Exodus 17:3-7, Romans 5:1-2, 5-8, John 4:5-42
On the Gospel, Conversion: How It Works
A thirst could be physical or spiritual. Often it is both, as in the case of the unnamed woman whose meeting with Jesus by Jacob’s well gave us today’s gospel story. Physically she is thirsty, thirsting for water, and that brings her to the well day after day. But spiritually also she is thirsty, an inner thirst which drives her from one man to another and for which she can find no satisfaction. By the time she meets Jesus she is in her sixth marriage, and yet she is able to tell Jesus “I have no husband,” indicating that she is probably already looking for the seventh.
Numbers are often significant in biblical interpretation. According to the biblical symbolism of numbers, six is a number of imperfection, of lack, of deficiency. The woman in her sixth marriage is, therefore, in a situation of lack and deficiency. Seven, on the other hand, is a number of perfection, completion, finality and sufficiency. Jesus comes to this woman as the seventh man in her life. She opens up to him and finally experiences the satisfaction of all of her soul’s desiring, the full assuaging of her spiritual thirst. Isn’t this the kind of experience we wish for ourselves and for all in this season of Lent? It might, therefore, be useful for us to look at the mechanism of this profound turnaround in life that we call conversion.
First, someone must be ready to break boundaries. Human society organizes itself by erecting boundaries – national, ethnic, religious, and gender. Jesus shows in today’s gospel that in order to reach out to the other and create the necessary conditions for conversion, one must be prepared to challenge these man-made boundaries and break the dividing walls of prejudice. This is exactly what Jesus does to get to this woman.
According to the convention of the times, Jews were not supposed to interact with Samaritans. Walls of prejudice built on the foundations of ethnicity and religion kept them apart. Jesus broke these boundaries when he asked the woman for a drink, as her reaction shows:
“How is it that you, a Jewish man, ask a drink of me, a Samaritan woman?” Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans” (John 4:9).
That was not all. It was also against the moral norms of the day for a man to engage a woman in dialogue in a public place. And yet Jesus engages this woman in the longest dialogue we have in all the four Gospels, an act which even his own disciples saw as morally questionable:
Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” (John 4:27)
If Jesus had kept within the bounds of the expected behaviour of his day, there was no way he could have gone beyond a superficial brush with the woman, which would invariably lead to superficial results. Note also that, unlike many evangelists of our time, Jesus never tries to condemn, threaten, or intimidate the woman. All he tries to do is invite (v. 7), challenge (v. 10) and affirm her (v. 17), patiently trying to enlighten her doubts in no uncertain terms (vv. 24, 26).
Why does Jesus make such a tremendous impact on the woman? Because for the first time in her life she meets a man who really understands her. In her excitement she forgets her water jar and physical thirst (and so also does Jesus) and runs back to the village inviting the villagers to come and see “a man who told me everything I have ever done” – probably the first man to know her so well without rejecting her. Before you know it the convert has become a missionary bringing others to Jesus and to the joyful experience of conversion.
Before we close our refection on the gospel story I would like us to pay attention to the words of those other Samaritan villagers that the woman brings to Jesus.
They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Saviour of the world.” (4:42)
We see that there are two stages in the believing or conversion process: a. believing because of what someone told us about Jesus, and b. believing because we have come personally to know Jesus ourselves. Lent is the period when the Church invites all her children who still believe on the strength of someone else’s witnessing to come to Jesus personally and believe, not because someone told us, but because we have known him and experienced his love personally in our own lives.
On the Epistle Accepting God’s Unconditional Love
There is this story about a woman who gets onto a bus with her baby. The bus driver takes a look at her baby and goes, “Ugh! That’s the ugliest baby I ever saw.” The woman moves to the rear of the bus and sits down, fuming. She complains to a man sitting next to her, “The driver just insulted me!” The man says, “You go right up there and tell him off. Go ahead, I’ll hold your monkey for you.” A mother always loves and adores her baby, even when the baby is only as beautiful as a monkey. On this side of heaven, the closest we can get to the experience of unconditional love is the love of a mother for her baby.
What does a baby do to earn the mother’s love? Nothing. Whether the baby is beautiful or ugly, fat or thin, sickly or healthy, the mother still gives it her tender loving care. Whether the baby is awake or sleeping, crying or smiling, it doesn’t matter. Mother is always there to give it her love. When God wanted to declare His unconditional love for the people of Israel, the nearest analogy He could find was the love of a mother for her baby. “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you” (Isaiah 49:15).
Unconditional love means to love someone regardless of his or her qualities or actions. Unfortunately, much of the love we experience in our lives is conditioned love. As soon as the age of childhood is over, parents replace their unconditional love with conditioned love. Mum will love and reward you if you clean your room. Daddy will love you and buy a present for you if you do well at school, otherwise, no present. Even Santa will bring you a Christmas gift only if you have been good throughout the year. We very quickly get accustomed to receiving and giving love only if certain conditions are met. Soon it becomes hard for us to accept or give unconditional love.
The message of our Lord Jesus Christ for all humankind is called Good News because he came to announce God’s unconditional love for us. The Good News of Jesus is not that God loves us if we are good, or keeping the commandments, or holy. The Good News is that God loves us so much, even while we were sinners, that He sent His Son to die in our place and set us free.
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person – though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. 8 But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6-8)
Many people have a problem accepting the Good News of God’s unconditional love. If God loves us unconditionally, then why should we make effort to discipline ourselves and grow in holiness? Since God loves us under all conditions, what is the need for the Lenten disciplines of prayer, fasting and almsgiving? The answer is that these spiritual devotions and disciplines are necessary not as means of earning God’s love but as means of expressing our gratitude and reciprocal love for God and God’s people. No amount of good deeds or spiritual discipline can repay the debt we owe to God or make us innocent before God’s throne of justice. Only by God’s grace can we be acquitted and raised to the status of God’s beloved children. After we have been restored to God’s friendship, we can then undertake acts of prayer, self discipline and Christian charity as ways of expressing our gratitude to God and growing in maturity in our new status as God’s children. But the initial act that transforms us from the state of sin to the state of friendship with God is entirely a free offer of God’s mercy. All we need to do is open our hearts and accept it as a free gift of God’s unconditional love.
On Ash Wednesday, we received ash on our foreheads with the words, “Repent and believe the Good News.” Today is a good day to do just that. Today is a good day to open our hearts and accepts God’s offer of unconditional love. And if we have already done that, today is a good day to immerse ourselves more deeply in the experience of God’s gratuitous love such that we begin to radiate unconditional love in our relationships. Conversion is not just a once and for all affair; it is also an ongoing experience