Dolores Aleixandre RSCJ
At a small museum in Nazareth there is an interesting capital on a column from a very ancient church: it depicts a woman (Faith?), wearing a queen’s crown, having in her hand a scepter topped off with a cross, going forward clasping the hand of another person (Peter? an apostle?), hesitating, being led very reluctantly in a direction he’d rather not go.
The two figures bring to mind very different attitudes. The “leader” seems self-assured. She uses the cross for support, and in receiving strength from it, takes the initiative to grasp the hand of the other person to get him to follow her. He resists, pulling back, afraid. With his right hand held fast by the left hand of the woman, he has lost face and goes forward led by Faith. His left hand holds fast to his cloak, as if he were afraid to be seen naked before those looking on. He is not embracing Faith; rather Faith is the one who is taking him by the hand, like a prize, and not letting go. An interesting detail of the capital is that while one can clearly make out the facial features of the man being “led,” those of the “leader” appear undefined. We can hazard a guess about what may have happened in the past, but the future is open-ended and we can only imagine how things might turn out.
This image has come to mind as I begin to reflect on the icons of the two Samaritans – the woman (Jn 4,1-42), and the man (Lk 10,25-37). I propose that we let them be the ones who give a specific face to the figure that doesn’t have one, the one leading the other by the hand, and that we identify with the second figure. We can all see ourselves represented in this figure, men and women in the Church who have embraced this particular form of love that the Father has allowed some to grasp, and which we call the “Consecrated Life.” Once again we will be faced with the surprise that following in the footsteps of the Lord Himself leads to the most diverse outcomes.
Let us let these two Gospel personalities, unnamed in the texts (maybe so that those of us who gaze on them might be able to substitute our own names), take us by the hand and be mystical guides as we follow the Risen Lord. Because the message that reverberates in them has the power to grab hold of us and bring us beyond wherever we are today, at the beginning of this Millennium. It is not for us to clearly know where we are being led: our part is to consent to their promptings and let ourselves be brought along, without trying to control the journey’s outcome. An ancient hymn of the Church prays, Per tuas semitas duc nos quo tendimus: "Along your paths lead us where we want to go." Right at the start let us avoid the danger of starting out from ourselves and our response; it is the ever-flowing love of a God who loves us passionately that can exert its attraction on us through the two icons. Our part will come later on in the form of “passion for Him and passion for humanity" in responding to that love.
As in the creation accounts in Genesis, we are going to attend a drama in three acts. Starting with an initial scene of emptiness, chaos and need, we will contemplate the Lord’s creative action on people, and see their transfiguration at the end of the narratives. Although we will center our attention on the two icons of the Samaritan woman and the Samaritan man, we will engage in conversation with a third person, the Scribe who dialogues with Jesus in Luke’s narrative and comes across as being ambivalent. Will he find out how to gain “eternal life” as the parable’s Good Samaritan did? Will he accept Jesus’s invitation and allow himself to be formed “in his image and likeness”? Luke doesn’t tell us what the Scribe’s reaction was, and that undetermined outcome, that leaving things up-in-the-air, lets us today see ourselves reflected in him, with our freedom challenged by the same invitation that he heard from the lips of Jesus: “Go and do likewise.”
We will also take a look at other persons with secondary roles in the two scenes: the Pharisees whom John portrays as those prompting Jesus to decide to leave Judea behind and head for Galilee, passing through Samaria; the disciples, who bring food to Jesus and are upset when they see him speaking with a woman ; the Samaritans drawn to Jesus by her testimony; the man attacked by robbers and left half dead; the priest and the Levite who passed by as if the wounded man weren’t there; and the innkeeper who agreed to care for him.
We are not going to view these people as if we were sitting in a studio audience but as our contemporaries, aware that their stories, attitudes, and reactions can be our own. And we will welcome the good news that the work of creation that we witness taking place in them is inviting us today to let ourselves be shaped by the creative hands of the One who accomplished His transfiguring work in them.
1. “In the beginning” was need
As happens in the creation narratives, the two Gospel scenes begin with a situation of “chaos,” need and emptiness. The participants appear to lack crucial knowledge and ability. The woman who finds herself with Jesus at the well and the man ministering to the robbery victim are Samaritans, people at odds with the establishment, having a dubious reputation, not trustworthy. The woman represents the idea of "not-having;” “she doesn’t have” a husband, and the man she has “isn’t her husband.” She goes through the onerous task of heading to the well every day to draw water; she is caught up in ethnic and religious customs, and talks about them openly with Jesus. Her later behavior – taking the initiative to “evangelize” the people in her village – is a brazen thing for a woman to do.
In regard to the Scribe, he doesn’t know how to gain “eternal life” and he is in need of something that he is searching for: a feeling that he is “justified.” And even though there seems to be a vast difference between him and the woman, they are united by the same situation of being vulnerable and searching for life. The woman is yearning for the "living water” that Jesus tells her about, and the man desires to possess “eternal life.” And in one way or another this need for life makes them participants in the drama of the wounded, “half dead” man in the parable.
Jesus too is in a situation of being forsaken and vulnerable: He is a stranger, thirsty, with no jug, unable to draw any water from the well. Likewise in His encounter with the Scribe he seems to be at a disadvantage: He is face to face with an expert in the law "staring Him in the face" and intending to "put him to the test.” Will this Galilean from Nazareth measure up to a learned man’s level of discussion?
The itinerary Jesus has chosen – taking him through the hostile territory of Samaria – is unusual and dangerous. His behavior, asking a woman to give Him some water, breaks with the traditional way of handling relationships between Jews and Samaritans and between men and women. Measured according to the customs of the time, this conduct is seen as offensive and reprehensible. In the presence of the woman He seems to be characterized by “not having,” which in John’s Gospel always describes a shortcoming and the risk of remaining out of the mainstream in life: they have no wine 2,3; I have no one to put me into the pool 5,7; have you caught anything to eat?... 21,5.
Even more surprising, the Father Himself participates in some way in this situation of need: Jesus will say of Him that He is “searching” ("... indeed the Father seeks such people to worship Him." Jn 4,23), and in the parable of the Good Samaritan, which does not name or make any reference to Him, His presence "is of no account."
