3rd Sunday of Lent – March 12, 2023

 

3rd Sunday of Lent – March 12, 2023

Exodus 17: 3-7; Romans 5: 1-2, 5-8; John4: 5-42

Theme: The Living Water and The Divine Identity of Jesus

We continue our forty-day Lenten journey. The liturgy of the First Sunday taught us that the devil continues to tempt us today as he did with our ancestors Eve and Adam, and with Jesus in the desert. He knows that sin separates us from God and from our brothers and sisters; that is why he leads us to sin and so damages our relationships with God and with one another. His objective is to see us condemned as he is already condemned. The scripture readings of the First Sunday invited us to resist all the temptations of the devil as Jesus did in the desert. On the Second Sunday of Lent (last Sunday), the Bible readings taught us that we are on our journey of faith, not only toward the Paschal Mystery of Easter but also toward our heavenly “Promised Land” at the end of time. The story of the transfiguration we heard in the Gospel showed us what our bodies will look like in the kingdom of heaven. Unlike Peter who suggested building three tents there, meaning that to stay there in that “glorious state”, Saint Paul encouraged us to bear our share of hardship for the Gospel with the strength that comes, not from human beings, but from God. So, our “journey of faith” consists of bringing the Gospel to others so that they too share the glory of the “Transfiguration” at the end of time.

Starting today, the Third Sunday of Lent, till the end of this Lenten Season, we will be reading the Gospel of John because today catechumens start an intensive preparation for initiation into the sacraments. The Gospel texts that are chosen for the remainder of Lent are a kind of sacramental catechesis. The liturgy of this Third Sunday of Lent invites us to meditate on the theme of the “Living Water” and the “Divine Identity of Jesus”.  The first reading speaks of God providing drinking water to the thirsty Israelites. The Gospel speaks of Jesus who gives living water and makes God known to the Samaritan woman and to each of us. We are invited to accept the living water that Jesus offers us for us to have eternal life. Here living water represents the water of Baptism with which the catechumens will be baptized and all of us Christians will be sprinkled after we renew our baptismal promises on Easter. “Living water” is the proof of love that God has for us. While we were sinners, Christ died for us. This is what Saint Paul teaches us in our second reading.

Today’s Gospel tells us the story of the conversation between Jesus and a Samaritan woman. The topic of this conversation is “water”, and the setting is the well of Jacob in the city of Sychar. We are already introduced to this topic of water in the first reading that we heard. The author of Exodus recounts the famous incident that happened in the desert in which God’s people (on their trip from Egypt to the Promised Land) almost stoned Moses in their demand for water. By the command of God, Moses struck the rock in Horeb, the water flew from it, and the people drank.

Pay attention to the important words used here that connect us to the text of our Gospel. The author of Exodus says that the people were in their thirst for water. They grumbled against Moses in the following terms: “Was it just to have us die here of thirst?” Their fear was that without water, they would die. Of course, water is an essential element without which humans, animals, and plants will not survive. All of us need water to live. On the First Sunday of Lent, we heard Jesus replying to the devil, “One does not live on the bread alone…” Here we can paraphrase it and say, one does not live on water alone. This means that life is not defined by physical needs only; it is more than that. The ultimate answer for the human condition is not the satisfaction of physical thirst but of spiritual thirst. The physical thirst of the people of Israel in this reading is a sign pointing to a greater thirst which is our thirst for God alone. So, the way we are concerned about satisfying our physical thirst should be the same way, or even more, we need to be concerned about taking our souls to the Church to meet God who satisfies our spiritual thirst.

The Water that God gave to these thirsty Israelites alludes to the “Living Water” that Jesus offers to the Samaritan woman of our Gospel passage and to each of us today. The Samaritan woman of our Gospel story experienced the same transition: from the need for physical water to the need for spiritual water or “living water”. We need to keep in mind that the Gospel of John is highly symbolic. To better understand it, we need to pay close attention to each word he uses and interpret them within their contexts.

Indeed, the author tells us that the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman takes place at the well and it was at noon time which is the brightest point of the day. The well represents the baptistery and font where we are baptized. It also represents the Church where we meet Jesus and receive the living water that he offers us in the celebration of the Eucharist. The noon time here is not about the clock time. Rather, it means that the Woman came to the well at the time of the full light of faith in Jesus Christ. Jesus made two commands to the woman in this conversation which guided the process of the “journey of faith” of the woman. First, Jesus asks her, “Give me a drink” (v. 7), and second, Jesus commands her to “Go call your husband and come back.” (v, 16). Each command initiates a conversation.

