My instruction as a child in the Catholic Faith came through the zealous tutelage of the Vincentian Sisters of Charity. Like most children of my era, our primary text was the Baltimore Catechism, a primer of Catholic teaching that posed a catechetical question followed by a concise, theologically accurate answer.
One question I remember was “Why did God make me?” The answer was characteristically simple and to the point: “God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this life, and to spend all eternity with Him in heaven.” This short but profound statement sums up the purpose and substance of the Christian life. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it, “The whole of the Christian life is a communion with each of the divine persons. . . . The ultimate end of the whole divine economy is the entry of God’s creatures into the perfect unity of the Blessed Trinity” (nos. 259–260). How, then, do we come to this relationship and union with God? As St. Teresa of Calcutta said, “Everything starts from prayer.”
Prayer and the Christian Life
For the Christian who is serious about who he really is, prayer is not optional. As lungs are to physical life, prayer is to spiritual life. Without prayer, the spiritual life languishes, suffers, and dies. That is why Pope John Paul II reminds us, “Prayer is not one occupation among many, but is at the center of our life in Christ. It turns our attention away from ourselves and directs it to the Lord. Prayer fills the mind with truth and gives hope to the heart. Without a deep experience of prayer, growth in the moral life will be shallow.”
As the Holy Father’s quotation suggests, prayer is not to be a sideline event or an activity reserved only for serious problems or Sunday mornings. As the gateway to divine intimacy, it is meant to be the “breath” of our existence.
The Holy Father suggests at least three effects of prayer. First, it informs: it “fills the mind with truth and gives hope to the heart.” Second, it reforms: it “turns our attention away from ourselves and directs it to the Lord.” Third, it transforms: it deepens our moral life by taking it from the shallowness of the sensate, to an increasing experience of the divine life. Through prayer our mind is renewed, our soul is purified, our heart is converted, and we radiate “the perfect unity of the Blessed Trinity.” In short, we become conformed to the image and likeness of God.
A Meeting with Jesus: John 4:1-30
A story from Sacred Scripture dramatically illustrates the effects of prayer. Jesus is on His way to Galilee from Judea. Although there are two possible routes for the journey, Jesus chooses the one that takes Him through the Palestinian territory of Samaria.
Around noon the band reaches the outlying area of Sychar. They near a field by Jacob’s well. Tired and hungry from their travel, they decide to stop for a while. The disciples head to the city to buy food, and Jesus sits beside the well to rest.
Soon He sees a Samaritan woman approaching the well. She carries a large water jug, and she is alone. This, coupled with the time of day, indicates something about her. It was customary for women to draw water in the morning and in the early evening, not in the middle of the day. It was also customary for them to arrive in groups, not singly. The fact that this woman comes to the well alone at noon suggests her story: she must be a social outcast, perhaps a woman of ill repute.
Perhaps the sight of a strange man sitting by the side of the well provokes caution in the woman. She can see by His clothes that He is a traveler. Is He safe? Why has He no vessel for drawing water? As she approaches, she can also see He is a Jew. What is a Jew doing in Sychar, a Samaritan city? What can be His purpose in coming there? Caution sweeps over her once more, but she needs the water, and this is her time to come to the well. Besides, her curiosity is piqued, and being no stranger to men, she draws nearer, arriving at the well to draw her day’s supply.
Jesus is thirsty. “Give me a drink,” He says to her. Now, this is stunning. In the first place, Jews had nothing to do with Samaritans. The strain was over religion. Jews considered Samaritans heretics and their women ritually impure. For a Jew to ask for a drink from any Samaritan was unheard of, but for a Jewish rabbi to ask for a drink from a Samaritan woman, especially one of questionable background, was shocking.
The woman expresses her astonishment: “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” Jesus is quick to reply: “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”
The woman is intrigued. What does this man mean by “living water”? Besides, He has nothing to use to draw the water out of the well. And so, perhaps with some sarcasm, she chides Him, “Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well, and drank from it himself, and his sons, and his cattle?”
Jesus’ answer intrigues her even more: “Every one who drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
Jesus really has her interest now. Carrying the water jug to the well, drawing the water, and hauling the heavy full jug home again is hard work. Besides, her lonely trips are unpleasant reminders of her sinful state and poor reputation. “Sir, give me this water, that I may not thirst, nor come here to draw,” the woman exclaims.