However, just as God the Creator acted on the chaos and dust of the earth, the storytellers of the two scenes “work” with the needs of their characters more than with their positive traits. Neither the initial wariness of the woman and her “five husbands," nor the Scribe’s desire to justify himself will get in the way of their encounter with Jesus. Neither will the different beliefs of the Samaritan people nor the ingrained ethnic prejudices of His own disciples. The woman’s testimony will lead her fellow Samaritans to faith, and Jesus will reveal to His disciples that their food is carrying out the will of His Father and that His encounter with the woman and the Samaritan people is now part of the desired harvest.
In contrast to this, the people who seem comfortable with the existing order of things and take their superior status for granted remain on the periphery of any change or transformation: the Pharisees at the beginning of John’s text, so smug in their views about the rivalry between Jesus and John the Baptizer; and the priest and the Levite in the parable, convinced that they have avoided impurity by steering clear of a probable corpse. Other representatives of orthodoxy also cast their shadow over both scenes. In the one immediately preceding the encounter that Jesus had with the Samaritan woman, Nicodemus is introduced as a "Pharisee and master of the law" (Jn 3,1) but, in contrast to him, it is the Samaritan woman of a different creed who winds up accepting Jesus (Nicodemus will only do so at the end of the Gospel. Cf. Jn 19,39). And precisely before the dialogue with the Scribe, Luke includes the scene in which Jesus praises the Father for having hidden these things from the wise and the learned, and revealed them to the childlike. (Lk 10,21). Thus, the one who will behave appropriately is an "uneducated" Samaritan and not a "learned" jurist.
But the parable turns out to be even more controversial because of the unusual perspective that it takes: a man half dead is at the center and all the characters are distributed around him; it doesn’t begin from above, from heady discussions revolving about the identity of one’s neighbor, but from below, from the roadside ditch where the wounded man lies.
With all these elements of violated norms, broken-down thinking, and changes in the way of doing things, the narrators seem intent on tricking or knocking the reader off balance, in the sense of getting him or her out of a rut. The unforeseen replaces what is expected; surprise, what is normal. The habitual gives way to novelty and the reader, who first came across the woman’s point of view and valued the concern of the Scribe, is later confronted with some very unexpected reactions of Jesus. It is a “surprise effect” that calls into question established values, judgments, customs, and roles.
But in the end these mistaken ideas and initial false impressions reveal their truth. The profane and unsheltered places in which the two scenes take place (a well in the middle of the countryside, a highway fraught with danger...), outside the protection of the safety zones like those in cities and temples, appear as places for encountering God. Of the three people in the parable, it is not the ones known for being dignified (the priest and the Levite) who behave in a suitable way, but precisely the one who belongs to a people considered heretics and schismatics. The parched and forlorn traveler in hostile territory is revealed as the Son of God who gives living water, and who truly knows how to inherit eternal life.
2. "And God said: Let us make man in our image, after our likeness (...)
And the Lord God formed man out of the clay of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life." (Gen 1,26; 2,7)
Throughout the two stories we listen to the words that Jesus addresses to the people, and observe His creating and re-creating action on them. He is the one with the leading role in both scenes, and the one who “authors” the strategies of the encounter:
As a skillful potter He repeats the very action that the narrator of Genesis attributes to God. The Samaritan woman, like the original clay, is formed patiently, and just as the first ‘adam’ received the breath of God that brought him to life, (Gen 2, 7), she receives the water of life. The Samaritan man in the parable, made “in the image and likeness” of God, is proposed as a model for the Scribe: "Go and become the image and likeness of that Samaritan because he is now the icon of the very heart of God’s mercy." Just as in the garden one of the created beings received a name, those who came on the scene without a name of their own take on a new identity offered to all: “searched for by the Father,” “graced by His gift,” “called to do what the Samaritan did”...
As a skilled fisherman, Jesus casts His nets and weighs anchor to draw out those with whom He is conversing – the Samaritan woman and the Scribe – from the treacherous waters of trivial pursuits and the desire for self-justification that is drowning them.
As a good shepherd who knows his sheep, He leads them out of the desert of superficiality and intellectualism, guides them toward personal well being and authenticity, "whistles" to them to leave behind the dark ravines where they are content to hide away, and leads them to the land of Gift: what is received – the gift of living water – and what must be handed on – saving the life of someone on the verge of losing it. Doing “honor to His name," His word communicates to them His conviction that, whatever the negative conditions in which they find themselves, He has the power to find a way out for them: “If you knew the gift of God...," "But a Samaritan saw him and drew near..." And in that consists the “fountain of peaceful waters” and the “fresh green pastures” in which He makes them lie down.
As a master of wisdom and skilled conversationalist, He uses all the resources of the spoken word and devises strategies to win people over: He questions, dialogues, argues, proposes, persuades, narrates, suggests, affirms, values the viewpoint of the other, provokes reactions of identification or rejection, and dares to extend invitations. He goes along with the woman and the Scribe in their evasive tactics, and uses these to reach them in a place from which they cannot escape; they must face up to their truth or their ignorance: “I don’t have a husband...,” "Who is my neighbor?” First He enters into their points of view in order to lead them where He wants. He doesn’t retreat in dealing with the defenses that the woman puts up, or with the Scribe’s attempt to take refuge in the realm of the theoretical. Jesus, “tired” at first, or aware that the Scribe is attempting “to put Him to the test” is not overcome by His questioners’ efforts to resist and pull the wool over His eyes. He keeps on trying different tactics to maintain their interest. Throughout His conversation with the woman, He is intent on getting to the bottom of her mistaken notions: she was thinking of Him merely as someone receiving the water she offered, but He reveals to her His role as a giver, and when she closes up and defends herself, He does not question her about what she does but about who she is. The provocative and enigmatic responses that she provides are leading her directly to Him, and in the final analysis, to the Father.
