Holy Spirit



Third Sunday of Lent Year C

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A reading from the book of Exodus                    3:1-8. 13-15


Responsorial Psalm               Psalm 103-1-4. 6-8. 11. R/. v.8

A reading from the first letter of St Paul to the Corinthians   

10:1-6. 10-12


A reading from the holy Gospel according to John      4:5-42



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The readings offered to us as we gather around the altar today offer an amazing identity parade.  For we are privileged to have “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” walk before us to be inspected and to be found guilty of steadfast love, love beyond all telling, love that endures forever.  This God openly confesses that he “has surely seen the affliction of my people”.  This God freely admits to hearing our cries, to knowing our suffering, and insisting that he has come down to deliver everyone bound by pain, by misery, by enslavement, and a thousand ills that flesh is heir to.  There is a promise given to all, a land flowing with milk and honey, an earth transformed by his presence into holy ground.

   The name of this Lord is, so he insists, to be engraved forever on humanity’s home.  Thus a promise of everlasting presence is given to every generation, a real presence in the midst of the misery of the world.  Not an indifferent presence but a presence that seeks to heal, to transform, and to bless.

   To all these charges this Lord pleads guilty, pointing to his picture on the wanted posters, and freely admitting that,


There is no denying it:


This Lord admits that “he will stretch out his hand” against the sufferings of his people, forever among them healing, redeeming, forgiving iniquities, and embracing the whole of humanity with steadfast love and mercy.

Indeed, the very last line of the Gospel proclaimed to us this blessed day is that this Lord in his Son is,


Guilty as charged.

A reading from the book of Exodus                   3:1-8. 13-15

        Now Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro,       the priest of Midian, and he led his flock to the west side of the         wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. And the       angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the    midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning,   yet it was not consumed. And Moses said, “I will turn aside to   see this great sight, why the bush is not burned.” When the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of         the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he       said, “Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the    place on which you are standing is holy ground.” And he said,        “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of       Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he   was afraid to look at God.

                        Then the Lord said, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their       cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings,       and I have come      down to deliver them out of the hand of the      Egyptians and to     bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey”.

                        Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of       Israel and        say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to         you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name? ’ what shall I say        to     them?” God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” And he said,     “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I am’ has sent me to you. ’”      God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘The      Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God    of Isaac, and the    God of Jacob, has sent me to you. ’ This is my        name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all     generations.

The word of the Lord.


The burning bush is a visual aid.  It is, as Moses observes in wonder, a flame that never goes out and never consumes.  It is an attraction and a revelation.  Its brightness calls and its endurance assures: the presence it signifies is eternal.  The presence never becomes an absence.  It is a flame that does not burn out, a flame of love that embraces and does not destroy.

   When reading ancient stories such as that of God and Moses meeting on ‘the mountain of God’ and eavesdropping on their conversation, we must ask how what is happening and what is said can be moved to our time and place.  What, for example, are we, in our time, to make of God’s disclosure to Moses of the name:

                                      I AM WHO I AM?

The name in Hebrew has many connotations but perhaps the simplest is the best: I am consistent. Who I am will always be evident in what I do.  By my actions you will know who I am.  God tells Moses,

        The Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and bring out the people of Israel from among them.                                              

                                                                                      Exodus 7:5

Listen to the reaction of the supporters of Jesus who paraded with him on the Mount of Olives:

        As he [Jesus] was drawing near—already on the way down the Mount of Olives— the whole multitude of his disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the   mighty works that they had seen, saying, “Blessed is the King         who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory      in the highest!”                               

