Well, it wasn’t all that long ago that we saw the disciples scatter in fear, was it? Here they had seen their friend arrested, tortured, and killed, so one could not blame them for running scared. I’m sure I would have done no different if I had been them.
But in today’s first reading, we see them different. They have witnessed the resurrection of Jesus, they have seen him alive. More than that, they have been filled with the gift of the Holy Spirit, that great gift he had promised them all along. And so now they get it. Now they realize what he had been saying to them, and now they have courage and fortitude to proclaim the Gospel.
“God raised this Jesus, of this we are all witnesses,” Peter says on their behalf. They have entered into mystagogia … that time following a great event when those involved look back on what they have experienced, and come to new understandings based on those experiences. Their mystagogia of the Easter event has given them fresh hope and courage, and has empowered them to proclaim the message.
Here at Notre Dame, we saw our sister Korrin baptized, and received our brother Brian into full communion with the Church. In addition, many were baptized into the Church and Christ Jesus throughout the world. They are all experiencing mystagogia in these days. They are looking back on their reception into full communion with us, and reflecting on what they have learned and how they have grown in their faith. We cradle Catholics also experience mystagogia in these days. Our baptisms are not as fresh in our minds as are the baptisms of our new brothers and sisters, but we recall with gratitude and profound joy the saving sacrifice that has given us hope of new life. So we too, like the apostles, are empowered to proclaim the message.
God has raised this Jesus from the dead, and we are witnesses of these things, brothers and sisters in Christ. Praise God! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!
Today’s readings The parts in brackets were done at the 5pm Mass which included the Rite of Acceptance into the Order of the Catechumenate.
Today’s readings remind me of one of my favorite theological facts: we were all created for something. I think it takes the better part of our lives sometimes to see what that purpose is, but rest assured: God has a purpose. In our first reading, God says, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you…” Those words are spoken to the prophet Jeremiah, but also to all of us. God has personal knowledge of every person he has created, and dedicates each one of us to some special purpose.
It’s an important thing for us to hear in this day and age, I think. Sometimes I think we take the cynical scientific position that each life is a happy accident. Molecules have just come together in the right way, and so here we are. Whatever becomes of us, then, is either fate: something we inevitably take on, or happenstance: we take on the persona of whatever is expedient at any given time. So if all that is true, then there doesn’t have to be a God, or if there is one, he has set things in motion and stepped back to observe our progress like someone viewing an exhibit at the zoo.
But our faith teaches us that none of that is true. Faith tells us that God is really active in the world, that he has personally created each one of us, that he desires our happiness, that he gives us grace to become what he created us to become. That doesn’t mean that every life will be easy and that there will never be suffering or pain. Sin is a consequence of free will, and the evils of disease and disaster and sadness all run through the world as a consequence of that. If God desires our happiness, Satan certainly desires us to be unhappy, even unto eternity.
So if there is purpose to our lives, and if God desires that we be happy, then that purpose is well expressed in today’s second reading from Saint Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. This letter is certainly familiar to anyone who has been to any number of church weddings. It’s easy to see why so many couples would choose that reading: the romantic nature of the love they have for one another wants a reading as sweet and beautiful as this to be proclaimed at their wedding. But I always tell them that they should be careful of what they’re asking for. Because the love that St. Paul speaks of is not something that you feel, it’s more something that you do. Or, even better, something that you are.
Because, in any relationship, love is a choice. If it were just a feeling that you automatically had for someone close to you, it would be so much easier. If love happened automatically like that, there would be no abusive relationships. Young people would never turn away from their families. Parents would never neglect their children. Spouses would never separate. We wouldn’t need the sixth commandment, because no one would ever think to commit adultery. Priests would never leave the priesthood because their love for their congregations and the Church, and above all, for God, would stop them from any other thoughts.
And that’s why St. Paul has to tell the Corinthians – and us too! – that love is patient, kind, not jealous, and all the rest. In fact, that passage from St. Paul defines love in fifteen different ways. Because love absolutely has to address pomposity, inflated egos, rudeness, self-indulgence, and much more. All of us, no matter what our state of life, must make a choice to love every single day. If you are married, you have to choose to love your spouse; if you are a parent, you have to choose to love your children. Children must choose to love their parents; priests have to choose to love their congregations, and the list goes on. Love is the most beautiful thing in the world, but love is also hard work.