As a friend interested in building personal relationships, at no time does He render moral judgments of disapproval or reproach: instead of accusing, he prefers to dialogue and propose, uses a language aimed at the heart of those with whom He is speaking, and utilizes an “open space” strategy:
- in the conversation with the woman, the expression “if you knew who it is who is telling you...,” serves as “an opening” and creates a space between the two of them in which she feels appreciated and can ask questions: the identity of Jesus (“a Jew”), so clear for her when the dialogue began, comes into question. And in working with the opening He has given her, Jesus acts slowly. He does not rush to put Himself front and center but advances “in a spiraling way,” to little by little awaken the woman’s interest in accessing a fountain of an "other" life.
- in the dialogue with the Scribe, Jesus does not respond to the man’s question by teaching him a lesson or arguing with him on his own terms: again He looks for another “opening” between the two to them to provide the man with an opportunity to discover, on his own, the answer to his question. By means of the parable, Jesus manages to turn around the Scribe’s concept of “neighbor,” rooted in the soil of long and subtle theological studies and a facility for questioning, arguing and discussing based on the theoretical. Nothing of this ensnares or distracts Jesus; rather it leads Him to another sphere in which the expert is not “the one who knows” but the “one who does.”
As a consummate artist and painter, He traces the outlines of the Samaritan man, creating – does He realize it? – His own self portrait. In this image of the compassionate man who approaches the wounded one, we see reflected the values, convictions, and preferences of Jesus Himself: His theology, catechesis, image of the Kingdom, and prophetic criticism; what He considers important and not important (cult, temple, observance...); what He considers sin, omission or virtue, and the code of conduct He proposes. Thus the icon of the Good Samaritan becomes an illustration of the beatitudes.
As an expert on humanity, Jesus shows himself to be profoundly attentive and interested in the interior life of those who question Him. In the heart of the Scribe He reads the intention to put Him to the test and later to justify himself. In that of the Samaritan He stresses that compassion was the basis for his behavior toward the wounded man. In the woman’s heart, He uncovers the wellspring capable of bursting from the depths of her soul, contrasting with the ancient law and external commandments. He also reveals to her the inner life of the Father and the seeking taking place within Him.
As a prophet possessed by the fire of the Absolute in God, and spurred on by His justice, He questions, shakes up, and strips His opponents of whatever excuses or compromised principles that are distancing or distracting them from the basic underlying truth unavoidably affecting their lives: that God is our Father and men and women are neighbors.
3. "God blessed them..."(Gen 1,28) "...And so man became a living being" (Gen 2,7)
The people in these two scenes (the Samaritan woman, the Scribe...) are summoned to a “new creation” and given a choice: to hang on to their old knowledge and beliefs, searching for living water and justification in the dried-up wells of shrines, laws and customs, or to choose “eternal life” and allow themselves to be taken in by Jesus’s offer to transform and “transfigure” their lives.
3.1. A Paschal process
In both texts there is a transition from one way of thinking and judging to another, from various customs, structures, and convictions to others, and in this “Paschal process” we witness a “death.” What seemed to be definitive turns out to be provisional, and the main supports and assurances, in effect at the beginning of each text, display their inability to transmit “living water” and “eternal life.” They are overcome by the newness of the behavior and words of Jesus:
-the letter of the law, to which the Scribe was clinging for justification, appears to be a medium incapable of granting him life and answering his question about who his neighbor is. If the woman represents those trying to quench their thirst in the traditions of their ancestors, the Scribe only knows his neighbor in terms of erudition. By way of contrast, Jesus does not propose any external ideal but invites His questioners to welcome a free gift; not to focus only on themselves and their own perfection but on how they relate to their peers. He foregoes using academic treatises and casuistry and appeals to what is basic, the human being in need, which includes everyone regardless of ideology or religion, and the person recognized as a neighbor by implication. The old institutions are replaced by the “new way” of His flesh (Cf. Heb 10,20) and His own fragile humanity becomes a meeting place. His initial tiredness and thirst make possible exchange and reciprocity. His storytelling ability enables the person who was navigating in the realm of the theoretical to come into contact with real people who act in real ways, and teaches him or her that true wisdom consists in showing one’s humanness.
- Just “knowing” is seen to be sterile: Both the Samaritan woman and the Scribe question Jesus, hoping to increase their knowledge ("How is it you ask me...?" "Where do you get...?” "You mean you’re older...?" "What should I do?" "Who is my neighbor...?"). But the questioner, reflecting the concerns of his or her people, highlights differences among ethnic groups, special mountains, and theologies, divides people, and forecloses the possibility of entering into a relationship. He or she reduces people’s expectations about the Messiah to what they can get to know (“He will teach us everything.”). In regard to the Scribe, what “he knows” hasn’t secured "eternal life" for him either, and even though he has a thorough grasp of the law, he pays no attention to that neighbor he is supposed to love. Jesus offers both the woman and the Scribe an “alternative knowledge,” and invites them to go beyond “a host of data.” Why? In order to enter into a truth that one doesn’t attain along the path of generalities but only through tangible and concrete reality. His words are not meant to expand their knowledge but to provoke a change of life in them. “Jacob’s well,” a symbol of the wisdom given by the law (Gen R 54,5), as well as “what is written in it” (Lk 10, 26) lose their effectiveness, replaced by "living water” and the call – not to read about but to observe real people and behaviors – and act like the Good Samaritan. It is by doing, not knowing, that one attains life. A definitive knowing replaces provisional data. And it is now, not in the future, and thanks to the word of Jesus, that one gains access to the newness of such knowledge.
- Gender roles and stereotypes appear to be overcome, too. Surprisingly, the woman speaks up and becomes a witness and evangelizer for her fellow townspeople, taking on roles reserved for men. In regard to the Samaritan man, Jesus describes him as someone who takes care of the half-dead man and does things that generate life. He approaches the man, comforts him, bandages his wounds, lifts him up, takes charge of his affairs, looks for lodging and shelter for him, and sees to it that people continue to care for him and feed him. The Samaritan’s actions are usually considered feminine and maternal.