                                                                               Luke 19:37-38

Indeed, St Matthew records what God requires of those who claim to be in God’s likeness:

                “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot        be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket,    but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same       way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your       good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven’                                     

                                                                           Matthew 5:14-16

I AM WHO I AM is the name of God because the Lord was, is, and always will be known by the actions this God does in our world.  The frightening teaching that Christians have to take to heart is that their name is I Am who I am.  For they are commanded to proclaim God to the world, not only by what they say, but by what they do. James, the brother of the Lord, in his letter to a Christian synagogue, emphatically impresses on his friends that faith without good works is dead.  How about this for a piece of plain speaking?:

        What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone says he has     faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a       brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good     is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.                                             

                                                                                 James 2:14-17

James offers Abraham as an example of faith expressed in good works:

        Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered    up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active        along with his works, and faith was completed by his works;      and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was       called a friend of God

James 2:21-23

If we find God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice his son too much to take, then perhaps we might be more comfortable with the woman who ran the brothel in Jericho:

        You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith       alone. And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute   justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? For as the body apart from the spirit         is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.                                              

                                                                                James 2:24-26

Incidentally, in case you do not admire Rahab as an example of a woman whose faith the Bible praises then let me remind you of two facts.  First, Rahab is mentioned in Matthew’s Gospel (1:5) as an ancestor of Jesus.  Secondly, the writer of that most solemn document, the Letter to Hebrew Christians, recommends imitating the faith of a whole litany of Old Testament servants of God.  In a phrase, “whose faith follow”[1] he urges everyone to imitate these great saints of the past.  Among them is Rahab:

        By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who        were disobedient, because she had given a friendly welcome to       the spies.                                  

                                                                               Hebrews 11:31

 Whose faith follow, indeed!

   In listening to the story of the call of Moses and the especially the disclosure of the identity of God as I AM WHO I AM, we can see that God revealed his determination to call the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob out of the slavery inflicted upon them by the Pharaoh of Egypt. The nature of God is thus revealed as a God who comes to our world as a saviour, a deliverer, and a righter of wrongs.  God is what God does.

 To pray a song that celebrates the nature of “the God who does” we need only to turn to Psalm 103, our Responsorial Psalm.

Responsorial Psalm               Psalm 103-1-4. 6-8. 11. R/. v.8


R/.   The Lord is merciful, abounding in steadfast love.


Bless the Lord, O my soul,

and all that is within me,

bless his holy name!

 Bless the Lord, O my soul,

                     and forget not all his blessings.                    R/.


The Lord forgives all your iniquity,

who heals all your diseases,

 who redeems your life from the pit,

          who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy.    R/.


The Lord works righteousness

and justice for all who are oppressed.

 He made known his ways to Moses,

                          his acts to the people of Israel.               R/.


 The Lord is merciful and gracious,

slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

For as high as the heavens are above the earth,

so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him.


R/.   The Lord is merciful, abounding in steadfast love.

What a glorious hymn of praise celebrating the nature of God and the work that God does in God’s creation.  The opening line of the hymn is strange for it is addressed to the one singing. Literally, in praying the psalm, I am talking to myself.  I am addressing my soul, which, in the Bible’s understanding, means the whole person.  Mary’s “My soul magnifies the Lord” means “I magnify the Lord”.  In Psalm 103 I spell out for myself all the blessings God showers upon me:

God forgives my sins

God heals all my ailments

God redeems me from the abode of the dead

God surrounds me with steadfast love

God surrounds me with mercy

God satisfies me with good things

God renews my life from weary days 

That list of God’s good works outlines what God is doing to sustain me.  God is at work to remedy all my pain.  

Then I must sing of the very nature of God that determines his care outside my own concerns.  I must bless the Lord for being God in our world even as far back as the days of Moses and down to our own day and beyond:

The Lord is merciful

The Lord is gracious

The Lord is slow to anger

The Lord abounds in steadfast love

The Lord does not deal with us according to our sins

The Lord does not repay us according to our evil deeds

   There is more, much more, that the Lord does for all of humanity in every time and in every place.  Those who reverence the Lord are well aware of God’s goodness.  Would that, like the angels, all obeyed the voice of his word so that his kingdom “rules over all”, that his will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

   Psalm 103 is one of the best known and best loved hymns in the whole of the Bible.  It is a song Christians must teach the world to sing.


