A Homiletical Exegesis for Lent 3 Cycle A (RCIA Scrutiny) Readings ~ Rev. Richard Eslinger
A Catechetical Gospel. For parishes engaged in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, the Lenten Scripture lessons remain with Year A no matter the broader context of the liturgical year being followed. This being Year C, we do trace the Gospel of St. Luke with this one Lenten exception. If we are about the instructions, rites, and formation comprising the RCIA, we remain with Year A and its catechetical lections. At the heart of this catechetical Lent are the three huge Johannine narratives in the Gospel of John: Woman at the Well, Man Born Blind, and The Raising of Lazarus. The Third Sunday’s Gospel story is accompanied by the first of the Lenten scrutinies, a rite that will possibly figure in our homily on this “Woman at the Well” Sunday.
A Trouble-filled Introduction. The initial trouble for most first century Jews is that Jesus chose to move from Judea and Jerusalem to Galilee by the direct route through Samaria. A chronic hatred persisted between Jews and Samaritans, one that “can only come from religious differences combined with a shared (in part) heritage.”1 Howard-Brook adds that “pilgrimaging Jews would sometimes cross the Jordan to ‘the other side’ in order to go around Samaria rather than take the obvious route between Galilee and Jerusalem.” 2
As the dialogue begins, the woman of Samaria points out the long-standing situation upon Jesus’ request for a drink of water: “Jews use nothing in common with Samaritans”(John 4:9). A further cluster of troubles develop upon the entrance of the woman to the well and Jesus asks her for a drink. For both Jews and Samaritans, this intentional crossing of gender lines in public was out of bounds. Jesus opens the dialogue by “violating the social customs of the time.”3
Then, too, the woman’s arrival at the well about noon is fraught with trouble. Numerous commentators have noted that in the Palestinian area the women of a village would rise early to go to the well for water while the day was still cool. This practice also provided the women with the opportunity to catch up on local news, continue good friendships, and support those having difficulties. That this woman comes to the well at midday rather than early in the morning labels her as an outcast. She is not welcome at the early morning gathering of women at the well. We may also note that Jesus is alone at the well upon the arrival of the Woman of Samaria. The Fourth Evangelist notes that “His disciples had gone into town to buy food”(4:8). While not reaching the level of serious trouble, the exit of the disciples allows the Evangelist to continue a Gospel replete with dialogue. There is a “rule of twos” to Johannine narrative. Conversations with three persons or groups cannot be found. So in order for the woman to arrive at the well at midday, she may well have crossed the path of the disciples as they headed into Sychar. The very troubling disclosure that the woman had five husbands is not provided within the opening dialogue, but comes later. This trouble will afford the preacher, with great caution, to possibly explore the implications of this disclosure which is provided by Jesus who “knows all things.”
A Biblical Type-scene. A structural analysis of this story is necessary both because of its length—the longest conversation between Jesus and anyone in all four Gospels—and because of the remarkable quality of the relationship between Jesus and the woman. An implied story-line is evoked for a reader steeped in biblical narrative: A courtship type-scene embraces several biblical well stories:
A man comes to a well, finds a maiden there, asks her for a drink; they converse; she runs home to tell her people what has happened; they return with her to the well and approve of the man; he returns to their home and marries the maiden.4
Primary examples of this type-scene include Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel, and Moses and Zipporah. Reflecting on the dynamics of these type-scenes, Emily Rose notes that “In each of these stories, when the characters gather at a well, a thirst is quenched: a thirst for authentic love, connection, and relationship.” Rose adds: We could even say that the well itself serves as a symbol of deep emotional thirst.”5
Apart from the commonality of thirst in the narrative, most every other feature of this biblical type-scene appears defeated, at least at first glance. The “maiden” is a woman who has been married five times, Jesus comes because of his thirst in the heat of the day, and he seeks “worshippers in spirit and in truth” rather than a bride. On the other hand, as we delve into this story, each of the qualities of the type-scene is both upheld and transformed.