3.2. People transfigured
The Samaritan woman enters the scene as “a woman from Samaria” and leaves as someone very knowledgeable about the spring of "living water," aware that the Father is looking for her to worship Him. Her transformed identity turns her into an evangelizer who, by means of her testimony, persuades many people to approach Jesus and believe in Him. She who was talking about “drawing water” as a task costing great effort now abandons her jug: Jesus has uncovered a gift for her, one that doesn’t require anything in exchange, that is freely bestowed upon her.
The Samaritan man, who also entered the scene anonymously, identified only by his ethnic background, reveals his true identity at the end. The mercy dwelling in his heart leads him to act as a neighbor for the one depending on him for survival. Jesus gives him a new name: “the one who had compassion.” The Scribe, who expressed his desire for eternal life in terms of possessing things ("inheriting..."), is challenged to change that desire into an act of selflessness similar to that of the Good Samaritan.
Like water “that bursts into eternal life,” a gratuitous current flows through both texts and transfigures the people involved. The woman, after her attempt to lead Jesus to the people in her village, stands back and lets them discover Him and believe in Him on their own, not just because of her testimony. She has been led to her own inner self by means of a patient process that brought her from a dissipated to a unified life, and then, as a disciple of that Master, she attracts and leads the people of her village to Him. Likewise the Samaritan man stands back and leaves the other man free, in an act of “genital sublimation,” similar to the mother who gives birth and cuts the umbilical cord of her child in order not to keep it dependent on her.
The “neighbor,” whom the Scribe talked about in a vague and ambiguous way, as a faceless figure without any defining characteristics, goes from being a complicated legal concept to a specific flesh-and-blood person. Neighbors cannot be defined by how close or far they are from others. Now they “reside” in the heart of every human being who relates to others as a you, and in all who take responsibility for others in a disinterested way and enable them to move on with their lives.
At the outset we see Jesus as a tired and thirsty itinerant Jew. In the end He reveals Himself as the spring of living water, as Lord, Prophet, Messiah, and Savior of the world, as the Son nourished by His Father’s will. He defines Himself by His capacity for interpersonal relationships: "the one who is speaking with you.” And just as the Lord in the Jewish Testament, He brings the woman to a new "desert” to "speak to her heart,” and in her He fulfills the promise made to Israel: “And you shall know the Lord" (Hos 2,22). In his conversations He appears to possess an authority that allows Him to express Himself in the forceful language of the divine commandments. "Believe me, woman," He says, “do this and you will live...;” and He admonishes the Scribe, “Do likewise.”
The image of God also seems transformed. He is not a distant and impassive deity, one dwelling in shrines made of human hands; nor is He a dictator of laws, an eternal recipient demanding tribute, gifts, or sacrifices in the Temple. In Jesus He reveals Himself as a God who generates life, who gives and searches, who can be called "Father," and who does not allow Himself to become self-absorbed or possessive because He is Spirit. If He searches for us, it is because he desires to broaden our experience and communicate joy and fullness to us. To find Him we don’t have to gaze upward because He who came down to a bush in the desert, flows as a fountain in the depths of every heart, and reveals His presence in wounded people left for dead in roadside ditches. According to the best prophetic tradition, the "worship in spirit and in truth” that He is looking for is within reach of anyone who approaches another to lend a helping hand. While the priest and the Levite went out of their way to avoid getting their hands dirty and remain ready to offer sacrifices, the Samaritan, an outsider to the world of sacrifice, did not need to look for his offering someplace else; he had within himself the only thing that God asks for: mercy and compassion (Cf. Mi 6,8).
We do not see a “normal,” typical ending that one might expect (the woman would return to the village with the jug filled with water from the well; the Scribe would be pleased with himself after having spelled out the Law and received a response in the context of theory...). Rather the two of them are offered another view of things that challenges them, a surprising and unforeseen development leading to a life-giving relationship (“water that bursts into eternal life...;” “do this and you shall live...”). In both cases, a breaking point from the former way of doing things (drawing water, finding answers to questions, or continuing a planned journey in the case of the people in the parable...) is the condition for accessing a greater event (receiving "living water," becoming a "neighbor," and practicing "mercy”). The jug, empty and left by the wayside, and the deeds of the Good Samaritan who generously gives of his own belongings (oil, wine, money...) give testimony that it is through loss and generous service that one gains life (Cf. Mc 8,35).
3. 3. An open ending
However, the outcome is different in the two texts. While the path taken by the woman leads to a new relationship, and, spurred on by Jesus, she widens the circle of her involvement with others, the Scribe appears to be faced with a fork in the road. We do not know if he will remain imprisoned in his legalistic world, if "he will try to avoid coming near the robbery victim,” or if, as the Samaritan did, he will look for eternal life wherever it is found: in those deprived of life. The work of profound conversion that Jesus undertakes with this Scribe remains open-ended. As He did in His conversation with the blind man Bartimeus, Jesus asks him in a subliminal way: "What do you want me to do for you?” and He offers him another perspective, an anchoring place different from his own ego: the person of the other. The Scribe, not able to see, presumed that the notion of neighbor was defined in relation to himself, and he tried to pinpoint the border between those who were his neighbors and those who were not. But the perspective that Jesus proposes to him is totally different: “It is not for you to decide who your neighbor is; rather you should demonstrate your neighborliness for every human being in need. The person who needs your help is at the center, not you. Think about that Samaritan man: he is an icon in his willingness to change plans and give freely, made in the image and likeness of God Himself. From him learn that justice that opens out to eternal life: when a man was incapable of saving his own life, the Samaritan chose life for him, and the only evidence he left behind was that very life."
Having taken this contemplative walk through the two Gospel texts, we can go a step further and ask ourselves in what direction the protagonists seem “to be pulling us." Where are they leading us?
4. In the hand of the Samaritan woman
If the Samaritan woman took us by the hand, what would she say to us, and where would she bring us?
