John 4: 26 Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking with you.”
The text chosen for the Third Sunday of Lent takes up nearly all of the fourth chapter of the Gospel of John – the story of an encounter Jesus had with a Samaritan woman (John 4:4-42). In this text we have evidence for the judgment of Fr. James McPolin, SJ that “the Fourth Gospel [i.e., of John] is the gospel of personal relationships.”
This drawing of the scene by Baroque artist Annibale Carracci (b. 1560 in Bologna; d. 1609 in Rome) offers penetrating insights into the meaning of this biblical text. What do you see in his depiction?
Carracci taught me to understand three things, and a fourth.
First, did you notice the water jug there between the woman and Jesus? It explains what caused the woman to be there. Without that jug, and its emptiness, the woman would not have been there to find Jesus, or better, to be found by Him. That jug was a key that opened the way to a liminal experience, a threshold in space and time where God’s world and His purposes and the woman’s world and her purposes would coincide. The placing by the artist of the jug in so prominent a location suggests that this is what he understood.
What a beautiful, and typical, way of God to saturate with divine finality an object as ordinary, and daily at her hand, as her water jug! We are tempted to say that the jug carried her – its emptiness; its need – rather than her carrying it, straight to an unlooked for encounter with the living God. It “knew” where to find Him.
Second, the artist locates the conversation at the base of two enormous stone columns. Why? Because he understood how Jesus was teaching us that it is in dialogue – an actual conversation between a divine Person and a human person – that there is built the living foundation upon which an actual temple of strong columns is most properly built.
John 4: 21 Jesus said to her, “Believe me, woman, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 
Any temple, no matter how lovely, is simply a work of man, and ultimately hollow, unless it is about making happen – “in spirit and in truth” – a living encounter between a human person and a divine person.
1 Peter 2: 4 Come to him, a living stone, rejected by human beings but chosen and precious in the sight of God, 5 and, like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house…. 
Third, notice that ancient tree at Jesus’ back, whose roots reach deep beyond our seeing them, but whose existence is confirmed by our understanding that they must be there. It reminds us that our ability to know that a thing exists does not depend, or even especially depend, on its being able to be seen again and again. We can know also that it exists because we understand that it does … even when we no longer see it.
This tree evokes in our biblical memory that first of Trees – “the tree of life” in the garden of God called “Paradise”:
Genesis 2: 8 And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. 9 And out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
And there by Jacob’s well, once again, God “put a man” – the God-Man – and a woman came to him carrying her emptiness.
These three points are good ones, but consider a fourth and final one.
Jesus coaxes with playfulness and deftness a “hidden” woman out into the open, a woman with secrets that she had learned to hide, lest the gossips in town continue to do her harm. She has suffered many broken relationships – central ones – which likely left her feeling unsure of her worth and encumbered by feelings of personal failure.
See the way that Jesus works with her.
This encounter has nothing in common with a law court, in which a prosecuting attorney, step by step, forces a person into the open, making him or her tell the truth. In such a scene the physical arrangement of the persons reveals so much. The attorney stands directly in front of the one being challenged; he challenges, tricks, demands, and bullies – whatever it takes to make the person come out into the open. And the one being prosecuted sits as far back from the attorney as he or she can, wanting a way out of there, but knowing that he or she cannot.
In stark contrast, in the scene that Carracci draws, the two figures bow in courtesy to one another, as if in the midst of a graceful dance. One gets the idea that both persons will come out of hiding here; both are far more hidden than revealed.
Jesus sits next to the woman; he does not face her or loom over her or look down upon her. He comes down to meet her at her level. Notice how he turns his body away, sideways, which is a less confrontational and a more courteous way of “giving space” to someone shy or nervous or afraid. And He speaks to her from His heart, as the placement of His right hand over His heart conveys to her. And look how beautifully the tilt of his head mirrors the tilt of hers.
She turns her face towards Him, bowing her head. But she is still unsure of herself and of Him. Notice how only her head turns, not her body. In fact, most of her body is turning away from Jesus. Her left leg and its forward position would indicate that she is about to leave. Both of her arms point away from Him, with her right arm reaching back … for what?
What this means is that our artist has captured the moment when the drama of trust is at its most intense. She is both turning towards, and away, from Him.
We recall how it was trust that was broken at that first Tree in the garden of God. And so, how insightful it is for the artist to grasp that here trust is in the process of being re-established – the woman in hiding and the new Adam, leaning in, speaking to her from His heart, and directing her with His other arm to a future and a hope.
The artist conveys in his drawing that she is not quite ready to give her trust. But she is heading that way. And soon, very soon, she will be ready. Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking with you.”
 James McPolin, SJ, John (1979: 73-82).
 At http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/carr/hd_carr.htm it reads: “Annibale Carracci (1560–1609) was the most admired painter of his time and the vital force in the creation of Baroque style. Together with his cousin Ludovico (1555–1619) and his older brother Agostino (1557–1602)—each an outstanding artist—Annibale set out to transform Italian painting…. In combining northern Italian naturalism with the idealism of Roman painting, Annibale created the basis of Baroque art.”
 Oxford English Dictionary Online defines the “liminal” as: “Characterized by being on a boundary or threshold, esp. by being transitional or intermediate between two states, situations, etc.”
 New American Bible (Revised Edition.; Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Jn 4:21.
 New American Bible (Revised Edition.; Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), 1 Pe 2:4–5.
 The Revised Standard Version of the Bible: Catholic Edition, copyright © 1965, 1966 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.