Third Sunday of Lent: 3-19-17
Peace be with You,
The Lenten journey is a difficult one and it is meant to be. We began with a reminder on Ash Wednesday that, apart from God, we are nothing but dust and ashes. Then, on the First Sunday of Lent we were confronted with the reality of why someday these dust and ashes, at times so alive with the Spirit of God, will ultimately yield its animation to the sands of time; that reason being that we have been separated from the One who alone is able to bring those particles to life. Thus, we were called to a life of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving in imitation of Christ so that; by turning away from our false sense of self we may once again find our true selves and begin to live more fully human lives. This may sound futile, after all, if we are mere dust and ashes destined for corruption, what difference will a little self-denial make? Then, last weekend we were reminded why; that although all we have to offer God is the infinitesimal time and material we have been given; this is precisely what he desires most; for as a good and loving Father, he desires nothing more than to share his life with that which does not possess it on its own. We were made aware of this in the Transfiguration of Christ, an event which brought to light the fact that the One who infused life into dust and ash did so precisely that it might share the very glory that is the Divine Life. Yet, at the same time, we were reminded that this transfiguration will not take place all at once, nor will it be accomplished in a lifetime; rather we are called to pilgrimage amid this vale of suffering, sadness and tears, holding out hope that the God who first called Adam to life, and who called Abram to journey with him, will accompany us as well and lead us safely to the harbor of our eternal home.
Thus, we find ourselves pulled to and fro between life and death; we hear proclaimed to us the reality which we experience within ourselves on a daily basis. At times we never feel more alive and hopeful, while at others we sense that life slips further away with every passing second. Within this season of Lent we experience the triumphs of self-denial, feeling that as we turn away from the things of the world we become more alive; and yet, at other times this same practice becomes overwhelming, we become frustrated at our inability to make great strides, after all, I deny myself but to what gain, for I still desire to run back to every last vain inclination that I resolved to leave behind. Put simply, this season more than any other places our frailty in the spotlight and we wish to find a comforting shadow to hide behind.
Having been blessed with intelligence, we humans get creative when it comes to finding shadows to hide behind. A shadow may take the form of a fake smile, or a timely “illness”; at still others it is a simple “I’m fine thank you, how are you?” Or take for example the Samaritan woman in today’s Gospel story, her shadow was the burning heat of midday, as John tells us that she went to draw water at the sixth hour, or noon (John 4:6). We may think that this was as good a time a day as any to draw water, after all, she would have the best light, not so in the ancient Middle East. Because of the heat of midday, women would often go to draw water early in the morning. Thus, by simply telling us the time of day, the sacred author has let us in on a secret; this woman is avoiding the other women of the town, she either has something to hide or she is hiding from something; in this case, it is the ridicule of the other women. As we come to find out, this Samaritan woman has suffered the occurrence of five divorces and is currently living with a man who is not her husband (John 4:18). This may seem of little significance to our modern “sensibilities,” but for this woman this was a cause of great shame! In the ancient world, a woman needed a husband in order to have the means to live by. Moreover, we may assume that her previous five husbands had resolved they had no use for her and the man she lived with now evidently didn’t see the need to make a woman “such as her” his wife. In short, this woman has been used, denigrated, and abandoned, and she feels ashamed perhaps because she knows she has made some choices in the past that have led her down this road or perhaps simply because she realizes that she is the object of ridicule for the other women in town; perhaps both, we cannot be sure.
There is something else to note in the time of day given to us by the sacred author. Remember that we are hearing from the Gospel of John this week; the same Gospel whose famous Prologue tells us that in Christ, the Word of God made flesh, “was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it…The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not” (John 1:4-5 & 9-10). It is precisely this contrast between light and darkness that the sacred author wishes to convey to us by noting the time of day. The woman, darkened by her having fallen short of who she was created to be (i.e. by her sin), is about to meet him who alone can shed light upon that darkness and expel it from her being, making her whole again. Yet, how was Christ to do this? Simply by speaking with her? What could he possibly say that would change her circumstances? After all, as the Greek poet Agathon reminds us, ‘even God is deprived of the power of making things that are past never to have been.’
