Quaerens me sedisti lassus––You were searching for me.
(Thomas — 3SunLent-A, John 4:5-42)
As we began today’s liturgy, I mentioned that for today we have chosen to hear the readings of the “A” cycle in the Sunday lectionary, with its strong symbolism of water, pointing to baptism. A long gospel reading does not require a long homily, but let us just see if the reading as a whole, or any phrases within it, can enhance our understanding of life in general and of our personal lives.
First, this gospel story is about a meeting of two persons, with no one else present. The Samaritan woman stands before Jesus, sola cum solo, “alone with the alone,” and in this case, she does not know him, while he clearly knows her. The time of day is noon. Sunup is the usual hour when women go to fetch water, because they need it for cooking and early chores. So there must be something wrong with this woman, a reason for which she avoids her sisters. And the reason comes out in the conversation with Jesus — she has been married five tines and now is living with a man who won’t or can’t marry her.
Jesus is sitting by the well. He is tired. The tiredness of Jesus reminds me of a great 13th-century hymn called the Dies Irae — “Day of Wrath”, written by Thomas of Celano, a Franciscan. The hymn is addressed to Jesus, in the “I-Thou” language of the Bible. In it there is a line that says, “Quaerens me sedisti lassus.” Let’s go through the Latin. Quaerens: You were searching, seeking — for what? For me: Quaerens me. And then: Sedisti, You sat down. And finally: lassus: tired — Jesus, you were tired, but not tired of seeking me. You kept walking until you could go no farther, and you had to sit down.
On his ascent of Mount Calvary, Jesus got very tired: he was carrying his cross, and he fell three times under the weight of it. When he got to the top, they nailed him to the cross. As he hung there, he pulled himself up to breathe, and he gasped, “I am thirsty!” To the woman who came to fetch water Jesus says: “Give me a drink.” But the woman warns Jesus that he is in trouble. First, he is alone with a woman who is not of his family. Second, she is a Samaritan, a people excommunicated by the Jewish authorities. Third, when she gives him some water from her own jar, she renders him ritually impure.
Jesus takes the cup of water from her hands, and promises her a different kind of water, about which we sing at the end of morning prayer during Lent: “… a drink of deathless life from the rock that was his tomb.” As Jesus continues his journey, he comes to Jerusalem, where he is crucified, the maximum impurity that can befall a Jew, as it is said in the Torah, “Cursed is the man who hangs from a tree.” The cross he hangs from is a curse, and his tomb is a place of impurity, but when the tomb becomes empty, a wave of blessing and purification pours over those who come to believe in him.
Jesus challenges the woman’s conscience. He says, “Go, call your husband, and come back here.” At this point she feels compelled to tell Jesus the whole truth about herself: five husbands and a relationship with a married man. She can tell him, because she realizes that, after these six men, Jesus is the seventh, the perfect number. He alone can turn her impurity into purity and the curse of the Law into a blessing. The blessing that Jesus gives the Samaritan woman is in her recognition of Jesus as the Messiah, and with this gift comes the task to bear the good news to all the women and men in her town, and to lead them to Jesus.
The Samaritan woman is the first evangelist, just as Mary Magdalene is the first apostle of the risen Jesus. May the eucharist we receive bless each one of us with a similar grace, that we may bring the gospel message into our families, our communities, our world.