As today’s Liturgy of the Word unfolds, we can see that love – true love – makes demands on us, demands that may in fact make us unpopular. In the first reading, Jeremiah is told that he was known and loved by God even before he was formed in his mother’s womb. That love demanded of him that he roll up his sleeves and be a prophet to the nations. God gives him the rather ominous news that his prophecy won’t be accepted by everybody, that the people would fight against him. But even so, Jeremiah was to stand up to them and say everything that God commanded him, knowing that God would never let him be crushed, nor would God let the people prevail over Jeremiah.
For Jesus, it was those closest to him who rejected him. In the Gospel today, while the people in the synagogue were initially amazed at his gracious words, soon enough they were asking “Isn’t this the son of Joseph?” as if to say, “Who is he to be talking to us this way?” When Jesus tells them that his ministry will make God’s love known to the Gentiles – those whom God had supposedly not chosen – it is then that they rise up and drive him out of the city, presumably to stone him to death.
So we have been created in love, created to love, and created for love. God is love itself, love in its most perfect form, and out of that love, he set us and the world and everything there is into being. Out of love for us, God continues to be involved in our lives and in our world, giving us grace, and revealing himself to us when we seek him with all our hearts. And when we seek him with all our hearts, we do that out of love for God, which is in fact God’s gift to us! Love is a complex and beautiful thing and love is the purpose of our lives. Love is a still more excellent way than anything we have in the world!
[God continues to love so much that he calls people to come close to him every day. Today we celebrate with Korrin her call to become part of God’s family in our Church. Today, she has joined the order of catechumens, one of the ancient orders of the Church. Unlike unbaptized people who are not catechumens, Korrin and other catechumens have rights in the Church. They have a right to assistance as they grow in faith by learning about the teachings of the Church and participating in works of service in the parish. They also have a right to be married in the Church and to receive Christian burial, which we hope won’t be necessary any time soon!
[Korrin’s call is an important one for us to witness. As we see her grow in her faith, we recognize that God continues to call all of us to grow closer to him as well. Her journey, which we will observe in the public rituals of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, calls us to continue the journey wherever we find ourselves on it. God’s love continues to call Korrin and all of us to grow closer to him each and every day.]
May the call of all of our lives remind us that we are all embraced in God’s love, and that because of God’s love, we all must decide to love in our own way, according to our own vocation and station in life, every single moment of our lives. May our love for God, our love for others, and our love for ourselves permeate and give new purpose to a world that has forgotten love, and forgotten how to love rightly.
There are a lot of experts out there. And those experts will be happy to give you their opinion. Really, there is no shortage of places these days from which you can get information. Television, print media, and especially the internet – God knows what we did before the days of Google! – all of these will gladly disgorge information on just about any topic, and so the days of searching high and low for information are pretty much long gone.
But one has to wonder about the quality of the information that we get. Just because it’s on the internet doesn’t make it true! We know that. And ask any teacher and they will probably tell you that they are sick of students quoting Wikipedia and their lot. Even if a site isn’t intentionally giving poor information, there’s almost no way to verify what they’re telling you, unless they have provided proper sources or footnoted their claims.
And the same is certainly true for those who would give us opinions on religion. I can hardly count the number of religious opinions I have been given that began with the words “In my opinion…” or “I think…” If you hear someone start a comment on religion or morality with those words, you have my permission to stop listening to them, because quite frankly, it’s very likely going to be a waste of your time. When it comes to matters of faith and morals, one’s opinions don’t really matter; what is important is what is truth.
In today’s Gospel, the people are astonished at what Jesus was teaching them. They couldn’t believe their ears. And what is striking about that is that they are astonished because Jesus was obviously preaching with authority, “and not as the scribes.” That’s a pretty sad condemnation of the scribes of the day, because the scribes were charged with copying the Scriptures and making sure the faith was taught to all people. If they couldn’t be trusted to speak the truth, well then, who could?
