Last summer I spent 3 weeks in Haiti, and we lost running water for days at a time, so we had to carry buckets of water up to our house from a well. The first time it was novel, like I was really “roughing it,” but the coolness quickly wore off: we couldn’t take a shower, and even trivial things like washing clothes or flushing a toilet involved going down 5 flights of stairs to street level to get water and then coming back again, sometimes several times. On another occasion we ran out of bottled water, which was worse because then we literally had nothing to drink until we could go out and get more (the tap water in Haiti is not safe to drink), and even if that were only a few hours, in a hot climate like Haiti, it could seem like an eternity. Those two simple experiences brought home to me how important water is, and how terrible thirst can be. Part of me wants to dismiss the Israelites for so quickly complaining about wanting water, even after all the miracles they had seen from God, but then I remember how being thirsty feels. Part of me wants the woman at the well to ask Jesus better questions, but then I think about what it would entail to have to carry water every day, and what a dream it would be for a woman in her situation to never have to do so again.
We know how much misery exists in the world: hunger, disease, lack of potable water, inadequate housing, and on and on. With so many people lacking sufficient access to the basic goods necessary to sustain life, we can think that our task goes no further than meeting those needs. Important though it is to meet those needs, however, we know well that even people who have a surplus of material goods can still lack something fundamental to authentic human existence: hope, meaning, compassion. “We boast in hope of the glory of God,” says Paul in the second reading, despite all the physical sufferings he has endured in his travels – his life is valuated by something apart from simply meeting physical needs, by the hope of newness coming in Christ.
My theology 100 class is reading Jon Krakauer’s book Into the Wild, which looks at a well-off young man who gave up all his possessions after graduating from college and spent the next two years on the road, finally dying of starvation in a remote area in Alaska. Why would anyone give up a life in which all of the physical necessities were met (and then some) in exchange for a life of hunger and uncertainty? What could be “out there” to be found that is worth risking one’s life for, that is worth giving one’s life for? He realized that as terrible as hunger and thirst can be (and it can be truly terrible), to ignore or bury one’s hunger and thirst for truth, for authenticity as a tragedy in its own right, regardless of one’s physical state of being. While the protagonist of Krakauer’s book would not have used theological language to discuss it, we see in the pursuit of that ultimate, transcendent horizon a thirst for the “living water” that Jesus offers the woman in today’s gospel, “welling up to eternal life.” In his newest encyclical letter, “Spe Salvi,” Pope Benedict XVI speaks of this “eternal life” as “the supreme moment of satisfaction, in which totality embraces us and we embrace totality…like plunging into the ocean of infinite love, a moment in which time—the before and after—no longer exists. We can only attempt to grasp the idea that such a moment is life in the full sense, a plunging ever anew into the vastness of being, in which we are simply overwhelmed with joy.” It is this to which Jesus invites the woman at the well, this of which Paul speaks to the Romans, this for which we continue to thirst in our own lives.