The Structure of the Narrative. Raymond Brown sees the structure of this extended narrative as having an introduction (4:4-6a), a first scene comprising all of the material between the initial meeting of Jesus and the Samaritan woman (4:6b) and the decisive self-revelation by the Lord, “I am he” (4:26). The second scene takes up the story as the disciples return from their shopping trip to Sychar and continues through Jesus’ lengthy parables regarding food and the harvest (4:38). What follows, Brown proposes, is a conclusion provided in the words of the Evangelist (4:39-42). Meda Stamper, on the other hand, proposes a tripartite structure to the Woman at the Well narrative. She discerns three movements to the story and identifies them as follows:
The first movement is all about water. Jesus’ thirst, then the ensuing conversation with the woman, a bit wary of him and his boundary-crossing, and then the living water gushing up to eternal life that he will offer her and for which she will ask.
The second movement is the conversation about the woman’s private life, which is the moment on which the encounter seems to turn.
The third movement is the conversation about worship in Spirit and truth, which leads to her wondering about the Messiah and his revealing to her that he is.6
Adopting Stamper’s analysis of the three-fold movement within the narrative, we will explore each in turn.
Movement 1. All About Water. Once Jesus and the woman move beyond the “Jews vs. Samaritans” boundary, Jesus responds to the woman by saying “If you knew the gift of God and who is saying to you, ‘give me a drink,’ you would have asked him and he would have given you living water”(4:10). Here the Johannine practice of advancing the narrative by employing double-meaning words occurs once again. In both Jewish and Samaritan cultures, there was a difference between “dead” water—such as in a muddy puddle on a road or in an enclosed body of fetid water—and “living water” that was healthy and gushed (4:14) or flowed, fountain-like. In fact, the Greek word used in the Introduction identifies Jacob’s well as a pēgē, a term often used for “fountain.” Here, the Evangelist trades on the “earthly” meaning of the term. The double-meaning of this living water image, its “heavenly” meaning, now is provided by Jesus:
Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again; but whoever drinks of the water I shall give will never thirst; the water I shall give will become in him a spring (pēgē) of water welling up to eternal life”(4:14b).
As the Evangelist provides us with the response of the woman, her request is direct, but trades in ambiguity. “Sir,” she responds to Jesus’ offer, “give me this water, so that I may not be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” As we hear her request, we wonder: Is she operating solely on the “earthly” level of the image (thus seeking to avoid her daily trips in the heat of the day to this well) or is she already treading out into deeper waters that she has not thought possible before this moment? The woman has become a conversation partner with Jesus and when engaged in conversation with him, anything is possible and, surprisingly, even likely to occur.
Movement 2. Very Private, Yet Public Life. With Jesus’ next words, we now move to a second scene in the narrative. Instead of interrogating the woman as to her somewhat vague request for this living water, Jesus says to her, “Go call your husband and come back.” After responding that she has no husband, Jesus agrees as to the truth of her statement, adding, “For you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true.” This knowledge, within the Fourth Gospel, is a recurrent theme. Jesus knew who would not believe and who would betray him (6:64); what was to come but not yet manifest (13:19); and after his resurrection, when Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?”(21:17), after the third question, Peter responds, “Lord, you know all things.” So Jesus’ knowledge of the woman’s private life becomes a further and most central complication to the narrative. Many of us have heard preachers who move directly from the “evidence” of the woman having five husbands to a subsequent portrayal of her as a licentious, fallen sinner, “a Samaritan female of ill repute.”7 Some of these depictions even seem to a kind of judgmental superiority sermonizing, not supported in the Gospel text whatsoever. In fact, the only direct response by Jesus is his observation that what she has said is true. On the other hand, other commentators provide a number of other interpretations of this “five husbands” situation. They include,
The woman “could have been trapped in the custom of a levirate marriage,…and the last male in the family had refused to marry her.”8
Origen saw “a reference to the fact that the Samaritans held as canonical only the five books of Moses.”9 Raymond Brown adds that Hebrew word for “husband” was also used as a derogatory term for a pagan deity.10
“The five husbands” can also be a reference to the people from the five foreign nations who were brought as colonialists by the Assyrians when they conquered the region in 721 B.C.E. (see 2 Kings 17:24).”11 Following this interpretation, Jesus’ comment that “the one you have now is not your husband” must refer to Herod who rules on behalf of Rome over Samaria as well as the Jewish territories.
