Empty Jars – Arnel Aquino, SJ

John 4:5-42, Third Sunday of Lent

In Jesus’ time, the village well wasn’t just a water source. It was the “singles’ bar” back in the day, if you will. Among many, shepherds, travelling merchants, and unmarried daughters stopped by the well to water their flock, get a drink, or fetch water for the house…and also, to meet a future mate. Women were forbidden to initiate conversation with men. So, a man must drop the customary first pick-up line: “Can I have some water to drink?” (Maybe like today’s, “Can I buy you a drink?”) If the woman was interested, she’d give him water, opening the possibility of taking the acquaintance a step further. If the chemistry was right after several such “chance encounters,” the woman would finally go home to tell her family about the man. Her father would then have him over and kilatis him. If a thumbs-up, a betrothal; then, a marriage.

Well, this lady had had five such, and was on her prospective sixth. Five husbands! What happened? Well, the men in her life must have either divorced her or died on her. Those days, everyone (including women) believed it was always the woman’s fault that she lost her husband. This one lost five, so you can imagine what she thought of herself, what the whole village thought of her. But she wasn’t going to stay the village failure. Nope. She would keep lugging that huge empty jar to the well, keep chucking that darn old bucket into that deep, dark hole, scrape water out of it if need be until it landed her a man. Because a husband, any husband, only a husband could ever fill that tired, old, empty jar of a woman she knew she was. After all, that was the fullest value a woman could ever hope to have: be a man’s wife, womb to his lineage.

For many years, I thought my highest value as anak was when I made mom and dad proud of my academics. “Must pour awards and medals out of me at every year’s end,” I thought. It was the best way to keep mom and dad’s jar of love from running empty. What good was a son who wore no medals in school and felt no love at home? Sure enough, I carried this bottomless jar into religious life. For several years, I thought one reached his highest value as a Jesuit once he’s out there, front and center with the great Jesuits whom fellow Jesuits honored and admired. Until I saw how we were all also jars of clay, some of whom seemed bottomless, including the great ones out front and center. You know, sisters and brothers, in the spirit of Lent, I confess that many of us religious are often led to believe that our jars are fullest once we’re identified with the most exalted hierarchs, or have landed the wealthiest benefactors, or raised the most buildings, or sat in the most distinguished boards. At some point, we throw everything in, both bucket and rope, to draw such attainments. For a while, we feel deceptively full. But at the end of the day, our jars leak out much sooner than we wish. Proof? The hunger for praise is never sated. The thirst for power, never slaked. If we don’t catch ourselves, we become more and more pretentious, self-promoting, and competitive.

Most, if not all, of us, have had our own share of that void. It was hollowed out of distorted and even false valuations of ourselves. No matter how much we try to fill it, the jar just kept leaking away. How about you, sisters and brothers? As a lay person, do you, or did you, once upon a time, carry around that empty jar? A void you always tried to desperately fill, pero parang butás? From what well did you draw? What did you fill the void with? For whom? Did you also feel deceptively full, only to realize later that you were really dry and empty?

After talking with Jesus, the Samaritan woman ran for home. She forgot to lug her jar back with her. She left it behind, left it alone. Then, Jesus said to his friends, “Look and see how the fields are ripe for the harvest. The reaper is collecting and gathering crops for eternal life, so that sower and reaper can rejoice together. You reap what you have not worked for; others have done the work, and you are sharing the fruits of their work.” I seem to hear Jesus tell us, “Stop drawing from a poisoned well whose water drugs you into feeling deceptively full with distorted and false valuations of yourself–whether as a woman, a priest, a wife, a son or daughter–but leaves you empty and useless. Look and see! The harvest is all around you! Your life is really a well, full of God’s graces, awash in the finest blessings you neither earned nor deserved by the way. But they’re yours just the same.”

Back many years, I didn’t readily see that life was never really a hollowed out, empty vessel. It was always already brimming with good and kind and forgiving people who, to this day, make me want to be a better person: Frs Peter and Chris and Nonolev and my Jesuit students whom I love to pieces. They don’t know it, but they keep me striving to become a better and kinder priest, even if I fail many, many times. They surely are my jarful of blessings. And you, dear sisters and brothers, have your own fill of life-giving water, too: your family, your friends. From them and for them, you draw joy, a sense of purpose, your reason to live. What are their names? We barely deserve our jars to be so filled, do we? Yet, as our secong reading says, “the love of God has been poured out into our hearts.” That love has hands and feet, beating hearts and kind, forgiving souls.

Running home and telling people about this guy she met at the well who told her everything that she has done, they could have muttered: “Haay nako, not again, victim number six.” But wait, they didn’t hear her say: “Could he possibly be my future husband?” No, she said, “Could he possibly be the Christ?” For the first time after a long time, she felt redeemed. She felt so full, she forgot all about the jar she was supposed to schlepp all the way home!

We’ve heard it said many times because it’s true: God’s well never runs dry. Oh, by the way, that well isn’t out in a desert somewhere. As my favorite theologian says, God himself carved and hollowed out an emptiness in our hearts, so he can fill it with himself.

*Top view shot of a group of ancient pottery vessels on display at the local museum of Sing Buri, Thailand

One Comment Add yours

  1. Beth K says:

    Father Arnel, I really appreciate the candor, the sincere admission of your frailties. May you be a continuing example and guide in tempering our indulgent self-esteem. Thank you, thank you Father. You are a blessing 🌟


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