Jesus knows what she is thinking, and there is more He wants her to know, so He confronts her with her situation. “Go, call your husband, and come here,” Jesus tells her. “I have no husband,” the woman replies. Jesus says, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and he whom you now have is not your husband; this you said truly.”
The Samaritan woman is flabbergasted. Who is this man? How could He know all about her? Could He be anointed by God? “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet,” she replies and then continues with a comment that underscored their religious difference: “Our fathers worshiped on this mountain; and you say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.”
Hearing in her reply a desire to know more, Jesus tells the woman, “The hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”
“I know that the Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ); when he comes, he will show us all things,” she replies. With this, Jesus reveals to her His identity: “I who speak to you am he.”
Skepticism gives way to certainty! Doubt gives way to belief! Darkness gives way to light! The woman is overcome. There, sitting beside her at the well, is the Messiah, the Anointed One of God! Leaving her water jar behind, she runs off into the city to announce to all who will listen that she has met the Christ. “Come,” she proclaims, “see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” And, following her, the people come out of the city to find Jesus.
Informed + Reformed + Transformed = Conformed
On one level, the story of the Samaritan woman at the well appears simply to relate a chance conversation between Jesus and a woman He met while traveling from one city to another. No meeting with Jesus is ever by chance, however, and no conversation with Him is small talk.
In fact, many Scripture scholars say that Jesus intentionally chose the Samaritan route out of love for the Samaritan woman. He wanted her to experience the “living water” of the divine life, to be set free and drawn into union with Him. He went to Sychar in Samaria to save that which was lost.
Nor is the conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman coincidental. It is life changing and laden with eternal implications. Every word Jesus speaks to her carries a supernatural value that leads her closer to conversion and draws her to knowledge of God, to love of Him, to service to Him. Every word moves her along the continuum of transformation.
The first words Jesus speaks to the woman at the well are significant: “Give me a drink.” Although Jesus is probably thirsty from traveling all morning, and while asking the woman for a drink also engaged her in conversation, Jesus’ words indicate much more. He is, after all, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. And while He thirsts for water in His humanity, in His divinity He thirsts for something more.
These words remind us of another time when Jesus will acknowledge His thirst. Then, He will be hanging on a Cross, offering His life for us. In that moment, His thirst would spring from His infinite love for souls. And sitting at the side of Jacob’s well in the little town of Sychar, Jesus thirsts for a soul. The conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman is one of conversion, a conversation that informs her, reforms her, and transforms her; a conversation that bids her to come into conformity with Him.
Although the woman is surprised that Jesus, a Jew, would ask her for a drink, she responds. Her response, questioning though it was, indicates an opening of her heart to Him. This is true of every conversion. God appeals to us; we respond to Him. He knocks; we open. “If today you hear His voice, harden not your hearts” (see Heb. 3:7–8). And when we open ourselves to Him, He enters in His fullness and gives us a share in His divine life. And it is this that Jesus offers the Samaritan woman.
But the woman is tentative. She has not yet grown in trust. She has not yet tasted the living water, the supernatural life He is offering her. She questions Him. How can He draw water with no bucket? Where can He get this living water? Does He think He is greater than Jacob, who gave them the well in the first place?
The woman wants answers before she is willing to trust, and she wants proof before she is willing to believe. She has not yet discovered what happens when God’s invitations are embraced rather than excused. She has not yet learned that the invitation is pregnant with true peace and abiding happiness. This embrace would fulfill what all other embraces had promised but could not achieve.
Jesus is abundantly patient with her. He sees beyond her words into her heart. The fact that she remains in conversation with Him tells Him that she longs for the eternal life He holds out to her. And so He meets her questions with a greater explanation of the gift He is offering. He tells the Samaritan woman that the water He speaks of is a “spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (John 4:14, NRSV).
Gradually Jesus reveals to her the most profound of truths. He gives her light, a little at a time, so that her inner vision can adjust to the revelation and she will not be blinded by it. Jesus gently woos the Samaritan woman, tenderly drawing her to the wellspring of divine life.
