“Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty” (Jn 4:14)
So Jesus says to the Samaritan woman as she draws up water from the well.
At Lent, we are called to examine ourselves, to claim again for ourselves the new life of Easter. I wonder, aren’t we like the Samaritan woman, drawing up pales of water only to find ourselves thirsty again? Undoubtedly we need water to live: but aren’t we in danger of being caught in a cycle of consumption—for food drink, travel, and material possessions of all kinds—thinking those things will quench our thirst?
So often we who are rich in material resources can be spiritually poor: we are thirsting for something more, something definite, which will abide. We thirst for meaning. We thirst for the living waters.
Yet it can be for us a case of water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink.
The great Western father, St Augustine, said something very similar to all this. The well was for him something like a sinkhole leading into the dark depths of the world: he speaks of “the black abyss of the well”. “The water in the well,” he says, “is the pleasure of the world, that abode of darkness. [We] draw it with the waterpot of [our] desire; no pleasure is savoured, except it be preceded by desire. And when [we have] enjoyed this pleasure, i.e. drunk of the water, [we thirst] again; but if [we] have received water from [Christ], [we] shall never thirst. For how shall [we] thirst, who are drunk with the abundance of the house of God?”
We cannot thirst who have the living water, and that is the Holy Spirit.
See, he says, Jesus appears “at the sixth hour”—in the heat of the noonday sun, just when the sun is beginning its slow descent. At noon the sun is at the turning point. St Augustine saw a kind of symbolic significance even in this small detail: after the noon hour, the visible world slowly but surely starts to fade away.
This means, he says, “that we, who are called by Christ, are to [restrain] our pleasure in visible things, that by the love of things invisible we may refresh the inner person—“refreshing the inner man”], [and] be restored to the inward light which never fails.
All this we will do by the power of the Holy Spirit, who reorders our desires.
By the power of the Holy Spirit we reorder our desires.
By this power we will break out of the cycle of endless consumption. We will become otherworldly exactly in this, that we will flee the city of endless desire. We will break out of the ‘consumer mentality.’ One theologian says of this:
“For such a mentality, life consists in getting, spending, having. It is an acquisitive mentality and becomes and aggressive mentality, exploiting without responsibility not only nature but other human beings. Yet in this very exploitation those who have such a mentality become themselves diminished in their humanity, for as they are dominated by the endless desire to have and to use and to consume they become less and less persons of freedom and dignity.” (Macquarrie, Paths in Spirituality, 121)
I wonder, isn’t the rampant materialism of our society really about quenching the thirst of the heart? And yet, that thirst can never be satisfied by mere things anyway. Human beings thirst for mystery, meaning, community and even for some sort of ritual. Could it be that we are more essentially religious than many of us realised?
We who have drunk of the living waters don’t need a thousand luxury items because we have one who never wears out or breaks down. God is the luxury of our lives. In other words, we do not need to keep hauling up pales of water, because we have the water which abides forever.
We have depths that the world does not know.
So we can refresh the inner person. We can be content with what we have; and even after all the losses of life, we give thanks. There can still be for us freshness of spirit—like a clear spring of water. We still have reserves of joy. And therefore we are truly people of freedom and dignity.
This is something the world needs to hear. I am reminded of the words of the English theologian John Macquarrie, who said “the practice of religion, when purged of egoism, brought to maturity, related to real life, encompassing intellect as well as emotion and will, makes an indispensable contribution toward the development of a fully human person.” (4)
So we have something that no supermarket or shopping mall can offer: the living waters, the Holy Spirit of God, who can quench our thirst finally and decisively.
Let us remember all these things as we prepare to renew our lives at Easter time.