Homily for the 3rd Sunday of Lent

March 7, 2010

St. Agnes, Cincinnati

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

Today’s readings present us with a wealth of enriching food for our spirits, such rich story and image, that it’s hard to decide where to focus.

Right at the beginning of the account in Exodus we might find ourselves reflected in the grumbling of the Israelites against God as they plod along through the desert year after year: “Why did you bring us out to this place?”

In the past six months we have experienced enough of the American people grumbling at the plans for health-care reform. The people are all for reform. Yes, indeed! But not if it is going to cost anything. And much less if it is going to involve a – mandate! --, someone telling us what we have to do to get there.

And closer to home, it’s just possible that the Lord might have heard some grumbling over the past year within these very walls. Just maybe. . . .? Grumbling over the process of forming four parishes into a single new entity. Why is it taking so long? What are they doing?

And the Lord light have even heard Deacon Royce or Father Tom cry out from time to time: “What am I to do with these people? A little more and they are going to stone me

. . . .”

And it would not be too far-fetched to imagine that, when Archbishop Schnurr finally does strike the rock and a spring of water gushes forth in the form of a new pastor, some won’t find the water as sweet as they might want. We will probably hear voices saying, “We thought we were going to get Aquafina or Dasani or Evian – and we’re getting plain old Cincinnati tap-water. . . .”

Hey, folks, Lent is about confession. And sometimes confession just involves taking a good hard look at ourselves in the mirror – and having a good laugh. We’re grumblers.

We all want liberation from Egypt. But we want it to be followed later the same day with a triumphant entry into the Promised Land. Preferably with trumpets and drum rolls, please. We want everlasting life, without earthly death. We don’t take kindly to deserts.

So we grumble. Let’s face it, grumbling and resistance to the Lord’s ways is in our sinful DNA. It’s part of our story.

But here’s the next thing that jumps out of the readings: Grumbling may be part of our story, but it’s not the whole story. It’s not even the most important part.

In the Exodus story, even as the people grumble, God is giving Moses the staff with which we will strike the rock and give them water. And Paul in Romans tells us that “while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” Even as we grumble and resist, the Lord is pouring out his love into our hearts. Even as we resist! That’s love.

And then we see how that loves works itself out concretely in the story of Jesus’ dealing with the Samaritan woman at the well. This is the first of five dramatic stories that will be proclaimed over the next five weeks of Lent: the Samaritan woman, the prodigal son, the man born blind, the woman taken in adultery, and Lazarus who is raised from the dead. This sequence was created long ago as the stages of catechesis for the catechumens as they prepare for baptism on Holy Saturday. Each dramatic story reveals one more new facet of God’s love, taking us deeper and deeper into the mystery.

It begins with the Samaritan woman. And just think of that choice on the part of Jesus. She is a Samaritan. It’s hard for us to get our minds around how alien it was for a Jew to have anything to do with a Samaritan. A Jew would take a long detour around Samaria rather than an easy route through it. Besides that, she’s a woman – someone who counted for nothing in the social hierarchy of his day. And then she is a public sinner – someone at the lowest level of society.

And this is the first non-Jew to whom Jesus will reveal himself as Messiah. Just think what that says of the range of divine love, challenging all the religious orthodoxy of his people.

He begins very simply. By declaring his very human need: give me something to drink. Our redemption begins, not with our need but with the Lord’s desire.

And when he suggests that she is dealing with no ordinary Jew, what is her response? You guessed: she grumbles. “Who do you think you are? Do you think you’re better than our father Jacob?”

He goes on to open up for her a vision of something she couldn’t have dreamed of: water springing up to eternal life. He evokes a very powerful desire she didn’t know existed in her.

But only if she is honest with herself. He confronts her with her real story. Notice, he doesn’t condemn her, he simply declares the facts. For her to deal with them. She now has reached the point of recognizing him at least as a prophet.

But that’s not enough. Finally when the question of the messiah comes up, he tells her that’s who he is. “I am he who is speaking with you.” And she becomes the first apostle to the gentiles, long before Paul. Her excitement can’t be contained. She goes off to the townspeople. Then they are intrigued and extend an invitation for him to stay with them. They “stayed with the Lord”. Isn’t that what our Lenten time is all about? The woman may have been the occasion for their taking the risk but ultimately it is out of their own personal experience that they come to profess him as savior of the world.

It’s all really about Baptism. The water springing from the rock, the water from the well.

On Holy Saturday evening our catechumens will be baptized into Christ. But not they only. Just as at every baptism, on that evening we all will be called to renew our commitment, to re-claim our own Baptism. Not as babies this time. But bringing all of our adult spiritual journey – including our deserts and our experiences of resisting the Lord – with us

And this year our commitment will take on a special urgency. Because we will be committing ourselves to something brand new. We will be promising to undertake the mission of forming a whole new community, with people we don’t know, with a new leader, and new ways of doing things. In order to live out that commitment we will have to allow ‘St. Agnes’ – with all the special meaning those words have for us from our long years together – to die. St. Agnes will have fulfilled its mission, its reason for being. We have reaped where others long before us have sowed. Now it becomes our time to sow new seed for a harvest that will take a long time and much work.

It won’t be easy. We need to acknowledge from the outset that we can’t do it on our own. We will only be able to do it in the name and in the power of him who gave himself over into death with trust in his Father’s love. But we must never forget that that trust was rewarded, the promise was fulfilled. As it will be within us.

Remember what we sing:

            They flung him wide,

            the stretched him wide.

            He hung his head, and then he died;

            that’s love, that’s love.

            But that’s not how the story ends,

            three days later he rose again,

            that’s love, that’s love.