Naming Our Desire: The Thirst of the Samaritan Woman
“We become hungry for God, and we make our own the words of the psalm: “My God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where no water is.” And Jesus, who has encouraged this feeling of emptiness in us, comes out to meet us and says: “If anyone thirst, let him come to me and drink.” …If we accept his invitation, … our hunger and thirst will increase to the point that we desire God really to inhabit our soul and never to take his light and warmth away from us.”
St. Josemaria Escriva
Christ is Passing By, no. 170
In our Lord’s conversation with the Samaritan woman we can hear, as St Augustine observes, one of Christ’s most attractive and tender invitations: “Come to me, all you who labor and find life burdensome, and I will give you rest” (Mt 11:28). This invitation never fails to touch our hearts, because there is not one among us who does not find life heavy and burdensome from time to time.
But it is also supposed to change our hearts—in the same way that it changed the Samaritan woman. The invitation itself provokes the discovery that only in Jesus does our soul find rest, that only in Him is our hunger and thirst for love satisfied: “In God alone be at rest my soul,” says the Psalmist. In fact, Jesus offers Himself to us for this very reason: “He offers us his heart, so that we can find there both rest and strength” (Christ is Passing By, 170).
The Samaritan woman epitomizes the deep thirst that all of us are born with. Like her we thirst for something we cannot immediately identify. We cannot give it a name. But we know that whatever satisfies it should be unfailing, lasting, and present to us always. St Josemaria tells us that, in fact, Jesus “encourages” this feeling of emptiness in us, so that “our hunger and thirst will increase to the point that we desire God really to inhabit our soul and never to take his light and warmth away from us.”
The Samaritan woman wanted something that she could not identify. If you asked her why she had come to the well, she would have answered with the same kind of abruptness that she initially used to address Jesus in conversation: “Isn’t it obvious? I have come for water.” But there is a Stranger sitting at the well who sees right through her, unmasks her desire—which is for the eternal. And Jesus helps her to give it a name: I who speak to you am He; I am your rest (cf. Jn 4:26).
“But tired though his body is, his thirst for souls is even greater. So, when the Samaritan woman, the sinner, arrives, Christ with his priestly heart turns eagerly to save the lost sheep, and he forgets his tiredness, his hunger and his thirst” (Friends of God, 176).
Here they are, conversing over a deep well. How beautifully the Lord has orchestrated this encounter! How poignantly He has made her contemplate both the depth of the well and His reliance on her willingness to share a drink from her jar: “You have nothing to draw with, and the well is deep,” she tells Jesus (Jn 4:11). His hands are empty, His throat is parched, He is fatigued. He carries no vessel with which to draw water. But the woman holds an empty jar tightly in her hands, which she will soon leave behind as a token that she thirsts no longer. As her conviction grows that Jesus is the One, her grip loosens until the thing itself to which she clings is entirely forgotten: “So the woman left her water jar, and went away into the city” (Jn 4:28).
She had taken five husbands to quench her thirst. We tend to cling to whatever we think will make us happy always. This is also her instinct, and it is basically right, if misguided: “Sir, give me this water, that I may not thirst, nor come here to draw” (4:15). And Jesus says, You do not yet understand the gift of God. Go call your husband and come back. You cannot receive the gift of God if you are unwilling to part with whatever you have attached your happiness to.
She does not realize how close at hand is her salvation, just as we often fail to: “I who speak to you am the Christ.” If you only knew who is knocking at your door, you would open to Him, and He would sup with you and you with Him. If you knew, if you could see, then everything would change for you: your troubled, restless heart would be stilled.
The answer was as simple for her as it is for us: “Come to me. If any man thirst, let him come to me and drink.” The Lord’s invitation “Come to me” is not meant to be accepted only every once in a while, for a season, or when we’re in a certain mood; it is for every moment of our lives. This is what it means to have life in Christ, to drink from the wellsprings of the Redeemer: the constant and confident turning to the Lord, wherever we are and however we feel.
Thirst is a sign of life—especially of spiritual life. If you say that you do not thirst, then are you alive in the Spirit? If you say that you do not labor, are you carrying your cross, are you following Christ? If you are not among those who thirst, who labor, who find life burdensome from time to time, then who are you? Are you alive?
Our Lord’s desire for us is that we have life and have it more abundantly. This means union with Him always. Thirst of the body is not quenched all at once, nor is the thirst of the spirit. Our cistern is very, very deep. Jesus wants us to realize that our thirst for Him, our need for Him, is not periodic, but permanent. There will never come a day when we do not need Christ to save us from something, to console us, to enlighten us, to refresh us, to challenge us: “Apart from me you can do nothing” (Jn 15:5).
Like the Samaritan woman, everyone has a thirst. And like her, we must learn that nothing will satisfy it except the One for whom the thirst was made. Five husbands? Or Solomon’s seven hundred wives? You worship what you do not know. You seek, you desire what you do not know, what you cannot name. Up until now, perhaps, your thirst has been a vague desire for union, acceptance, wholeness—do not let it remain anonymous: give it a name.
Yes, give your desire a name. Call it: the Firstborn of all Creation, Prince of Peace, the Bread of Life, the Suffering Servant—it is all the same: I who speak to you am He. He is before our eyes—always. His voice is in our ears—always. The effects of His grace are in our lives—always. We may find that what we desire is what we already possess, what is already so close to us: “He who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst.”
Jesus calls us during Lent to come to Him, to unmask our desires and find out what hides behind them. What hides behind a thirst for water, for many spouses? Give your desire a name. Jesus says, “Here I stand, knocking at your door. I who speak to you am he.”
The content is published by the St Josemaria Institute for the free use of readers and may not be copied or reproduced without permission from its author © Fr. John Henry Hanson, 2014.