What is astonishing for them is that they finally found the One they could trust: the One who spoke with authority. Jesus didn’t give them some lame opinion or say “I think…” No, he gave them revealed truth, revealed in his words, and in his miracles, and ultimately in his sacrifice. The religious leaders of his day might not like what he was saying to them, but they certainly could not refute the Truth he preached.
And that Truth wasn’t just for that one time and place. That Truth is authoritative today. Against the widespread opinion that one can be “spiritual but not religious” – whatever that means; against those who think that human life is expendable, or that it can be manufactured for research, or that it can be regulated by government mandate; against those who think that matters of conscience and freedom of religion don’t matter when they become inconvenient; against those who think that any religion is just as good as another, or that religion should never tell people what is right and wrong – against all these lies, Jesus’ Truth stands eternal.
Today, our Candidates for Full Communion with the Church have joined us and we have welcomed them. We are one in Baptism, because our Creed proclaims one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. But they wish to draw nearer to Christ and to be one with us in the Eucharist, to be Confirmed in our faith. They will receive these sacraments soon, and today we pledge to journey with them. Together, we embrace the Truth our Christ reveals and we proclaim the truths that make us one Body, one Spirit in Christ.
Our Psalmist today reminds us that if today we hear God’s voice, we should not ever harden our hearts. As we continue our worship today, may we renew our commitment to seek the voice of God in every moment, embracing the Truth that is revealed to us. And may we be a people who open our hearts to that truth, and eagerly live it and proclaim it by the way we live our lives.
Winter is always rough on people, health-wise. If it’s not the flu, then it’s some sort of virus making its way around. That’s been true this winter for sure. Staff members here at church and people in my family have been coming down with one form or another of seasonal illness, and I was glad I got my flu shot this fall. But this week it was my turn: despite the flu shot, I had a fever, fatigue and some light-headedness that made me think it was a sinus thing cranked up a few notches. It’s been hard to shake it. One thing you learn when you have a fever or something like that is that you should drink a lot of water. But eventually, that becomes tiresome: you get sick of drinking just plain water, no matter how good it may be for you. So this week I supplemented it with tea, of course, and I even gave myself permission to do something I don’t do very often, and that was to drink some soda – 7up or ginger ale mostly. And those drinks tasted better than just plain water, for sure, but because they are sugary, sooner rather than later I’d be thirsty again, and the only thing that really helped was – water. I drank a lot of water this week!
I thought about that experience as I was preparing today’s homily, because this set of readings are all about water. When the Church talks about water, it sees something different than most of the world does. Water is a striking image in the literature of our religion: when we hear of water, maybe we think about the waters swirling around before creation, or the waters of the great flood. During Lent, we might think often about the waters of the Red Sea, through which the Israelites passed as they fled from slavery in Egypt. We might think of the water that flowed from the Temple in Isaiah’s imagery, that gave life to all the world. And of course, as we near Good Friday, we cannot help but remember the water and blood that flowed from the side of Christ, giving life to the Church. And then we could think sacramentally, couldn’t we? Whenever we see this much discussed about water in the Sunday readings, we should always think of a certain sacrament. Guess which one? Right, 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 be 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. Read the whole story of the Exodus – it’s a good Lenten thing to do – they never ran out of water, 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?” What a ridiculous question! 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, to misuse another water metaphor! 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? No, she probably 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 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, or something that would quench her unsated thirst. She didn’t even know what she was seeking, and yet she was thirsty all the time.
And all of this would be very sad if she hadn’t just found the answer to her prayers, the source of living water. One of my favorite hymns is a hymn written by Horatio Bonar in 1846 called “I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say.” This hymn is sung all during the year, but I think it may be the quintessential Lenten Hymn. One of the verses speaks beautifully to this wonderful 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.
Which is exactly what happened to the Samaritan woman, isn’t it? 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.
But remember that I said earlier that, whenever you see this much about water in the readings, the point is always baptism. The readings for this Sunday are particularly chosen for the First Scrutiny in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. So if we had anyone becoming Catholic in our parish, which we don’t this year, we would be reflecting in a particular way on their upcoming baptism. The Catechumens of the Church in these Lenten days are, like the Samaritan woman, coming to know this Jesus who is the source of life-giving water. Since we have no Catechumens in our parish this year, I want us to reflect on two things.
