Living Water

Third Sunday of Lent. Ex 17:3-7; Ps 95:1-2,6-9; Rom 5:1-2,5-8; Jn 4:5-42

Today's Gospel and Readings are so rich in revelations that one could spend a lifetime tracing out all their implications. This Gospel passage, for example, describes the first time Jesus is called ‘the Savior of the World’. What is especially remarkable is that he is recognized by a group of schismatic Jews called ‘Samaritans’. In the preceding chapter of John's Gospel, Nicodemus, a great teacher in Israel, is only prepared to say, in secret, that Jesus is ‘from God’. The Samaritan woman in today's Gospel is much more bold. She begins by called Jesus a Jew, in a tone of mild derogation. A little later, she addresses him as ‘sir’, the Greek word being Kyrie, which can also mean Lord. Then she calls him a prophet, after he tells her that she has had five husbands. She then becomes the first Christian missionary, when she tells her people that Jesus may be the Messiah, or Christ. Finally, after Jesus stays with the Samaritans, they openly call him ‘the Savior of the World’. So these outcasts become some of the most enthusiastic disciples of Christ. God seems to delight in turning the world upside down.

In today's short homily, however, I want to focus on just one small detail of Jesus' conversation with the Samaritan woman, the phrase 'living water'. Materially speaking, 'living water' is fresh and flowing water, and for water to remain living and life giving, it must be connected with its source. If water is cut off from its source, it stops flowing, stagnates and becomes dead. Now, if 'living water' is understood to mean the spiritual life of the soul, as Jesus suggests, then the lessons of this Biblical symbol become clear. Just as flowing water must be connected to its source, we must be connected to God through the sacraments and prayer. Just as water is life giving in many ways, if we remain in communion with God, our lives will also be fruitful in many ways. Conversely, if we forsake God, if we break faith with him, then we shall not be able to cling onto his life in our souls. The benefits will drain away or turn sour like stagnant water. This insight echoes an ancient complaint God made in the Old Testament through the prophet Jeremiah, “My people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.” This warning might seem rather abstract and remote, but it has practical consequences for ourselves and for society. There are many people in America and Europe today who want to turn away from Christianity, to exclude Christ from public life, while holding onto the benefits of Christian civilization. The warning from Scripture is that to exclude Christ is folly: it is like trying to build a cracked cistern, a cistern that can hold no water. If we lose Christ, Christian civilization will also stagnate and drain away.

In this Gospel, however, Jesus also reveals a further lesson about 'living water', a feature which goes beyond the natural meaning of the symbol. In the material sense, water is finite. Water does not multiply by itself and generate more water. But when Jesus says, “The water I shall give will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life,” he implies that 'living water' is not limited in the same way. When 'living water' enters the human soul, that is, when the divine life of God enters the human soul, it does something rather miraculous. This water not only nourishes the soul; but the soul itself becomes a source of divine life. The soul brings forth a spring of water welling up to eternal life. This is, perhaps, one of the most surprising features of Christianity. When we receive the gift of grace, the gift of divine life in our souls, this gift is not for ourselves alone. We are not mere passive recipients of salvation, as Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformers suggested. The person who becomes holy in communion with Jesus Christ also becomes a source of holiness for others.

So what are the lessons for our own lives? In practical terms, the most obvious lesson is, I think, a simple reminder of the first and most important task of the Christian life. The first duty of any Christian is to be in communion with Christ through the sacraments and through prayer. What today's Gospel may do, however, is to encourage us by means of its powerful images. We may not always feel inspired to come to Mass, to go to Confession or to pray, especially as the effects may not be visible straightaway. If, however, we recall that when we do these things we are connecting to Jesus Christ, the source of 'living water' for ourselves and for others, such an image may at least be some encouragement.

Fr. Andrew Pinsent, St. Ambrose Church, St. Louis, 24th February 2008

^ Back to Top