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Gospel commentary: Cast aside

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Gospel Commentary March 15, JN 4:5-42  


The poem, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, is one of those literary classics you’ve heard quoted time and again without even knowing it. Its most famous line, “Water, water, everywhere, and all the boards did shrink. Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink,” images a sailor dying of thirst, surrounded only by saltwater. Saltwater, of course, cannot quench thirst. Drinking enough of it causes death by dehydration. Some refugees, adrift on an open sea and dying of thirst, have actually given into the maddening temptation, and drank seawater to their own death. Sometimes that which looks like sweet relief is, in cold reality, lethal.

To live in the modern world is to be adrift in an ocean of spiritual saltwater. Every soul in the world thirsts in infinite measure for love, truth and happiness. And in every direction, something in the secular world promises to quench that thirst. We all have our salty drink of choice. Some thirst for honors, awards, recognition and human praise. Some thirst for power. Others thirst for material wealth. But just like seawater, the more deeply we drink of these, the thirstier we become. “Career success should make me happy,” one person thinks to himself, “but I’m not happy. Therefore, I must not have achieved enough.” “Money should make me happy,” thinks another, “but I’m not happy, so I must need still more of it.” Fill in the blank with anything you wish, but the same truth always applies. It's never enough. The water of the world is powerless to quench the thirst of the soul.

The Gospel this week tells the story of Jesus speaking with the woman at the well. We don’t know her backstory, but whatever she sought in her past certainly did not leave her satisfied. She’s had five husbands, and is now engaging in what we politely call “cohabitation.” She and Jesus speak about water, about thirst, and about satisfaction. The utter dissatisfaction of her life comes to the fore, and she must reluctantly confess to it. Jesus then promises her something that sounds too good to be true — living water — a drink that will quench her soul’s thirst not just for the moment, but finally and forever. This “living water,” of course, is an expression of the fulfillment in God that each soul was created to know. This woman is savvy and shrewd, and if there’s one thing she’s heard before, it’s big promises from men. But something about Jesus is different, and leaves her utterly convinced. The Gospel lets us know, in beautiful detail, that she has cast aside her past when it tells us that she left her water bucket behind, and went to tell others that Jesus is the Christ of God.

Every soul thirsts for happiness. One of the first lessons a priest learns when he begins to hear confessions is that all of the misguided, sinful and stupid things people do are actually just a desperate effort to find happiness in a place where it can never be found. As C.S. Lewis once wrote, “God cannot give you a happiness and peace apart from himself, because there is no such thing.” It’s a fact we’ve been slow to learn since the day Adam and Eve reached out to eat the forbidden fruit. They didn’t trust that God’s will would quench their thirst. They looked elsewhere. They drank the saltwater, as we all still do. This week, Our Lord invites us to turn to him from our hearts, and to quench its aching thirst at long last.

It’s the simplest and deepest of all theological ideas. Jesus Christ satisfies, and nothing else does. He himself is the “living water, welling up to eternal life.”  We can have the same experience the woman at the well had — the incommunicable experience of meeting him, of making an act of radical trust and of casting aside at last whatever old bucket has left us so thirsty for so long.

Fr. Hudgins is pastor of St. Jude Church in Fredericksburg.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020