Finding the goodness inside ourselves

Jesus helps us to find the good part of ourselves that God sees

During the season of Lent the children preparing for their First Eucharist will also celebrate the Sacrament of Penance for the first time. The third Sunday of Lent this year presents us with one of the most beautiful stories of reconciliation and forgiveness anywhere in the Gospels. The encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman is the longest recorded conversation between Jesus and any other person.

I always feel sorry for the woman at the well – few of us would be faced with our sins in such a public way. She felt she could not be forgiven. The Gospel tells us that she went to the well at the sixth hour or mid-day. Given the heat of the climate she lived in, it was strange that she should pick the hottest part of the day to draw water from the well.

As we read on in the Gospel we gain some insight as to why she was there in the baking sun – she simply wanted to avoid other people, to avoid their judgemental glances, their whispers and their gossip. To all intents and purposes this woman had cut herself off from the people of her town – she was an outcast!

So here she is at the well, minding her own business, relieved to be on her own when a man joins her and asks her for a drink. This was not just any man from any place, the man was a Jew. Just her luck! So many things were wrong with this picture; Hebrew men did not speak to women in public – not even their mothers, sisters, daughters or wives!

Women were seen as second class or less and not worthy or capable of conversation. Jews did not speak to Samaritans, they looked down on them, they hated each other! Jews would take long detours to avoid Samaria so what is Jesus doing there in the first place? From the very beginning of this Gospel passage Jesus is breaking down barriers.

There is something very sad about the Samaritan woman at the well, cut off from normal social life of family, neighbours and friends. There is, despite the fact that she has had five husbands, something lonely about her life.

Sad history

There is a sad personal history of broken relationships – here is a woman in need of healing. But given her situation many people would have found her unworthy of their time and would certainly not want to be seen talking to her. But Jesus did not avoid her, he took the initiative with her and asked the Samaritan woman for something to drink, and here begins, as I have already noted, the longest conversation recorded between Jesus and any other person in the Gospels.

As the conversation progresses the woman realises that Jesus knows all about her personal situation, including the five husbands! It makes her uncomfortable and she tries to deflect away the attention from herself. She tries to avoid her own brokenness, her own sinfulness.

We can all probably identify with that temptation. Very gently, without any hint of judgement or condemnation, Jesus makes the Samaritan woman face the part of herself that she wants to hide away.

He does not offer her a quick fix solution, there are no miracles here. Painful as this is for her it is also liberating – he accepts her as she is, he doesn’t talk down to her, he doesn’t condemn her and this changes everything.

At the end of the Gospel story a complete transformation happens when the Samaritan woman, who has spent most of her life avoiding the people of her village now returns to her people to tell them about Jesus. The woman is reconciled to herself and her community.

Many years ago while visiting a third class at a primary school in Kilkenny we discussed this Gospel story.

I can recall asking the class what they thought had changed in the course of the story. I will never forget the answer of one of the nine-year-old girls: She said that Jesus had brought the woman at the well to find that “little happy part” inside her that nobody else had ever bothered to find or even look for, and up until then she had been unable to find herself! Wow!

What is the most important message of this beautiful Gospel passage? For some of us it will be that the woman had to face her brokenness or her sinfulness, for some it will be that she felt accepted or that she could begin again.

But perhaps most importantly it was as that third class pupil recognised – that Jesus was able to find that part of her life that God saw – the real goodness, the real place where God dwells.