St. Augustine was very struck by the story in the fourth chapter of John’s Gospel about Jesus meeting with the Samaritan woman at the well.
The woman was surprised that Jesus asked her for a drink, since the Jews of the time had nothing to do with Samaritans. St. Augustine is also surprised by Jesus’ question but takes the scene to a deeper level. He sees the woman as a symbol of the Church, representing thirsty and needy humanity, and the surprise is that Jesus, the Lord of creation, would ask weak creation for a drink. After all, as Jesus tells the woman, she should instead have asked him for a drink of living water.
The Catechism takes the cue from Augustine and sees Christ desiring to meet every human being: “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” (2560). What a breathtaking idea! God is thirsty for a relationship with me! We are very aware that we should seek God, but are we aware that he is seeking us first? The Bible tells us that, but it can be difficult to register. “We love because he first loved us ” (1 John 4:19); “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
When we pray, we are often hampered and bothered with concerns about getting it right. We don’t know what prayers to say, or how long to stay. We are worried about distractions or nodding off. Will our lax performance be more likely to give offense to God rather than praise? The only reason the Bible gives for postponing prayer is if we are unreconciled with someone (Matthew 5:23-24): it has nothing to do with our feelings of worthiness or our performance. God takes delight in our presence. Our presence is enough. “God thirsts that we may thirst for him” (Catechism, 2560). Did you ever see a grandmother frown at an untied shoe as a grandchild leaps into her lap? Most of our doubts and fears about prayer are self-imposed. They come from a confusion about who God is, who we are, and what prayer is all about. God is our loving Father, we are his much-beloved children, and prayer is the way we express our desire for communion with him.
We may be stuck with the childhood image of God as our daily Santa Claus, and still spend our prayer times making our list and checking it twice. Expressing what we would like to have God do for us is part of our prayer relationship with God, but the ordinary pattern is to mature in our relationship with God as we do with people. When we were children we liked to visit certain relatives because of what they gave us; as adults, we visit because of the relationship.
This transition in prayer is beautifully portrayed by the psalmist who prayed to God, “I have stilled my soul, / Like a weaned child to its mother, / weaned is my soul” (Psalm 131:2). A weaned child is one who no longer looks to its mother for milk. Before that, the baby is coming to the mother to get something. A weaned child comes to its mother just to be with mother. We aspire to be weaned away from using God in prayer to loving him. That is what he is thirsting for. “The Christian life consists in continuously scaling the mountain to meet God and then coming back down” (Pope Benedict XVI, Message for Lent 2013, section 3).
Pauline Martin, sister of St. Therese of Lisieux, was the first of five sisters to enter religious life. In a film on the life of St. Therese, Pauline, who was preparing to enter Carmel, is explaining to her younger sisters her excitement: “I must go. Jesus is waiting for me.” Sometimes we have an idea of God as stoic, untouched, and unmoved whether we turn away from him or not. That is the God of philosophical abstraction, but not the God of the Bible. The God revealed in the Bible loves us more than a mother (Isaiah 49:15) and, like a loving father worried about his son, paces the floor yearning for him to come home (Hosea 11:1-4). God would give the world for any one of us: “You are precious in my eyes and honored, and I love you” (Isaiah 43:4). This is the God who is thirsting for us, delighting in us, waiting for us. Prayer is where my desire for God meets God’s desire for me.
Excerpted from Is God in My Top Ten? by Jerome Kodell, OSB (The Word Among Us Press, 2018). Available at wau.org/books