12 March 2023

Homily - The Third Sunday of Lent - 12 March 2023

The Third Sunday of Lent (A)

Dear brothers and sisters,

The more I consider the Lord’s encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well the more I wonder how such an encounter with Jesus might take place in the context of our present culture. It seems as if many Americans – if not most – are actively searching for something by which to be offended presuming the worst of intentions in each other and reading more into the words and actions of others than may be warranted.

As but one simple illustration of what I mean, consider what would happen today if the Lord Jesus correctly said to an American woman, “You have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband” (John 4:18). Would she recognize the truth of his words and answer, “Sir, I can see that you are a prophet,” or would she instead yell back demanding he not judge her (John 4:19)? And lest I be accused of sexism, the situation would be much the same if Jesus said to an American man, “you have had five wives, and the one you have now is not your wife.” In either case, would there be an acceptance of the truth of his words, or would there instead be shouts of protest and a string of excuses and justifications for violations of the moral law?

Why did Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman unfold so differently than would likely be the case in our today? The difference lies in the woman’s honesty; it can be found in her confession of her sinful situation. Whereas most Americans today feign contentment by saying such things as “I’m okay, you’re okay” and “God loves me the way I am,” the Samaritan woman recognized the restlessness in her heart and knew something must change if she was to find the happiness she desired.[1] What does this mean?

She knew the Lord called her to something greater, to something that would satisfy the deepest desires of her heart. She knew she could not satisfy these desires on her own; she had tried, and failed, five times over. She did not push away this necessary conversion, nor did she grumble against it (cf. Exodus 17:3); rather, she recognized the love of God that had been poured into her heart at that moment and she accepted his love (cf. Romans 5:5). This is why she could say of Jesus, “He told me everything I have done,” and could say so without taking offense at him (John 4:39; cf. Matthew 13:57). Can we say the same? Would we take offense at Jesus if he spoke so honestly about the sinful situations in our lives?

Building on an insight of Saint Augustine, Saint Bonaventure saw in the woman’s five husbands “the five heavy cravings of the senses,” “the five carnal senses, who ruled over her like a husband.”[2] The first husband, he said, represented taste or gluttony; the second, touch or lust; the third, smell, by which he meant a life of ease and comfort which leads to sloth; the fourth, sight or greed because of envy; and the fifth, lying and gossiping.

But what of that sixth man, the man with whom she lived who was not her husband? In this man Saint Bonaventure saw “error, which seduces and leads the soul astray.”[3] We might not all live in adulterous relationships, but we surely have all been seduced by error and our senses by giving way to the sins of gluttony, lust, sloth, greed, lying, and gossiping.

When the Lord Jesus approaches us in the silence of our hearts, in the Sacred Scriptures, or even in the words of another to reveal the secret of our sin, what is our response to him? Do we reject him? Do close our ears and our hearts to him? Do we honestly confess our sinfulness and reject the error of our ways so that his love might well up within our hearts through his forgiveness?

When the Samaritan woman heard the voice of Jesus, she did not harden her heart, but allowed it to be softened by his words of truth, painful though they surely were (cf. Psalm 95:8). She was not so proud as to presume he spoke to offend her; she was not so proud as to take offense at him. Instead, she perceived in his words a summons to happiness and healing.

In the example of this woman, we see that “preaching does not bring about faith without the consent of the will and the will does not give its consent unless God kindles a spark in it.”[4] As it was with the woman at the well, so it is with us: in the waters of baptism, each of us has received, as it were, that spark of God’s love; his love and the gift of faith were kindled in our hearts through the Holy Spirit. Now it remains for us to fan it into flame as we call upon his gifts.

Jesus first “enkindles a spark in [the Samaritan woman] by asking her to serve him by giving him a drink of water. This is something that the woman could minister to him since she had come to draw water.”[5] What is it that the Lord Jesus asks of us that we are capable of doing? In his last moments upon the Cross, Jesus said, “I thirst” (John 19:28). He made this cry to each one of us, but he does not ask us for physical water; rather, he asks for the water of our faith, for the water of our love, so that we might quench his thirst.

Jesus then “continues to kindle a spark in the woman by promising or offering her a gift:” “living water” which will become in those who drink of it “a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:10, 14). [6] The water he desired to give to her – the water he desires to give to each of us – is the water of his love which poured forth from his pierced heart into the Sacraments (cf. John 19:34). Since he so opened his heart to us, let us not be afraid to open our hearts to him in the Sacraments so that his love might be poured into our hearts. We cannot forget that what was visible in the life of the Savior has passed over into his Sacraments; the Sacraments are for us a true encounter with Christ.[7]

Then, having drunk deeply from his love and having sought to quench his thirst with our faith and love, we, like that woman, can share our life’s story, the story of an encounter with the Lord. Indeed, we must share with others the story of our encounter with Jesus because, as Saint Augustine says, “Christ is made known … by Christian friends.”[8] Amen.

[1] Cf. Saint Augustine of Hippo, Confessions, I.1.

[2] Saint Bonaventure, Commentary on the Gospel of John, 4.33. Robert J. Karris, trans. (Saint Bonaventure, New York: Franciscan Institute Publications, 2007), 237.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 4.14.

[5] Ibid., 4.15.

[6] Ibid., 4.17.

[7] Cf. Pope Saint Leo the Great, Sermon, 74.2.

[8] Saint Augustine of Hippo, Tractates on the Gospel of John, 15.33.

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