Third Sunday of Lent

March 15, 2020
Third Sunday of Lent
[28] Exodus 17:3-7 / Psalm 95 / Romans 5:1-2, 5-8 / John 4:5-42


Empty Parking Lot at Holy Family Parish on Sunday Morning

Moses displayed great signs and wonders and God delivered his people from Egyptian bondage. The Almighty kept his promise to watch over them and he once again intervened in human affairs so that his people might be free. You would think they would be grateful. But they quickly fell into idolatry. When matters became difficult, instead of trust in God they began to complain. They grumbled about the lack of water. They would also bemoan the lack of food or how wretched it was. A number of them began to long for the benefits they enjoyed as slaves to the Egyptians.

There is much in the Old Testament that prefigures the New. There is also a movement from the physical to the spiritual. While the water from the rock and the manna in the desert would physically sustain the Jews; the living water that Jesus offers at the well to the Samaritan woman and the bread of life that is his flesh given to the apostles is nourishment for the souls of believers in the new People of God. Nevertheless, while some benefit, others would thirst and prefer poisonous food as a people in bondage to the devil and sin. Jesus says that those leaders rejecting him are the successors of those who disobeyed the patriarchs and murdered the prophets. He offers an alternative message to the crowds. Yes, his people are frequently portrayed as faithless and fickle. Nevertheless, God is ever faithful. He will not abandon them without a fight. He comes to save what was lost.

Saving faith is connected to thankfulness, active discipleship and obedience. While the real work is done by God, his gifts always demand a grateful heart and our participation or collaboration. I often speak about this as a proper disposition. The people of God have known liberation by the power of God and yet they have resisted their part in the struggle or saving work. This morning Masses are shut down and churches are closed to help stall the spread of the corona virus and thus save lives. And yet there is grumbling because personal faith lives are disrupted. I suspect a number of bishops throughout the world feel as did Moses, “What shall I do with this people? A little more and they will stone me!” They see the Church as always at war with the world and yet our Lord entered the world not to condemn it but to save it. Our inability to receive Holy Communion and to be present at the sacrifice of the Mass is in itself also an oblation. We are not devaluing the Eucharist but elevating the importance of the sacrifice that we would personally and communally make for others. Like Mary at the Cross, we are surrendering the body and blood of Christ to save others. Again, like her, we know this indisposition or loss will not long endure. Easter is coming.

The Jews of old had to add their struggle or trial to the work of God in the desert if they were to be restored as a nation. We must also make sacrifices for the Church and for our nation. It is not a case of the governor and bishops at odds; but rather, the Church and state working together to benefit all. Remember, the lazy believer is really no believer at all. As with the redemptive work of Christ, any divine saving work demands a response and a cost. We appreciate this in the Gospel with the Lord beseeching us to take up our crosses so as to follow him.

The ancient Jews discovered that the building of a new nation would take patience, toil, sweat, and yes blood and hardship. Instead of being grateful, the people complained to Moses about the lack of water. Moses lost patience and cried, “What shall I do with this people?” Jesus also experienced such resistance or “hardness of hearts.” Echoing Moses, Jesus lamented, “O faithless and perverse generation, how long will I be with you? How long will I endure you?” (Matthew 17:17).

A theme revisited again and again in Scripture is the fickleness of God’s people. Did they suffer amnesia as to what they left behind? How could they so quickly forget the miraculous intervention of God? Unfortunately we see this in the new dispensation, as well. It is as if many would prefer bondage to freedom. Sin is the road of least resistance. Virtue requires that we reflect upon what honors God and that which ennobles our neighbor. Many find it easy to be selfish and much more difficult to be generous or charitable. The slave has everything spooned out to him. He is kept like the animals of the livery. There is plenty of water and food but at the cost of freedom. He invites the lash of the whip, the weight of chains and the imprisonment of the cage. The craziness of it all is that many confuse bondage with freedom.