A reading from the first letter of St Paul to the Corinthians   

10:1-6. 10-12


        For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that        our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the         sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the       sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same     spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that         followed them, and the Rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with   most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in      the wilderness.

        Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might     not desire evil as they did.  We must not put Christ to the test, as     some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer.  Now         these things happened to them as an example, but they were   written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages       has come. Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take      heed lest he fall.

The word of the Lord.

   Paul’s chapter 9 and 10 continue dealing with problems in the Christian communities in Corinth.  The apostle dearly loved the little house-churches he founded in and around that busy port city of Corinth. The city was blessed by its geography being a crossroads between east and west and north and south.  After a disastrous war, Julius Caesar re-founded the city in 44 B.C. and it quickly grew to be very Roman and very prosperous.  Inevitably such a very commercially successful city had a high slave population and a poverty-stricken underclass.  Most of Paul’s converts were from the enslaved and poorer ends of the population.  A constant concern faced by Paul was to keep his little churches away from the many pagan temples that littered the city. In the history of ancient Israel there were many instances of God’s people engaging with pagan worship and thus diluting their faith and earning God’s corrective disfavour.  Paul is concerned to warn his little flocks of the dangers of associating with pagan gods and pagan practices. 

   The slaves who were led by Moses out of Egypt and destined to occupy the Promised Land flowing with milk and honey blew hot and cold.  They were obedient to the ways of God as outlined by Moses but for most of the time half-heartedly.  Moses was heart-scalded.  Scholars trying to work out how Paul manages to weave Jesus Christ into the problems faced by Moses in the sands of the Sinai desert  are as heart-scalded.

  The experience of hunger and thirst on the journey across the sands of the Sinai desert was relieved by food (manna) and water (from the rock) supplied by God. But the experience of scarcity led many to want to return to the fleshpots of Egypt. Many who were baptised into the challenges of God as explained to them by Moses wavered and many of the pilgrims became mere wanderers, devoid of faith.  Paul says (I think) that the miraculous food and drink supplied to the people were given by Christ: Now the Rock was Christ

   St John’s Gospel begins with the famous sentences:

        In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.                                                                

                                                                                                John 1:1

Paul seems to have shared ideas similar to those expressed in John’s Gospel that the care Jesus exercised with the people to whom he ministered in his time on earth were part and parcel of his heavenly ministry before, as John expressed it, “the Word became flesh”.  Those who were the perpetual begrudgers in the desert died in the desert.  The phrase “were overthrown in the wilderness” is a little bit tame and does not really explain the forcefulness of “with most of them God was not pleased”.            Paul’s Greek is emphatic: “their corpses were scattered over the desert”.  Paul’s readers and hearers are being warned that their flirting with pagan ways might stir God’s wrath and lead to similar affliction.

   Those who grumbled in the wilderness, Paul suggests, were a warning to those grumbling begrudgers in Corinth.  They, too, are in danger of being destroyed “by the Destroyer”.  Unfortunately Paul does not tell us what the moaners were moaning about and does not indicate who or what “the Destroyer” might be.  The thrust of his argument is that the wrath of God dealt with the recalcitrant people in the desert.  The Corinthian Christians who continued to frequent the temples they had attended before coming to faith in Christ were likely to find themselves similarly subjected to God’s punishment. How, we might well ask, would the threat of destruction square with the God we met in Psalm 103?

   Two notes

[The General Introduction to the Lectionary (in Chapter V, 3. Lent, a. Sundays) advises that on the 3rd to the 5th Sunday of Lent “the gospels about the Samaritan woman, the man born blind, and the raising of Lazarus” may be read.  This is because these gospel readings “are of major importance in regard to Christian initiation”.  I have followed this advice of the General Introduction.  If there are any people preparing for baptism in your parish then these Gospels should be proclaimed since they form a very instructive catechetical programme.]

