Week of Prayer offers chance to share gifts, overcome prejudices

Jesus and the woman at the well respected each other’s differences


Q: The theme for this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is: “Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink.’ ” This choice seems a bit baffling to me. What do you think?


A: This theme drawn from John 4:7 seemed somewhat puzzling to me also because I always associate this Johannine Gospel of Jesus and the Samaritan woman (John 4:5-42) with the Third Sunday of Lent, cycle A.

On that Sunday its baptismal significance for both the elect preparing for baptism and those already baptized is highlighted. But the website of the Graymoor Ecumenical and Interreligious Institute, which sponsors the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, provides an excellent introduction to this theme that shows how rich it is.

well.jpgJesus asking this foreign woman for a drink and his willingness to share her cup make his behavior most exceptional. The woman’s willingness to speak to this foreign man in public violated the social norms of the day.

Father Wilfred Theisen, my Benedictine confrere at St. John’s Abbey, observed in his homily for the Third Sunday of Lent in 2008 that “Jesus showed respect toward this woman’s religious views by his willingness to engage in a serious discussion with her. … It was obvious to both Jesus and the woman that their religious traditions divided them deeply. Either of them could have assumed that a discussion about religious issues could not be beneficial and helpful. But even in the face of the deepest prejudices, an open mind can be effective in breaking them down.”

The exchange of Jesus and the woman at the well shows that each received from the other what each was willing to give: respect for each other’s differences. Their encounter invites us to try water from a different well, from the wells of Christian churches and ecclesial communities different from our own. We are also invited to share the water from our own well — our Catholic tradition — with others.

Gifts of other traditions

The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is a privileged time for affirming the complementarity of different Christian traditions rather than proclaiming the superiority of any of them. What results is a welcome sharing and receiving of the gifts that each tradition can offer to the others. This can help all Christians to overcome their prejudices as they commit themselves to seeking unity that respects diversity and opening their minds and hearts to what is strong and good in church traditions differing from their own.

In his homily in the Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Spirit in Istanbul, Turkey, last Nov. 29, Pope Francis reminded us that “The Church and other Churches and ecclesial communities are called to let themselves be guided by the Holy Spirit, and to remain always open, docile and obedient.”

One way we do this is by being open to a variety of forms of prayer and expressions of Christian spirituality. Our Catholic liturgy, especially the Eucharist, gives us a drink of Christ’s Holy Spirit. It is the river that flows from the throne of God to quench our spiritual thirst and revive our drooping spirits. But this life-giving stream is also found in the worship of other Christians. Since the Second Vatican Council, we have come to understand that their particular heritage of public prayer, songs and music for worship, and ritual are a richness for all Christians to experience and treasure, just as we value our own.

In the Diocese of St. Cloud, recent Latino/Hispanic immigrants have given us opportunities to experience and savor their style of worship; for example, Our Lady of Guadalupe celebrations like the one at St. John’s University on Dec. 14 and “Las Posadas” before Christmas.

Hopefully we are learning the truth that different communities, cultures and religious ethnicities need each other. Together we respond to Jesus’ request, “Give me a drink,” as we share the religious customs from our well with the wider community of believers. Both those who give and those who receive are the better for this exchange of gifts made in the love of Christ.

So we do well to pray as we do in the Prayer after Communion from the Mass “For Reconciliation” in the Roman Missal:

“May the sacrament of your Son, which we have received, increase our strength, we pray, O Lord, that from this mystery of unity, we may drink deeply of love’s power and everywhere promote your peace. Through Christ our Lord.”

“Give me a drink” is really all people’s request as they thirst for peace, justice and unity.