Homily for the Third Sunday of Lent

February 24, 2008

St. Agnes, Cincinnati

(Based on Exodus 17:3-7; Romans 5:1-2,5-8; John 4:5-42)

Today’s readings are so rich with symbols and ideas it’s hard to know where to begin. Striking the rock? Waters springing up to eternal life? Mysterious food we know not of?

Fortunately we know something about this gospel reading that gives us a context to help us. Many of the readings in our Sunday Masses were selected at different times across the centuries, some as recently as the years after Vatican II. Today’s gospel is different. It goes way back to early church history, as the special reading for a significant stage in the journey of catechumens toward their entry into the church on Holy Saturday. We can’t really grasp what these readings are saying to us unless we see that they are focused on Baptism. They are all about God unfolding for the new Christian-to-be who Jesus is and what he promises, inviting a new response, a new commitment.

So I suggest two responses. First, that we rejoice and praise our God that the Spirit continues to lead some of our community to union with Christ through Baptism on Holy Saturday. They are reaping the blessings sowed by others: their family or friends or their sponsors, from our own community or the faith-community down through the centuries.

But then I propose that we will only get the full benefit from these readings if we place ourselves in their shoes. In these readings the church is inviting us to become catechumens in spirit. When most of us were baptized we were children and our parents made promises for us to lead the Christian life. In Lent we are being challenged to come to a deeper appreciation of our baptism: to a renewal of our commitment in a new hour, with a fuller realization of what it costs to follow the Lord.

Both the story in Exodus and Paul’s writing to the Romans begin the story with humanity trapped in the experience of sin.

The Israelites are out in the wilderness of the desert, literally dying of thirst. They have lost confidence in God and don’t know where to turn. Is the Lord still in our midst or not? And Paul describes our situation as helpless. The revered old hymn Amazing Grace calls us ‘wretches,’ ‘lost’ and ‘blind.’ And Paul reminds us that it is at precisely that time — when we were confronting God in sin — that the Lord took the initiative and reached out to us.

And then when we turn to the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman we see that it is indeed a story of amazing grace gradually working its power, leading from confusion to light.

At the start of the story the Samaritan woman doesn’t have a clue about what she is experiencing. And in spite of all their time with him the disciples of Jesus don’t get what he’s really all about. Oh, they both think they know. The woman thinks she has the truth, about where to worship. The disciples think that they can take care of his hunger by going off to buy some bread for him.

And how does Jesus lead them to a fuller grasp, to light, to conversion?

In the case of the woman he simply presents himself as he is. He names his human experience: “Give me a drink.” He’s not blocked by the Jews’ prejudice and exclusion of Samaritans as unclean. He doesn’t even appear to give it a second thought. He’s thirsty, he’s vulnerable. That’s what’s real. And so he acts. He creates a new possibility in her life. He offers her a chance to do a human thing.

And then he leads her, step by step, to a fuller sense of what’s going on. He intrigues her with a richer possibility than the literal water from Jacob’s well: what about water that will never be lacking, water that will provide eternal life? And then he confronts her with her own story. He invites her into the truth of her situation. “Yes, it’s true. I have had five husbands. The one I’m living with isn’t my husband.” She is being challenged to own her responsibility for her decisions. Only then does he invite her to the dramatic insight that “I am he, the messiah speaking with you. Right now, in the moment.

And in the case of the disciples he moves them from their very literal (fundamentalist) view of his hunger and thirst to what really sustains him. What gives him life and keeps him going? Not earthly bread but doing the will of the one who sent him. He has a mission: to finish the work of creation. It’s not about him. It’s not about a wonder-worker. It’s about preparing them to bring in a harvest that has been being prepared for ages by others. By doing the Father’s will.

There are three questions put in front of us by these readings:

First, in Exodus: “Is the Lord still in our midst?” Right now?

Then, the question of the Samaritan woman: “Could he possibly be the messiah?

And finally the question of the disciples: “Where does he get his food? What sustains him?”

And we know the answers. Yes, our God walks in our midst, right now. In brothers and sisters sharing our journey, vulnerable and in need. And yes, if you are seeking the water of everlasting life, he is the messiah, the rock from which flows the water of baptism. And if you want to understand how he does it, the power, the energy comes from following the will of the one who sends us.

We are approaching our re-baptism, as the catechumens approach their new life. We have to make these questions ours.

Are we really thirsty for fuller life; indeed for a deeper immersion into waters which will never cease to satisfy our thirst? Are we ready to receive that water as a gift, totally undeserved?

Are we ready to acknowledge once more, at a new moment in our life’s journey, that on our own we are helpless, that we didn’t get this far by ourselves and won’t get any further as long as we pretend we can do it alone? Are we ready to cry out with the man who was asking to be cured, “Lord, I believe’ help my unbelief?” Are we ready to search out the Lord who has taken his place forever in our midst, in the sisters and brothers who are joined with us in Baptism? Are we ready to find the core of our lives, the food that alone can sustain us, in doing the will of one who sends us into the world with the mission of completing the revelation of our God as a compassionate Father?

Others have sown the seed in us. Parents, friends, sponsors, people sharing the same journey of faith. They have taken us by the hand and led us to the altar of the Lord.

Are we ready to be baptized?