “gift of God”? I go with François Mauriac’s answer: “It is precisely the opposite of anguish.”
Keep in mind the Scriptural significance of wells. In the Bible, wells are places of engagement and espousal. Wells are where marriage proposals take place. In Sacred Scripture, wells lead to weddings. The woman has had five husbands; she is presently living with a sixth man; Jesus shows up in her life as Man Number Seven … and seven is a mystical number, the perfect number. Jesus comes to us as Jesus the Bridegroom.
St. John Paul II writes in one of his plays:
The Bridegroom is the living denial of all loneliness. If I knew how to implant myself in Him, if I knew how to live in Him, I would find in myself the Love that fills him.
Thanks to the encounter with Jesus at the well, the Samaritan woman does know how to live in the love of the Bridegroom … and thanks to the graces of Lent, so do we.
The woman left her water jar and went off into town. She is no longer freighted with her former life of slavery. She no longer has to lug around the leaden weight of guilt. She is set free.
On the cross, it will be Jesus who says I thirst. And thanks to the witness of the woman at the well, we know exactly what to do to slake our Savior’s thirst.
Find Fr. Peter John Cameron’s reflection on the Sunday Gospel each week here.