At an employee’s meeting a smooth-talking boss announced a cut-back in the vacation policy. As he was finishing, a hand went up and a worker came out with a sentence that has stayed with me since. “I hear you talking. But the question is what are you saying?” It not only put the boss on the spot but got at the difference between just words and the meaning of those words, between statements as only sounds and ones that open onto something deeper.
Something along that line happens in the conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman. The first interchange stays mostly on the surface: Jesus, “Could I have a drink?” The woman, “You’ve got a nerve, Galilean, asking me for a drink!”
But then the conversation deepens, moves to a level where matters really count. “Do you understand who is asking you?” Jesus asks. “Do you catch the underlying meaning of this water?” She takes a second look at him and begins to absorb the fuller echoes in his words. We see her growing more and more receptive to their underlying meaning, God’s love and life conveyed through the sign (sacrament?) of this water and especially through this person.
Her response raises an issue for all of us: how to listen for the riches beneath the surface when hearing God’s word and interacting with God’s people? How get past that first, surface-only understanding and move into the ever-expanding territory of what is being conveyed?
Take words in the Mass, hearing them so regularly that they bounce off and fail to penetrate. “Lord have mercy,“ the words; their meaning, “You who are the creator and master of all, please shower your love and favor and forgiveness on us when we stumble and lose our way.” Or “Do this in memory of me.” Do what? Visualize Jesus, in his life and on the cross, handing his whole self over to his Father for our sakes.
Another instance, this drum beat all around to do what we can not to spread the corona virus — to see all these extra efforts as helping to keep not just us and our families safe, but all people, especially those with the least access to health care. This is to take in the warnings at that deeper level, the one that reveals all of us as brothers and sisters in The Lord, all of us as beloved children of the one God.
Still another instance, the deeper questions we sometimes fail to ask of ourselves. “Who am I? Where am I going? What am I doing? What change to I need to make in my life? Am I happy with things the way they are?” And certainly, the so-called “Vincentian question,” What is to be done? These are not the stuff of everyday conversation but are nonetheless important to raise up from time to time. We need to pause from the rush of everyday life and, like the Samaritan woman, sit down by some “well of refreshment” and reflect on the kinds of questions and beliefs that count.
Back to that challenging sentence, “I hear you talking. But what are you saying?” Let us, like the woman of Samaria, step back and attune our ears and hearts to the deeper things. Especially when gathered around the Eucharistic table should we pause to take in the fuller range and breadth of God’s loving presence – and so be able to chime in with a more heartfelt “Amen.”