Surely she would invite us to accompany her to Jacob’s well, and tell us how she arrived there with the empty jug of her needs and distracting cares, all of which proved to be no problem at all for the man who was waiting for her to accomplish his work in her. And she would tell us that if she learned anything from Jesus at that time, it is that He is not put off by our defensiveness and the things we cling to. Rather, as the Son always acting according to the example of His Father (Cf. Jn 5,19), He searches for that “fracture” in our makeup from which our deepest yearnings emerge, as if He were convinced that only a greater desire can put lesser ones in their place. That may be why He let her go on telling Him about her prejudices, wariness, and misgivings, until the thirst for life that she was hiding in her heart revealed itself, and then He "pounced" on that desire: "If you only knew the gift of God..." Without His zeroing in on her “fracture,” she would not have recognized her unsatisfied needs; without His focusing on it, He would have let her return home with her jug filled with a water that was not quenching her thirst.
If we asked her about how her desire was transformed, she would encourage us never to let anyone or anything snuff out or cast aside the desires we experienced when we first chose to follow Jesus in the Religious Life. Rather, she would have us always keep them vivid and waiting to be fulfilled, because the best of our “humanness” and everything that allows us to remain open and filled with expectation from that Gift that we never fully comprehend is hidden in them.
And concerning her experience as a missionary for the people in her village, the Samaritan woman might tell us about her strategy for leading them to Jesus. From Him she had also learned how to become an expert in humanity, how to connect with dormant desires in the depth of each soul, and look for those “fractures” that enable grace to pass through, because that is where the Lord is already at work. But for such a mission it is better for "people-professionally-accomplished and busy-about-spiritually-inconsequential commitments" to take a back seat. Only "those who search for wells," who are capable of approaching and "getting in touch," of spending time and getting to the bottom of things, can help others shed light on the spring of living water that they have within themselves.
The woman would try to convince us of the importance of our accompanying and sustaining each other in the faith, learning how to reread life together and make it possible for each one to share the water of his or her experience. She might reveal how curious she is to know where we channel the torrents of our emotions, and whether or not our vows are giving our deep-seated dynamism the apostolic orientation that it had in the life of Jesus. And maybe she would even ask us to name our husbands, those realities that we strike deals with and that separate us from our Center:
- the husband of "uninformed and conformist nonsense," who would have us believe that there is no hope for this world ("that’s how it goes in a market economy...," "it’s the price to pay for technological progress..."), and that the most sensible thing we can do is to get along with the way things are, “go with the flow.”
- the "neoliberal, consumerist husband," who deceptively lures us toward “keeping up with the Joneses.” The one who creates an ever-growing need for creature comforts and makes us think it is normal to live in the lap of luxury, far removed from any risk-taking. The one who camouflages our resistance to everything that threatens to get us out of our rut by labeling it “prudence.” When we live that way, the "loony idea" that first motivated us to follow Jesus is snuffed out, our outlook becomes clouded, and we lose sight of the places here below that call for our involvement.
- the "individualist husband," who blinds us to fountains that bring change, who seduces us with the easy-going ways of a trivial and dissipated life in which the pain of others, the awe of God’s presence, and disturbing reminders of His Gospel fail to touch our hearts.
- the "pseudotherapist husband," who banks on psychology as the ultimate explanation for everything; who is always suspicious of our desires, invariably denying that they come from a transcendent source. The one who places us on a level of a seemingly indisputable positivism that claims everything stems from the innermost recesses of our psyche and anything else is but an illusion. In that way he denies the possibility that our freedom can be extended beyond our selves.
- the "secularist husband,” who leads us away from the well, from our deeply moving encounter with the Lord and mystical experience; the one who has us base our lives on ethical standards alone, who "secularizes" our hearts and takes away our ability to express spiritual experience. Out of this is born that “inability to talk” about the sublime, our fear in the presence of mystery and symbol, fossilized liturgies, and an apostolic activism in which there is neither time nor space for playful, silent, “easy-going” and constant prayer.
- the "spiritualist husband," who strives to keep erecting shrines and escape to the heights of new rites and reformist agendas with hazy new age characteristics, unrelated to the realities of everyday life.
- the "idolizer husband," who gets us to worship the media and its instruments, institutions, rites and laws, having nothing to do with do with a “return” to what is religious, and making it more and more difficult for us to give the Father the adoration that He seeks from us.
- the "thousand-things-to-do husband" who hides behind the old dynamic of looking for justification through works. The one who sees us more as givers than receivers, and converts apostolic failures or old age into real traumatic situations, because that is when work loses it absolute claim on us.
But she, who was freed from all her idolatries, would tell us, above all:
"Be patient with how slow the process is when you break off your ties with those husbands. Be sure that in each of your lives there is a well and that the Master is waiting for you there, seated on its ledge. Trust in His spellbinding power, His patience as He penetrates your defenses, His desire to lead you to the depths of your lives and the interior fountains known only to yourselves, because He knows how to accompany that descent without rushing or losing patience. When I twice heard Him say: “the water that I want to give,” I knew He was filled with a fierce desire to submerge all of us in its swift-flowing stream.
Don’t rest satisfied with what you know about Him: engage in the process of intimacy to which you too have been blessed to be invited. At first I thought of Him as nothing more than a Jew, but He was leading me to the point of discovering Him as Lord, Prophet and Messiah, the One I had always been waiting for without knowing it. Have the audacity to give Him new names, that will never show up in the boring manuals lining your library shelves.
Don’t be afraid to acknowledge the thirst that dwells in you. And don’t deceive yourselves into believing that your life as consecrated men and women exempts you from the uncertainties and vulnerability that throb in the heart of every human being. Change your attitude of being never-ending "donors" and see yourselves as travelers with those who travel and seekers with those who are seeking. Because only then will you experience the joyful surprise of being evangelized by the very people you want to evangelize. Learn how to listen better, and instead of preaching and directing so much, become experts in asking questions, conversing, and sharing with others that poverty that puts us all in the same boat. Because only if you experience your thirst will you be able to fathom what I learned by the well: the thirsty man who asked me for water turned out to be the one who quenched my thirst, and later made me decide to tell everyone in my town about Him. And precisely because I knew I needed salvation, I was able to get across to others that I had met someone who welcomed me without judging or condemning me. Come celebrate that poverty with me, by the ledge of the well. It is a poverty that when recognized and related to Jesus is not an obstacle to receiving the gift of living water but the best chance we have to welcome it and let it burst into eternal Life.
