One of the Holy Father’s themes during his year of service so far has been forging a “culture of encounter.” That encounter is first of all an encounter with Jesus – for us who call ourselves Christian, and for those who have yet to meet Him. It is also an encounter between persons – real encounter, with exchange of ideas and life. Over the next three weeks, we will hear about three dramatic encounters that Jesus has with different people. These encounters change life – even completely – and turn them “Inside-Out.”
First, today, we hear of Jesus’ encounter with a Samaritan woman. She is at Jacob’s well near the town of Sychar, when Christ asks her a question. It is how so many encounters begin – with a need, a question. Notice that Jesus does not simply begin preaching to this woman. He has a need; she has a well. Her protesting response is not a denial of Jesus’ need but one of wonder – “Why is this guy talking to me?”
For many Jews of the time (and Samaritans, for that matter), this encounter should never have taken place. Men only ordered women around, and Jews never spoke with Samaritans. However, here is the Word-made-flesh asking for a drink from a (gasp!) Samaritan woman!
As the Lord deepens the encounter through the conversation, it soon turns away from the water toward religious questions. She sees that Jesus is more than just any man. Why are Jews and Samaritans so different? she wonders. How is your worship better than ours? The Messiah is promised to God’s people, and when He arrives, it won’t matter where you worship, for all will worship in Spirit and Truth.
This woman is changed by Jesus’ words – which come to her even as her own brokenness is revealed. She has been married many times and was living with a man who wasn’t her husband; but Jesus doesn’t condemn her. Rather, He engages her; He encounters her. After listening to this Man, she is moved to leave her water jug – which was her whole point of being there in the first place – to go back to the village. She has been turned inside-out – transformed by the encounter.
Like many of the Samaritans and even Jesus’ own disciples, we can become complacent in our knowledge of “religious things.” After all, we went to Catholic school or have raised our kids “Catholic.” But are we made for this same encounter? Are we seeking others who are seeking Jesus? Or are we finding reasons to exclude them? Are we equipped to be evangelists, like this Samaritan woman after her meeting with Jesus? In describing that “culture of encounter,” Pope Francis has said,
[W]e cannot forget that evangelization is first and foremost about preaching the Gospel to those who do not know Jesus Christ or who have always rejected him. Many of them are quietly seeking God, led by a yearning to see his face, even in countries of ancient Christian tradition. All of them have a right to receive the Gospel. Christians have the duty to proclaim the Gospel without excluding anyone. Instead of seeming to impose new obligations, they should appear as people who wish to share their joy, who point to a horizon of beauty and who invite others to a delicious banquet. It is not by proselytizing that the Church grows, but “by attraction.” John Paul II asked us to recognize that “there must be no lessening of the impetus to preach the Gospel” to those who are far from Christ, “because this is the first task of the Church”. … What would happen if we were to take [our missionary task] seriously? We would realize that missionary outreach is paradigmatic for all the Church’s activity. Along these lines the Latin American bishops stated that we “cannot passively and calmly wait in our church buildings”; we need to move “from a pastoral ministry of mere conservation to a decidedly missionary pastoral ministry”. This task continues to be a source of immense joy for the Church: “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Lk 15:7).
The Samaritan woman was different from Jesus; she was different in that she was a woman and she was not a Jew. She was a sinner – different from Jesus, but just like us in that regard! She was seeking. There are so many in our world, in our community, and right here, who are seeking Jesus – seeking meaning and purpose to their lives.
We, too, seek an encounter with Jesus. It’s why we are here, hopefully. This is where we find Him: in His Word proclaimed, in this assembly gathered, and in the Bread and Wine shared. We come with the same thirst that the woman at the well had – to be loved and to know God’s love. In the Eucharist that we share in this place, we encounter Christ and He encounters us; and from that meeting, we too should be turned inside-out. Our task as Christians is to be evangelists.
What is “evangelization?” It is nothing more than making that encounter real. Jesus did it by sharing Himself – with this woman, with others, with us now. We must also be moved, like the Samaritan woman, to go and invite others to experience this encounter. There are many who are waiting to be invited; you have just met Jesus.
What do you do next?