photo of Larry Snyder, President of Catholic Charities USA

The Woman at the Well

A few weeks ago in an interview with the Financial Times, Howard Schultz, the chief executive of Starbucks noted that in the days after the fall of Lehman Brothers in 2008 he saw the impact the financial crisis was having on the company he had created. “I was seeing something dying that was an extension of myself and I had no influence…This was never a job, this was not a company, this was my life’s work and I was watching it fade away. It was turning into something I didn’t admire.”

I thought of that interview as I read the scripture reading this past Sunday, the 3rd Sunday in Lent. It is the first of the three “baptismal” passages that accompanies the elect on their path to baptism at Easter – the story of the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:5-42).

Jesus was sitting at Jacob’s well when a woman from Samaria came to draw water. Jesus asked her for a drink. She was stunned that he was talking to her – first of all because she was a Samaritan, but also because she was a woman – not the kind of person that a Jewish man would engage. But nonetheless a conversation ensues and Jesus offers her “living water” that will quench her deepest thirst and longings.

Like many of John’s gospels the story of the Samaritan woman at the well has many layers of meanings. When I think about how this applies to the work of Catholic Charities I see perhaps another teaching to take away from it.  As Catholic Christians we are joined in baptism to God and to each other, and are called to continue God’s work on earth. That includes literally providing the water of life to our brothers and sisters who are poor – people who normally would not cross our paths in daily life.  This is when I thought of the Shultz interview.

I imagined Jesus encountering the Samaritan woman and thinking “I was seeing something dying that was an extension of myself” before he offered her a new way of life.  In the work that we do at Catholic Charities I see men, women, and children living in poverty in America and I think too that we are seeing something dying that is an extension of ourselves.  It is our mission as Easter people to walk in Jesus’s footsteps, which includes serving the poor. If we fail to improve their condition, as individuals and as a society, then something within us is dying, too, and we may be turning into something we shouldn’t admire anymore, either.

Unlike Schultz, we are not without influence.  We can look at each person we pass on the street and see if she or he is a Samaritan woman in need of a helping hand. We can stop, and we can help – not just by providing a meal or a bed for the night, but also by connecting with them as humans and finding programs that will help them regain their footing.  We have influence in our city halls, and legislatures, and Congress. We can advocate for policies that are based on the belief that every life is a vocation worthy of fulfillment.

Schultz notes that “The challenge for the retail business is the human condition. We’re only as good as that moment, that fragile moment, when we please or hopefully don’t disappoint the customer.” Imagine what kind of an impact we could have on poverty in America if we operated with a similar sense of urgency.  In every human life there are fragile moments. For the Samaritan woman it was the moment of her conversion, from which she gained strength. For the poor those fragile moments too often result in despair.

So the question becomes, are we pleasing or disappointing God when in America two parents work at minimum wage jobs but still can’t pay the rent? Or when we decide that we would rather spend our money on the latest electronic gizmo than pay for nutrition programs for expectant mothers?  In a few weeks we will renew our baptismal vows and once again be offered living water.  I ask everyone to reflect on how we can better bring the Easter promise to everyone in our nation who comes to the well.