Homily for the Third Sunday of Lent

March 11, 2012

Church of the Resurrection, Cincinnati


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


We continue on our way to the resurrection. We are on a journey. And in todayŐs readings we meet some others on their journey.


In the reading from Exodus we find ourselves in the company of the Israelites on their journey. They had been liberated from slavery and now they find themselves on a long slog through the desert. And in the Gospel we find ourselves with Jesus on his journey. Ordinarily a Jew wanting to go from Galilee to Judea would circle around Samaria, because that is hostile country for any Jew. But heŐs taking that route in order to avoid any contact with the Pharisees; they have been getting word about the big crowds following him and thatŐs a threat to them.


In each case the story is characterized by the themes of thirst and water. But in both there is also conflict and misunderstanding.


The Israelites are discovering that the gift of liberation had consequences they hadnŐt expected. Freedom is not all comfort and serenity. In their excitement at what they found they had overlooked what they had lost. In these difficult days of famine and fatigue it was easy for them to imagine that life under the pharaoh hadnŐt been all that bad: maybe we were better off as slaves. (ItŐs the common experience of every liberation movement. Just think of the Arab Spring. You hear voices now saying, ŇMaybe we were better off under Mubarack, or even Saddam.Ó) So they begin to grumble and test the Lord. They have forgotten what the Lord had done in liberating them. Is God really to be trusted?


And in the Gospel story, besides Jesus, the other two figures are the woman and the disciples.  Neither of them get whatŐs happening. It is beyond her imagination to conceive of the gift that this Jew is offering her. When he offers her ÔlivingŐ water she thinks heŐs speaking literally of a flowing spring, by contrast to a deep well. When she asks for that water sheŐs only thinking of the hard work involved in pulling up a bucket from a cistern. 


And the disciples? They can only protest: ŇWhat are you doing?  YouŐre talking to a Samaritan? And a woman? DonŐt you know that they are unclean—and you become unclean just by talking to her?Ó ItŐs really another form of the response Peter gave in the Gospel a few weeks ago: ŇThis is not the way!Ó


ThereŐs an irony here. Their reaction provides the occasion for Jesus to reveal what this whole event is really all about. HeŐs physically thirsty, to be sure, but thatŐs not the point. ItŐs all about a much deeper thirst at work in him: heŐs thirsty to finish his FatherŐs work. ThatŐs what drives him; thatŐs his passion. And the work of the Father is to pour out life. ThatŐs what heŐs all about. Can this be the Messiah?


ach of the two stories ends with an act of GodŐs favor. The Lord tells Moses to use his staff just as he did in dividing the sea. Go ahead, strike the rock.  Do it again; maybe this time theyŐll get the message.


And Jesus offers the Samaritan woman the grace of conversion. He holds up the mirror so she can see what she has become—but he also gives her the way out of her guilt by revealing himself in a way he hadnŐt done for anyone else: ŇI am he, the one speaking to you.Ó


And she is transformed. She has to tell others what has happened to her. She becomes the first evangelist. The Lord uses this most unlikely means to spread the Good News.


And so the faith spreads, from one witness to the next, down to our day. The whole story is about the process of evangelization.


I want to tell you about one of those most unlikely means, in our own day.


Last week a Jesuit classmate of mine died. His name was Henry. He had been a Marine at the closing days of the 2nd World War, and he brought with him into the community that typical marine sense of macho masculinity. He hated women and could curse with the best.


Henry was a misfit. We Jesuits are a community mostly engaged in education and he wasnŐt interested in ideas. He had no gift for teaching or preaching. As a result he bounced from one conflicted assignment after another over the years.


Ten years ago I was in the town where he was stationed. I stopped by the dining-room for lunch. And there was Henry sitting off in a corner all by himself. I asked him how he was and his answer blew me away.


ŇI have never been more at peace.Ó


I asked him what he was doing and he said, ŇAfter breakfast every day I walk three blocks to the courthouse square. I go to the drop-in center and I sit and listen to the stories of the vagrants who pass through every day.Ó I sit and listen. No Roman collar. Nobody knows he is a priest. No preaching. And certainly no judgment. He doesnŐt solve their problems. He just offers them acceptance. He takes them as they are and respects their dignity as fellow humans on the journey of life. They leave with a little new energy, maybe even hope. Someone listened.


Pope Paul VI said that the foundation of all evangelization, more than preaching, is simple human presence.


So we return to the unlikely evangelist in the Gospel story. If we are to appreciate what happened we need to imagine her situation.


You know, if you live in a small village and have been married five times—well, word gets around. . .  ItŐs not hard to think of the response of her neighbors when they see her with one guy and then, a year later—or perhaps a few months, or even a few weeks—living with somebody else. I would guess that the Rush Limbaughs of that day would have little difficulty finding words to characterize her.


And it is this—Samaritan. This—woman. This public sinner, who pretends to be proclaiming the arrival of the Messiah. We imagine the reception she might have received, and we are wrong. There must have been something immensely compelling in her account, because the townspeople accepted it and invited this itinerant Jew into their midst. They heard and were transformed. They didnŐt need her word any more. They believed because they saw.


Long ago the church placed this Gospel, and the ones in the coming weeks, at this point in the liturgical cycle. They are an important element in the catechesis of people desirous of joining our church. On Holy Saturday night two men from our midst will profess our faith and be baptized, and others will enter into full communion with us. Their lives have been touched by the Lord, working through the example of some very unlikely witnesses—men and women like you and me. And we will welcome them as fellow pilgrims by renewing our own baptismal promises at a new moment in our lives as a community of faith. Jesus is still thirsting to complete the work


In a few minutes we will offer the prayer called ÔEucharist.Ő It is a prayer of thanksgiving, of blessing. LetŐs say it joyfully, rejoicing that the faith continues to be passed on; that Jesus still walks the journey with us and we have been blessed with the commission to spread the Good News of his FatherŐs love.