But I caution you, be ready: He may be waiting for you anywhere, anytime of the day, just when you’re engrossed in trivial concerns, petty quarrels, or stale traditions bound up with status or rules. If you stop to listen to Him, you’ll be under His spell forever. At first He will ask you for something simple (“Please give me some water,” “Call your husband”)... , but in the end, you’ll return home without water, without a jug, and with a thirst you’ve never known before, to attract your whole town to Him.
Welcome the astounding news that it is the Father who is searching for You and wants Your adoration. Don’t be afraid of that message, so strange to the ears of the world, because it is that “other land" to which you, like Abraham, have been summoned. Leave behind the old familiar places that sustained You and enter into that passionate relationship with the Lord and His Kingdom in which, as Benedict of Nursia used to say, nothing interferes with His love. A relationship that becomes a way of life, as the psalmist proclaimed: “Your love is better than life!" (Ps 63,4).
5. In the hand of the Samaritan man
If the Samaritan man were to take us by the hand, what would he say and where would he take us?
More than listening to him (he seems to be a man of few words), we take time to contemplate the scene described by Jesus, keeping in mind that an icon is not a reflection of the life we are already living and being; it manifests the Other to us, the ideal we have yet to reach, the distance that we have to travel for conversion. It places us in front of the look that penetrates our hearts and enables us to encounter the true face of our neighbor.
Will this icon also find in us what was dwelling in the heart and soul of Jesus, the one who made up his story and who, without trying to, "painted" some features of His own in it? Isn’t it possible this may be His masterpiece, the picture by which He was able to take His place and be remembered in history, even if now there are other reasons for its being so?
We began looking at this scene as if we were already a part of it:
More than anything we are surprised by the stark realism of the artist, who spares no bleak details: an assault by robbers, a man stripped, beaten up and left half dead; two “qualified” passersby who hurry on their way (and we can’t help but remember the abuse going on in our world today, its forgotten victims pushed to the edge of society, the indifference of others or ourselves who pass them by, all wrapped up in our own affairs ...)
And when the story relentlessly tries to convince us that evil has the last word in everything, and that the situation is absolutely hopeless, the narrator presents another figure, using a little grammatical device that leaves us up in the air: “but a Samaritan....” Where does this man come from? And what about the "static" introduced by that "but”? we ask ourselves. What opposing power can he represent in a world that seems to send out nothing but signals of frenzied possessiveness, an obsession for looking no further than one’s own interests, and a blissful ignorance, while entire peoples endure downtrodden lives in silence? That small "but....” – isn’t it telling us something about how Jesus looks at history, and about His unyielding hope that envisions a powerful although seemingly weak force of resistance emerging from it?
Because, in the midst of so many signs of death, the Samaritan who enters this scene does not seem to possess many resources. He doesn’t belong to any center of power that backs him and assures him of prestige or influence; he is a foreigner, traveling alone, with nothing but a saddlebag and his mount. But his eyes are very observant and his heart has gotten in sync with the rhythm of Another.
And then he takes the minimal and immense step of walking over to the fallen man. When others have gone out of their way to avoid him, without paying the slightest attention to his needs, the Samaritan is moved by the wounded man and feels responsible for his forlorn condition. The urgency of caring for the one in need interrupts his travel plans and puts all his projects on hold. His deep concern about the endangered life of the other takes precedence over his own plans and brings out the best in him: an ego unencumbered by self. He is a foreigner; no kinship or ethnic solidarity obliges him to take care of someone else, yet he stops and comes to the man’s aid. He is a traveler who dismounts, changes his itinerary, and kneels down beside the man; he holds different religious beliefs, yet acts as his brother’s keeper. He interprets the commandment "Thou shalt not kill" to mean “You will do whatever it takes for the other to live.”
And what if this gesture of total readiness to change our plans contained within itself the secret of our deepest identity, and showed us where the adoration to which the Samaritan woman was calling us leads? What if it was a sign in the midst of the world in response to growing consumerism, a sign as poor as the manger or the empty tomb, a presence affirming the value and dignity of the littlest ones?
A tiny little stumbling block in the field of neoliberal logic, dreamers with their feet on the ground, busy maintaining a hope-filled relationship and not resigned to the status quo, able to discover viable possibilities for transformation and imagine the "other possible world." Also in regard to the Samaritan man there was, as now, a prevailing logic: “If you stop to take care of an unknown half-dead man, you risk ruining your plans, your composure, time, oil, wine, and money." But his reaction reveals the persistent logic of Jesus: "Don’t measure, don’t calculate, give in to love. The others will be the ones who give you back your identity, just when you thought you were going to die."
We stop to contemplate the man half dead. The one at the center of the scene leads us to believe that it was natural for Jesus to look at things from an earthly standpoint, through the eyes of those who live well or poorly in the most dire circumstances. Jesus, the One who was born in the countryside on the outskirts of Bethlehem and will die outside the walls of Jerusalem, “pulls up stakes” and pitches His tent where nobody expects: in the dispossessed, those cast down and excluded, exactly where all hope seems lost. We will always find Him on the outside, with those whom the world has hurled far from itself.
"He took care of him,” we read in the text. "Take care of him,” he will later say to the innkeeper. This is a “feminine” expression, showing deliberation and tenderness, in contrast to our fast-paced lives and impatience for immediate results. This human dimension of "caring" can soothe our communitarian relationships with its warmth, break down our defenses, overcome the coldness that can make our celibacy gloomy, and let us show kindness, warmth, and tenderness.
Again we contemplate the "half-dead" man, facing up to the question that sometimes jumps out at us – whether or not, at times, Religious Life itself is responsible for the “half-deaths” of some of its members. Honesty obliges us to recognize the existence of “half-baked” lives that seem to lack fulfillment and happiness. Lives subordinated to the smooth running of institutions, smothered by the inertia of inflexible routines and unquestioned traditions; disembodied souls with their initiative and spontaneity snuffed out, rarely invited to think for themselves, to freely express their opinions, disagreements, desires and dreams. Certainly one would have to classify as "neither religious nor life" anything that produces “deadened subjects” like these in its sterile womb, when those who entered it came looking for the abundant life promised by the Living God.