[Today’s Gospel should be proclaimed by a narrator and a man (Jesus) and a woman (the woman of Samaria).  Please do not read the Shorter Form of this reading.  We have no right to abbreviate God’s holy words.  Advise people to sit.]



A reading from the holy Gospel according to John      4:5-42


        Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that         Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John         (although Jesus himself did not baptize, but only his disciples),   he left Judea and departed again for Galilee. And he had to      pass through Samaria. So he came to a town of Samaria called         Sychar, near the field that Jacob had given to his son Joseph.   Jacob's well was there; so Jesus, wearied as he was from his journey, was sitting beside the well. It was about the sixth hour.


        A woman from Samaria came to draw water. Jesus said to   her, “Give me a drink.” (For his disciples had gone away into the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How         is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of     Samaria?” (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.)      Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is         that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked   him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have nothing to draw water with, and the         well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you        greater than our father Jacob? He gave us the well and drank   from it himself, as did his sons and his livestock.” Jesus said to     her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again,         but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never    be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in         him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” The woman      said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty     or have to come here to draw water.”

                Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come here.”      The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to         her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have    had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your   husband. What you have said is true.” The woman said to him, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshipped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.” Jesus said to her, “Woman,         believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain      nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship     what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation         is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when   the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and       truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and        truth.” The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is        coming (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us    all things.” Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am he.”


        Just then his disciples came back. They marvelled that he    was talking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you      seek?” or, “Why are you talking with her?” So the woman left her water jar and went away into town and said to the people,    “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be     the Christ?” They went out of the town and were coming to        him.

                         Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, saying, “Rabbi, eat.” But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you   do not know about.” So the disciples said to one another, “Has         anyone brought him something to eat?” Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work. Do you not say, ‘There are yet four months, then comes     the harvest’? Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see that the     fields are white for harvest. Already the one who reaps is    receiving wages and gathering fruit for eternal life, so that         sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying       holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps. ’ I sent you to reap that   for which you did not labour. Others have laboured, and you         have entered into their labour.”

         Many Samaritans from that town believed in him because of        the woman's testimony, “He told me all that I ever did.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with

        them, and he stayed there two days. And many more believed        because of his word. 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 indeed the Saviour of the        world.

The Gospel of the Lord.


I must begin reflection on the story of “a woman of Samaria” who meets with Jesus at a well with some questions:  What do you think of her?  What kind of woman is she?  What does she look like?  What age is she?[2]

   Setting the stage

The writer(s) of St John’s Gospel are particularly detailed in setting the scene for this drama of Jesus and the woman of Samaria.  First they tell us that, because of “the Pharisees” and objections they had to Jesus baptising as John did (“although Jesus himself did not baptise”, we are told), Jesus left Judea and departed again for Galilee”.   Therefore “he had to pass through Samaria”.  But he didn’t.  There was a perfectly good road to the east across the Jordan in Perea.

   The Greek text is better translated “Now it was necessary for him to go through Samaria”.  Or “he was obliged to pass through Samaria”.  The verb I have translated “it was necessary” or “he was obliged” is in the imperfect tense which stresses an on-going obligation, an unavoidable and irrevocable imperative, something he just had to do.  John’s Gospel uses this verb 10 times and I will quote most of them in order to impress on you what was meant by “Now he was obliged to pass through Samaria”.

   Consider the following sentences from John’s Gospel:

        You must be born again (3:7).

        As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son   of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life (3:14).

        Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase,   but I must decrease (3:30).

        You say that in Jerusalem is the place where people must    worship (4:20)


        God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship him in        spirit and in truth (4:24).

        And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring     them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one    flock, one shepherd (10:16).

        … the Son of Man must be lifted up (12:34).

        … for as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must    rise from the dead (20:9).