May we at least conclude that, first, Jesus does not devote any further words to the matter if, in fact, the woman had sinned somehow in accruing these five husbands. Second, this conversation serves the larger narrative in an important way; it sets up the profound question of Jesus’ identity. The woman continues to engage fully in the ongoing conversation with Jesus. Moreover, it would somewhat out of character for the Evangelist to provide this dialogue without some deeper symbolic meaning being in play, one that moves beyond the earthly to the heavenly. (Homiletically, Raymond Brown’s insight that the Hebrew word for “husband” was also used in a derogatory way for a pagan deity appears most fruitful within the broader interpretative scope of this catechumenal Sunday.)
Movement 3. Worship in Spirit and in Truth. With the Woman at the Well’s reply to Jesus’ knowledge about the five husbands—“Sir (kyrie), I can see that you are a prophet”—the conversation now shifts its focus to worship and the work of the Spirit. Meda Stamper regards the woman’s question as to the alternative locations of worship, Jerusalem or Gerizim, as quite serious “to which he gives a serious answer.” 12 That answer dethrones both mounts for these two peoples. “Believe me, woman, the hour (horā) is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.” Once again, the Johannine use of Jesus’ hour refers to the Paschal Mystery when Jesus will be lifted up on the cross and in glory. At that pivotal occasion, the worship centers of the Samaritans and the Jews will be undone as privileged cultic centers of direct access to God. This hour, “which is coming and now is,” will provide a new and decentered worship that will transcend racial, ethnic, gender, and national boundaries that defined the old worship on those mounts. Stamper notes that “This is the only sustained conversation about worship in John; the verb occurs 9 times in these five verses, and the noun for worshipers occurs only this once in all the New Testament.”13 At this hour, “true worshippers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth (pneumati kai alētheia).” Jesus adds that “the Father seeks such people to worship him.” Signaling the end of geo-politically based locations for worship, those who worship God “must (dei) worship in Spirit and truth.” Just as it was necessary for Jesus to traverse Samaria, so now it is necessary for worship to be “in Spirit and in truth.”
Continuing a serious conversation, the woman responds to Jesus, “I know that the Messiah is coming, the one called the Christ (Christos); when he comes he will tell us everything.” In response, Jesus makes the most serious disclosure possible: “I am he (egō eimi), the one speaking with you.” Only here in the Fourth Gospel does Jesus expressly disclose that he is the messiah, the Christ. Wes Howard-Brook summarizes this radical claim: “
(Jesus) does so in the form of the first of many egō eimi statements that link his being with that of the one revealed to Moses at the burning bush (Ex. 3:28). It is the fulfillment of the negative witness of John back in the first scene of the narrative when he offered the solemn confession, “I am not (egō ouk eimi) the Christ” (1:20). And it comes not to the Judeans, who will eventually (and murderously) press Jesus for just such a confession (10:24), but to the Samaritans, and to a woman!14
With this momentous self-disclosure to the woman at the Samaritan well, this third movement comes to its completion. The disciples return from their shopping expedition in Sychar, the woman returns to the city and proclaims Jesus as messiah. “Many of the Samaritans of that town began to believe in him because of the woman who testified, ‘He told me everything I have done.’” The townspeople come out to see and hear for themselves this one who has come to Jacob’s well. They invite him to remain with them and Jesus does stay in Sychar for two more days. Now they, too, come to a profound revelation, again not received and understood in Galilee or Jerusalem:
We no longer believe because of your word, for we have heard for ourselves and we know that this is truly the savior of the world (sōtēr tou kosmou).