Before we go through these two parts of the story, I think it is important to know the literal sense and the spiritual sense of the conflict between the Jews and Samaritans. Jesus is a Jew, and the woman is a Samaritan. Jews and Samaritans did not get along. Understanding this conflict is the key to grasping the meaning of the full story. In its literal sense, Jews and Samaritans share the same patriarch Jacob, the ancestor of the twelve tribes of Israel. After the death of Solomon, Israel split into two kingdoms. Ten tribes of Jacob (Asher, Dan, Ephraim, Gad, Issachar, Manasseh, Naphtali, Reuben, Simeon, and Zebulun) formed the independent kingdom of Israel in the North with Samaria as its capital. The two other tribes (Judah and Benjamin) formed their own kingdom in the south called the kingdom of Judah. Jerusalem was the capital. The Assyrians conquered the Northern kingdom in 722 BC. They deported the Israelites to Assyria, and they brought five foreign nations in who intermarried with the Israelites who were not deported. The descendants of these remaining Israelites with these five foreign nations are identified as Samaritans. They worshipped the gods of these five foreign nations. The Southern kingdom (Judah) was overturned by the Babylonians in 587/586 B.C. The Judeans are also identified as Jews. They returned from the Babylon exile to Jerusalem in the late 500s B.C. Since their return, their relationship with the Samaritans was so bad because the Samaritans worshipped foreign gods. Also, they accused the Samaritans of losing the right of being “God’s chosen people” as they mixed their blood with the blood of foreign nations. Bit by bit, the Northern Samaritans abandoned worshiping foreign gods and returned to worshipping the God of Israel. But they were not going to worship in Jerusalem which is considered the only place for worship according to the covenant with David (see the comments of the Samaritan woman in our Gospel passage in v. 20b). Rather, in the fourth century, they built their own Temple on Mount Gerizim (that our Gospel refers to in v. 20a) to rival Mount Zion in Jerusalem. In its spiritual sense, the woman represents all the Samaritans. The five husbands married to the Samaritan woman that v. 18 mentions in our Gospel passage allude to the five foreign nations that intermarried with the Israelites and the five foreign gods that the people of Israel worshiped.   

Let us now analyze our Gospel’s story. Verses 5 and 6 describe Jesus as tired when he arrives at the well. By asking for a drink, surely Jesus is thirsty. The woman also comes to the well because she needs water. Jesus is thirsty for making God known to all nations, especially to the Samaritans, and the woman needs living water which leads to the conversion. Jesus continues to feel “thirsty” for the revelation of God to the people of our time. We too need to continue to feel “thirsty” for the conversion that living water leads us to. Our mission as Jesus’ followers is to satisfy these two “thirsts of water”. We are called to make God known everywhere we live and invite people to receive the grace of living water in Baptism and other Sacraments. This is the way we can succeed to break the barrier between Jews and Samaritans and all barriers that continue to separate us from our fellow humans and from God.

Jesus opens the conversation with a simple command: “Give me a drink”. The woman tries to stop the conversation with a question that has a nuance of mockery and that highlights the irregularity of the dialogue: “How can you, a Jew, ask me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?” (v. 9). She reminds Jesus that from their backgrounds, they cannot receive things from each other. Consequently, this conversation that Jesus is trying to initiate has no sense. A good relationship is defined by the quality of the conversation. We cannot be good friends if we do not talk. Jesus always initiates conversation with each of us but sometimes we just shut him off as the woman of our story does. Many Christians avoid occasions that offer the opportunity to be in one-on-one dialogue with God. This is prayer. Let us love the time we spend with our Lord Jesus at Mass, Bible reading, and personal or family prayer.  

Jesus does not really answer the woman’s question of v. 9.  Instead, through his statement: “If you knew the gift of God and who is saying to you, ‘Give a drink,’ you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”, he initiates two shifts. First, he shifts the topic: from regular water to spiritual water which is mentioned here as “living water”. Second, he shifts the roles that he and the woman play in this conversation: Jesus who before was the asker becomes now the giver, and the woman who before was the giver becomes now the asker. For these two shifts to become effective, the woman first needs to know two truths: the gift of God and “who is speaking to you”. (v. 10). These two truths are the two elements that serve as the basis for the entire conversation. The first part of the discussion focuses on “the gift of God” which is the living water (vv. 10-15), and the second one concentrates on “who is speaking to you”, the divine identity of Jesus (vv. 16-30). So, Jesus wants us to know that conversion that living water (water of Baptism) leads us to is the gift of God; and that he is the giver of this grace and the revealer of God.   

