Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Third Sunday of Lent, Year A, John 4:5-42, March 27, 2011
A few years back, a group of Marinduqueños wanted to see the then President Arroyo (but were not able to) to appeal for her help, bringing with them a postcard with a photo of children posing along the “dead” Mogpog river, three bottles of bluish water from the rivers with the label “Marcopper Water: Toxic” to remind her of the sorry plight of the islanders. According to a report by the Philippine Daily Inquirer, since l996 when the Marcopper Mining Co. spilled up to 300 million gallons of mine tailings into the Boac River and Calancay Bay in Marinduque, the people have been suffering from fish kills, skin and health diseases, and the degradation of their flora and fauna. The President was reported to have been pursuing a Canadian firm, the Placer Dome, which owned 40 percent of the mining company, for the compensation of the affected Marinduqueños, and it is claimed that Placer Dome could be made to pay up to $13 million to bring back the river and bay to life. But as Msgr Senen Mapalad argued, their demand was not simply about compensation; it was about justice: “What about the deteriorating health of the victims, the rehabilitation of our rivers and the continuing environmental degradation caused by the disaster?”
This mining disaster underscores how important water is to life. Without clean water, people and animal will die. We recall this tragedy because today’s Gospel is about water, more particularly, about living water. This term “living” water (John 4:10), which is the subject of Jesus’ conversation with a Samaritan woman at the well of Jacob, is a common expression for spring or flowing water to distinguish it from the still water, like the one found in cisterns, which is less desirable. A remarkable dialogue began when Jesus asked water from her. Assured that he could give her water that banishes thirst forever, the Samaritan woman eagerly asked for some of it so she would not be thirsty or have to keep coming to the well of Jacob to draw water (John 4:15). Of course, she misunderstood what Jesus was referring to, when he talked of the water that, once drunk, will not make the drinker thirsty again, and that becomes in the recipient a spring of water welling up to eternal life (John 4:14). What she thought was that Jesus would provide her flowing water that is much tastier than the stagnant one. In John’s literary technique, her misunderstanding serves as a springboard for Jesus to explain, and for the reader to understand, that Jesus was simply using a symbolic language, a metaphor. If Jesus spoke of living water, it was meant to bring the Samaritan—and the reader of this story—to the real or supernatural water.
What water was Jesus referring to? In Jewish tradition, water can signify the purifying of God’s Spirit in the community. Among the Qumran sectaries, for example, we find the belief that “God will cleanse by his truth all the works of every man, and will purify for himself the (bodily) fabric of every man, to banish all Spirit of perversity from his members, and purify him of all wicked deeds by the Spirit of holiness; and he will cause the Spirit of Truth to gush forth upon him like lustral water” (1QS 6:21). Most likely, however, it refers to God’s wisdom. In the Old Testament, the role of God’s wisdom is cast in water metaphor: “He who eats of me will hunger still, he who drinks of me will thirst for more; he who obeys me will not be put to shame; he who serves me will never fail” (Sir 24:20-21). And for the Jews, that wisdom is none other than the Law: “All this is true of the book of the Most High’s covenant, the law which Moses commanded us as an inheritance for the community of Jacob” (Sir 24:22). A similar identification is found among the Qumran monks: “He opened (this) before them, and they dug a well of abundant waters” (CD 3:16); “The well which the princes dug, which the nobles of the people delved with a rod. The well is the Law” (CD 6:4-5). In Isaiah, God invited his people to hear his wisdom so they might live: “All you who are thirsty, come to the water!… Come to me heedfully, listen, that you may have life” (Isa 55:3).
In the conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman, the wisdom that Jesus speaks of, however, is not the Law, but he himself, together with his teaching, for he is the one who gives the water that, when drunk, will not make the drinker thirsty again (John 4:14a). As well as his teaching, he himself is wisdom, and the giver of wisdom. Paul likewise makes this identification: “Christ is… the wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:24). “What we utter is God’s wisdom: a mysterious, a hidden wisdom. God planned it before all ages for our glory. None of the rulers knew the mystery: if they had known it, they would never have crucified the Lord of glory.” And this wisdom is far superior to the Law of Moses because it gives eternal life to the recipient: “The water I give shall become a fountain within him, leaping up to provide eternal life” (John 4:14c). The teaching that Jesus as wisdom gives eternal life is supported by the first reading (Exod 17:3-7). At the time of the Exodus, when the Israelites journeyed through the desert and became unfaithful to the Lord, they experienced water crisis and almost died, but God saved them by providing them water from the rock. This event highlights God’s care for his people, and in crisis, the Israelites, long after the event, hankered for the time when God would once again draw water from the rock to save his people. That hope finds fulfillment in Jesus.
For John, if the Christian community wishes to achieve wholeness in its life, it must therefore draw water from Christ, the wisdom of God. Apart from Christ, the community cannot experience integrity and happiness. It would be like the Samaritan woman who, in her search for happiness, married five times (John 4:18), for she drank only from the water of Jacob’s well. However well educated and intelligent we are, we cannot be sufficient unto ourselves; hence, we cannot simply depend on our own wisdom and our own resources. It is just ironic that, according to Jeremiah, we prefer to drink water from our own cistern (Jer 2:13). We think, for example, that our own wealth and power can assure us happiness. But soon we realize that these, like sex, drugs, and honor, are fleeting. Moreover, they do not satisfy; once we have them, we never have enough. We crave for more money, more power, more sex, more drugs, and there is no end to that.