I shall always remember my visit once to a young 21 year old woman dying of AIDS. Jeanine’s life had been a broken one of childhood abuse, drug use and prostitution. Yet, in the midst of all this she could say just before she died:
“I sit here dreaming that I would like to work with other people who have AIDS who are not as well as I am, and write more poetry. I try and treat each day as a precious gift. I want to write about my life because it is a good story . . . I also dream of my three beautiful nieces who I love more than life itself. I dream that they will all have wonderful husbands and children, something that I am going to miss out on.
I love Mum very much. She worked very hard to bring up three daughters. I don’t think she has accepted the fact that I am dying and it worries me that she may not be able to cope when I am gone. After I die I would like to think that people cared, but I hope they are not saddened. I hope that they will be happy that I will be at last at peace in heaven with God, my Dad, my Uncle Eddy, my Grand Dad and another person I love very much, the person I caught this disease from.”
For someone who was dying, Jeanine had extraordinary vitality about her. It showed me how we can never underestimate the goodness of people, even if their life or their views present as a question to us, just as it demonstrated to me that in the complex issues we face as a society and as a Church, we must always place respect of persons, whatever their circumstances, at the very front of our considerations.
The words Jeanine spoke in the account of her suffering were words of life, about life. Where had they come from? Somewhere deep inside her, was a well – a well of life from which she was drawing water, a well which kept her own desert coloured with greenery. Her story was, for me, a story of water flowing from the rock, life flowing out of that place which seemed at first life-less, inert, dead.
In today’s gospel, Jesus also meets a woman and he meets her in a desert, too. She is a person whose own story had been an unsuccessful struggle to find happiness. She is an outsider; she is someone looked at with suspicion and disdain by the society in which she finds herself. She has to come to the well at the time that she does, when no one else does, precisely to escape the judgement of others.
And yet, at this place and at this time, Jesus meets her and trusts this outsider with his own need for water. And more, in the trust he shows her, in the way that he shares his own thirst with her, he releases deep within her, her own desire for life: “Give me some of that water, so that I may never get thirsty . . .”
Subsequently, through his openness to her, by his dialogue with her, rather than by his condemnation or criticism of her, what the woman is led to discover is that the well for this water for which she longs lies deep within herself. It is the well from which springs an insatiable desire. In meeting here Jesus has set free her desire – her desire for life, for an ever-widening horizon which had now been blocked by her culture, her prejudice, the shame of her story. Free to desire this woman is free to live, free to take herself seriously and to drink from the well springs within her own self: the well-spring which is nothing other than the divine Spirit within her own self, the source of her own truth, the source of her worship before the Mystery of God.
Just as he did with the Samaritan woman, Jesus waits for us at the well in each of us, at that place in which we, ourselves, become conscious of our deep desire for life. He offers that desire courage, because in his acceptance of us, and hope for us, he says, “The horizon is wide open. We are not a victim of our past, or of our mistakes, or of the way in which other people look upon us.”
It is this desire that keeps leading us into yet still further life that leads us, ultimately, into God, into life eternal. Desire is eternal, and eternity will be ours to the extent of our desire. Of desire, we can never have enough. If we are unconscious of what we deeply desire then we can never be people who are alive. It is desire that bestows vitality, and gathers to itself others as well, just as in the story of the Samaritan woman who in being told to go and fetch her partner, brings the whole village . . . just as in the experience of Jeanine dying of AIDS who wanted to share her story.
We would do well this week to ask what do I truly and most deeply desire? To pray, in the words of the Israelites, “Give us water to drink!” The place to begin to be aware of this is the desert of my own angers and fears. There, the promise of the gospel is that we may also have the experience of water flowing from the rock.
In a few weeks time at Easter we will celebrate the mystery of how life is stronger than death, how the desire of one person, Jesus of Nazareth, pierced the darkness and brought light, of how from the rock of our own stubbornness and self-sufficiency, a torrent of greening has infiltrated our horizon.
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