What is prayer? I think most of us think of prayer along these lines: There is something that I want or need. So I go to God and I say, “Hey God, it’s me, here’s what I need.” And God responds to us, hopefully by giving us what we think we need. I think that is the approach that most of us have to prayer. I have a need; I go to God; God answers. But the Church defines prayer differently. The Catechism says, “In prayer, the faithful God’s initiative of love always comes first; our own first step is always a response.” Prayer is not about me going to God. In prayer, God comes to me, and I respond. Our prayer, whether we realize it or not, is not us going to God, but rather us responding to God, who has already reached out to us. We see that in Our Lord’s interaction with the Samaritan woman in today’s Gospel. It is Jesus who initiates the conversation by saying to her, “Give me a drink.” He is the one who speaks first; her first words are a response.
In fact, the Catechism uses this encounter in discussing prayer. It says, “The wonder of prayer is revealed beside the well where we come seeking water: there, Christ comes to meet every human being. It is he who first seeks us and asks us for a drink. Jesus thirsts; his asking arises from the depths of God’s desire for us. Whether we realize it or not, prayer is the encounter of God’s thirst with ours. God thirsts that we may thirst for him.” That is amazing. Most of us think of prayer as us bringing our desires to God. But really, it starts with the opposite; it begins by God bringing His desire to us.
Think about that: God desires something of you. On some level, that doesn’t make sense. God is lacking nothing. God is perfect; He is the cause of all perfection and all perfections are in Him. There is nothing God needs. But there is something He wants, something He desires, something He thirsts for, and it is you. The Most Holy and Blessed Trinity thirsts for you. Whether we realize it or not, every time we come to prayer, every time that we raise our hearts and minds to God, we are responding to God’s deepest desire.
In the Gospel, Jesus brings His thirst to the woman, but in doing so He also uncovers her thirst. First, her thirst for water, for material needs. But as He talks with her, He uncovers her deeper thirsts. He gets to her thirst for rest. “Give me this water, so that I may not be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” She is tired of her labor, tired of having to come in the heat of the day to draw water day after day. She thirsts for rest. The Lord goes deeper still. Although she tries to hide it, Our Lord reveals to her that He is aware that she has had five husbands. Truly this woman is searching for something. She is thirsting for intimacy. She is thirsting for someone who can make her feel whole. Like the woman, we have things we desire: we desire material things like food, water, and shelter; we have deeper desires like comfort and rest, and deeper desires still, like love and intimacy.
It is interesting to note that as soon as Jesus hits on this deep thirst, she begins talking to Him about God. That is what she is ultimately wanting, her truly deepest thirst. That is what all of us ultimately desire. As the Catechism says, “The desire for God is written in the human heart, because man is created by God and for God, and God never ceases to draw man to himself. Only in God will he find the truth and happiness he never stops searching for.” All of us, every single person who has ever existed, desires God. It is built in to us. Our desire for God is as natural as breathing. Unfortunately, we can often misinterpret this thirst for God or try to satisfy it in other ways. We can try to satisfy our thirst for God with fame and success. We can try to satisfy our thirst for God with possessions and wealth. We can try to satisfy our thirst for God with other people or with lust. We can try to numb our thirst for God with distractions or food or alcohol. When the things of this world fail to satisfy our thirst for God, we can give in to despair and hopelessness, assuming that life is ultimately disappointing and meaningless. The Samaritan woman was trying to satisfy her thirst for God with husbands. She was looking for the one person who would truly satisfy her, who would love her completely, who would know her fully. Unable to find this in any one man, she went from husband to husband, searching for God but not realizing it. But when her thirst encountered the thirst of Jesus, she was filled. Notice that after talking with Christ, John says that the woman, “left her water jar.” Her thirst has been quenched, not her thirst for water, but her thirst for God, and it was quenched by being assumed into God’s thirst for her.
Like the woman at the well, we all come to God thirsty; we come desiring things. And like her, there are many levels to those desires. But underneath all of those there is that deep longing, that thirst for God. What have you been doing with that thirst? Have you been trying to ignore it, to pretend that it isn’t there? Have you been trying to satisfy it with other things, with the things of this world? There are so many things people use to try to satisfy their thirst for God. Sometimes even good things. People try to have their spouse fill their thirst for God or their achievements. But it never works. Have you been trying to numb your thirst for God? Have you given in to hopelessness, deciding that that deep desire in your heart will just never be filled?
There is only one thing that can satisfy our thirst for God, and that is by letting it encounter His great thirst for us. God desires you. He thirsts for you. As St. John tells us later in his Gospel, as Jesus hung on the cross, He cried out, “I thirst.” From the Cross Jesus thirsted, not for water or for wine, but for you, for your heart. In this Eucharist, we bring our thirst, our desire for God, and in return we encounter the God who thirsts for us, who desires us so much that He would give us Himself, His Body and Blood.
I think for so many of us, our experience of prayer and of the Mass is just intellectual, very unemotional and dispassionate. But that isn’t what it is supposed to be. Prayer is the meeting of our deepest desire for God and His deep desire for us. Prayer is two passions, two thirsts meeting and finding themselves satisfied in the other. And Mass is the greatest form of prayer we have, the most intimate encounter we have with God’s desire for us.
Today, right now, what do you want? What are you thirsting for? What is the deepest desire of your heart? Bring that to God. Give it to Him in this Eucharist. And in so doing, allow yourself to encounter His desire, His thirst for you. Know the passion and the longing in His love as His heart yearns for you. And find in Him the one who says, “whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst; the water I shall give will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”