There was an article in the news last week that referred to “Highly Sensitive People.” According to the article, the psychological sciences use the term “Highly Sensitive People” to denote a segment of the population which exhibits an above average awareness of the emotional states of others.
Because of their heightened perception of other people’s moods and emotions, Highly Sensitive People employ a set of coping strategies to deal with the impact that other people can have on them. The article explained some of those coping strategies and recommended them as helpful ways for anyone to cope with stress. Among those strategies are the use of unstructured time during which there are no demands for productivity, appropriate personal boundaries, and scheduled rewards to provide balance in one’s life.
The Samaritan woman in today’s Gospel reading appears to have been a Highly Sensitive Person. When Jesus spoke to her, she responded, “How can you, a Jew, ask me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?” (Jn. 4:9) She reacted to a perceived demand by establishing personal boundaries between herself and Jesus. When Jesus implied that she should be more welcoming to his offer of conversation, she reinforced those boundaries by pointing to the patriarchal provenance of the well where she collected water. (Jn 4:12)
It took quite a while for the woman to lower her psychological defenses and enter into the conversation with Jesus. At first, she reacted with skepticism to Jesus’ suggestion that he could provide more than she could provide for herself with her bucket and well. Eventually, she came to recognize Jesus as the Messiah of prophecy and wanted to tell her neighbors in the town about him. (Jn 4:28)
The turning point in the conversation occurred when the woman’s attention shifted from a sensitivity about her own life toward a sensitivity to Jesus’ teaching. She probably remained a Highly Sensitive Person, but her efforts were now attuned to receiving God’s call to repentance rather than to keeping God at a safe distance.
Interestingly, Lent employs the strategies that the news article ascribes to Highly Sensitive People. Lent invites us to spend extra time in solitary prayer, to impose appropriate limits on our behavior, and to keep our eyes fixed on the rewards promised to the faithful. The intended goal of these Lenten strategies, however, is not merely to manage the impact that the world has on us. Rather, Lent intends to cause a radical shift in our perspective – the sort of radical shift experienced by the Samaritan woman at the well. Lent invites us to abandon self-concern in order to grow in our sensitivity to our sinfulness and, thereby, to our need for repentance.
It’s not difficult to be sensitive to the emotional states of other people. Today, there seems to be a society-wide oversensitivity that prompts people to lash out, be judgmental, and push others away. The current older generation’s over-sensitivity to the younger generation’s overly sensitive demands for “trigger warnings” has become something of a culture joke. To the objective observer, each snowflake is entirely unique, but all snowflakes behave alike, regardless of their age. Lent offers a remedy for the tendency to overreact to other people’s moods. Lent invites us to shift our focus from the impact of others’ behavior to something that is difficult for all people to perceive: the impact of our own moods and behavior.
Throughout most of this conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman, her responses were defensive and off-putting. Clearly, she wanted nothing to do with Jesus. Her mood changed only after she let go of the habitual pretense she used to keep people at a safe distance. As a consequence, she came to see herself and Jesus in a new light; in doing so, she found acceptance and forgiveness.
At the beginning of the story, the Samaritan woman was an example of the distance that self-concern creates between oneself and God. At the end of the story, she became an example of how to bridge that gap and how to lead others to experience the same reconciliation with God and neighbor.
Lent invites us to place ourselves in this story and experience the transformation experienced by the Samaritan woman. The prayer, fasting, and almsgiving of Lent are opportunities to shift our sensitivities away from self and toward God. The story of the Samaritan woman shows us how to measure the success of our Lenten penitential practices, as well. The progress of our repentance and conversion can be seen in the degree to which we forsake distancing ourselves from others, adhere more closely to God’s will, and begin to lead others toward faith in Jesus.