A woman came. She is a symbol of the Church not yet made righteous. Righteousness follows from the conversation. She came in ignorance, she found Christ, and he enters into conversation with her.
Thus St. Augustine starts his commentary on the woman at the well, the episode from the fourth chapter of John’s Gospel that the Church reads on the Third Sunday of Lent. He connects the woman at the well to the Church, a Church that is sinful, in need of conversion, and finds conversion in conversation with Christ.
In the Old Testament, wells were places of meeting, places where men met women: where Jacob met his wife Rachel, where Moses met his wife Zipporah. The image in the Gospel makes us think of romance, of a place where a husband goes to meet his wife. Then, why would Jesus go to a well to meet a woman? And quite the woman at that–as we will see.
Jacob meets Rachel at a well
The Scripture describes Jesus as the Spouse of the Church, and the Church as the Bride of Christ (Ephesians 5). And so, St John, writing his Gospel with the Old Testament images in the back of his mind, sets the scene for the meeting of Christ with this nameless woman, who St. Augustine and the whole tradition of the Church sees as the Church.
What the Gospel describes is a process, a process of conversion and the method that Jesus uses to take this woman–and all of us who would see ourselves in this woman–from sin to grace, from disgrace to mission. The woman goes at the hottest time of the day to get her water; Jesus meets her there at noon. She is surprised to see anyone there at that time, let alone a Jew who would not speak to (1) a woman; (2) a Samaritan, and definitely would not want to share a bucket with her. We think of another Gospel, when the Pharisees complain: “If this man were truly a prophet, he would know what kind of woman this is…”
And what kind of woman was the woman at the well? Why did she have to come all alone to get her water?
Jesus said to her, “Go call your husband and come back.”
The woman answered and said to him, “I do not have a husband.”
Jesus answered her, “You are right in saying, ‘I do not have a husband.’ For you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true.”
Christ had first asked this woman for a drink of water, meeting her at the well at the hottest time of the day. When she expressed surprise at this, He surprised her further by telling her that she should be the one asking him for water, that He had water to give that would quench her thirst. And now, we find what thirst Jesus was really referring to: what she had been looking for in all those men, Christ was willing to give her.
What did Jesus have to give that the five husbands and the man she was currently living with could not give her? Jesus had living water, the Holy Spirit (John 7:38) who is the love of God poured out into our hearts (Romans 5:5). The heart is made for love, and often is frustrated with the fact that every time we try to grasp love, to hold onto it, to possess it, love escapes us–like water running through our fingers. But if there were a water that did not leave us thirsty again, a love that didn’t run out, a relationship that didn’t leave me disappointed…
Christ wants to teach us how to love. As a beautiful song by Rich Mullins says, “We didn’t know what love was till He came.” But what He teaches us seems so paradoxical: You don’t get this love by holding on to people or things or feelings or pleasures. That will only leave you thirsting for more. When the feelings die or the person disappoints us, we will be left with empty hands. The only way to gain life is to lose it, and the only way to possess love is by not possessing other people.
Everyone who drinks this water [love as possession] will be thirsty again; but whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst; the water I shall give [un-possesing possession] will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life. (John 4:14)
What is this un-possessing possession? The Church’s tradition calls it “virginity”. This might seem like a strange word to use, especially when the situation of the woman at the will is more or less the norm in Western society. But what Jesus was proposing to the woman at the well was precisely virginity, a new way of relating to people that Christ wants to introduce into our lives.
Virginity is called an “evangelical counsel”, meaning a way of life that Christ proposes (counsel) in the Gospel (evangelical) for those who would be “perfect”. There are some in the Church who live virginity as a way of life in a physical way, by not getting married, in order to remind the whole Church of our call to live a spiritual virginity. By using the word “spiritual” though, that does not mean it is less real. In fact, the opposite is the case: a physical virginity without spiritual virginity would only make us “old maids”–as Pope Francis said to religious sisters.
Virginity is the call of the whole Church. The Church is at once the casta meretrix (the chaste prostitute) and the virgin mother. Everyone can measure his or her belonging to Christ, and therefore his or her belonging to the Church by the strength of their spiritual virginity. That would make for interesting dinner conversation, wouldn’t it? “How is your spiritual virginity going these days?”
But it is this spiritual virginity that makes us free: free to love even if others don’t love us back; free to keep reaching out to those for whom we do not have a natural affection; free to learn from our mistakes and to do what is right no matter what people might say.
Two simple examples from the Gospel:
The disciples are shocked to see Jesus speaking alone with a woman, something unspeakable in the culture of the time. But Jesus shows precisely that He is more free than they are. While not over-estimating our own abilities (I am not recommending married men to spend time alone with other married, or un-married women), we pray for the freedom that Jesus has, His un-possessing love.
The woman who had to go alone to the well, outcast and ashamed in her small Samaritan village, now goes back to her town to tell everyone about this man she met. The people in the town had not changed. They probably thought, “What does she think she is doing?” But she had changed, and is not “ruled” by what other people think or say about her. She has learned a new way of relating to people.
Virginity, then, at the invitation of Jesus, is what we must strive for in all of our relationships. It is not something only physical or emotional, but a spiritual reality. It applies not only to romantic relationships, but to friendships and to any human relationships. Virginity is the new way of “possessing” others, precisely by not possessing them.
Here is the logic of Christ and the lesson of the well: to gain life, we must lose it; to gain love, we must not try to grasp it. And Christ’s promise is that this type of love, this type of relating will not make us cold, will not make us old-maids, but will allow the flame of love to reach ever-higher…to God Himself!