The first thing is to reflect on our own baptisms. Because we too find 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. As we approach Easter, then, we should reflect on our own baptisms, perhaps received before we could even understand or remember them, but certainly renewed as we have journeyed through life. Those baptisms have called us to a particular way of life, leaving behind the buckets of life in the world and the well that can never really quench our thirst, so that we can embrace Jesus the Lord, our source of life-giving water. He alone gives us water in such a way that we will never thirst again.
The second thing is to commit ourselves as a parish to the task of evangelization. Just because we have no Catechumens this year doesn’t mean that there is nobody unbaptized among us. We all know people who need to know the Lord. Maybe they are unbaptized, maybe they are baptized in another Church, or maybe they are just not practicing any religion. But because we know the source of life-giving water, they we know that everyone should be drinking of that water. We have to bring the message to them. Maybe not by preaching on the street corner, but more by the witness of our lives. We might also need to extend the invitation, bring someone to Mass, encourage them to join us. 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 droopy 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?” Surely we cannot be as unbelieving as they were. We see the marvels God does for us, we experience the assurance of our faith in good times and in bad. We see lives changed as they embrace the faith. So how would we answer the question, “Is the LORD in our midst or not?” Absolutely, yes he is, always and forever. Amen.
I love when our readings lead us down a path and we have them all figured out, and then out of the blue, we find out they mean something completely else! So here it is, brothers and sisters in Christ, I’ll just say it: this story about the raising of Lazarus isn’t really about Lazarus at all! I mean, look at the story: Lazarus is easily the least significant character in the whole episode. Even though he would seem to be the center of attention, he is dead for most of the story, never says anything himself, and Jesus only says three words to him in a five-minute reading. All of these are big red flags that the Gospel writer has been playing a little joke on us and the real story is somewhere else. I love it when that happens!
And it might be easy to accept that. Okay, the story isn’t about Lazarus, but it is about how Jesus can raise people from the dead, right? Well, yes and no – it depends on what you mean by dead, I guess. Certainly, Jesus has the power to raise people from any kind of death, we know that, but I absolutely don’t think that simply resuscitating people from physical death is what the story is about. Actually, even though the story talks about eternal life some day, I’m not even sure the story is even about that kind of death and life. After all, Jesus doesn’t wait until some future resurrection to bring Lazarus back to life; he does it now, right before our eyes. I think we have to look a little harder and find the life that is right here and now.
Maybe today’s first reading can shed some light on what Jesus was talking about by death. Here the people of Israel are, for all intents and purposes, alive. But they are in captivity in Babylon, so as a people – as a nation, they are pretty much dead. They have no place to worship, they are subject to the harsh cruelty of their captors, and their whole way of life is being systematically exterminated. That’s a kind of death that’s hard to miss. But even now, the prophet tells them, God will open their graves and have the people rise out of them. God will heal their affliction and give them life in spirit. The kind of life God will give to the Israelites is, as the Psalmist says, “mercy and fullness of redemption.”
So the kind of death we’re talking about here is a death that comes about as a result of our daily living. It’s a death brought on by situations in which we find ourselves. We experience death in too many forms to name. For example: wars have left scars for generations; poverty sucks the life out of families, neighborhoods and nations; conflicts divide Christians and set religions against one another; rivalries and ambition among church people give scandal to outsiders; rancor rips apart families; the innocent are abused, political corruption in poor countries depletes essential resources, and so much more. Jesus comes to bring life to people dead in those situations.
And there’s also a kind of spiritual death that St. Paul talks about in our second reading today. “But if Christ is in you,” he says, “although the body is dead because of sin, the spirit is alive because of righteousness. If the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also, through his Spirit dwelling in you.” We all experience some kind of spiritual death in our lives and it is so painful to deal with it. Patterns of sin drag us down from our relationship with God. Addictions tear us apart from our loved ones and from our Lord. Indifference, apathy, and even scandal break us away from the human family and from the Church. Jesus comes to bring life to all of us who struggle with sin and experience this kind of spiritual death.