She does not see Jesus with a bucket, and she knows that the pool is deep; so, she wonders how Jesus is going to get the living water that he will give to her. Notice her question: “Sir, you do not even have a bucket and the well is deep; where then can you get this living water? (v. 11). The woman is moving slowly in her journey of faith. Though she is still in a level of physical thirst her faith in Jesus changes a bit. Previously in v. 9, she referred to Jesus as a “Jew” but here she calls him “Sir”. Next, she compares Jesus to their patriarch Jacob. At this point, she cannot go behind their tradition which considers Jacob as the greatest because he gave them this pool that saves their lives. She says, “Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us this well and drank from it himself with his children and his flocks?” (v. 12). If Jacob is recognized as a patriarch because of the pool that gives them ordinary water which makes them thirst again, Jesus invites the woman and each of us to recognize him as our Lord because of living water that he gives us through the sacraments of initiation (Baptism, Confirmation, and Communion) and all other sacraments become in us a spring of water welling up to eternal life. (vv. 13-14). Sometimes our traditions and understanding of things prevent us from moving from what is material to what is spiritual. The woman is still in a level of ordinary water and physical thirst as her reply to Jesus attests it, “Sir, give this water, so that I may not be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” (v. 15). While Jesus is trying to bring the woman to a spiritual level, she bases her relationship with Jesus on physical thirst and ordinary water. Like this woman, many Christians focus on materials in their relationships with Jesus. They consider Jesus a physician to whom they consult just when they are sick or to do checkups once or twice a year or whenever it is needed. Jesus is considered a lawyer whom they consult just when they are in trouble with justice. The rest of the time when they are good, they do not call Jesus because they do not need him.  Here Jesus is inviting us to a spiritual level. Our relationships with him must have a spiritual foundation. We come to Mass, we help the poor, and we serve him, not because we want him to pay us back by satisfying our physical needs, but because he is our Lord, and he already satisfied our spiritual need which is eternal life that he gave us through his blood on the cross. The starting point should be “Who is Jesus for you?” Is he the Messiah who came to free us from sin and lead us to eternal life, or the man who just satisfies our physical needs? This is what the woman will deal with in the second part of our Gospel story.

The second command of Jesus to the woman, “Go call your husband and come back” in v. 16 switches the topic of the conversation from living water to the divine identity of Jesus. The woman answers that she does not have a husband.  Revealing to her the secret of her personal life, Jesus tells her that what she said is true because she had five husbands; and the man with whom she lives currently is not even her husband. (vv. 16-18). With this revelation, the woman calls Jesus a “prophet”. “Sir, I can see that you are a prophet.” V. 20). Her journey of faith is progressing. She moved from referring to Jesus as a “Jew” in v. 9, and “Sir” in vv. 11 and 15, to a “prophet”. The five husbands of this woman that Jesus mentions allude to the five foreign nations who intermarried with the Israelites who were not deported to Assyria, and the five foreign gods that they worshipped. Let us keep in mind that this woman represents all the Israelites. At that time, they worshipped the five foreign gods, and according to Jesus, the current god is not a true God. Note that the Gospels present Jesus as the spouse of the Church. Here Jesus teaches us that he is the groom, and the Church is the bride. We, Church members are called to worship Jesus who loves us.

Then the woman brings out the question regarding where to worship. For the Jews, the only place of worship is the temple, on Mount Zion in Jerusalem but for the Samaritans, the place of worship is on Mount Gerizim to rival Mount Zion. You and I live neither in Jerusalem nor in Samaria. So, where to worship God then? Jesus’ answer is clear. “But the hour is coming and is now here when true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth; and indeed, the Father seeks such people to worship him. God is Spirit, and those who worship him must worship in Spirit and truth.” (vv. 23-24). The mission of Jesus is to extend the salvation of the chosen people to all humankind. All of us are saved through Jesus. We are the “new chosen people” of God and wherever we are, our local Churches are the “Jerusalem Temple” in spirit. Saint Paul confirms it in our second reading when he says that we have been justified by faith.  

In response to Jesus’ interpretation of the place of worship, the woman connects what Jesus said to the coming of the Messiah who will explain everything. She is the first one to mention the name “Messiah”. Then Jesus reveals himself to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking with you.” (v. 26). The journey of faith of this woman comes to its fullness: Jesus is no longer “a Jew”, nor “a Sir”, nor “a Prophet”, but now the Messiah. This faith makes her a missionary. She left her water jar and went to announce her experience to the townspeople. These people believed in Jesus thanks to the mission work of this woman. However, her mission was just to invite them to do their own experience with Jesus. Pay attention to what the Samaritans tell the woman which ends our story, “We no longer believe because of your word; for we have for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the savior of the world.” Our faith in Jesus as the Messiah should make us the missionaries who invite our family members and friends to come to encounter Jesus and do their own experience. Each one of us should build our faith, not only on what our parents and other people tell us about God, rather, especially on our own experience with Jesus.

The Bible readings of this Mass prepare the catechumens who will celebrate the sacraments of initiation on Easter Sunday, and all of us who will renew our Baptismal Promises at the same Mass. The catechumens as well as each one of us are called to mature and strengthen our faith in Jesus who is the giver of living water and the Messiah who came to free us from sin and give us eternal salvation. Let us be prepared to become missionaries in Easter when the catechumens are Baptized, Confirmed, and receive Jesus in Communion for the first time, and when the rest of us renew our Baptismal Promises. Our mission will consist of sharing with others the experience of our personal relationship with Jesus and so invite them to come to encounter Jesus in our local Church St. Bartholomew/Saint Augustine so they can start their own personal relationship. May the remaining time of Lent help us to experience Jesus more. Amen.

Rev. Leon Ngandu, SVD

 

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