   Why “must” in all of these sentences?  It is because in each of these sentences a divine necessity is being emphasised.  Being born again is a divine necessity, as Jesus explains to Nicodemus in chapter 3.  Jews did insist that it was God’s will that sacrificial worship take place in the Temple in Jerusalem (and not on Mount Gerazim, below which Jesus and the woman of Samaria were sitting at Jacob’s well).  The God-given mission of Jesus demanded that he seek out “the other sheep”.  And, of course, he must, in God’s design, rise from the dead,

   When we read that Jesus must pass through Samaria, then we know that it is his Father’s will and command that his Son sits down at the well with the woman of Samaria.  It is not a geography lesson.

  So if the meeting is not by chance but by divine decree, what about the timing?


   The time


It was about the sixth hour (4:6). Now you may have accepted the explanation of this simple sentence given by a thousand preachers.  Because this is a very sinful woman she is not welcome at the well with the other women of the town.  To avoid the heat of the day, they come in the cool of the morning and in the cool of the evening.  The woman of Samaria is forced to come at the sixth hour, at midday, when the heat of the sun is intense.  Is this the way women treat each other in a patriarchal society?

   There is a hymn entitled Dies Irae (The Day of Wrath), written either by the Franciscan Thomas of Celano (1200-1265) or by a Dominican Latino Malabranca Orsini (d. 1294).  Mozart and Verdi incorporated the hymn in their Requiem as did many others.  For centuries it was used in the Roman Liturgy of the Requiem Mass, its last appearance was in the 1962 Roman Missal, issued before the reforms of the liturgy introduced by the Second Vatican Council took effect.  Its liturgical purpose seems to have been to scare the mourners to death.  It gave little comfort and did not appear to have much truck with the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.   However, some stanzas added to the original hymn reflect a more positive theology.  Such a one was this:

It was me you were seeking out

when exhausted,

you sat by the well;

me that you redeemed

when you suffered on the cross.

Do not allow such toil to be in vain.[3]


This stanza would suggest a more benign and hopeful encounter at the well.  But it also suggests that the meeting at the well was arranged by divine intention to link what happened at the well with another midday event:

        Now it was the day of Preparation of the Passover. It was      about the sixth hour. He said to the Jews, “Behold your King!”     They cried out, “Away with him, away with him, crucify him!”         Pilate said to them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief       priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar.” So he delivered him over to them to be crucified.

John 19:14-16

Notice the precision.  It was about the sixth hour when Jesus sat down by the well.  And it was about the sixth hour when Jesus was delivered to be crucified.  Again, the timing is not a casual piece of information.  Its purpose is to link the woman of Samaria and with with the saving death of Jesus.  The woman of Samaria meets with the saviour of the world, as the last words in her story proclaim. She stands for all who, like her fellow citizens of Sychar, are brought to the well (a hint of baptism?) that Jacob gave to his son Joseph.

  So place and time and circumstance have been stage-managed by the Father,

        For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.     For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the         world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

                                                                                  John 3:16-17


The context 


The people of Samaria were a remnant of the people planted between Galilee to the north and Jud to the south following the eight century B.C. Assyrian invasion.  They adopted a version of Judaism but were regarded as heretics by those who considered themselves to be true believers.  The Samaritans had their own priesthood, their own liturgy and a very reduced version of the Bible.  Communities of Jews and Samaritans despised each other and contact between them was limited.  Some of this mutual loathing is obvious in the meeting at the well.

   [There is one translation problem. If it is true that “Jews had no dealings with Samaritans” how come “the disciples went into the city to buy bread”?  Modern scholarship suggests that the text should read, “have no vessels in common with Samaritans”; a conjecture that fits in with the surprise that Jesus asks the woman for a drink.]

   First exchanges

That Jesus asks for a drink elicits an inevitable surprise:

        How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of      Samaria?

                                                                                                John 4:9

Many English translations speak of the Samaritan woman.  But she is never called this in the story.  She is called “a woman of Samaria”.  Before she is a Samaritan, she is a woman.  When the disciples return to Jesus they wonder, not that he has been talking to a Samaritan; rather,

        They wondered that he was chatting with a woman.