And he brings life to us in these situations right now, if we will let him. He doesn’t wait until some far-off resurrection time to make it happen. In another place in the Gospel, Jesus makes it clear that life is his primary mission. “I have come that they might have life, and have it abundantly,” he tells us. Even so, Jesus is not put off by our death. As embarrassed as we may be about our own brokenness, as dejected and frustrated as we may be about our failure to drag ourselves out of the sin in which we find ourselves, Jesus still comes to us. Martha makes a big point about how Lazarus has been dead four days, as if there were nothing Jesus could do about it. That’s because the Jews believed the soul of a person hung around for three days, and after that he or she was really, really dead. But Jesus was able to raise Lazarus anyway. So it doesn’t matter how dead we are, because our death and our sin are never, never, never more powerful than the mercy of God. Never.
And the Tempter would try to convince us that we are not worthy of this kind of mercy and love and forgiveness and resurrection. He may convince us that, like Lazarus, we have a big heavy stone sealing us off from God. Our sins might seem that big sometimes. But Jesus will have none of that: “Roll away the stone,” he says. The Tempter might want us to be so embarrassed about our sin that we become convinced we actually stink of death, that there will surely be a stench. But Jesus assures us that if we believe, we will still see the glory of God and our stench will be dispelled by the breath of God’s Spirit. The Tempter might even make us think that our sins have bound us up so much – like Lazarus in his burial cloths – that we can’t even take a step forward to come out of our graves. But to all of that, Jesus says, “untie him and let him go!”
The Elect have been hearing special readings at the Masses they have attended these last three weeks. They are readings about our baptism, and so they relate well to the conversion they are experiencing and the preparations they are making for becoming one with us at the Easter Vigil in less than two weeks. But these are also readings for you and me, that we might look back at our own baptisms and recommit ourselves to our Lord once again. Conversion is something that goes on all of our lives if we are attentive to it.
So these readings have been incredible, particularly the ones from the Gospels. Each of these readings has been focused around one person who could well have been a catechumen, one of the elect, someone undergoing conversion to the faith. Two weeks ago, the woman at the well found Jesus to be the source of living water, a water that gave relief to the dryness of her faith. Last week, the man born blind washed in the pool at Siloam and came out able not only to physically see, but also to come to see Jesus as the way, the truth and the life. Today, I think, the Elect one is Martha. She experiences death in the grieving of her brother. But she comes to new life as Jesus attends to her faith and raises not just her brother, but her too, to new life. At the end of it, she goes to her sister Mary – this Mary who in a previous story sat at Jesus’ feet rather than help Martha cook for their guest but now refuses to even come out to see him. Martha has to go and tell the little white lie that Jesus is asking for her before Mary will leave the house. But this is how Martha witnesses to her faith, a faith which is made new and given new life with the raising of her beloved brother.
We’re all on different places of the journey in these closing days of Lent. Maybe, like Lazarus, we are all bound up, stinking of our sins, and sealed up in the tomb. Maybe, like Mary, we are hurt by all our resentments and refuse to even come out of the house. Maybe, like Martha, we have a fledgling faith and throw ourselves to Jesus asking to be made whole. Maybe, like the apostles, we don’t really get it, but are willing to go and die with Jesus anyway. Wherever we are, whatever our brokenness, whatever our sin, however long we have been dead and buried, Jesus comes to us today and beckons us to rise up and come out and be untied and to live anew.
And so, maybe in these closing days of Lent, we still have to respond to our
Lord’s call to live. Maybe you haven’t yet been to confession before Easter. We have confessions before and after next Saturday’s 5:00pm Mass, and then again on Tuesday the 30th at 7:30pm, and we invite you to come and have the stone rolled away and to be untied from your burial cloths. Perhaps in these last days of Lent, you have relationships you have to renew with the new life that Christ gives you. Wherever you find yourself, I urge you, don’t let Easter pass with you all bound up and sealed in the grave. Lent ends just before Vespers or Evening Prayer on Holy Thursday. That gives us around ten and a half days to take up our Lenten resolutions anew, or even make new ones, so that we can receive new life in Christ. Don’t spend these days in the grave. Come out, be untied, and be let go.
NB: This homily is based on the readings from cycle A, which was read just for the Mass of the Scrutiny.
Last year about this time, 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.
