Casting Away Our First Impressions

Third Sunday of Lent-A

Samaritan woman at Jacob's well with Jesus

First impressions are extremely important whether we meet someone to whom we are attracted or if we are interviewing for a new job. Most people know intuitively a good first impression is the first step in achieving the goal of becoming a romantic partner, friend, or newest hire. The commonly known notion of a good first impression is more than just folklore; it is validated by science. Psychologists studying first impressions have concluded the average person takes only a tenth of a second to judge a stranger by just looking at his face. After 60 seconds, an interviewer, or a stranger at a party, will form an impression of you, your character, and your personality — a nearly indelible impression.  

There is no viable reason to doubt the science about first impressions so it can be assumed the characteristics of an encounter between persons today should be the same as two thousand years ago. Further, it can be assumed the judgments we make quickly about another, is less an anomaly and more a constant human condition. It is through this lens can we approach the reading from St. John about the Samaritan woman and her encounter with Jesus at the well.    

When Jesus came to a town of Samaria called Sychar, near a plot of land that Jacob had given to his son Joseph.  Jacob’s well was there.  Jesus, tired from his journey, sat down there at the well.  It was about noon.”  The significance of the place where Jesus rested has a lineage associated with it. The land and cistern was the place where Jacob lived, having the lineage of Isaac his father, and grandson of Abraham. Shortly after Jesus rested, he encountered a Samaritan woman coming to draw water, for she too was a daughter of Abraham.

The meeting between Jesus and the woman is far from noneventful and is filled with some rather quick assumptions and first impressions. For the Samaritan woman, it was clear that Jesus was a Jew and as the custom, should not have had any association with her. Because of the custom, she would also have assumed there would be no possibility of an encounter or dialogue with a Jewish man. Perhaps, before Jesus spoke, she was just trying to mind her own business. How surprised then must she have been when Jesus asked her for a cup of water from the well?

Our story adds the critical detail that the meeting was held in the hottest part of the day when the sun was directly overhead. It was very common for the inhabitants of the region to avoid being outside during the hottest part of the day because it took too much of a toll on their bodies. The Samaritan woman did not follow the accepted practice indicating something was askew with her. Jesus picked up on this almost immediately, she must have been a woman who acted in a way contrary to the rules of her community and subsequently shunned in one way or another from that community. “For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost.”

Jesus continued to converse with the woman with an innocuous request to bring her husband back with her to the well. Recall, the Samaritan woman never mentioned anything about her husband before the question. Jesus asks, “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 five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.’ What you have said is true.” 

The Samaritan woman’s first impressions have now been shattered. In her eyes, Jesus knew things about her she never shared with him. Her thought might have been, ‘how did he know I had five husbands?” Her first impression of Jesus was no longer accurate forcing her to contemplate Jesus as not just a Jewish man but a prophet. Our Jesus is not only a person who transmits the word of God, he is the Word of God.   

The conversation with the woman is a classic example of conversion. She encounters Jesus never expecting anything but an anonymous meeting at a source of water. Little did she realize; Jesus would summon her to a higher life, no matter if she was an outcast. “I have not come to call the righteous to repentance but sinners.”     

 The higher life Jesus wants her to aspire to is the reality whereby human beings are capable of living with divinity through baptism. “the water I shall give will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” The Samaritan unable to comprehend (she would have no way of knowing what baptism was) thought the water Jesus spoke about was to drink or bathe in, “give me some of that water so that I may never have to come here again to draw water.” She clearly did not understand Jesus’ intent because she was still thinking about her worldly existence exclusively instead of her true calling of eternal life. Then something clicked in her head.

Dramatically, the next line of the Gospel shows a movement from only thoughts about earthly existence to heavenly matters. She continues, “Sir, I can see that you are a prophet.  Yet, the acknowledgment is not enough for conversion because Jesus is far beyond a prophet and continues to enlighten her mind by telling her, “But 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.” Gently, but most assuredly Jesus invites her now into his life.  She is moved to say, I know that the Messiah is coming, the one called the Christ; when he comes, he will tell us everything.”  At this point, the Samaritan woman’s life had completely changed. The layers of assumption and prejudice she previously had have been compassionately stripped away.  She is now ready to hear and believe the person she was speaking to is the Messiah, the one called Christ. Jesus affirms her belief by saying, I am he, the one speaking with you.” Now she can enter into a deeper realm of her existence, a spiritual life that lay dormant for most of her life.  

The story of the unnamed woman at the well is the story of every believer. We assume sometimes with all our flawed personalities, skeletons, and weaknesses, it is impossible to be close to the Lord. When we separate from God we choose to focus more on the temporal than the spiritual aspects of our life.

For certain, Jesus never leaves our wells, he is present and ready to converse hoping to bring us closer to the truth if only we welcome his presence. All of us are outcasts in one way or another and we initially do not understand completely what he is telling us, for our relationship is nascent. Faith and our relationship with God take time. 

We always seem to ask for relief in our shortsighted requests, similar to not having to fetch water daily during the noonday sun. We are brought back and reminded Jesus did not die for that reason, for there will be plenty of time when we will not have to draw water. And then, almost remarkably, we intuitively know that the Messiah will come, and then, with our minds clearer and our lives less crowded we can dump our assumptions of God and are finally open to hearing his message, the water I shall give will become a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” 

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