Third Sunday of Lent – Fr. Rick Sherman Homily
March 15, 2020 (updated March 18th)
John’s Gospel today provides some remarkably profound theological lessons, particularly apropos to our current experiences which can easily be termed ‘biblical’ in their scope and magnitude. Many of the assumptions by which we have been living for years or even decades could be in the midst of changing substantially for a awhile or even forever. The one constant, as always, is that God is with us. These are times that are particularly designed for stepping back (after our emergency duties are covered) and looking at the big picture; the real BIG PICTURE.
(Short, easier version)
The story of the woman at the well’s encounter with Jesus tells us so much about who our God is and His designs for us. This is, I believe, the longest conversation Jesus has with any one person in the Gospels. It is very personal and very touching. Despite the departure from all cultural standards and protocol, Jesus, a Jewish man, initiates a public conversation with a Samaritan woman who is also a somewhat scandalous figure for her time and place.
After surprising the woman by even asking for a drink and explaining somewhat who He is, He then gently teases out of her the reality that the man with whom she is living is not her husband and that she has had 5 husbands prior to her current ‘love’ interest. She is caught off guard, but remarkably stays in the conversation due to the already established rapport she has with Jesus and His non-judgmental tone. Jesus realizes this woman’s enormous thirst for love and that she is really struggling to understand and seek out the love that really satisfies. Jesus has to draw on his Godly wisdom, knowledge, counsel and understanding to see into her situation from a point of genuine compassion. Recall that Jesus is fully human and like us in all things but sin. He likely knows the ache for unconditional human love, but also knows that ultimately it is only God that can completely satisfy this thirst. Some combination of His personal presence, His genuine interest in her, and His ability to see more deeply into her soul has revealed to her that there is something that actually satisfies this inner craving. It is available this side of Heaven and that it is accessible to us NOW! It comes with the caveat that some lifestyle changes are necessary, but she now has the motivation to change, and that despite her embarrassment and dubious status within the community, she cannot contain herself. She runs to tell her friends who quickly see that a real change has occurred in her life. TRUE LOVE has changed everything. Now THEY want the cure; the higher love.
We can be sure that Jesus also initiates a conversation and relationship with each of us and usually does so in the kindest, most understanding way. He knows our limits at any given time. There’s nothing about us that is too shocking or complex for Jesus to understand. The choice is ours. From which fountain will we drink? What needs to change?
(Longer, deeper version).
One of the most interesting things about this Samaritan woman is that even after her long string of unhappy liaisons, she still does not seem to be totally cynical about love. Her thirst for the ‘real’ is enormous and no doubt Jesus is able to see this in her. This might account for such a long conversation. This is fairly extraordinary and is perhaps one of the most important lessons in today’s gospel: Stay open to the FULLNESS of Love. It comes from God and God is waiting for us to come to the well.
Most people who are hearing or reading this homily are probably married and likely got married (or at least ‘shacked up’) somewhere in their early or mid-twenties. Or if not, by their mid-thirties. So strong was this attraction energy within you that it was almost irresistible. To live a single life was likely never even seriously considered. We can easily acknowledge that we are wired for union, for oneness. Probably most of you have brought children into the world or intended to do so. This is all consistent with the notion of spousal love. It’s not just the desire for a better bowling team, or someone to hang out with and maybe go to movies, it’s not just a tennis partner or a great conversation-over-coffee buddy, and it’s not just erotic attraction. Spousal love strives to satisfy at a higher level. It is to this genuine spousal love that Jesus is introducing the Samaritan woman.
At this point it might be well to re-remind ourselves how central and pervasive is this notion of spousal love to our sacramental theology and understanding of the Bible. In the Old Testament God is pursuing His bride, Israel. In the New Testament Jesus is pursuing His bride, the Church. The Bible begins and ends with a wedding. Adam and Eve are specifically created to become one flesh. At the end time the spotless bride is presented to the Lamb at the heavenly wedding banquet (Rev. 19 & 21). Right in the middle of the Bible is the borderline erotic allegory of the Song of Songs. Much of the relational language used by Catholic mystics in their autobiographical writings border on the erotic as they recount their more direct encounters with God. In the Eucharistic Prayer at Mass we declare that “formed by the Spirit and nourished by the body and blood of Christ, we become One Body, One Spirit in Christ.” Matrimony in the Catholic Church is officially a sacrament when it is consummated by the husband and wife, after the vows whereby they have committed themselves to life-long emotional and spiritual growth in their relationship. The priests marry the Church. The whole trajectory of our religion moves ever toward this transcended state of union with God and all of Creation in Heaven. The Mass prefigures the Heavenly Wedding Banquet.
The true end point (Telos) of genuine spousal love is Divine union with God and everyone made in His image and likeness, but also, mysteriously with all of Creation. This is the LOVE for which we all so desperately thirst. Jesus connected so quickly with the Samaritan woman because Jesus could see into her soul and see the true person God had created. He treated her with such reverence, much like Adam and Eve saw each other before sin. After sin it has now become the plight of all of us humans to see in a myopic and distorted way. To quench our real thirst we need to cultivate the wisdom, knowledge, counsel and understanding that Jesus demonstrated in his encounter with the Samaritan woman. This type of seeing probably requires much more attention than what we normally give to our relationships. Probing the deeper levels of our souls is the key to the levels of spiritual union that really satisfy. In the gospel today Jesus tell us that, “God is Spirit and those who worship Him must worship in Spirit and truth.” For this purpose Jesus sent us the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
This deeper spiritual union is the antidote for all the relational confusion and pain we seem to be exhibiting in a variety of ways especially over the past few decades. We do not need to deviate from the traditionally Christian heterosexual model of marriage nor do we need to change our body parts or anguish about which type of clothing most reveals our truest sexual identity. This deeper spiritual union that Jesus calls us to is also the antidote to all the unwanted babies that get ‘mistakenly’ conceived and who face abortion or maybe lifelong neglect after birth.
In all cases we, like the Samaritan woman, will have to consent to the conversion of life to which God calls us before we will have our deeper thirsts satisfied. AND THEN we must respond to the call to discipleship that requires us to be the Jesus waiting for others who come to the well. We must have the mature wisdom, knowledge, counsel and understanding necessary to initiate a conversation that can lead others to a higher form of LOVE and relationship. To worship God in Spirit and truth properly, we must cultivate these gifts of the Holy Spirit we accepted at Confirmation.
As I mentioned at the start of this homily, we are likely entering into a whole new set of variables as we renegotiate the activities of daily life. As of Wednesday, at least in northern Utah, not even the very ground under our feet seems very stable. Many of our former assumptions and expectations for wealth, comfort and self-satisfaction might be significantly altered as we address the pandemic and the wildly fluctuating economic markets. As we face undetermined amounts of time in closer proximity with families and spouses in our various quarantines, as communities and nations attempt to negotiate the unknowns of unprecedented global calamities, we will be likely forced into deeper conversations and understandings of who we really are and what we are all doing here. These are the opportunities I referred to again at the beginning of this homily which are indeed biblical in scale, but as such are not without precedent. It is in the Bible that we can fairly quickly see the REAL BIG picture of what is going on. We are the people of enslavement and exodus, poverty and excess, rebellion and exile, triumph and infidelity and triumph again. In all the many travails of our species, Jesus is waiting for us at the well and when we show up He will even initiate the conversation with us.