While the Gospel of John contains abundant misunderstanding as to Jesus’ true identity—such as the shades of meaning between “Sir” and “Lord”—there is no ambiguity as the people of Sychar proclaim Jesus as “savior of the world.” To this moment only one person has seized this title and that one is Caesar himself. Now, the hour is coming, as well, for this profound decision to be made. Jesus or Caesar is the savior of the world. Who will we believe, follow; to whom will we give allegiance, witness, and worship?
A Homiletical Strategy for the Homily on the Third Sunday of this catechetical Lent.
On this Third Sunday in Lent, we are graced with this amazing narrative in the Gospel of John of the woman at the well. It is profound, filled with Johannine rhetorical strategies such as irony, double-meaning words, and words freighted with events yet to occur (such as Jesus’ hour). For some of us called to preach, we were formed by a hermeneutic of distillation. When approaching a biblical narrative, we were taught to extract main ideas and conceptual themes, leaving the narrative form of the pericope behind as an unneeded shell to set aside in our homily. Of course, biblical scholars and homileticians have been raising serious concerns about the consequences of this “eclipse of biblical narrative in the churches for many decades. Put simply, the best way to preach a biblical narrative is by way of a narrative shape to the homily. Just as we have been exploring the plot of John’s story of the woman at the well, so, too, we will best shift from a homiletic that extracts “points” from the text and toward a homiletical plot that is itself narrative.15
Within the time and liturgical constraints of preaching at the Sunday Mass, a series of protocols are important to consider as we “run the story” of the Woman at the Well and provide contemporary expressions of various scenes, incidents, and images as we proceed. We may identify various locations within the narrative text where important analogies with the contemporary assembly may be discerned. As we discern several of these locations, we will put the biblical story on hold and develop an excursus (brevity is important here) that invites the listeners to see how it is with them at this crucial place within the narrative. Most biblical narratives offer more such locations than can be fully exploited in any given homily. Clearly, the Woman at the Well offers numerous potential locations for the development of such excurses. However, as we have traced the plot of our pericope, three locations offer themselves as fruitful excurses as we run the story. Our three movements within the narrative offer such keylocations for us to contemporize the John 4 narrative. First, however, we need to come to some agreement as to how we can preach this story with integrity and with brevity.
Protocols for Shaping a Narrative Homiletical Plot.
With the Introduction to the narrative offering several troubling matters, we will need to both gesture toward one of these complications as Jesus journeys through Samaria while leaving others, perhaps for another time. In the opening section of the first movement, the Woman at the Well immediately raises the Jewish-Samaritan cultural and religious divide, perhaps that brief dialogue could best introduce this narrative homily.
Since we will be shaping the homiletical plot around three of the core movements of the narrative, on this Third Sunday in Lent, Year A, we may well set aside some other movements in the pericope. For example, while on other occasions the returning disciples’ conversation with Jesus concerning food and the parable of the harvest 4:31-38) may find itself as one of the movements within the homily, for our purposes it may be set aside in its entirety.
The section following the food/harvest conversation, however, is crucial to the narrative; we must (dei) focus on this “savior of the world” confession in our conclusion.
The Three Excurses: Water, Private/Public Life, and Worship in Spirit and truth.
Each of these three movements of the story will need to be imaged out of the contemporary life of the assembly. Notice that this imagery need not be delimited solely to personal or even individualistic contexts. Our imagery will, in harmony with the expansive vision of the narrator, embrace personal, ecclesial/sacramental, and worldly contexts.
Movement 1. All About Water. It is meet, right, and salutary to recall that our current homiletical engagement with John 4 is precisely because we are in the midst of the Lenten catechumenate and the teaching and formation embodied within the Rites of Christian Initiation of Adults. Raymond Brown notes that there may well be a sacramental reference to Baptism in this pericope. He explores the wider question “of whether the author intended the passage to remind his Christian readers of Baptism and to teach them that one of the effects of Baptism was the giving of the Spirit.”16 In fact, with the catechumens on this Third Sunday in Lent, the Woman at the Well is asked of her own life as soon as she asks for living water. The sequence is enacted on this Sunday in our hearing and seeing! One of the discussion questions addressed to the catechumens (the “Elect”) on this Sunday is “What do you want to tell him that you are really thirsty for?”17 Since the baptized as well encounter seasons of thirsting for God, one distinctive aspect of such thirst may be highlighted here. Perhaps we thirst for peace (especially in these horrible days of war!).
