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.