Giulio Campagnola, ‘Christ and the Samaritan Woman,’ c. 1510 (Art Institute of Chicago, Clarence Buckingham Collection)

Because I currently live with two teenagers, I am fascinated by every use of “grumbling” in scripture. Every depiction of surliness serves as a window into the reality of my life right now. This week’s readings feature grumbling Israelites and a “hangry” Jesus—a veritable jackpot for parents of teens everywhere. We know these reactions intimately—the daring not to ask why Jesus is doing something (in this case, talking to a Samaritan woman), the “couldn’t someone have brought him a snack?”—because they constitute our daily life with grownups-in-the-making.

We might conceive of adolescence as the slow and often-grumpy process of becoming an adult in the world. Some aspects of adolescence are dramatic: the hunger, the growth spurts, the way the kids will wake up one day too large for their shoes, pants, sweaters. Others, particularly the psychological ones, are more subtle and need careful navigation. While caricatures of teenhood talk about moody, odiferous, impulsive, emotionally volatile, expensive people living in your home, the reality, like all realities, is much more complex. Everything about teens is larger, including the stakes in their relationships, their risk-taking, and the dangers they face. In fact, psychiatrists tell us that adolescence is a time when teens’ brains are developing nearly as rapidly as their limbs. But a companion kind of development is also happening: a pruning of neural pathways that are no longer needed, in order to forge new pathways, particularly between the systems that control memory-identity and the prefrontal cortex, which dictates impulse control, or “puts the brakes,” on all that impulsive behavior.

In short, there’s a lot more going on in those growing, changing bodies than irascibility and unpredictable emotionality. Those of us who deal with adolescents, who love them, sometimes have to look beyond the rejection and the gruff attitudes to see the concomitant growth. They are, after all, learning how to be people. This is big work.

Lent invites us to continue the big work of becoming Christians in the world. Like the process of moving from childhood to adulthood, it’s rarely something we feel as complete: the process of conversion, of metanoia, takes a lifetime. Like the Israelites in the desert, the Church is also on a long journey, and these journeys are not without moments of grumbling about thirst, needs, desires. Pilgrimage rarely comes without pitfalls. Like the Israelites, we may be tempted to ask, “Is the Lord in our midst, or not?” 

Lent invites us to continue the big work of becoming Christians in the world. Like the process of moving from childhood to adulthood, it’s rarely something we feel as complete: the process of conversion, of metanoia, takes a lifetime.

This week’s gospel reading offers us a scene we see so many other times in the gospels, where Jesus’ disciples are worried and confused by his behavior. They’re concerned about his affect, offering him food and then wondering to each other why no one thought to bring him something to eat. They don’t dare ask what he’s doing talking to a Samaritan woman, a transgressive act in a public place like the well. They are baffled by Jesus: where he goes, who he engages with, who he finds to fill his needs. But they are afraid to ask him questions. Parents can identify with this cautious approach to a growing child—what are these new interests? How do I fit into their new ecosystem of friends and influences? It can be tempting to worry ourselves to death about all that is new with them, and different for us.

But the Samaritan woman offers a different path, bravely conversing with Jesus, and boldly asking him for the living water he offers. Because of her bravery, her closeness to Jesus, she experiences dramatic growth, leaving behind her previous work (the jar is abandoned at the well, like shoes in your dining room), and rushing to town to tell others about the Messiah. Not unlike a growing teen, she displays a brash desire for dramatic action. Because she does this in profound conversation with the Messiah, whom she recognizes right away, she is transformed into an apostle, an evangelist, someone who shares the good news of salvation.

At the same time, the other disciples too are transformed—this new input, the Samaritan woman, and the way Jesus interacts with her, teaches them something about the good news and who it is available to. It also teaches them about how easy it can be to break down barriers and to abandon extraneous or outdated conventions when the gospel message—of inclusion, of evangelization—calls for it. That storyline of breaking down barriers will repeat itself in their own lives, as they move beyond a Jewish community to one that includes Gentiles, as they move beyond a local church to a diverse and multipolar one, as they see the respective difference between the kerygma of faith and the particularities of religious and cultural practice. Can our Church do the same? 

Ultimately, we probably recognize ourselves in both the parent who doesn’t understand the way our children are growing and in the adolescent who is looking to new and different ways of being in the world, adding experiences and casting away what they no longer need. This Lent, my prayer is to be more like the woman—more courageous in my discipleship, more willing to leave behind what I no longer need, more reliant on God’s word than on my own anxiety.


Natalia M. Imperatori-Lee is Professor of Religious Studies at Manhattan College in the Bronx.

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