Fifth Sunday of Lent Reflection
Reflections on The Woman at the Well BY ADRIAN VAN KAAM
April 11, 2011
woman at the well is moved by the essential spiritual
disposition of gratitude. What
she expresses in words and gestures is her thankfulness for
receiving the incomparable gift of God's grace.
What she has secretly longed for all her life is suddenly
and surprisingly offered to her by a stranger seated at the
well. She responds to
this gift by doing her part to lead others to the Lord.
Of course, we cannot hope to be touched and transformed by God’s
grace unless we recognize our sinfulness.
We are doomed as long as we
believe that we can save ourselves. In
the words of the text, we acknowledge that “the Lord can only enter
into hearts that are empty of feelings of self-sufficiency.” (p. 92)
Without sin, there can be no repentance.
And God requires repentance
of us. A text from the Sufi
tradition reminds us that “there is gracious favor in the emptying
of the servant, in his sinfulness, and in his being mastered by the
enticements of negligence and distraction.” The
These things happen
because God desires to give him an intimate knowledge of His exalted
qualities and an experience of His sacred attributes, including His
glory, His gracious gift of forgiveness, and His acceptance of His
The author of
this passage tells us that we should not be surprised by this, for
“If you did not sin, God would not guide you.”
In a similar vein he offers another saying: “If you did not
sin, I fear you would fall into something still more terrible ―
wonder of wonders!” (Ibn Abbad of Ronda, p. 135)
These passages suggest that the presence of sin in our lives can
provide a graced opportunity to accept God’s merciful guidance. To
quote the Sufi master once again: “Many a sin has afforded its owner
entry into the Garden.” (p. 135) We
are being encouraged to let our experience become a means of our
return to God. Jesus longs
for us to expose ourselves to the miracle of his presence.
With His help we can transcend our inordinate liaisons in
A related directive encourages us to be faithful to our humble
sinfulness, the poverty of our lives, failed expectations and
inordinate attachments--all of these can fill us with a kind of
morbid dread and apathy concerning our spiritual worth.
The Lord calls us
nevertheless to be faithful to our unique mission. Despite
failure and sin, we are called to do the divine will.
We should believe with
all our hearts that we are called to a humble yet unique divine
mission in which we cooperate with Jesus in completing the work
of God in this world.
Finally, let us reflect briefly on some of the levels of faith
formation that are implicit in
The Woman at the Well.
(characterized by need,
e.g., of a father-provider) and adolescent faith
(characterized by a need for rationalistic control) precede the
stages we shall discuss here. Adult
faith formation can be considered in four different aspects or
phases: namely, transcendent purifying (preparatory
reformation), transcendent illuminating, pneumatic purifying
(preparatory transformation), and pneumatic transforming.
If the woman at the well represents our condition as fallen
human beings, she also provides us with insight into the process
of spiritual reformation. A
hard life and many failures in marriage have prepared her for
transcendent purification. This
stage of formation is characterized by ego desperation.
It includes desperation
on the level of sensuality and rationality.
The woman no longer knows
what to do. Sensually and
rationally she has reached what appears to be a dead end.
In classic Catholic
spirituality this experience is known as the dark night of the
senses. Despite all the
pain involved in this period of formation, there is some gain:
one begins slowly to go beyond anxiety and rage.
One may feel that s/he is
not growing spiritually. This
stage is already evidence of transcendence (i.e., going beyond
the “old self”).
Since we all have anxiety and rage, we rely on transcendent
purifying formation to help us to negotiate the deformative
effects of constricting anxiety and rage.
Transcendent illuminating formation works hand in hand with
transcendent purifying formation.
Ego-desperation increases my hunger for spiritual
directives. By the same
token, spiritual directives intensify the desperation I feel on
the level of sensual and rational incarnation.
I experience acutely the lack of spiritual integration in
my life. What we are
suggesting here is that the experience of breakdown may serve a
transcendent breakthrough. As
we let go of ego control, we grow in our capacity to trust the
Lord and, consequently, to worship God in spirit and in truth.
rationality are gradually replaced by the spirit and truth of
Transcendent purifying and illuminating formation can happen at
any time in one’s development, but it is most likely to occur in
midlife or in periods of breakdown and loss.
The initial phase of
transcendent formation is, in other words, usually a crisis.
A more spiritual life
takes form as we implement the directives we have received.
For example, the appeal
to be more gentle may lead to greater acceptance of the way my
life has turned out. I
may be less harsh with myself and others.
Instead of being
judgmental about my sins and failures, I may choose to express
gratitude and praise for all that has been
given me. Interacting
with spiritual directives initiates a process of reforming
attitudes and dispositions.
Pneumatic purifying formation is the work of God in our souls.
Only God can prepare us
totally for spiritual transformation.
The price is another dark
night: in this case a dark night of the spirit.
It is more intense than
the dark night of the senses. The
result is an infused experience of the loss of any
possessiveness with regard to illuminating experiences.
The purgation is no
longer of the senses but of the spirit itself.
This means that all
images and concepts of God must also be relinquished.
occurs only when pneumatic purification has begun to prepare us
Some very few people reach the stage of pneumatic transformation
in this life. Obviously
they have suffered much, having endured both the night of the
senses and of the spirit. They
may come from any walk of life or faith tradition.
What distinguishes them is their childlike simplicity and
radiant faith. All their
words and actions emphasize the value of love.
Regardless of race,
color, or creed they are each in his/her unique way,
missionaries of God’s universal love.
They live for no other
purpose than to witness to that transforming love.