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Fourth Sunday of Lent Reflection

Reflections on The Woman at the Well BY ADRIAN VAN KAAM (continued)

April 4,  2011

Jesus realizes that patience can overcome resistance. The text says that “his divine interior speaks mysteriously to her interior, touching her with his grace and drawing her to himself.” (p. 31) What this suggests is that there are varying levels of interaction going on in the encounter.  This is to be expected.  A conversation has to start someplace.  We usually begin on a level of social commonplaces. “How are you?” “I am fine, thank you.” I may not be fine at all, but those are the words that come out of my mouth.  If my speaking partner is really interested in me and can get beyond the social amenities, my responses may become more personal, and more interior.

     Jesus is, of course, focused on the inner disposition of the woman at the well.  He overlooks her surprise at a Jew’s speaking to a Samaritan.  He waits for the deeper response to his offer to give her living water.  His belief in the hidden action of grace enables him to trust that the communication between the two transcends the words they are exchanging.

     The words he has spoken to the woman are grace-filled words.  Yet, our response to grace may not be immediate.  Subtle pride causes the woman initially to resist the offer of the stranger.  But then, because grace awakens the spirit within her, the woman begins to respond from a deeper place.  Intuitively she senses that the stranger must be speaking about the promised messiah.  The inner grace of the words of Jesus has evoked a spirit-response in the woman: “Simply, what he had said and the way he had said it brought the messiah to her mind.” (p. 89)

     There is something miraculous about grace-filled words. Van Kaam tells us that “the word of Jesus is so potent that no person who is well-disposed can resist its gentle power. Where the word of Jesus meets a humble heart its impact is astounding.” (p. 119)  The directive that flows from this is meant to inspire the discourse of all followers of Christ.  Namely, we should desire to be bearers of grace in all the words we speak.

     The directive to imitate the gracious speaking of our Lord can perhaps be integrated with the call to be generous and gentle.  The directive is thus understood as a call to generous and gentle speech.  This call is at the very heart of the Christian message, calling us to share in Jesus’ mission to draw all people to himself.

     What it means to become gentle and generous in our speech is described by van Kaam in the chapter on “The Gift of Faith”:

If we use not our own words but allow him to speak through us, we may witness the same miracle in listeners of good will, ready to surrender to any grace that comes their way. But it is not easy to speak the pure words of Jesus. We are inclined to say a lot of things that please our vanity, show our cleverness, and bind the admiration of people to us and not to him. It takes a lifetime to purify our speech from selfishness, to allow him alone to be present in our language of faith.  (p . 119)

Gentleness, like humility, allows us to forget about ourselves so that we can rest our attention on God.  As long as we are caught up in ourselves, in our projects and personal concerns, we cannot freely devote ourselves to what matters most: generously serving God in this moment of time.  Similarly, my words cannot be gentle and generous if they are the result only of my efforts and calculation.  To be effective witnesses of God’s love and presence, my words must be surrounded and permeated by the transcendent silence of God.  The words I speak from this region of my contact with God must first be received in prayerful silence and graceful attunement to the will of God.  Then, in the act of speaking, the inner grace of the words will touch the hearts of those who are disposed to hearken to the spiritual reality evoked by the living word.

     The miracle of grace-filled speech is an event for which our hearts long.  We see this in the story of the woman at the well.  Here we see a woman who has sought fulfillment in relationships with many men.  Yet, when she hears the words of Jesus she comes alive on the level of her deepest longings.  Her desire for God, evoked by the words of Jesus, is just what is needed to help the woman to reform her life.  Her heart senses that these words are filled with the promise of a fulfillment transcending all other pleasures she has known. 

     What is the practical result of such an encounter? What happens to us when we finally hear Jesus speaking in our lives?  We are filled with gratitude, for receiving grace implies that we receive Jesus as well.  This is the true meaning of self-­fulfillment in Christian terms: that is, to be filled with Jesus in accordance with who we most deeply are. (p. 51) God has created us in His image, and our fulfillment lies in the full expression of our identity in Christ. Ultimately, we do not create our identity.  Our spiritual identity is bestowed upon us as a gift from God.  We simply receive the gift.  The more simple, trusting, and relaxed we are, the more able we are to cooperate with God in giving birth to our true selves.

     The emergence of the true self is an event of self-transcendence.  The recognition of her deepest identity in the Lord leads the woman to go out of herself in a completely new way.  She is now a witness for the Lord, a missionary of his love.  What this means more precisely is that she can now express a spiritual dimension of her personality that previously lay dormant, waiting to be awakened. 

     What form will this expression take?  Van Kaam suggests that the virtue of religion is a virtue of proclaiming, praising, and thanking the limitless bounty of God’s beauty, truth and goodness. (p. 83)  This worshipful attitude is at the root of our spiritual life and is meant to flow over into our daily 1ife.  When Jesus has moved us in the core of our being, our outward expression will reflect our inner attitude of worshipful surrender to his presence. The radiance of our interiority will flow over into all of the dimensions of the self. (p. 84)

      (to be concluded in next week’s reflection)

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