The 3rd Sunday of Lent
First Reading: Exodus 7:3-7
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 95:1-2, 6-9
Second Reading: Letter of St. Paul to the Romans 5:1-2, 5-8
Gospel: According to St. John 4:5-42
Outside O’Shaughnessy Hall, the home of Notre Dame’s College of Arts and Letters, stands a sculpture entitled Christ and the Samaritan Woman at Jacob’s Well by the brilliant Croatian artist Ivan Meštrović (pictured below). It is hard to see something hundreds of times without it becoming part of the background noise of the place. Still, there are times when this work of bronze makes me pause – if only for a moment – and think about that Samaritan woman and the encounter with Jesus that changed her life forever.
Two things, in particular, strike me about this sculpture, the first being the almost nonchalant pose of our Lord as He half-sits on the rim of the well, leaning on His left hand and motioning casually with His right as if He were conversing with an old friend. Meštrović is even able to make bronze appear to move as Jesus’ hair seems to be gently blown back by a cool summer breeze.
The relaxed nature of Jesus’ posture contrasts with His words and the Samaritan woman’s body language. His words – “You are right in saying, ‘I do not have a husband.’ For you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true.” – as interpreted by a lesser artist, might elicit the sculpting of an accusatory Messiah who points His finger at the woman in disapproval. But Meštrović hears only a simple statement of facts accompanied by an offer of “living water.”
The other striking feature of the sculpture is the pose of the woman. Rather than meet the gaze of her interlocutor, she stares down at her water jar as if ashamed and too afraid to look into the eyes of the One Whom she recognizes as a prophet. Her hands caress the jar as she dolefully ponders a life spent in one broken relationship after another.
It is understandable that Jesus offers her hope rather than condemnation. As is typical of His actions throughout His entire ministry, He is quick to show mercy to those who, in humble penitence, recognize Him as their Messiah. He reserves His anger and vitriol for those who are filled with pride and self-righteous judgment.
As Meštrović draws our focus to the jar, he moves our thoughts beyond the woman’s shame to her repentance and freedom from her past life by reminding us of St. John’s seldom-noticed detail: “The woman left her water jar and went into the town and said to the people, ‘Come see a man who told me everything I have done.’”
In pointing out that she “left her water jar,” St. John indicates that she traded earthly water for the “living water” of which Jesus spoke. She is so affected by the words of Jesus that without any command from Him, she takes upon herself the role of apostle and missionary to the people of Samaria.
Nothing about her makes her suitable for this task: she is not only a non-Jewish non-male, but one who would be known to have lived a life filled with, at best, bad decisions and, at worst, the loosest of morals. And yet her words are believed, and people not only go out to see Jesus, but they invite Him to stay with them so that they might hear for themselves and come to follow Him as their Messiah.
Considering her resounding success as a witness to the Good News, is it any wonder that the Orthodox and Catholic East have not only given her a name – Photine or “the luminous one” – but also venerated her as a saint? How fitting, then, that one who brought the light of Christ to the Samaritans, those who lived in the half-light of a corrupted Judaism, be called Photine.
Not only for Eastern Christians but for all people, Photine is a laudable example of an honest and humble penitent whose heartfelt witness needed no external jar to carry the living water to her countrymen. Photine became the vessel of this supernatural water, and the words of Jesus to her have become a fulfilled prophecy about her: “the water I shall give will become in [her] a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
Eastern hagiography (“holy writings” or lives of the saints) includes the fitting story of St. Photine dying in an empty well in Rome at the hands of Nero. The well of pagan virtue had long ago been emptied of all of its life-sustaining water, and the time of the living water of Jesus had arrived to fill that well with the witness of the martyrs. Before she fell to her death, St. Photine survived multiple tortures and converted many souls, including Nero’s daughter.
Photine left this world not as the woman who was the source of gossip in a small Samaritan town, but as a beacon of light and carrier of living water to all she met. If we can follow in her footsteps, we too can share in that light and in that living water offered by the Messiah at the well – that Messiah who placidly half-sits, leaning on His left hand, waiting for our arrival.