Monday, February 25, 2008

Year A, Third Sunday of Lent

Readings: Exo 17,3-7; Ps 95,1-2.6-9; Rom 5,1-2.5-8; Jn 4,5-42

How many times, when we have found ourselves in the middle of a bad set of circumstances, have we wondered, either to ourselves or out loud, Why is God letting this happen to me? Worse yet, how many times have we blamed God for bad things that have happened to us? In our first reading today, this is exactly what the Israelites do. They have not forgotten God’s great deeds, wrought through Moses that accomplished their liberation from Egypt. Rather they say to Moses, "Why did you ever make us leave Egypt? Was it just to have us die here of thirst with our children and our livestock" (Exo 17,3)? So angry and incensed are the people that Moses fears for his own life, saying: "What shall I do with this people? A little more and they will stone me" (Exo 17,4). In the Rite of Baptism, when blessing the water, we pray: "Through the waters of the Red Sea you led Israel out of slavery to an image of God’s holy people, set free from sin by baptism" (par. 91). So, their liberation is accomplished by water and their rebellion is extinguished by water. Just so, our liberation is accomplished and our rebellion is extinguished by water in baptism. Whether bringing water from the rock or life from death through the waters of baptism, God accomplishes his purpose. It is not too overly simplistic to say that ever since the fall it has been God’s purpose to bring life from death and hope from despair.

Our Psalm today is usually the invitatory psalm with which the Church begins each day. It is a wonderful liturgical hymn that speaks to us: "Oh, that today you would hear his voice: 'Harden not your hearts as at Meribah, as in the day of Massah in the desert, Where your fathers tempted me; they tested me though they had seen my works'" (Ps 95,7-9). In Hebrew Massah means testing and Meribah means dissatisfaction. How often do we, like the Israelites, find ourselves in this place? Knowing what these words mean helps us to see that this narrative from Exodus speaks directly to our experience and not merely as metaphor. This passage speaks to the fact that we are often dissatisfied and, unlike our Lord in dealing with the temptations in the desert, we, like the Israelites, put God to the test. This is especially true when we are challenged precisely by our baptismal commitment to follow Christ in obedience to the Father.

It is crucial to note that the ire of the Israelites is not aimed directly at God. Rather, it is Moses’ authority that they attack. It is appropriate, given that today marks the first of three scrutinies our Elect and Candidates will undergo prior to being received into the Church, to discuss one crucial dimension of the Church’s communion: authority. In committing to follow Christ by being brought into full communion with his Church we commit to ordering our lives in accordance with what the Church teaches, with which we profess our agreement prior to being baptized and again just prior to being confirmed. In a speech he was invited, but unable to deliver at Rome’s La Sapienza University last month, the Holy Father reassures us that, while speaking with the authority of Christ, the Church is not authoritarian. The Pope, Benedict says, "should not try to impose in an authoritarian manner his faith on others, which can only be freely offered. Beyond his ministry as Pastor of the Church and on the basis of the intrinsic nature of this pastoral ministry, it is his task to keep alive man’s responsiveness to the truth . . . and [to help him] perceive Jesus Christ as the light that illuminates history and helps find the way towards the future" (La Sapienza Lecture). Stated more simply, "[t]he Church proposes; she imposes nothing" (Redemptoris Missio, par. 39). What the Church offers is living water, confident that, like the Samaritan woman, or even the dissatisfied children of Israel, we are thirsty (Jn 4,14).

Striving to order our lives in accord with what the Church teaches inevitably presents us with challenges, not in the manner of being tested, but as a realization of the radical call that Jesus Christ places on every aspect of our lives, even on our most intimate relations. In our Psalm response today, we sang: "If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts." We hear God’s voice in the teaching of his Church. "The obedience of faith,” we read in the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, "is to be given to God who reveals, an obedience by which [we] commit [all of ourselves] freely to God" (par. 5). In order for us to make this act of faith, the constitution continues, "the grace of God and the interior help of the Holy Spirit must precede and assist, moving the heart and turning it to God, opening the eyes of the mind and giving ‘joy and ease to everyone in assenting to the truth and believing it'" (par. 5). St. Paul, too, in our second reading, emphasizes the priority of God’s grace in writing that "we have peace . . . through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith to this grace in which we stand" (Rom 5,1-2).

Turning to our Gospel, we consider the woman to whom our Lord, in his characteristically puzzling manner, makes known his Messianic identity. In the first instance, she is a woman. In ancient Mediterranean cultures women were very marginal people. We read that when his disciples find him they are "amazed that he was talking with a woman" (Jn 4,27). Further, this particular woman is someone who we might say is relationally challenged. She is at least a person with a complicated personal history. The fact that she was living with a man who was not her husband would certainly make her an outcast. Finally, she was a Samaritan. She replies to Jesus’ request for a drink with a question: "How can you, a Jew, ask me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink" (Jn 4,9)? The evangelist, in what can only be characterized as an understatement, writes: "For Jews use nothing in common with Samaritans" (Jn 4,9). In terms of Judaism, Jesus would have been hard pressed to make his identity known to someone in a place that would have rendered him more ritually unclean. The objective truth this narrative impresses upon us is the universality of the call of Jesus. We can verify the truth of this by simply looking around this Cathedral. With all of our differences, we are united in gathering around this altar, thousands of miles away from either Jerusalem or Mt. Gerazim, worshipping God "in Spirit and truth" (Jn 4,24).

We also see in the Samaritan woman something of a proto-type of our beloved patroness, St. Mary Magdalene. After her encounter with Jesus we are told, "[t]he woman left her water jar and went into the town and said to the people, 'Come see a man who told me everything I have done. Could he possibly be the Messiah?'" (Jn 4,28-30). By having the burdens of her sins lifted, she is truly liberated. Her new found freedom is the source of her joy, which is too full not to share. The experience of the God who is Love supernaturally overflows into a passionate love of neighbor. It is a true movement of grace.

My dear friends, when we are baptized, we are baptized into Christ. So, again, what Jesus tells the woman is no mere metaphor; it is a sacramental reality, that is, a sign and symbol of ultimate reality. What Jesus offers the woman and what he also offers us through the sacraments, most particularly in this Eucharist, is himself, through whom we are made one body and one spirit, an everlasting gift to the Father.

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