The manner in which Jesus was to affect this transformation in the life of this woman is made known by another element in the setting; the well. In the Hebrew Scriptures, wells serve as a place where people meet their husband or wife. For example, Isaac meets Rebekah at a well (Genesis 24:10-15); Jacob meets Rachel at a well (Gen. 29:1-9); and Moses meets Zipporah at a well (Ex. 2:15-21). Thus, here the Samaritan woman is meeting her true Spouse, the Bridegroom for whom she truly longs for though she does not recognize him and who has search for her desperately though she knew it not. Notice the beauty here! Our God is not afraid or put off by our sinfulness! Instead, as the philanthropist par excellence he desires to be one with us in order to abolish the sin we suffer from and make us whole knowing the only way we may be made whole is to be one with him as intimately as an eternal embrace between husband and wife (cf. Hosea 2:15-16). However, the only way to be made whole, and there is no way around this, is be stripped bare, and have our shortcomings exposed to the curative intensity of the Light (cf. Hosea 2:3). This is precisely why Jesus questions the woman about her previous marriages, making her admit her shortcomings precisely in order that she may rid herself of them and be taken into the embrace of the One who can truly provide springs of living water that will quench her thirst for personal integrity and true love (cf. John 4:13-14).
This is a beautiful picture indeed, and yet, imagine the pain that must have come over the woman as the Light penetrated into the depths of shame, exposing her shortcomings (John 4:16-18). To turn away from sin and towards the fullness of life is never easy; it is always painful as we become accustomed to and even are comforted by our sin, “so great is the blindness of men that they even glory in their blindness” (St. Augustine of Hippo, Confessions Bk 3.3); therefore when we are turned toward the light it is overwhelming so as to be painful.
We see a good example of just how difficult change for the better can be in our first reading for today from the Book of Exodus. Therein we join the people of Israel as they journey through the desert towards the Promised Land, free from the bonds of slavery yet not from its comforts. Upon meeting with difficulty in the journey the people complain to Moses, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” (Exodus 17:3); “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread…” (Ex. 16:3). Yet, God in his mercy took pity on Moses and the Israelites and provided water for them out of dry rock, bringing forth life from where they had been none before (Ex. 17:6; cf. Genesis 2:7). Yet God is not satisfied; for he not only desires to sustain us in a life of half existence, he comes among us precisely that he may become within us “a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:14); i.e. that he may make us partakers of the divine life, in order that we may in turn call to others to the fullness of life as well, just as the Samaritan woman did (John 4:29).
My friends, today we ought to see ourselves in the Samaritan woman for we share her same plight; for we too have fallen short of what we were created to be and do so countless times a day, yet we must imitate the courage of the Samaritan woman, who though besought with shame did not shy away from seeking the Truth which lay before her (John 4:15). This is precisely the opportunity the Season of Lent provides us with and it is at once its beauty and difficulty, for it provides us with the time and means of focusing the Light where it is most needed, those parts of us which are most broken. It is these parts of us that God desires to be granted access to which are laid bare by the time of increased prayer and fasting; for by putting aside the things of the world, the Word of Truth which God speaks to us in his Son are more readily heard. Through him, God gives Light to the soul, and “when God gives light to the soul, he not only makes it aware of its own miserable state before God…but God also makes the soul aware of his greatness and excellence” (St. John of the Cross, The Dark Night of the Soul, Bk 1.11.4), precisely in order that our senses may once again be made aware of and attracted to the beauty of the divine life that we were made to be partakers of! Today, we must allow the Light of Life to shine within our hearts, for when we do our desire for the life of God will be magnified such that we will allow nothing to deter us from quenching our thirst at the fount of Life.
Your servant in Christ,