Today's Gospel reading (John 4:5-42) is a rich and complex text open to a wide variety of interpretations and readings. I'd like to focus this little reflection on conversion, for there are three people or groups of people in this reading that are experiencing conversion to faith in Jesus. Let's take a look at each of them.
The first and most obvious conversion experience is occurring in the life of the woman who meets Jesus at the well. She is a Samaritan and therefore an “unclean” outcast to the Jews. She appears to be unacceptable even to her own people, for she is going to the well to draw water alone at noon rather than with the other village women in the morning or evening as a group. This isn't too surprising, really, for this woman, as she freely admits, has been married five times and is currently living with a man who is not her husband. She is pretty much alone in the world, and she seems to be the last person Jesus would ever approach.
Yet here He is, asking this Samaritan woman for a drink of water. He takes her off guard. I can picture her doing a bit of a double take and staring at Him open mouthed. “How can you, a Jew, ask me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?” she demands. The dialogue that follows changes her life. Gradually, Jesus leads the woman from a literal, worldly way of thinking (she misunderstands Jesus when He tells her that He will give her living water; she thinks she'll never have to be bothered with drawing water from the well again) to belief that He is the Messiah, the One Who has come to bring salvation to the world. Along the way, He gently convicts her of her sin, merely telling her the facts of her behavior without adding any accusatory or judgmental language. After all, she knows very well that she has been doing wrong.
To this Samaritan woman, Jesus speaks freely about eternal life, His gifts of living water (the Holy Spirit), and true worship, even going so far as to declare Himself the Messiah, something He very rarely does. And the woman believes Him. She comes to understand what He's talking about, and she responds with action. When the disciples return, she drops everything and runs back to town to spread the news. Remember, the people she is speaking to would have looked down upon her as a sinful outcast, but that doesn't stop her from proclaiming her newly found belief. She even does so in a rather clever way. She gives her neighbors an aspect of her experience and then asks them a question. “Come see a man who told me everything I have done. Could he possibly be the Christ?” Clearly, she is hoping for a resounding “yes,” for that is the answer singing out in her heart.
This brings us to another of the conversions in today's Gospel, the conversion of the Samaritan villagers. On the woman's testimony, the people begin to belief. Her conversion must have shone through her words, actions, and countenance, for they accept her testimony, at least enough to invite Jesus to stay with them. By the end of two days, however, the Samaritans' faith no longer rests on the woman's words. They have experienced Jesus personally, talked to Him, listened to Him, and witnessed His actions among them, and they tell the woman, “We no longer believe because of your word; for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the savior of the world.”
Finally, we catch a glimpse of the disciples' conversion journey in this text. Clearly, they are still on the road to understanding Who Jesus really is and what He has come to do. They are amazed to see Him talking to a Samaritan woman, but they at least have enough sense not to question Him about it. They are, however, still thinking in very literal and worldly terms, for when they encourage Jesus to eat some of the food they've brought back to Him, they don't understand His response that He has food of which they do not know. They just think someone must have brought Him something. He still has to explain to them that what really nourishes Him is doing His Father's will. His hunger and thirst for souls has been partially sated by the Samaritan woman's faith. He has gained one more soul. The disciples still have much to learn, but they are on the way.
We must all take some time now and then to reflect on our conversion experiences, for conversion is a lifelong journey. We are always called to grow deeper in our faith and in our relationship with Jesus and to receive and respond to the love that enveloped the Samaritan woman at the well.