Movement 2. Very Private, Yet Public Life. This second excursus might focus on the symbolic and social dimensions of the “five husbands” motif. After developing this dimension of the motif, we might invite the assembly to focus on the kinds of “husbands” to whom we are married in North American culture. All of these can descend to the status of idolatry. Some examples may well include:
1. The “husband” of our career
2. The “husband” of our addictions
3. The “husband of consumerism
4. The “husband” of our privilege
5. The “husband” of our ideological certainties
While a short list of such potential idolatries may be provided, only one “husband” idol should be explored in any depth. The issue here, with African American homiletician Henry Mitchell, is to provide an “eyewitness account” for the assembly.18 Our excursus, moreover, will certainly want to tie in with the First Scrutiny intercessions for this Sunday.
Movement 3. Worship in Spirit and Truth. Once more, Meda Stamper puts it succinctly and centrally: “To worship God as God wants is to worship in Spirit, presumably with the Spirit that Jesus offers gushing up from the heart, and in truth…” She adds, “Worship, this seems to suggest, is about relationship, dwelling in the vine Jesus.”19 The question this Sunday for the catechumens is to what extent are there already trickles or even small streams of that Spirit that will gush forth from the Lord at the Easter Vigil? A few examples drawn from the non-confidential discussions of the Elect might be provided here.
May the same Spirit abide in your homiletical preparations and gush forth in your proclamation!
1 Wes Howard-Brook, Becoming Children of God: John’s Gospel and Radical Discipleship (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1994), 101.
2 Ibid, 102.
3 Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John, Vol.1, The Anchor Bible (Garden City, NJ: Doubleday, 1966), 177.
4 Howard-Brook, 113.
5 Emily Rose, “Samaritan Woman at the Well (John 4:5-42) – Sermon for Lent 3A,” Literature & Liturgy, March 8, 2014, accessed March 9, 2022, https://jesusscribles.wordpress.com/2014/03/08/samaritan-woman-at-the-well-john-45-42-sermon-lent-3a/.
6 Meda Stamper, “Commentary on John 4:5-42, Working Preacher, March 27, 2011, accessed March 10, 2022, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/third-sunday-in-lent/commentary-on-john-45-42.
7 “Editor-in-Chief,” “John 4:18 Meaning of You Have Had Five Husbands,” ConnectUS, July 31, 2020, accessed March 10, 2022, https://connectusfund.org/john-4-18-meaning-of-you-have-had-five-husbands.
8 Osvaldo Vena, “Commentary on John 4:5-42,” Working Preaching, March 9, 2017, accessed March 9, 2022, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/third-sunday-in-lent/commentary-on-john-45-42-3.
9 Brown, John, 171.
11 Vena, “Commentary on John 4:5-42.”
12 Stamper, “Commentary on John 4:5-42.”
14 Howard-Brook, 109
15 See: Guerric DeBona, Fulfilled in Our Hearing: History and Method of Christian Preaching (New York: Paulist Press, 2005), 33-71 for an analysis of various methods for narrative preaching. Also see DeBona’s chapter on “Liturgical Preaching” (78-117) for an excellent development of Fulfilled in Your Hearing (1982).
16 Brown, John, 179-80.
17 See: Michael Marchall, “Reflection Questions for RCIA Seekers—3rd Sunday in Lent tpo 5th Sunday in Lent, Year A,” TeamRCIA, accessed March 10, 2022, https://teamrcia.com/2021/02/reflection-questions-for-rcia-seekers-3rd-sunday-in-lent-to-5th-sunday-in-lent-year-a/.
18 See: Henry Mitchell, Black Preaching: The Recovery of a Powerful Art (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1990).
19 Stamper, “Commentary on John 4:5-42.”