Despite their lack of gratitude, God tells Moses to strike the rock and that flowing water will emerge from it. Instead of grumbling the people should have trusted God all along. He will give them what they need. Note that just prior to this, Moses confesses his fear that the thirsty people would stone him for taking them into the desert. It may be that this very rock that would have been used to stone him to death is used by God to give everyone life.

The thirst of God’s people is quenched by the miraculous water that flows from the rock struck by Moses. Water is a symbol for life and death. We see this particularly in the sacrament of baptism. Water as in the story of the Red Sea brings death by drowning the soldiers of pharaoh. Water here brings life. However, note that the emphasis in the Old Testament reading is not upon the water but on the rock, itself. The Lord is often identified, as we see in the psalm, with “the Rock of our salvation.” God is the true source of salvation. The Gospels denote Jesus as the great foundation stone and the apostle Peter as the ROCK upon which Christ would build his Church. ROCK signifies stability and strength. Given the punishment of public stoning, it also points to divine justice. Many of the earliest pagan idols were literally rocks, chosen for their beauty, shape or use as a weapon. Later these rocks would be carved into idols. The mention of “rock” for Jews and Christians is figurative or analogous, not literal. The rock that is the Lord must be beaten against hardened human hearts. This is all so that they will be opened to the Lord. We read in the letter to the Romans, “And hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” Jesus offered his life for those who both needed his mercy and who had nothing of their own to merit it. The new dispensation associates the Lord with the saving water. Looking to a natural metaphor, we would all admit that we would rather be hit with a little water than by a rock. Nevertheless, the rocks left in running waters are broken down over time and are smoothed and polished. God’s Spirit would do the same for human hearts.

The Gospel verse brings us back to this theme of water: “The Lord, you are truly the Savior of the world; give me living water, that I may never thirst again” (John 4:42, 15). Jesus in the Gospel turns to the Samaritan woman at the well and says, “Give me a drink.” She is taken aback. Convention would preclude him speaking with this woman but she also knows that Jews do not associate with Samaritans. Jews look down upon Samaritans. They see them as throwbacks to a more primitive faith. Samaritans often hindered travelers to Jerusalem because they did not believe that one had to visit the temple to offer sacrifice. Jesus responds that if she only knew who was asking, she would in turn ask and receive living water. She fails to understand and notices that Jesus has no bucket. She recalls with pride that Jacob gave them this cistern. Of course, the water here is like the water from the rock in Exodus, it supports the body but does not quench the thirst of the soul. Jesus tells her bluntly, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again; but whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst; the water I shall give will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” Beginning to understand but still thinking of literal water, she begs for this living water so that she would not have to repeatedly return to the well. But our Lord knows the state of her soul and challenges her for having many husbands and yet none of them of them are true. She does not argue. Stung that he knows the truth about her she offers the typical challenge to Jews about them offering sacrifice only at the temple in Jerusalem. Instead of debating with her, he says that true worship will not be restricted to her mountain or Jerusalem. God will be worshipped “in Spirit and truth.” Of course, then he claims that Jews properly understand what they worship and that salvation comes from the Jews. He is, after all, the Jewish Messiah.

The highlight to the Gospel passage is when the woman says, “I know that the Messiah is coming, the one called the Christ; when he comes, he will tell us everything.” Jesus reveals to her, “I am he, the one speaking with you.” Nothing will ever be the same again. Notice how Jesus speaks so candidly to her about something he is careful about saying in front of his own people. The Jews have many wrong and militant ideas about the Messiah. The Samaritans envision him somewhat differently. The disciples do not witness this conversation. Indeed they are surprised that he is talking with her. She runs off and leaves her water jar. She is accepting his offer and becomes a prophetess for her people.

May we also be prophets for our own— stay safe and with your families say your prayers.

About Father Joe

Father Joe Jenkins I am the pastor of Holy Family Church and a Catholic priest in the Archdiocese of Washington, DC.
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