John 4:27 (my translation)

Two points.  First, notice that their wonder was that he was

chatting to a woman.  They are not concerned that he was chatting to a Samaritan.  Secondly, throughout the story the conversation is characterised by “He says/She says”, in the present tense that English translators tidy up into “He said/She said”.  But what causes the disciples to wonder is that “he was chatting” with her.  The writers of this story suddenly change to a different verb that is more intimate and informal.  They wonder but don’t ask,


        Why are you chatting with her?


But more astonishing is the wording of Jesus when identifying himself to the woman and revealing who he really is.  Not a Jews; much more than that,

I AM, the one chatting with you.

                                                                              John 4:26

More needs to be said about that revelation but first we need to ask whether the way Jesus sometimes addresses women is all that it ought to be.

   The women

 At the wedding feast in Cana of Galilee (John 2:1-11) we are told that “the mother of Jesus was there”.  Mary is never named, not here nor anywhere throughout John’s Gospel.   Twice she is called “the mother of Jesus” and once “his mother”.  When Jesus speaks to his mother he calls her “Woman”.  Scholars have trawled through ancient Greek literature for an instance when a son addresses his mother as “Woman”.  It just isn’t done.  Such an address seems to be without affection, without even respect.  The word in Greek by which Jesus addresses his mother is Gynè (pronounced goo-nay) from which the word gynaecology is derived.  It is, we might agree, no way to speak to a woman.  Certainly, it is no way to speak to your mother.

   Yet that is what Jesus does.  When Jesus speaks to his mother from the cross, in the moment of his dying, he says,

                        Woman, behold your son!

                                                                                    John 19:26


When Mary Magdalene stood weeping outside the tomb where Nicodemus had placed the body of Jesus, two angels appeared and spoke to her:

                 Woman, why are you weeping?

                                                                                    John 20:13

 When Jesus appeared he said to her the same,

                 Woman, why are you weeping?

                                                                                    John 20:14

When Jesus formally addresses the woman at the well, he reveals to her that real worship begins with the Spirit of God:


        Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on

        this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we      know, for salvation is from the Jews.  But the hour is coming,      and is now here, when true worshippers will worship the   Father in spirit and in truth, for the Father is seeking such   people to worship him.  God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.

                                                                                  John 4:21-24

   What seems to me to be the case is that Jesus adopts this exceedingly formal address to underline the significance of what he is saying. The words of Jesus to his mother, to Mary Magdalene, and to the wonderful woman he met at the well are revelations, privileged insights, into the very nature of Jesus and to the nature of his ministry to the world. 

  At Cana in Galilee Jesus did the first of his signs and revealed his glory.  At this revelation his disciples believed in him.  Notice that the “Woman” does not ask her son to do something: “They have no wine.”  She knows her son and in another statement, “Do whatever he tells you” she reveals not only what the servants must to do but what everyone who hears him must do.  What Mary is doing is bringing about the manifestation of his glory that causes his disciples to believe in him.

   Again, at the foot of the cross, there is another moment of revelation.  Seeing his mother and ‘the disciple whom he loved’, the dying Jesus places his beloved disciple in safe hands.  That is a revelation that has borne much fruit as the story of Jesus made its way in the world. 


   Mary Magdalene can see that the tomb is empty.  The two angels ask why she is weeping.  The Risen Lord asks the same question and in a moment of recognition she jumps into his arms.[4]  But more than his presence needs to be known and it is the greatest revelation of all:

        … go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my      Father and your Father, to my God and your God. ’” Mary      Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen         the Lord”.

                                                                               John 20:17-18

Now from that day to this the world knows that the Father of Jesus is “Our Father”.

   To the woman of Samaria Jesus reveals that it is not the place of worship (temple, synagogue, church) that is of the essence.  True, real worship is worship in the Spirit.  The Spirit is the Spirit of truth.  The Spirit of truth promised and given to his brothers and sisters by Jesus (see 14:15-17; 15:26-27; 16:12-15) animates worship.  For worship of the Father must always be inspired by the Holy Spirit if it is to be true worship.  Jesus is not recommending worship in the sanctum of our own hearts.  Rather true worship is a coming together in the Spirit we have received and glorifying the Father so that the “My Father” of Jesus becomes the Our Father.  That is why Christians gathered in house-churches and that is why they built churches.

