The Word Embodied
Water and Bread
“In their thirst, they grumbled.” (First Reading)
Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well could serve as a metaphor for our great thirst. We languish for the living water. It satisfies and refreshes. It revives and cleanses. We die without it. This is our condition: we thirst.
Existential thirst launches all our efforts. The thirst for fullness is behind every move we make, even those, St. Thomas Aquinas reminds us, that are born of our misdirected and misguided longings.
It was a mighty thirst that led Israel out of Egypt, just as it was their thirst that led them to complain that even Egypt would be better than the dry, godforsaken desert. And it was their thirst that God would slake, even from a rock. God would be their well of life just as surely as the manna-bread would fall from heaven.
Thirst led the Samaritan woman not only to a well, but to Jesus who would refresh her spirit and renew her world. It was the same thirst that drew her through all the detours, all the lovers of her life. If she could only realize, Jesus said, that he himself was the living water, the fulfillment of every hope.
At the well, Jesus was the unexpected visitor who would welcome her. He was the alien who became most intimate. He was the most strange who drew most near. He was the unknown who would know her most deeply.
St. Augustine wrote that the very one who asks for a drink promises a drink. The very one who seems to be in need, hoping to receive, is the one who is rich, wanting to give, wanting to satisfy our deepest thirsts. “Whoever drinks the water I give will never be thirsty. No, the water 1 give shall become a fountain within, leaping up to provide eternal life.”
Receiving his truth, the woman’s thirst was quenched. Believing him, yielding to his word, her desires were finally met.
In our relationship to the Christ of God, it is not only a matter of drink; it is a matter of food as well. It is manna. “Doing the will of the one who sent me and bringing that work to fullest completion is my food.”
Our endless thirst is what makes us work so hard at physical life: producing, earning, consuming. Thirst, too, excites our spiritual longings, our proving and testing, our fretful striving for virtue, even for perfection. But our thirst is so great we can get lost in it and ignore the very truth that could satisfy.
That great truth is God’s thirst for us, even in our sin. Remember, it is Jesus who asked the confused and searching woman for a drink. It is he who reached out to her.
When we see the full mystery of Lent and Easter, we realize that, as great as our dry thirst and wide yearning may be, it is God’s eternal thirst for us, for our faith, our trust, our love, that is the central mystery of being,
Jesus is the stream of love between God and ourselves. We are invited to drink of the mystery, this outpouring of love, embodied in Jesus, the thirst of God in us. His “I thirst” from the cross is as much the voice of God as it is the stirring of a human heart. It is not Christ’s humanity alone that feels the parching. It is his divinity too.
The story of the woman at the well, like our own rituals of baptism and the Eucharist, interprets for us the fundamental nature of our relationship to God. We are nothing without God. God is our drink. God is our sustenance.
There are days when we realize the deep meaning of our Eucharist, when we fully enter the actions we do and the words we say. It amounts to this: “I take you for my food and drink, my nutriment. You become my very being as food and drink become my own flesh.” So great is the expanse of our hunger and thirst that only God can fill us, fulfill us.
Thus our desire is insatiable. But that is not even half the story. More vast than the furthest reach of our hunger and thirst to be known and loved is the God, eternal love and truth, who longs to be our bread of life, our living water, the sustenance that has loved us into being and keeps us there.
In the Letter to the Romans, St. Paul recalls the awesome disproportion between our own aspirations and the beneficence of God. We are not to be fixated on how deep and undying our desires are, but on the vastness of God’s desire for us. “At the appointed time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for us godless creatures. It is rare that anyone should lay down one’s life for a just person, though it is barely possible for someone good to have such courage. It is precisely in this that God proves his love for us: that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
As acute and overwhelming as our thirst for God might be, as exhausting and enervating as our journeys to God might seem, the yearning that God has for us and the journey that God has made into our hearts surpass it all infinitely.
Drink it in.
**From Saint Louis University