Most of the western United States suffers severe droughts in several decades every century. These are times when the grass is brown or there is no grass at all and the land is cracked and broken; times when cattle are forced to gather around broken up bales of hay and creep feeders; when stock tanks dry up and city water supplies run dangerously low; when the landscape becomes the portrait of a thirsty land.
These are times when there is little but thirst for living things-plant life or animals or human beings. Dryness pervades everything and thirst for life-giving water grows all-important.
Such conditions of drought can provide a powerful image for the inner, spiritual life. This is a metaphor that Jesus used in the encounter experienced in today's Gospel.
Jesus lived in a land that was chronically dry. Every day, every year, it gives an appearance not unlike the pastures of the West in time of drought. Imagining life in a drought-stricken land might help us identify with the people who lived in the Holy Land during Jesus' time. They recognized how critical water is for life-especially when there is not enough -- or when it is difficult to obtain. We identify with them as we remember how good water tastes when we are thirsty. When we are dry -- really dry -- there is nothing like a drink of cool, clear water. Using that truth, Jesus gives us a spiritual lesson based on the common image of water for a thirsty person.
Today's Gospel story takes us to an unlikely setting -- Jesus in a foreign region, Samaria, face to face with a local woman at Jacob's well. The scene is one of two people who would be very unlikely to strike up a relationship in the normal course of events-a Jewish man and a Samaritan woman, religious enemies, two strangers of the opposite sex, alone together. This was an unusual event, even in public, at a time and in a place where there was a cultural taboo against women and men speaking if they did not know each other.
So when Jesus asked the woman to give him a drink of water from the well, she was naturally startled, and asked, "How is it that you a Jewish man are asking me, a Samaritan women, to give you a drink?" Ignoring the question, Jesus employed his metaphor: "if you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying it to you, you would have asked and been given living water."
The confused woman, thinking he meant fresh water from a spring, replied something about Jacob's well not having any such water and wondered where Jesus would get "living water."
Jesus continued with the spiritual imagery, saying:
"Everyone who drinks of this water [from Jacob's well] will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty." Still thinking literally, the woman said she'd sure like to have some of that water because it was difficult to draw water from the well.
As the story continues, however, we discover that the woman of Samaria has a deep thirst of a different kind -- a spiritual one. Her life had not been good -- she had married five times and the marriages had ended either in divorce or with the death of her spouse; each event had no doubt been devastating. Now she was living in an unmarried relationship, a difficult situation in that time and place.
When the woman finally discovered who Jesus was and what he had to offer, he took her spiritual thirst and connected it with the life-giving spiritual water that only God can provide. That same power and truth is available to us as well. God provides refreshment for our spiritual thirsts.
There are certainly times when everyone is thirsty in spirit, when spiritual drought makes us especially desperate for the water that can give life to our spirits. These are the thirsty times when life seems shallow and without purpose, or when we can find no peace of mind inside a confused soul, or when doubt or fear paralyses us or when anxiety seems to tear us apart. These are times of a deep dryness of the soul.
For such times, Jesus offers us what he offered the Samaritan woman. We can have it, too, if we share with her a thirst for acceptance and forgiveness and love for our parched lives.
The season of Lent is a time of self-imposed drought that can help remind us that our deepest thirst can mark a time for God's spirit to become active in our lives.
Our Lord bids us come to his living water. Calls us to him, for he knows we thirst for acceptance in a desert of rejection, that we thirst for forgiveness in the parched land of our sins, and that we thirst for hope in the dry despair of our frustrations.
For us, as for the Samaritan woman, there comes, into the drought of life, the life-giving water of Christ, the one who also pours his love and grace into every crack and crevice of the dried and broken ground of our spirits.
To each of us who comes to him in hope of living water, for spiritual refreshment, Jesus, our Christ, not only gives us more than an ordinary drink, he offers us a spring of living water that can run deep inside each of us as an ever-refreshing source that can see us through the hard times of drought and direct us to the meaning that can be found only in truth of God.