We continue looking at the half dead man, relieved to know that someone is going to do what he can for the living half of the man, choosing life in his name. And we realize with amazement that this suffering soul is the one who, because he is so helpless, has the power to reveal to the Samaritan his capacity for showing compassion, which makes him like God.
Suppose we felt that what was half dead in us, both as individuals and institutions, was meant to reveal dimensions of our existence that we weren’t aware of? And what if the “messengers” charged with proclaiming something new in our lives were our situations of increasing uncertainties, declining numbers and losses? We would never have chosen these harbingers, and in fact we continue yearning to be numerous, strong, youthful, and influential. In many places, however, we are being led in the opposite direction, and our resistance to becoming poorer is becoming a source of a corporate spiritual depression that is blocking our plans and preventing us from living happy and creative lives. We have a “half dead” hope with respect to the future of God in Religious Life, and we have signed on to an “emotional heresy” much more dangerous today than any other heresy: God probably has nothing left to do in this world, this Church, this apostolic Body; we shouldn’t expect anything new from Him. We may not put it in those words, but that’s how we feel, and that feeling subtly enters within us, like a knife of encouragement and hope. And when there is a crisis of hope, faith and love begin to writhe in pain.
Don’t we probably need the great Samaritan, Jesus, to come up to us, heal our wounds, and pour out the oil of His consolation and the wine of His power on them? In our frailty, isn’t the kairós of discovering “a new road” before us, a road along which strength is manifested in weakness and life in death? Isn’t this the time to wholeheartedly trust in the God who is developing something new with our poverty and even our loss, and to accept being “bearers of the marks of Jesus” in the Church, a weak, always fragile, and never-finished reality?
Unless we decide to hasten toward the deaths to which we are being led, unless we succeed in “taking pleasure in them,” we will not be able to let the life that wants to be born from them come forth: a call to center ourselves on what is essential, a different way of relating to each other, of supporting each other intercongregationally, making room for the laity, and having a better understanding of what reciprocity and collaboration are all about.
Can we imagine what would happen in Congregations (and we are beginning to see valuable examples of this) that abandoned all anxiety to control their future and left their charism, the pearl of great price, in God’s hands? Not to feign ignorance or stop offering their charism to others, but to exercise it in seeking the Kingdom rather than in assuring its survival at all cost. Can we imagine how much energy would be unleashed by such confidence, and how novel it would be for us to stop blaming or beating up on ourselves over diminishing numbers and our precarious existence? Then wouldn’t these Congregations show us their radiant face and reveal themselves, not in terms of misfortune or drama but as an opportunity, painful yet pregnant with possibilities, for us to trust in the wisdom of the Gospel that talks about losing and letting go?
Today don’t we have the best chance ever to be experiencing all this running on all cylinders? As an immediate consequence, in places where we are experiencing the aging of Religious Life, we could help one another widen our view and be filled with joy that other Congregations at home and abroad are enjoying times of growth and expansion. And this “vicarious consolation,” this gesture of gratuitousness and detachment, would surely be in the best tradition of our founders and constitute one of those signs of newness that we are looking for: nothing less than the abandoning of our narrow views and allowing our hearts to beat to the rhythm of the universality of the Church!
Is it difficult to go forward based on such faith? You bet. When we first made up our minds to follow Jesus in a radical way, did people guarantee us that the future was going to be easy?
At last we arrive at the inn. Once again the place features care, but now everything happens “inside” a house, within walls (of an institution, let’s say).
How do we make the structures we have created become "inns" at the service of life, places where we feel welcome, that offer stability and permanence, and prepare us to get back on the road? How insure we won’t forget that the reason they exist is to generate (another feminine verb) "meaningful relationships" and provide convenient structures and meeting places? How keep alive the memory of what they were born to do, when the creative whirlwind of their imaginative founders gave them built-in flexibility, so that they would not get stuck in set places but remain open to ongoing dreams?
And inside the inn, it doesn’t matter whether we are “on the front lines,” or we devote ourselves to making sandals for others to go out and meet those who need us, or produce oil and wine to use in dressing their wounds. Some will have to devote themselves to denouncing the robbers who prey on the weak, creating “Samaritan communication networks” that raise awareness, protesting, and working with “fellow dissidents” throughout the world who are already contending against economic gloom and doom, inventing alternative models to promote an economics of solidarity, and using their full potential and resources to create a human order in which everyone’s voice can be heard. Others will feel the urgent need to spend their time caring for this “half dead” planet and defending it from those who are plundering it. Some will offer their time and attention to young people and those who knock at our doors in search of meaning; others will feel called to engage in dialogue with other religions. Still others, to proclaim Jesus’s name from the housetops.
The mission of our inn is not only to preserve the memory of our inheritance and strengthen our bonds, but, above all, to make it easier for the human cause to resonate in us as God’s cause, and help us become a coordinated and well-conditioned body at the service of a wounded world.
6. From the hand of the Scribe
If the Scribe were to take us by the hand, what would he say to us and where would he lead us?
Maybe he would sit us down next to his desk covered with old rolled-up manuscripts and commentaries on the Torah, and tell us how, from his boyhood days, he got used to scrupulously observing the Law, never knowingly breaking even a single one of its precepts. His constant concern was to find out how to reach "eternal,” i.e., “true” life, an abundant, profound, overflowing life beyond the limitations of time, human weakness, and the dissolution of relationships... In pursuit of this goal, he consecrated his life to reading and research, and thus held discussions with other Scribes, subsequently writing down his findings on parchments that he zealously preserved.
A master of learning, with influence and prestige, he had spent the best years of his youth scrutinizing the Scriptures, but the teachings he mastered had become a tiresome burden, suffocating him and trapping him in a tangled web threaded with complicated propositions and subtle treatises.
