Third Sunday of Lent (Year A) – March 26/27, 2011
For the communities of Dignity/NoVA at Emmanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Arlington, VA and Dignity/Washington at St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church, Washington, DC.
Although we in this Dignity community hear these particular readings only every third year – following, as we do, the 3 year cycle of our Lectionary – there are many, many parishes that hear these readings and this Gospel story about Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well every year. The reason for that is those parishes have an active RCIA program – they regularly have adults who have either never been baptized or who are seeking to complete their initiation through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, the RCIA. In those parishes, this Third Sunday of Lent marks the first of 3 very important “steps” in that ritualized process. Two Sundays ago, they would have gathered at their Cathedral with their godparents and the local Bishop, and the unbaptized would have declared in a public way their intention to be initiated into the death and resurrection of Christ through the Easter sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist. While previously they would have been called Catechumens – students, really – interested in studying and learning about Christianity – now they are called the Elect, having been publicly accepted by those of us who already bear the name of Christian into these Lenten weeks of preparation of prayer, fasting, and the doing of good works.
This particular Sunday, the Third Sunday of Lent, those Elect are gathering at their parish’s principal liturgy, along with their godparents, and they are celebrating the first of what are called The Scrutinies. In two weeks they will hear perhaps the ultimate gospel story outside of the Passion Narratives that tell how Jesus’ has power even over death as they listen to the story of the raising of Lazarus from the dead. Next week they will hear how Jesus brings vision and light to the Man Born Blind; and today they hear the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan Woman at the Well as he declares himself to be “Living Water.”
It sounds like such a cliché for me even to say this, but it really is true that we could spend hours talking about this Gospel story we just heard, so filled it is with depth and meaning.
- We could, for example, take note of how the Gospel writer has Jesus speak 7 times in his conversation with the woman, using that biblical number of fullness, like the 7 days of a week, to symbolically suggest that an encounter with Jesus brings wholeness; OR
- We could discuss how Jesus pays little heed to established gender roles by engaging an un-chaperoned woman in conversation in a public place and at a time of day where a woman would never be by herself; OR
- We could see how these gender roles continue to be ignored as the Gospel author puts the woman in the role of evangelizer, being the one who bears witness to Jesus to the men in the town square.
However, the point I want to draw our attention to is neither of these, but rather to what the conversation these two have is all about. The instruction for the RCIA instructs the Elect to come forward after the homily. At that time special prayers – prayers which are rightfully called Exorcisms – will be prayed over them as the community encourages them to continue on their journey of faith, asking God to free them from sin and from all that hinders what the RCIA itself calls “progress in genuine self knowledge through serious examination of their lives and true repentance.”
When we think about it, isn’t that what not only Lent but the entire Christian life is all about – progressing in “genuine self knowledge through serious examination” of our lives, as we seek meaning, purpose, satisfaction and fulfillment? Our thirst that seems never to be satisfied is what makes us work so hard to succeed in this life – whether that be in school, or the workplace, in a sport we enjoy, or some other activity that gives us pleasure. That thirst is also what brings us here, week in and week out; it’s what underlies the longings of our hearts as we strive to do what is good and right; as we strive to seek justice in this world, and to be agents of change in the face of established, sinful social structures that all too often keep people from realizing their full humanity as beloved children of God, from their rightful place at the table of God’s People.
Certainly it is good and typical that we have such thirst. After all, is there anyone here who can honestly say that when you look at the entirety of your life, you are fully satisfied? Is there anyone here who has no unmet goal, no unfulfilled hope, no dream yet to be realized? Is there anyone here whose relationships are perfectly satisfying, whose health is without flaw, and who has achieved everything you ever set out to achieve? If there is, I suspect you’d be the envy of us all! Simply articulating those questions demonstrates that there isn’t one person on this planet who is not unfulfilled in one way or another. As this Gospel story unfolds, it’s clear that one of the main messages Jesus brings to this woman, and one which she in turn bears to others, is that it is Jesus himself who is Living Water and is the One who can and does satisfy every longing of our hearts, every thirst we have, if only we could be as open and honest and vulnerable as she is.
But before we jump too quickly to the end of this dialogue that Jesus has with this woman – a woman whose life and past and shortcomings he already knows – let’s pause for just a moment. What is the very first thing Jesus says to her, the first words out of his mouth? “Give me drink.” Give me a drink. The encounter’s focus starts out not with the thirst that the woman – and by extension we – have; but rather on the thirst that Jesus has. In reaching out to her – and to us – Jesus reminds us of God’s never-ending thirst for us; and not just for “us” in general, for “humanity” writ large. Jesus’s encounter with the woman at the well proclaims that God thirsts for and longs for and desires each and every one of us … including you and me and all those countless others whom society or church says “you’re not good enough.” Like his words, “I thirst” spoken on the Cross, Jesus – whom we believe is the en-fleshed presence of God in the world – became one like us precisely because of that eternal thirst of God to be loved by each and every one of us, the ones God created in Love.
Lent is a time when we are all called to be like that unnamed woman at the well in Samaria – a woman not perfect, a woman “with a past,” but more importantly a woman whose openness and faith satisfied the thirst of Jesus such that in turn she came to know his loving touch and was able to drink freely from the life-giving water he offers.