On this Third Sunday of Lent we shift gears, that is, we turn from reading Matthew’s Gospel and shift our attention to John’s Gospel for three Sundays beginning today. For six weeks, from the fourth through the ninth Sundays of Ordinary Time, we read from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, which began with our recitation of the beatitudes. Relevant to our readings for this Sunday is the beatitude, "Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied".(Matt. 5:6) Jesus, through whom God manifested His righteousness apart from the law, is the One, the only one, who quenches our thirst. (Rom. 3:21)
Metropolitan Anthony Bloom describing his youthful atheism spoke of how happy he was when at the age of fourteen, his Russian émigré family was finally able to live under one roof in Paris. They had been forced to live apart for several years. He described being reunited at home with his family as happiness and even bliss. He said that it was “odd to think that in a suburban house in Paris one could discover perfect happiness”. (Beginning to Pray 8) He went on to talk about what happened once he found himself "confronted with perfect happiness", namely "that if happiness is aimless, it’s unbearable". (8)
In describing this experience, Anthony said that as long as he had to overcome pain and struggle, there was always something beyond, a desire that allowed him to endure in the face of many hardships. Once he overcame all the suffering and pain and was reunited in a home with his family, because he believed in nothing, happiness quickly became unsatisfying, even dis-satisfactory. (8-9) In his youthful idealism, which tolerates no half-measures, he determined that if in one year he could not discover meaning, he would kill himself. Thankfully, God looked with great mercy on this thirsty young man. Within a few months of this pledge, due to a very reluctant encounter with a priest through a Russian youth organization, an encounter that introduced him to the Gospel, which he initially found "profoundly repulsive" and that left him feeling very indignant, he went home and for the first time in his life he picked up the Bible and, not wanting to waste any precious time, perused all four Gospels to see which one was the shortest. He started reading The Gospel According to St. Mark and before he reached the third chapter, he "suddenly became aware that on the other side of [his] desk there was a presence".(10)
Anthony quickly became certain that it was Christ who was there with him. Discussing this as an old man, the great spiritual master said that from that time forward he lived in the awareness that the Lord was his constant companion. The reason this was a turning point, a true conversion for him, was because he knew the Lord is alive. So, the Gospel did not unfold for the future metropolitan archbishop as a series of propositions, or even as a story, that he could choose to believe or disbelieve, but as a personal encounter with the resurrected and living Lord. (10) He later said of this experience, "I met Christ as a Person at a moment when I needed him in order to live, and at a moment when I was not in search of him. I was found; I did not find him".
This encounter with the risen Christ became his datum for experience, what we might call his filter for reality. This is why St. Anselm of Canterbury’s remark, "I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe that I may understand", is descriptive rather than prescriptive and can only be internally realized, but never externally imposed. In this we also see the truth of what Pope Benedict wrote in his first encyclical letter: "Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction". (Deus Caritas Est, par. 1).
This brings us to the event described in today’s Gospel, which took place in Samaria and that became for a certain woman a life-changing encounter. Note that Jesus, apart from describing the woman’s less than stellar track record when it came to matters of the heart, performed no dramatic miracles. (Jn. 4:16-18) As a result of his intimate knowledge of her personal life, the woman was amazed, but only confessed Him to be a prophet before saying that, like the Jews, the Samaritans awaited the Messiah, "the one called the Christ", who would lead them to all truth. Hence, Jesus had to tell to her, "I am he, the one speaking to you". (Jn. 4:26) Like the young Anthony’s stark realization that happiness cannot be aimless, the woman’s failures in love only demonstrate to us how thirsty she truly was and what it was she thirsted for: love, which turns what into a Who.
It is interesting that some of the residents of Sychar came to believe that Jesus was the Christ on the basis of the woman’s testimony, "Many more began to believe in him" as a result of their own personal encounter with Jesus, saying "to the woman, 'We no longer believe because of your word; for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the savior of the world'". (Jn. 4:41-42) This shows us that you and I are no different from Anthony Bloom, the woman at the well, or the ancient Samaritan villagers, who had life-changing encounters with Christ. You might ask, how I can say this with such confidence. I can say this confidently because you are here participating in this Eucharist where we receive from the altar the bread of life and the cup of salvation, our Lord Jesus Christ.
Our Elect are here, too. These are women and men who have been preparing over the last year to be incorporated into Christ’s Body, the Church. In this first of three scrutinies, they acknowledge the Lord Jesus as "the fountain for which they thirst". They acknowledge they need Him by confessing their faults, acknowledging, with St. Paul, that the Father’s love for us is proven "in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us". (Rom. 5:8) They do this in the confidence that, like the woman at the well, He will quench their thirst, giving them the water that will become in them "a spring… welling up to eternal life" (Jn. 4: 14). Today as they come forward, they "boast in hope of the glory of God", showing us that "hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out into [their] hearts through the Holy Spirit". (Rom. 5:2b.5)