People had told him about an itinerant Galilean, with a band of disciples around Him, leaving behind an air of joy and freedom wherever He went. He decided to go see this man; perhaps there was some text in the Torah that he was not familiar with, but which scholars at a synagogue in Galilee had commented on. Maybe that might help him expand his knowledge about true life. With a mixture of curiosity and arrogance ("Can anything good come out of Nazareth?") he posed his question to Jesus. To his dismay he learned that Jesus simply referred him back to the well known answer in the Law. He quoted the Shema with the level tone of someone who had repeated it by heart a thousand times: "You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart...and your neighbor as yourself.” But then, irked by the thought that he sounded so simple, he decided to test the Galilean’s knowledge and asked, "And who is my neighbor?”
“ – And then came the shock,” he confessed to us. Instead of going through the laws and directives that were familiar to me, that puzzling teacher began telling me a surprising story that had nothing to do with what I had learned. In it everything was turned upside down: the figures that I respected and admired, the priest and the Levite, didn’t measure up and were disqualified. The name of God was never mentioned, and the only remote reference to His Law (the prohibition concerning touching a dead body), was flagrantly violated. But above all it was the conclusion that I found absolutely insufferable; Jesus proposed that I follow the example of a heretical Samaritan schismatic in order to become a neighbor!
I tried to run away, but the hand of that stranger had grabbed mine and taken hold of me, with no quarter given, setting me at the crossroads where I now find myself: He is inviting me to leave behind all the roads I’m used to, and to set out on an absolutely unfamiliar one, full of unknowns. He didn’t demand that I renounce the inheritance I had received, but starting from it, to create something new and very unexpected.
My former knowledge and assurance are beginning to look worthless and I’m getting dizzy. I’m alarmed because, without wanting to, I’m comparing the figure of the Samaritan with those of the priest and Levite, who for years symbolized the behaviors that nurtured my convictions. I’m amazed to realize that they are beginning to take on new meaning in my life: their lives seem sterile and outdated to me, they express themselves in a dead language that I no longer speak. I see them as victims of cold, dead customs, satisfied with the opinions and conventional thinking of others, purveyors of empty words, godless professionals talking about God. Now I understand why in Jesus’s story they gave the half dead man a wide berth: their hearts were numb and atrophied, unable to react to the unexpected and free themselves from routine, habitual ways of doing things. Those men knew the commandment to love your neighbor by heart, just as I did. But their head wasn’t connected to their heart and they fled from their true neighbor, who was challenging them with his flesh-and-blood presence.
It’s slowing dawning on me that the life that I’m looking for is not linked to laws, temples, rites, buildings or customs, but to that word on which Jesus placed all the emphasis in His story: compassion. The imperative that He addressed to me, “Do likewise,” is weighing on me, and I’m debating whether to return to the already known world of my certainties based on books, or enter into contact with flesh-and-blood human beings and discover that it is in the company of the most downtrodden people that one gets to know eternal life."
What if, as in a mirror, we dared to recognize ourselves in the figure of the Scribe? And what if his words defined our habit of taking refuge in the sterile world of theories, the satisfaction we receive from stirring declarations, the calm of orderly, predictable lives, the security of the rigid schedules and sometimes-invisible walls that keep us safe from the din of life going on far away from us and the tears, cries, hopes and laughter of those who are living and dying at the far-flung edges of our world?
How do we avoid having the adventure that we undertook one day, born of a passionate love affair with the Lord and His Kingdom, develop into a lukewarm existence, a boring adherence to customs, rules, and regulations?
We are experiencing frustration from not having hit upon all the answers in our search for the full and overflowing life upon which we wanted to set our hearts. We are tired of meaningless words and hungry to see, touch, and feel. We have reached a saturation point in terms of statements, documents, and theories about the specifics of our identity, when what matters is not what we talk about but how we live. Won’t we be wasting our energy by preserving and hanging on to a type of Religious Life and historical forms that had controversial beginnings, filled with contingencies? Isn’t it time to stop rehashing what we have always been doing and open ourselves up to what lies before us, to the new realities that the Spirit is creating?
We probably need to take the Scribe’s advice:
“Abandon your world of virtual reality, just as I’m shaking the dust off my bundle of manuscripts. Even if only for a minute or two, turn off your computers, that contain all the organizational charts, regulations, social projects, and pastoral plans you save so zealously, and go out into the streets and town squares to listen to the clamor of real people. Broaden the range of your contacts with them. Don’t avoid dangerous roads; new things always emerge off the beaten path, away from safe, protected, everyday places.
Open up to a rainy-day spirituality and to dealing with perplexing times without becoming defensive. Risk letting go of many old practices and relearn the silent practice of tangible love, because that is what will make your life shine, not your monotonous talkativeness. Be more interested in uncovering needs than in preserving hardware, in coming up with answers than in repeating formulas. Zero in on the basic issues that people are wrestling with: life, death, love, truth, peace, and the future of the earth. Don’t keep dispensing pat answers that have outlived their expiration date or let yourselves be paralyzed by discouragement: “precisely because things have gotten so bad, it’s okay to hope.”
Don’t grieve over the insufficiency of your efforts to “transfigure” your life: I didn’t reach the life I was looking for on my own, either. Rejoice if you’ve been speechless in trying to define your identity: the Samaritan didn’t need to use any words when walking over to the wounded man and healing him. He simply got the job done.
Don’t try to run away when life serves up crises and instability, when things are ruptured and torn apart, and the theological reassurances that sustain you are suspended. Only when you stop comparing yourselves with others will your true nature be revealed.
The life you have embraced is not a code of ethics nor a founding story, but a passion, an adventure, a risk; a journey to accomplish with your eyes and ears wide open. A journey in which the only compass guiding you to your destination is that of mercy and tenderness.
As in my case, let the imperative “Go and do likewise” shake you up. The great avenues of worship and compassion that lead to “eternal life” are open before you. Happy are you if you choose to travel on them.
In the hands of the First Potter
As in the column’s capital in Nazareth, today Someone is grabbing us by the hand to draw us closer to Himself, make us His disciples, women and men passionate about Him and His world.
He comes to us with the irresistible surge of spring water that bursts into eternal Life and tries to lead us inexorably to give Him the adoration that the Father is looking for from us – until our whole life is basking in His love, and the primacy of His Kingdom puts everything else in perspective.