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 a certain sacrament. Guess which one? Right, 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? No, she probably 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’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 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, we can only answer that question with a resounding “YES!” So – is the LORD in our midst or not?
Have you ever thought about that? Why is it that Jesus has been so long in returning? Why hasn’t he come back to put all things to their proper conclusion? Why do we still have wars being fought all over the earth? Why is there still terror, and death, and sadness, and pain? Why do our loved ones still suffer illness? Why do relationships still break down and why do people still hurt one another? Why can’t God just wrap things up and put an end to all this nonsense? Why can’t we all go home to be with our Lord and our loved ones?
If you relate to those questions, then you probably can relate to the readings that we have from the prophet Daniel and from Mark’s Gospel today. These are what we call “apocalyptic writings” which are usually written to give people hope in the midst of very hard times. So you can see why they would be so important to us today. Because we have hard times of our own, don’t we? I would venture to guess that everyone sitting here is either affected in some way by the economic downturn, or else they know someone who is. Do you know someone whose son or daughter was stationed at Fort Hood? Judging from the number of funerals we have had here lately, I would say that a lot of you have lost loved ones recently, or know about someone who has. And that’s to say nothing of the day-to-day stuff like relationships ending, and the darkness of our own sin.
When these things confront us, who among us wouldn’t call to mind the words of Jesus in today’s Gospel? “The sun will be darkened,” he says, “and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from the sky, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” It often seems like our whole world is falling apart, and we are desperately looking for some sign of hope.
They are hard readings today, really kind of dark in nature. They remind me of the darkness of the days that we have at the end of the year. The sun sets a lot earlier than it did, and the skies are often cloudy. It’s a darkness we can almost feel, and these readings that we have at the end of our liturgical year really echo that sentiment for me.
But I think that’s the point. A lot of fundamentalist folks have spent the greater part of their lives trying to figure out when all these things would take place. They want a day and time when the end will come, and they sometimes tell us they have figured it out, only to have the time come and go, and they have to return to their lives, if they can. But these readings aren’t supposed to be a roadmap. They are supposed to accompany us when our lives are as dark as the autumn nights. The message they give us is one of hope. No, we will not be spared the disappointments, frustrations, and sadness that can sometimes come in our lives, but we never ever ever have to go through them alone.
God will be with us. He will, as the Gospel tells us, “gather his elect from the four winds, from the end of the earth to the end of the sky.” As the prophet Daniel tells us, “At that time [God’s] people shall escape, everyone who is found written in the book.”
And so that is why we are here today. That’s why we are still here. We are here to allow God to gather his elect, and we are here to help him do that. To that end, we have gathered eight of our brothers and sisters today, to welcome them and support them in their journey to become one of us. Two of them are now promoted to the Order of Catechumens. Catechumens are those being instructed in the ways of the faith. This pertains specifically to those not baptized. At the Easter Vigil Mass, they will receive all three of the Sacraments of Initiation: baptism, confirmation and first Eucharist. Catechumens have rights in the Church: they can receive a Christian burial if they are called home before the Sacraments can be administered; they can be married in the Church sacramentally, and they have a right to the sacraments.
The others being welcomed today are candidates for full communion with us. They have been baptized, some Catholic, some not, and so they already share with us the foundation of grace and are being called to confirmation and first Eucharist to complete their union with us.
If we take the readings today seriously, and I think we should, then these eight people are simply a nice start. We know that one day, we won’t still be here, that Jesus will return to complete all things and initiate the reign of God’s kingdom. And we want everyone to be there. In many ways, we cannot any of us go if we all don’t go. It’s not just “me and Jesus.” Salvation is not an individual thing, it’s something we all receive together. And that’s why we have the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults. That’s why we actively reach out to those not among us and call them to communion with us. We need to gather up all God’s people so that, one day, we can all be seated around the banquet of God’s people in heaven.
Back to my first question, then. Why are we still here? We’re still here because there is work still to be done. There are many more people to gather from the four winds so that their names can be written in the book of life. God is still working salvation among us; we need to cooperate with that saving work. It’s not going to be easy, and some days may seem oppressively dark, but we are never alone. Heaven and earth might pass away, but God’s word is forever. It will not pass away.