Jesus sits alone by the well. For some reason, thirsty as he is, he does not get himself a drink. He waits and a Samaritan woman comes. "Give me a drink," he says. So she does.
Then the two begin a conversation. At first, she is uncomprehending of what he says. So Jesus reveals things about her life which he couldn't have known. The woman recognizes him as the Messiah, has faith and begins to tell others about him. Many Samaritans come to believe in Jesus because of her testimony.
This story (John 4:1-42) can be read in many ways. But one thing it does is provide a model for our prayer. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that "(Jesus') asking arises from the depths of God's desire for us. . . . God thirsts that we may thirst for him" (no. 2560). God takes the initiative in coming to us. Prayer is our response.
For many, this may seem odd. We tend to think of prayer as being at our initiative. Prayer is about talking to God, about asking God for what we need, about reciting set formulas or about reading prayers from a book.
This describes some of what falls under the heading of vocal prayer. Vocal prayer has an important place in the fabric of Christian prayer. But if we see prayer as primarily about us talking and God listening then we have a distorted notion.
In relationships where one person does all the talking, that person is often trying to control the other. If we do all the talking and expect God to listen, we are trying to control God. This may even become a form of superstition _ "If I can just say the right words to God the right number of times, I will get what I want."
What we really need is what the Samaritan woman had _ a personal relationship with Jesus. We need to let Jesus get into our lives and tell us what is happening. We need to let him speak his word to us. In prayer, we need to speak. But we need, above all, to listen.
The catechism says, "In prayer, the faithful God's initiative of love always comes first; our own first step is always a response" (no. 2567). God calls, we respond in prayer.
With my friends, I must listen as well as talk. Otherwise, they will not long be my friends. And when I do speak to them, I do not repeat the same formulas over and over. I speak from my heart and say what is on my mind.
A friendship needs to be nurtured. I need to spend time on it. And if it is my most important relationship, I need to spend a lot of time. You can't lead a Christian life without frequent prayer. Prayer is how one enters a relationship with God and it is how one sustains and deepens that relationship.
Also, as with the Samaritan woman, this relationship leads to action in other areas of life. If I hear what God is saying to me, I must choose whether to do what he asks. If his word takes root, my life will be altered.
If God is calling to me, how do I hear him? This is a crucial question. The first step always involves relaxing, letting-go, putting aside the cares of the world. This can be difficult. But once I am still, I can call to God and hear him speak. This is rarely a miraculous event marked by divine inspiration. Rather, God has left his word in the Scriptures.
When I am still and realize that I am in God's presence, I can read a few verses of the Bible (perhaps words Jesus himself spoke), ponder them, sit with them. Then, I will want to give God my response. What feelings and thoughts rise up in me as I ponder God's word?
St. Ambrose said succinctly, "We speak to God when we pray; we hear him when we read the divine sayings."
If the relationship with God were a human initiative, we would only pray when we feel the desire to be with God. To pray without feeling spontaneously moved to prayer would be phoney, inauthentic.
In fact, God is always calling us to prayer. This call exists even when we don't feel like praying. Indeed, the times when our inner longings are the strongest may be when we are least receptive to God. At such a time, there may be too much of our own desires in my prayer and little ability to listen. We may be more receptive to God when we have less desire to pray.
Further, few who base their prayer routine on their longings will stick with it. Because feelings are fleeting and unpredictable, there will be no routine. Prayer _ and God _ will be abandoned.
Our goal is to be freed from worldly attachments so we can give ourselves fully to God. Such attachments are often expressed in our feelings. Commitment to a routine of frequent prayer is a statement that I put God first whether I feel like it or not. It also says my prayer time is my response to a divine initiative. God has first come to me with an offer of friendship.
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