And then the turning point comes. Captured by what Jesus offers, she expresses her belief in Him: “Sir, give me this water.”
This is the step our Lord has waited for, and He takes the woman at her word. He asks her a question that bids her to confront her sin. Can she bear it? “Go, call your husband, and come here,” Jesus says.
How her guilt must have burned within her! Even the water she has drawn could not quench the sting of reproach that sears her conscience. “I have no husband,” she answers, and Jesus replies, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and he whom you now have is not your husband; this you said truly.”
There is something profoundly attractive about the truth. It reflects the light of God, a light that leads us into the Divine Mystery, regardless of our state or condition. It is a haunting light, this light of truth. It clings to us and holds us. It captivates us. It follows us and wrestles with us. It provokes our conscience and tries our soul. And, although we may wish to flee it, this light compels, and we are willing to go as far as the light will take us.
This is how truth enchants the soul and bids it to the heights, even as it plumbs the soul toward the unfathomable depths of its mystery. This is how Truth draws us to the truth about ourselves and enables us to surrender that truth to the mercy of God.
The Samaritan woman sees the Light of Truth. It radiates from the One who sits before her, for He Himself is that Truth. And this Light speaks to her beyond the light of her understanding. This Light speaks to her heart, to her soul. It helps her reach beyond her sin to grasp the incomprehensible — the pure light of God’s love, a love that can re-form her and reshape her, that would transform her and make her new.
The woman knows this is no ordinary man beside whom she sits, and initially she finds the purity of the Light too much. She squirms in its effulgence and tries to divert the conversation, but the Light holds her fast, fascinating her with its beauty. And she remains engaged, basking in its purity.
Like a flower that opens its petals to receive the penetrating warmth of the sun, the woman has opened her soul. The Son has pierced her darkness, and the Spirit of Truth has entered in. She speaks words intuited by the Spirit of Truth, prophetic words that identify the One with whom she speaks. She identifies the purpose of His mission, a mission already being accomplished in her. “I know that the Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ); when he comes, he will show us all things.” Jesus sees the Spirit is at work in her, and so He tells her Who He is: “I who speak to you am he.”
Now, her mind understands what her spirit already knew. The One who sits with her is the Messiah, and the living water has risen up within her! She has been released from the fetters of her past, and freedom is hers! The fire of divine life has been ignited within her, and she must share this good news with others!
The Samaritan woman runs into town, leaving behind the water jar with its weight of sin and burden of guilt. She is transformed. No longer a wanton woman, she is now an evangelist proclaiming the Truth and leading others to the well of Divine Life.
A Metaphor for Prayer
Our Lord’s encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well provides us with a metaphor for prayer. It reminds us that this dialogue is like no other: it informs us, reforms us, and transforms us. It heals and soothes, convicts and forgives, unbinds and sets free. It brings light to our understanding and illumination to our soul. It can do all this and more because this dialogue is conversation with God.
Each day, Jesus sits at the well of our heart, waiting for us to come and converse with Him. He has journeyed there, outside of time and space, to invite us to the “living water.” He is there to save us and to redeem us. He wants to attract us to the Truth of who He is and to reveal to us the truth of who we are in Him. He desires to engage us, to captivate us, and gently to unfold the petals of our heart with tenderness and care. He wants to pierce our darkness with the light of His love. He desires to transform us.
This is what true prayer is all about. Prayer releases streams of grace into the dried and parched tributaries of our lives, imbuing all that we do, indeed all that we are, with the life of God Himself. Prayer takes the mundane — such as drawing water from a well — and makes it spectacular. It takes the traumatic — such as seeing the reality of our condition — and makes it life changing. It takes our pain and our sorrow — such as broken relationships and unhappy decisions — and gives them eternal value. It takes our suffering — such as rejection, betrayal, and misunderstanding — and fills it with joy. In the end, prayer takes us — weak as we are — and makes us instruments of light and truth by transforming us into the object of our desire — Christ Himself. And we are sent forth to share that Good News with others.
Editor’s note: This article is from a chapter in When Women Pray: Eleven Catholic Women on the Power of Prayer, which is available from Sophia Institute Press.