Homily for the Third Sunday of Lent

March 15, 2009

St. Agnes, Cincinnati

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

On Ash Wednesday evening we began our Lenten journey by hearing the stirring proclamation: our God is a gracious God. Our God is a merciful God. Our God is slow to anger and quick to forgive. Our God is offering us a blessing.

Then in the past couple of weeks we began to walk with our catechumens Donovan and Zachary [a high-schooler and a fifth-grader] as they take each step toward the moment when they will make their public profession of faith and be admitted to full communion with us through their Baptism on Holy Saturday night – a profession we ourselves will will be called to renew..

Today we are introduced to a tough reality about that journey. It can involve unexpected turns and challenges. The journey to the fullness of faith is not a walk in the park.

Today’s readings from Exodus, on the one hand, and the Gospel of John, on the other, are like two bookends. The first makes us confront a common, painful experience that leads to a very stark question – and then the second puts us in front of an equally direct answer to that question, an answer that will place us before a radical decision and commitment.

In the reading from Exodus we join the Israelite people at a new stage in their journey – and of course it is not only their journey; it is ours as well for we are the same people, on the same journey to our God, to a land of promise. They are simply a few paces ahead of us.

This is a people who has experienced the incredible, totally unexpected liberation from slavery. God had done the impossible by changing the heart of the pharaoh. We heard their wild songs of jubilation. They were free! Then when they came to the crisis at the Red Sea they had experienced the continued fidelity of the Lord as they walked through the parted waters to dry land. In the face of those experiences wouldn’t any other obstacle seem only a small bump in the road?

It turns out that when the next crisis comes along we can easily forget the story of the Lord’s continued presence and care. They have yet to learn two important things about the journey: it will be long, it doesn’t happen overnight; and the promised land comes only after passing through a desert.

They are faced with what many people consider the most painful prospect we humans can face: the reality of dying the horrible death by thirst. And of course it is not only death by physical thirst. For them the experience represents a far more serious threat, if that is possible: the possibility of being cut off from God. The thirst at stake is the deepest thirst in us, the thirst for a God who cares for us and walks with us. And so they formulate that stark question: “Is the Lord in our midst of not?”

Is the Lord in our midst – or not? As stark as that question is, in a sense it is a most reasonable question, and it will arise for each of us somewhere on our journey. It surfaces when all our dreams have vanished. When our visions have turned into illusions. When everything on which we have placed our hopes has turned to dust – whether that was a job or a home or a relationship or some project. Where is God in all this? We feel we are dying with thirst. How do we go on?

They have forgotten their own story and been overtaken by spiritual amnesia. And in reality, the gracious God, in the face of their complaining, does not reject them. The merciful God does not even chastise them. They are naming their experience as best they can; it is the form prayer can take in our darkest hours.

No, what the Lord does is simply to do it again. Be the same liberating God un new circumstances. The Lord has Moses use the very same staff with which he held back the waters of the sea, only this time to strike a rock and let loose the fresh water that lets them live and continue on their way.

But their experience, and their question, are not forgotten. The story is recorded as a grace for you and me. Is the Lord still in our midst? is our question. We have been there and our God has remained the faithful one. Again and again. Even in the face of our amnesia and our whining.

And then when we turn to the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman our question is met with an answer richer than they could ever have imagined – but an answer that is not just a piece of abstract theorizing. It is an answer that calls for a radical commitment.

This time it is Jesus who takes the initiative. He names quite simply his own human need: “Could you please give me a drink of water?”

We hear it and it could strike us as very ordinary, something that happens countless times. Someone in need asks a neighbor for help. In fact there are big things afoot here. Jesus is shaking the foundations of his people’s religiosity. A Jew initiating a relationship with a Samaritan? And a woman? It’s as shocking and as shameful as touching a leper – or a corpse. This is no ordinary mundane happening.

And so we watch as he leads her step by step. He shows her that the water she seeks is a poor substitute for the ever-fresh spring he is offering. She’s still working on the surface of things, but she is intrigued. She wants more but expects him to absolve her of any effort on her part. Then he makes her confront her own sinful responsibility for her situation, and she moves a little closer. Who is this man who can know her secrets? She has to acknowledge a new reality: “Sir, I can see you are a prophet.”

Then there follows a kind of theological badminton game. Back and forth: are we supposed to worship her or there? In Jerusalem or on Mount Gerizim? The fine Biblical scholar, Fr. Raymond Brown, sees it – as so many ‘theological’ debates are – as just an evasion, a way of avoiding and forestalling the moment of personal commitment and choice.

Finally Jesus cuts through the camouflage and puts before her the simple, direct revelation – the first time in John’s gospel that he lets us in on his real identity. You are talking about the Messiah? “I am he, the one speaking to you.” You can’t get any more direct than that.

There are a lot of wonderful dramatic touches in the story, but ultimately that is the point of it all. That is the revelation that Donovan and Zack – and each of us – will be asked to accept on Holy Saturday night: I am the messiah, the one speaking to you. Do we believe it?

Do we believe that Jesus is the only living water that can slake our deepest thirsts? That he is the answer to all our longings and all our dreams? Do we believe that his way – the way of dying to ourselves in order to live for others – holds out the only hope that will never die, a beatitude beyond our wildest imaginations? Can we really trust him when he says “I have come that you may have life and have it more abundantly?” “When he promises “I pray that my joy may be in you, and your joy may be complete?”

You know, the readings in our Sunday lectionary have changed many time over the centuries. That’s why it is so significant that today’s reading and those for the two Sundays that follow, the healing of the man born blind and the raising of Lazarus, go back to the church’s earliest days. They are meant to help us trace the stages our faith goes through, from the initial skepticism of the Samaritan woman, through the questioning of the adversaries of Jesus when he cures the blind man, up to the greatest challenge of all to our faith: the reality of death.

We need to remind ourselves that the Samaritan woman doesn’t really get there. She never commits herself. The most she can do is to wonder: “It is possible that he could be the Christ?”

But ironically her wonder is enough to get the people of that village to move beyond her and arrive at something much more profound than mere wonder. They come to the fullness of faith. It is they who are the first to declare “We know that you are the savior of the world.”

How did they get there?

They invited Jesus to stay with them. They opened their home; they listened; they dined with him; they shared their lives with him. The answer to the question is now complete. Is the Lord still in our midst? Yes! We have heard, not someone else’s words, but for ourselves: I am he, the one speaking to you.

Perhaps the answer to what Lent is all about is that simple. Maybe it’s not all about our strenuous efforts to change ourselves, to do penance or make grandiose resolutions about how we’re going to be different this time. Maybe we’re just supposed to invite Jesus into our lives, to listen to him, to share our questions and hopes – yes, and our complaints – with him. And then trust that he will do the rest.