The Third Sunday of Lent

Today’s readings

This Mass was streamed live on Facebook in lieu of people attending Mass in person, due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Is the LORD in our midst or not?

I remember a time a while back when I got the flu – bad.  It was one of those rare occasions when I was so sick, I couldn’t even get out of bed.  I had a fever, chills, aches and pains, the whole deal. When it was at its worst, I was trying to drink a lot of fluids, which is pretty much the only thing you really can do when you have the flu. So I drank a lot of water, but as time went on, I got sick of drinking a lot of water. So I supplemented it with tea, of course, but I even gave myself permission to do something I don’t do very often, and that was to drink some soda – 7up mostly. And that tasted good, the 7up, but because it’s sugary, sooner rather than later I’d be thirsty again, and the only thing that really helped was – water.

It’s not so different now, is it?  I think a bottle of water is worth about $37 on the open market.  With the COVID-19 situation taking a toll on all of us, it’s little things like water that remind us that we can’t take anything for granted.

I thought about that experience as I was preparing today’s homily, because this set of readings, which are being used just for this Mass because of the Scrutiny we will pray in a few minutes with our RCIA Elect, these readings are all about water. Whenever we see this much water in the Sunday readings, we should always think of baptism. And so we’ll talk about that in just a minute, but before we go there, let’s take a minute to get at the subject of thirst. That, after all, is what gets us to water in the first place.

The Israelites were sure thirsty in today’s first reading. After all, they had been wandering around the desert for a while now, and would continue to do so for forty years. At that point, they were thinking about how nice it would have been if they had just remained slaves in Egypt, so that they wouldn’t have to come all the way out here to the desert just to die of thirst. Better slaves than dead, they thought. The issue was that they didn’t have what they thirsted for, and had not yet learned to trust God to quench that thirst. So Moses takes all the complaining of the people and complains to God, who provides water for them in the desert. Think about that – they had water in the desert! And they had that water for as long as they continued to make that desert journey. They never ran out, they didn’t die of thirst, God proves himself trustworthy in a miraculous way. The end of the reading says they named the place Massah and Meribah because they wondered, “Is the LORD in our midst or not?” Can you imagine that?  God had led them out of slavery in Egypt with great miracles and signs, and is guiding them through the desert with a column of cloud by day and a column of fire by night.  Is the LORD in their midst or not?  Obviously, the answer was “yes.”

Which brings us to the rather curious story we have in the Gospel reading. If we think the story was all about a woman coming to get a bucket of water, then we’ve really missed the boat. This story asks us what we’re thirsting for, but at a much deeper level. Did Jesus really need a drink of water? Well, maybe, but he clearly thirsted much more for the Samaritan woman’s faith. Did she leave her bucket behind because she would never need to drink water again? Maybe, or maybe she just forgot it in the excitement, but clearly she had found the source of living water and wanted to share it with everyone.

In the midst of their interaction, Jesus uncovers that the woman has been thirsting for something her whole life long. She was married so many times, and the one she was with now was not her husband. She apparently couldn’t find what she was thirsting for in her relationships.  She was worshipping, as the Samaritans did, on the mountain and not in Jerusalem as the Jews did. And every single day, she came to this well to draw water, because her life didn’t mean much more than that. She was constantly looking for water that would quench her, and yet she was thirsty all the time. Kind of reminds me of having the flu.

And all of this would be very sad if she hadn’t just found the answer to her prayers, the source of living water. There is a hymn written by Horatio Bonar in 1846 called “I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say” that speaks to this wonderful Gospel story.  We sang it as our opening song and we’re going to hear it in a few minutes as part of our scrutiny, but I want to focus on the words of that hymn because they relate to today’s Gospel story:

I heard the voice of Jesus say,
“Behold, I freely give
the living water; thirsty one,
stoop down and drink, and live.”
I came to Jesus, and I drank
of that life-giving stream;
my thirst was quenched, my soul revived,
and now I live in him.

And that’s exactly what happened to the Samaritan woman. She drank of the stream of Jesus’ life-giving water, and she now lived in him. She couldn’t even contain herself and ran right off to town, leaving the bucket of her past life behind, and told everyone about Jesus. They were moved to check this Jesus out, initially because of her testimony. But once they came to know him as the source of life-giving water, they didn’t even need her testimony to convince them; they too lived in him now.

Today’s Scriptures plead with us on the subject of conversion.  The Israelites were wandering through the desert learning to trust God, being converted from the Egypt of their past sinful lives to the Promised Land of God’s inheritance.  The Samaritan woman was being converted from the stagnant water of her own past life to the living, life-giving water of new life in Christ.

Remember that I said earlier that, whenever you see this much about water in the readings, the point is always baptism.  Conversion is necessary before baptism can happen.  And that’s what brings us here today. Lent, if we give ourselves to it, is totally about our baptism and our need for life-long conversion. For those among the Elect, that’s quite literally true. Our elect have been walking the desert journey to come to God’s promise just as the Israelites did. And they, like the Samaritan woman, have come to know the source of life-giving water. Just four weeks from yesterday, they will stand before us, have life-giving water poured over their heads, and receive what they have been thirsting for all this time.

But the rest of us, too, find conversion and baptism in our Lenten journey. Lent, as is often pointed out, means “springtime” and during Lent we await a new springtime in our faith. We await new growth, we look for renewed faith, we recommit ourselves to the baptism that is our source of life-giving water. We have what we are thirsting for, and Lent is a time to drink of it more deeply, so that we will be refreshed and renewed to live with vigor the life of faith and the call of the Gospel. These Lenten days take us to Easter and beyond with water that we can pour out in every time and place where God takes us. The life we receive in baptism can revive a world grown listless and jaded and make it alive with springs of refreshment that can only come from the one who gives us water beyond our thirsting, that follows us in our desert journeys, that springs up within those who believe.

The Israelites wondered, “Is the LORD in our midst or not?” As we see the waters of baptism refreshing our Elect, and as we ourselves are renewed in our own baptism, should certainly answer that question with a resounding “YES!”  The Lord is, and always has been, in our midst.  Our thirst has been quenched, our souls revived, and now we live in him.

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