Mar 21, 2014

3rd Sunday of Lent: She is Us

(James Tissot - Woman at the Well)
"Sir, give me this water . . ."

The Word for Sunday:

Ex 17: 3-7
Rm 5: 1-2, 5-8
Jn 4: 5 – 42

We can live without food for a long time but the key to survival is proper hydration. Scientists tell us that water is essential to life. While the body can and does adjust without food for a long period of time and hunger pangs can pass, we know that thirst is a very powerful response, a signal from our bodies to drink up!  It doesn’t take long for any of us to recognize our thirst rather quickly on a hot day.
In this Sunday’s Gospel from John the beautiful story of the Samaritan woman at the well and her encounter with Jesus is a mirror for all of us. Jesus is thirsty, asks for a drink from the woman who is taken back by his brazen attempt to engage her in conversation.  As she states: “How can you, a Jew, ask me, a Samaritan for a drink?” The Samaritans were considered by the Jews to be among the outcast; sort of half-breed Jews who were an embarrassment and not truly Jewish. Shunned by the true Jews, they remained both outcasts and enemies – among the unclean.
So, why would Jesus risk his reputation and public shame by engaging both a woman and a Samaritan in such a personal conversation?  Therein lays the key to this story for our Lenten season. As he so consistently did, Jesus reveals to us that God has a special place in his heart for the marginalized and for sinners. The vast majority of Jesus' public Galilean ministry was spent with the sick, the abject poor, the distanced and rejected. It was they who heard the good news preached to them.  In Jesus' encounter with the woman at the well we see that beautifully played out.  
It was highly unusual that she should come alone to the well at noon, in the heat of the day. This was unheard of for the drawing of water was a social event for women. They would never come alone and would normally come in the morning or evening when the heat was not as intense.  So, it leaves one to question who this woman was.  The circumstances of her life, five husbands and living with a man now who is not her husband as Jesus relates to her, clearly places her among the morally suspect. Likely avoided by her own townsfolk and other women she has nothing more to lose – only to gain.
But, as our Gospel stories are meant to challenge us to see in the figures presented our own story, this one in particular calls out to us for the Samaritan woman is us! As Jesus gently invites the sinful woman to deeper faith so we are engaged in conversation as well. . She comes with her sin – as do we with our need for reconciliation this Lent. Jesus insight, “If you knew the gift of God and who is saying to you ‘give me a drink,’ ...” “If you only knew” is an invitation to search farther. “Tell me more,” is the response of the woman.
Jesus who claims he is thirsty. St. Augustine reminds us that it is God’s thirst for us that is the essence of this story. The woman is invited to drink of Jesus’ “living water . . .welling up to eternal life.” Each answer Jesus gives her uncovers a greater understanding of God’s love for her, his invitation to present her sin for healing and once she discovers the truth of who she is speaking with, she becomes a missionary to others to share of her discovery.
That God loves sinners and invites us all to reconciliation; to see the grace of our baptism (the living waters we received) as a call to return to get things straight again with God this Lent.  This moment of the encounter between the woman at the well and Jesus is our moment of encounter with the love of God for us. How well do we appreciate this gift, however?
In our first reading, Moses has led the chosen people in to the desert, who now grumble with resentment over their parched condition: “Why did you ever make us leave Egypt? . . . to die here of thirst?”  Fearful for his own safety, Moses pleads with God for some relief and despite the people’s lack of gratitude, God provides water from a rock for them to drink.  In their condition, they escape death and now experience a life giving water.  Water has become a sign of salvation from a God who thirsts for our loyalty. As he cared for his people in the desert, as he invites the woman at the well to reject her former way of life and come to “know” God’s love for her, so we are invited to hear this same invitation this Lent.
This weekend is the first of our three “Scrutinies.” As a faith community we gather with our Elect, those to be baptized at Easter who along with our Candidates have journeyed through the RCIA process for months. We pray over them, that the Spirit of God will open their hearts and satisfy their thirst for the new conversion they will now begin.
As their thirst for Christ and his Church is about to be quenched with baptismal waters, the anointing of the Spirit in Confirmation and the divine food of the Eucharist, we should likewise see in them ourselves.
Our need to renew the faith of our own baptism is as essential as a drink of cool, fresh, cold water on a hot day.
For when he asked the Samaritan woman
for water to drink,
he had already created the gift of faith within her
and so ardently did he thirst for her faith,
that he kindled in her the fire of divine love.
(Preface for 3rd Sunday of Lent)