   Calling these amazing women “Woman” is not an insult.  Rather it is precisely as women that they are each recipients of revelations that are the sinews of Christian faith.  And the woman of Samaria is one of them.  Mary Magdalene is called ‘the apostle to the apostles’.  The truth is that there are three of them in John’s Gospel.

Disciples being disciples

The word “disciple” means a learner, an apprentice, and a pupil.  It is amazing in all four Gospels what poor students they are, seldom understanding, often wide of the mark.  But their lack of discernment often leads to Jesus clarifying the business in hand.  So here read 4:21-31-32.  These men who are to have responsibilities given them are never called ‘apostles’ in John’s Gospel, no matter how much Jesus cares for them and protects them.  When they return from their shopping Jesus has to explain that his purpose is to accomplish the work God gave him to do.  He will send them to reap a harvest though they have not sown the seed.  In contrast, the woman carries the seed sown in her by Jesus and,

        Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of

        the woman’s testimony

                                                                                           John 4:39    


   Speaking truly


What about the five husbands?  It is Jesus who says to her “Go call your husband”, seemingly a trap to expose her immorality.  First, if that is how you read the story, I would beg you to ask yourself whether this is the way Jesus treats people. 

   I think that Jesus asked her to fetch her husband in order to enter her pain.  While divorce was relatively common among Jews in the time of Jesus, it was rare in Samaritan society.  In neither society were women permitted to divorce.  This was a male prerogative.    Secondly, once divorced a woman had no claim on property and another marriage was the best refuge available.  Try to enter the pain of the woman who knows in her heart that she has no husband, no love that did not have the next divorce to look forward to.  Whether out of shame or embarrassment, she answers “I have no husband”.  And that clinches it for Jesus:

This you have spoken is the truth.

John 4:17

 Jesus has been sitting at the well chatting to a woman who values what Jesus values beyond all else.  Think of these words of Jesus

God is true.

John 3:33

He who sent me is true.

John 7:28

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.

                                                                                            John 1:14

I am the way, and the truth, and the life.

                                                                                   John 14:6

“If you abide in my word,

you are truly my disciples,

and you will know the truth,

and the truth will set you free.

John 8:32

The truth shall set you free.  The woman of Samaria is a woman of truth and Jesus knows that she is a woman of truth.  And sitting at the well he sets her free.  She may have been passed from pillar to post.  But Jesus has work for this woman to do.  She has to go and start reaping the harvest he is sowing in the world.

   The word ‘apostle’ is never used in John’s Gospel.  But this woman goes from Jesus and witnesses to him in her city.  Of course, when they come to Jesus himself her work is done.  She has brought them to Christ and the rest is up to him for it is he, not her, who is,

The Saviour of the world.

                                                                                       John 4:42 

There is much more to be learned from this amazing story.  But nothing will be learned if we insist that the one who finds the weary Jesus sitting at the well is a Samaritan woman.  She is a woman of Samaria.  A woman first, a Samaritan second.  Always a woman of truth.  And the truth shall set you free.

Joseph O’Hanlon 


[1]  Hebrews 13:7 in the King James Version.

[2] The Jerusalem Bible, the New Jerusalem Bible, and the Revised New Jerusalem Bible describe her as “a Samaritan woman”.  Why is this wrong?  And why is it that the original Greek calls her “a woman of Samaria” and what is the difference?

[3] This stanza occurs in the text of the Dies Irae in Joseph Connelly, Hymns of the Roman Liturgy, London: Longmans, 1957, p.254.

[4] The old Catholic Douay (sic) Version which was a translation of the Latin Vulgate that has Noli me tangere (Do not touch me).  What the Greek says is Do not cling to me.

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