The beautifully written novel Fugitive Pieces tells the story of two people whose lives intersect: a Greek geologist who suffers from the premature death of his wife and a Polish boy who suffers from the loss of his family in the Holocaust. The geologist rescues the boy from a pit of mud where he has hidden himself and raises him, first in Greece then in Toronto, and the boy in turn becomes not only a son to the geologist, a reason to keep living, but eventually also a poet. As the boy becomes a man and deals with the grief of losing his family, he comes to terms with his grief by writing poetry. Moreover, at the end of the first half of the novel, he dies, and the second half of the novel describes another hurting person who finds salvation in the poetry he has left behind. Overall, the work describes movingly the way that grace can act in human lives to bring about healing in situations where it seems most difficult to find. It ends with the beautiful line: “I realize that I must give what I most need.”
We don’t often pay attention to this aspect of the story, but Jesus is tired when he comes on the scene. Tired and a little discouraged, I wonder. It’s not enough that he couldn’t find a place in the Temple establishment and had to join this new group founded by John the Baptist in the Desert. After calling his first disciples and a disappointing encounter with Nicodemus, who would only see him in the dark and even then didn’t change after he talked to him, he had to flee, again, from Jerusalem back to Galilee, to get away from the Pharisees. What was going through his mind as he walked that lonely road? God, why me? What is it that you really want from me? Why can’t I get a break? In the heat of the day, when he can’t walk any more, he sits down, at a well, probably still lost in thought, and doesn’t even notice a woman come from a distance, until she is almost on top of him. He doesn’t have a cistern. Thirsty as he is, he can’t even get a drink for himself, so he has to ask her: “give me a drink.”
The circumstances cause him to break social boundaries and maybe even the laws of polite conversation. “How can you, a Jew, ask me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?” Something clicks and he realizes what he has done. Lady, if you knew who you were talking to.... In turn, she calls him out: “don’t lady me, you’re the one who doesn’t even have a bucket, honey.” For both of them, their desperation lends an air of authenticity to the conversation, doesn’t it? Neither one of them have anything to lose. Unlike the conversations at the Temple, this encounter lacks any political posturing. It’s kind of refreshing. Something breaks through, for both of them. The Samaritan woman can admit her need. Despite the fact that she’s perfectly capable of taking care of herself, she hates the fact that she has to come to the well alone. We don’t know why she is excluded, but we can see that it’s taken a toll on her. Jesus too is able to look at her and draw out her pain, in a way that heals her.
It’s not the first time in the gospel of John that Jesus has done this. We remember his words several chapters ago to Nathaniel: “Before Philip called you, I saw you under the fig tree.” That’s a Hebrew expression that refers to the afterlife. Philip, I see you not for who you are but for who you could be, in God’s eyes. You have had five husbands and the one you have now is not your husbands. It’s not clear what this means. She could have suffered the death of five husbands.
She could have been divorced five times, passed from man to man because she couldn’t bear children. Jesus doesn't miss a beat. “The one you have now is not your husband.” I know that about you, and I’m ok with it.
Now the conversation goes even deeper. Her spiritual questions emerge. She’s very theologically astute, and she asks Jesus the question that people were debating in that day and time: where do we need to worship God?
Jesus is willing to meet her there, at this very deep level of conversation. “The hour is coming, and is now here, when true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and Truth; and indeed the Father seeks such people to worship him.” Such people; to me, the implication is clear. The Father seeks you. God loves you. I love you. The encounter transforms her, from an excluded nobody, to a missionary.
The encounter transforms Jesus as well. In the beginning, we saw his reluctance. At the Wedding Feast at Cana, it took his mother’s persuasion to perform the miracle. Here too, he is tired, desperate, doesn’t even have a bucket, and has no choice but to be whom he is. But she receives him in a way that other people have not, notices what the male disciples and the Jewish authorities missed. You are the Messiah, the chosen one. At least in the human dimension, he was still clarifying his mission: perhaps it wasn’t to the temple establishment, but broader. We seem him reinvigorated. Before he was hungry and thirsty. Now his disciples bring him food, but he doesn’t even have time to eat. This language about reaping, sowing, and harvesting. He has work to do. By encouraging another, he has found encouragement for himself. He has given her what he most needs.
Brothers and sisters, what do we need right now in this third week of Lent? Have our Lenten promises run astray? Are we struggling to find motivation in the middle of the semester? Does the spectacle of our nation’s political system sap all of our energy? Even if we are coping on the outside, like the Samaritan woman, who is good at taking care of herself, we could be dying on the inside, especially if there is some part of our life that doesn’t quite fit the system—a woman in the Catholic Church, two gay dads raising a child in San Francisco, a calling that doesn’t quite correspond to a normal career. Maybe too the initial fervor has worn off and we just didn’t think that it would be this hard. We’ve prayed and God appears silent.
I wonder what it would be like for us to get in touch with that God, the God of Ignatius, the God who like Jesus in the gospels can see through all of the superficial stuff in our lives and knows our deepest desires? What would it be like to encounter that God? Even more, what if we were to encounter that God not by going inward, saying the same prayers to cope with the day to day, but by going outward, through some unexpected person or situation in our lives that called us to give that which we most needed? The alcoholic in recovery who becomes an AA sponsor. The grieving widow who founds a support group. The child of an absentee father who agrees to serve as a mentor for a troubled youth. The lonely person who invites a friend out for coffee that she hasn’t seen in a while. The person depressed about politics who decides to volunteer at a local community project.
At the end of the gospel, the woman leaves her water jar behind, because she has work to do, and so do we. “Look up and see the fields ripe for harvest,” Jesus says. “The reaper is already receiving his payment and gathering crops for eternal life.” Will we join in the harvest?