A homily for the third Sunday of Lent
Today, through our ancestors in faith, Moses and the Unnamed Woman of Samaria, the Church’s liturgy calls us to reflect on water—living water. But all week everything in me has resisted—a lot! NO, NOT NOW! The images in my mind are of too much water. Too much rain on our soil here at home. Flooding on our streets. Homes damaged and people displaced. Worse, the images of the death dealing tsunami in Japan swirl in my head and are constantly reinforced by news stations bringing the effects of that tragedy into my cottage and into my heart night after night. I see crates of bottled water being distributed to mothers who fear for their infant’s lives because they cannot depend on the gift of nature to help them. I hear about workers in nuclear plants being severely burned by stepping into contaminated water. How can we possibly—how dare we —reflect on living water today?
This gospel truly scrutinized my heart. The only answer I found is that I, and you, too, have already been swept away in waters of death and called to a new kind of life and a new way of seeing reality. Are we not aware that we who have been baptized into Christ have been baptized into his death … so that we may live in newness of life. But living in newness of life is a lifetime project for us both individually and together. And that’s the heart of the message of today’s gospel.
In John’s gospel, and especially in the pericopes proclaimed on the third, fourth and fifth Sundays of Lent, Jesus attracts people … he draws people to himself, never for their own sake alone, but for the sake of the community. In these passages that are used for the scrutiny rites for the elect preparing for baptism, Jesus confronts and challenges people, and asks them to make a decision about him. The choice that they make brings them to the place where all disciples must live, that is in the midst of paradox, in the midst of the paschal mystery of dying and rising.
At one level, this is the story of a woman of ill repute whom Jesus desires to forgive, heal, and even send as his messenger to her townspeople. It is a story into which we are easily drawn as we identify with the woman’s efforts and failures to live and love well, as we witness her intimate conversation with Jesus. With her, we try to make meaning of this encounter. We can learn from her that becoming a disciple is a process that takes time…a lifetime.
The Samaritan woman shows how important it is to be being true to oneself before God. She has no guile as she states the truth of her own situation. Jesus responds to her as one not particularly concerned about law, rules, and norms, but as one who breaks through structures and expectations that are oppressive, unjust, racist, or exclusive. As she gradually comes to know Jesus, the woman commits to discipleship expressed in her willingness to leave her water jar to tell her story among the townspeople. Her decision reminds us that discipleship is not for one’s self but leads to action that makes a difference in the lives of others. If discipleship is to mean anything at all, it will shine forth in our words, actions, and manner of life.
Another and deeper layer of the Gospel has little to do with this woman and everything to do with the community of discipleship that God desires. The Samaritan woman typically has been characterized as a sinful, sexually promiscuous, adulterous woman and seductress—a rather demeaning and sexist portrait of a strong and bold woman disciple and evangelizer. Rather, this passage is meant to reveal to us God’s desire for disciples who will worship in spirit and in truth. In fact, this woman scrutinizes Jesus, carrying on a serious theological conversation about his identity and about where and how disciples should worship. Representing the whole people of Samaria who do not worship in Jerusalem as the Jews do, she literally challenges Jesus to explain himself and his message and in doing so gets drawn into a more and more intimate relationship with him.
She questions him, but in fact, the entire dialog between Jesus and the woman is symbolic of God ‘wooing’ Samaria. It calls to mind the Hound of Heaven: You have seduced us, Lord, and we have been seduced. Her community, like ours, enters into the gradual process of falling in love — into full covenant fidelity. This passage is not concerned with the woman’s private moral life but with the love life, the worship life, the integrity of life of the whole community. It has to do with how we, as disciples, find meaning and make meaning in life and in the face of disaster and death.
From the moment of our immersion into the waters of death at baptism, we have been being wooed into a more intimate relationship with God, each other, and with our sisters and brothers throughout the world. Fidelity to those relationships may plunge us into devastating waters time and time again. Life in Christ will situate us over and over again in the midst of paradox and the unexplainable. But we always rise again and we shall rise again. Only if we believe in the paschal mystery that we proclaim and celebrate in this Eucharist does that which makes no sense make sense. Only in the context of such mystery and gift can we at one and the same time find ourselves deeply saddened, even repelled by the death-dealing power of the waters of the earth that we have witnessed and yet cry out from the core our being, Please, give us living water.