Whenever I heard others testify about their past, their first encounter with Jesus, and the conversion that followed, I’d always thought about how blessed I am to have been sheltered from the hurts that the world inflicts. Broken families, tragic loss of loved ones, abusive relationships, substance addiction, toxic friendships, financial hardship, political repression, and the list goes on. I felt that my meeting and my relationship with the Lord did not strike in a way that it did for others. To me, it was always there, and my heart did not have to be beaten and broken into pieces in order to see Him.
"Perfect", I thought. Just the way I wanted things to be.
Why it took me years to see that thought as a giant red flag? It beats me.
At the end of 2017, during a summer retreat talk, I met the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:4-42). The talk was called "What do you Seek?" and little did I know that it would be a pivotal moment that was going to turn the tables on my life forever.
At the start of the session, the priest asked us just that. What do you seek? Do you yearn to fix people? Are you aching to be seen? Are you looking for success, praise and accolades? Are you after perfection? I sat there, eyes glued to him, already feeling my gut churning. He asked a few more questions, but it was the weight of those few words that confronted me the most. Are you after perfection?
The moment I whispered a quiet "Yes" to myself, a series of flashbacks took me back to my early days in primary school.
I was adored by doting parents, teachers and friends. I did extremely well and came out as the top of my class at the end of each year. I was always the one asked to sing and perform at school functions and events. When I was preparing for my First Communion at eight years old, I was asked to sing the Psalm response. I practiced for weeks.
The day finally came and due to some unfortunate turn of events, I arrived late to the Mass. I remember walking into the cathedral as the priest read the gospel. I'd missed it. I later found out that one of the other girls in my class had been asked to sing in my place. I don't remember what I felt after that so it couldn’t have been that big of a deal. As weeks and months passed, I started to notice that I wasn't being given spots at school events anymore, nor was my mum being approached by teachers to ask me to perform at this and that and what have you. The other girl was now in the spotlight being asked to do the things that I'd once been asked to do.
It made sense. I was late and useless, and so when she came in to save the day, people saw her. And I did, too. There was absolutely no doubt that she was prettier, fairer, skinnier, more charming, more talented, more endearing, and much more charismatic than I will ever be. The ugly voice inside my head was saying, "Ah, here it is. They finally see the fraud that I am. They're probably kicking themselves for wasting all that time on me."
And so when I found out that she was also competing for the top spot in class, at eight years old, I went on fight mode. I beat myself up, always anxious when the final grades were announced at the end of each school year. It felt as if I was trying to pass through the eye of a needle every single time. I vowed to myself that I was never going to give that top spot to her because that was all I had left.
I was in tears for the rest of that talk.
After briefly reliving those moments in my head, I felt like the woman at that well, after Jesus had called her out for having five husbands. The wound was always there, slowly festering and infecting my sense of identity. It formed my personality, somewhat dictated that I must be reserved, show no signs of any weakness or vulnerability because I wouldn’t be able to handle any more defeats. The wound presented itself as something so normal and so necessary. I needed it to function, make decisions and appear put together. Perfection, and later pride, was where I found my worth. It was the well that I kept coming back to, so I can at least feel like I qualify.
My heart was beaten and broken after all. I just didn't know it.
And here comes Jesus, saying, "If you drink the water from that well, you will be thirsty again. But if you drink the water that I give, you will never be thirsty again, for the water I shall give will become in you a spring of water welling up to eternal life."
After that talk, I shifted lenses and started to follow a slow but sure path towards healing. While that moment was key to my understanding of the past, I am still encountering the Holy Spirit in my pursuit of Christ each day. I thought that Bishop Robert Barron's reflection on the Samaritan woman impeccably narrates this extraordinary gift of God's Divine Mercy - relentless, divinising, demanding.
His Mercy is Relentless
Scripture says that Jesus "had to pass through Samaria". During that time, Jews often bypassed Samaria by taking a route across the Jordan because Samaria was seen as a dirty place. Samaritan women were regarded by Jews as ritually impure, and therefore Jews were forbidden to drink from any vessel that these women handled. People at the time would usually go in the mornings to fetch water. In order to avoid the crowd, the woman went at noon.
Jesus meets us where we are, just like He met the woman where she was. He did not have to pass through Samaria to get to Galilee in the first place. He could have taken His rest elsewhere, not to mention the fact that it was also the hottest time of day. He did not find Himself by Jacob's well because it was on the way to where He was headed. He was there because He was after her. Jesus does not meet us where we are coincidentally. He comes to us relentlessly to establish the relationship with the utmost intention, love and mercy. I did not have to be at that retreat and He did not have to speak to me like He did, but He did!
When He does meet us though, He isn’t nice. When He finds her, He immediately points out what she was hiding from. Bluntly, He says, "You're right, you don't have a husband, 'cause you have five." I can only imagine the shame, and perhaps agitation, that swallowed that woman whole. But Jesus brought her truth into the light right then and there, and she acknowledged it. At eight years old, Jesus approached me and called me out when I arrived late to Mass - "Yes, you're right. You're not the greatest here. Start with the fact that you were late to your own First Communion Mass." - I just couldn't recognise it until fifteen years later.
However, true and loving is what Jesus is. He revealed the truth to a woman seemingly undeserving of it, that He is the Messiah, the only one who can satisfy. "I am He, the one who is speaking with you." Because He loves me and desires for me to live in His truth, He points out in plain and simple terms that my pursuit of perfection and protection of my pride will always leave a gaping hole in my heart. He introduces Himself as the all-knowing God whose relentless Divine Mercy is the only thing worth pursuing.
His Mercy is Divinising
Bishop Barron notes that John's reference to the well seems to hint at a deeper nuptial reading of Jesus as the Bridegroom of Israel coming to reunite the divided tribes through a spiritual union with Him, the long-awaited Messiah. God wants to marry us and be intimate with us, so we can share in His life and be holy like Him. If Jesus is the bridegroom, then the Samaritan woman represents the bride, the Church - us.
His Mercy is Demanding
We learn that the water from that well represents worthless desire and temporary satisfactions. Jesus offers the opposite through the real water that quenches. But as He helps the woman to come to acknowledge that, Jesus then makes a demand for her to let go of the temporary water and invites her to Him. She puts down the water jar, symbolising her surrender to the Divine Mercy, and goes out to evangelise. Jesus had changed the paradigm of her life.
What I learned over the years is that the demand isn't a one-time thing. It requires a lot of work and a consistent "Yes" in every day that we are given the grace to live. The well with the temporary water (mine being perfection, control and pride) will continue to show itself as more accessible than the real water that Jesus offers.
Just the other day, I made a somewhat silly mistake at work and I beat myself up for it the whole day. It took so much energy to own up to it, look at it in the face, and finally let it go. It is in those kinds of moments that I still falter, because it is far easier to latch onto my pride, than to detach from those fleeting things that seem so big at the time. But it is also in those kinds of moments that Jesus makes a demand for us to put down the water jar so we can live in His truth and freedom.
And just as the Samaritan woman ran and shared the good news, we are called to do the same. Each day, we get opportunities in all shapes and sizes to proclaim the goodness of God, how He met us, and how He is changing the paradigm of our lives.
So, I urge you to ponder, "What do you seek? Which well are you drinking from?" And as you do, watch out for the Samaritan woman, running towards you, testifying at the top of her lungs, "Come see a man who told me everything I have done”, and experience for yourself the Divine Mercy of the true Saviour of the world.