The Third Sunday of Lent [A]
Exodus 17:3-7 ¾ Romans 5:1-2,5-8 ¾ John 4:5-42
March 27, 2011
Today’s long Gospel passage seems to be about a conversation between Jesus and a Samaritan woman. But it’s actually about something larger. But in order to see that “something larger”, we have to begin with the conversation between these two.
St. John the Evangelist describes Jesus as He approaches that Samaritan town where Jacob’s well is found. Jesus is tired from His journey, and so He sits down at the well. The evangelist also notes that it was about noon, implying that Jesus—in His humanity—was tired and hot and thirsty. Jesus is like us in all things but sin. His human body needed water just as yours does.
But through His human need for water, Jesus leads the Samaritan woman to see that she also needs something. But what she needs is spiritual. Sometime during this week, sit down with your bible and read the long version of this passage from John, chapter 4. Only a very few verses at the beginning are a discussion about a drink of water for Jesus’ physical thirst. After those first few verses, Jesus shifts the conversation away from Himself, and away from physical need. He continues by speaking about the spiritual need that He wants the Samaritan woman to recognize inside herself.
The spiritual thirst that Jesus describes is one that only He can provide water for. The spiritual water that Jesus offers, He calls “living water”. If you think about it, that’s a strange phrase. In the physical world, it’s hard to imagine water that’s living. Of course, water is essential for all plant and animal life, but it’s not itself “living”. Is this phrase—“living water”—just metaphorical? It is not. The spiritual water that flows from Jesus does bear life. This spiritual water flows from Jesus through two of the sacraments that Jesus gave as gifts to His Church: the Sacrament of Baptism, and the Sacrament of Confession.
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The Sacraments of Baptism and Confession are similar in many ways. Both Baptism and Confession cause three changes in the person who receives them. In both of these sacraments, the person is first of all washed clean of past sin.
In Baptism, the waters wash away all sin: Original Sin, and (if older than the age of reason) any personal sin. Unfortunately, many people—even many baptized Christians!—stop there when they think about Baptism. They think of Baptism only in terms of getting to Heaven. This reduction of Baptism is what led many in the early Church to delay their own baptism until they were on their deathbed, so that they could be more sure of getting into Heaven! Priests were often persecuted and in hiding, so confession or Last Rites was harder to come by, while on the other hand, anyone could baptize… It was a gamble, of course, but it seemed like the best way to ensure getting into Heaven!
You can see how self-focused this sort of thinking is: that I receive God’s grace for me, in order to get myself into Heaven. But Jesus did not give His life for us, so that we would make our spiritual life about our self? Instead, the grace of the sacraments helps us live by Christ’s words that, “whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, [while] whoever loses his life for [Jesus’] sake… will save it” [Mark 8:35].
Similarly, in a sincere, valid Confession, all personal sins—mortal and venial—are washed away. But many Catholics reduce the practice of Confession to only one aim: getting to Heaven, by having mortal sins washed away. That’s why many Catholics only go to confession when they’ve committed a mortal sin. But is Confession only for washing away past sins?
The second change in the person who receives Baptism and Confession is a preparation for the future. Not just our future in Heaven, but also our future on earth: however many days, months and years that might be. In both sacraments, God places divine gifts within one’s soul for the sake of a stronger life on earth.
At your baptism, when God washed sin away from your soul, He put in that place the three supernatural virtues: faith, hope and charity. God gave these to you not only to help you get to Heaven, but also to change the shape and form, the warp and woof, of your earthly life.
Similarly, in Confession, when God washes sin away from your soul, He puts in that place the divine gift that the Church calls “sacramental grace”. That grace is to help you overcome your daily moral struggles more easily in the future. If you’re like most people, you find that you confess the same sins over and over. Some non-Catholics think that this is a pretty good argument that “confession doesn’t work”. I wonder… do you think that any of those persons, when they go to the same doctor every winter, for the same antibiotics, because they get the same illness every year… do you think that any of them give up going to their doctor? Or even worse, do they stop taking a shower every morning? After all, no matter how many times they wash, they just wake up the next day dirty all over again…
That reminds me of a list that a pastor put in his bulletin one Sunday. This pastor, for weeks and weeks, had walked up and down the streets of his town, and had gone right up to people on the street and asked them to attend church that coming Sunday. And do you know what? He found that all those people had pretty much the same basic reasons for, as they said, “Why I don’t go to church.” So the pastor wrote up in his bulletin a similar list, titled, “Why I don’t wash.” It was meant to poke fun, of course, at the reasons that those folks gave for not going to church. But as you listen to these ten reasons, I’d like you to reflect on whether they also apply to going to confession. Here’s the good pastor’s list:
Ten Reasons Why I Never Wash
1. I was forced to wash as a child.
2. People who make soap are only after your money.
3. The bathroom is never warm enough in the winter, or cool enough in the summer.
4. I only wash on special occasions, like Christmas and Easter.
5. None of my friends wash.
6. I'll start washing when I get older and dirtier.
7. I can't spare the time to wash.
8. I used to wash, but I got bored and stopped.
9. There are so many different kinds of soap, I can't decide which one is best.
10. People who wash are hypocrites—they think they’re cleaner than everyone else.
In confession, God gives you sacramental grace to help you cope with your sins and vices, to help your persevere through them, and—yes, eventually to overcome them to some extent. The sacramental grace that we receive in Confession helps us spiritually to target our weak spots. But it’s up to us to use this grace: which is to say, to allow it to take root in our hearts and in our daily moral choices.
But why do we do all this? Why? That “Why?” is connected to the question mentioned at the beginning of the homily: that is to say, what the conversation of Jesus and the Samaritan woman is really all about. Today’s Gospel passage is not just about these two persons. It’s also about those whom the evangelist mentions at the end of the passage: those who began to believe in [Jesus] because of the word of the woman who testified.
These last few verses illustrate the third change that Baptism and Confession cause. The Samaritan woman symbolizes the person who comes to Jesus, and who spiritually drinks of that “living water”. The third change is that one becomes part of a family that is larger than one’s own self. In Baptism, this took place through God the Father’s adoption of you, and those who become your brothers and sisters in Christ. In Confession, this takes place through your being reconciled with both God and neighbor. In the life of the Samaritan woman, this took place through the testimony that she gave to others because of the “living water” that she drank.
So here we can see the problem with “deathbed baptisms”. What if the Samaritan woman in today’s Gospel passage had avoided Jesus all her life, and had waited until the end of her earthly life to drink of that “living water”? How many people around her would never have heard her testimony, and therefore would never have come to Jesus. The longer we wait to allow Jesus into our hearts, the longer it will be before we can be an instrument of God’s peace, and an influence on others who may have no other way of hearing about Jesus except from our lips.
Jesus gives us a share in His Body and Blood, so that strengthened, we can die to our self, and live (and die) for others. Our own plans, our own genius, our own hopes fade away when we drink the “living water”. God’s grace moves us to call others to the joy that we know because of Jesus Christ.