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The Third Sunday of Lent
February 28, 2016 

Listen to this homily (.mp3 file)

     I like the little story about a British fellow visiting New York. He hailed a taxi on Sunday morning and told the Irish cabbie to take him to Christ Church. The cabbie drove up Fifth Avenue and pulled up in front of St. Patrick’s Cathedral.  The British fellow took one look at the Cathedral and said to the cabbie, “This isn’t Christ Church.  Why did you bring me here?”  To which the cabbie replied, “I’m not much on names, mister.  All I know is that when He’s in town, this is where He stays!”

     I should probably apologize for telling a story that skates on rather thin ecumenical ice, but it does relate lightheartedly to today’s readings: to the Gospel, for sure, but even to the reading from Exodus where the burning question for the Israelites was: ‘Where is the Lord? Is the Lord in our midst or not?’

     For the Israelites, that was a recurring question.   Depending on how things were going for them, they either believed God was with them, or they became convinced God had utterly forgotten them. In today’s reading from Exodus the people had had it. They were tired of wandering aimlessly in the desert and getting nowhere.  t least in Egypt they had had something to eat, and water to drink, work to do, and a place to stay.  Now they had nothing, nothing but promises, and you can’t live on promises. And so they grumbled and they questioned, “Where is the Lord?  Is the Lord in our midst or not?”

     Sound familiar?  Most of us don’t find it hard to believe in God’s love and mercy when everything’s coming up roses. But when sickness strikes or a relationship fails, or we suffer a financial setback, or one of the kids gets into trouble, or we get turned down by the college we have our heart set on attending, where is God then?  All too quickly the question of the complaining Israelites becomes our question: “Is the Lord in our midst or not?”

     The Gospel story deals with the question about where God is, too, but in quite a different way.  Let me explain.  The tension underlying the initial exchange between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well is something you can almost feel, isn’t it?  It’s a tension that was there long before Jesus ever arrived on the scene.  That’s because of a bitter, ongoing battle between the Jews and the Samaritans, two peoples who thought they knew exactly where God was.  They were so sure of it that they had God tied right down to a piece of real estate!  The Jews were sure that God lived among them in the temple at Jerusalem, and the Samaritans were equally sure that God’s dwelling was on top of their sacred hill, Mount Gerizim.

     It was as simple as that.  Well, not quite.  Both were adamant that God wasn’t where the other claimed he was! And each called the other “heretic”, and they despised each other.

     So we have these two currents running the scriptures today, and both have to do with the question of where God is.  One current wonders whether God is there at all (especially when the going gets rough); the other current confidently – and righteously – proclaims where God is, and does so with geographic precision.

     And what are we to do with this?  The Church would like us to take a deeper look because both answers are either wrong or inadequate.  Let’s do that for just a moment.  In the reading from Exodus, the complaining Israelites quickly got back their faith in God once Moses struck the rock and water gushed forth.  No more thirst now.  Their faith flowed like water.  But what God wanted them to see was that He had been there for them all along – every bit as much when they were dying of thirst as at the miracle moment when Moses struck the rock.  It just didn’t seem like it!  It never does.  God’s message to them, and to us, is simply this: ‘I am God.  I am faithful.  I am always there – even when you are quite sure I’m not.  Maybe even especially when you are sure I’m not.’ 

     And in the Gospel story, the point Jesus makes so clearly to the outcast woman he befriends is that Jews and Samaritans were missing the point in their dispute about where God lives.  The truth of the matter, Jesus says, is that “an hour is coming - is already here - when authentic worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth.” In other words, he is saying to her, God belongs to everyone and is in everyone, including you.  God cannot be tied down to anybody’s piece of real estate, no matter how holy or how sacred.  God is Spirit. Like water, God flows freely in unexpected ways and into unexpected places.

     And that is a message we all need to hear.  All of us, including the Irish cabbie!  It’s a wonderfully encouraging message for this Lenten Sunday.  It is especially so, I should think, for those among us who will be baptized at the Easter Vigil just four weeks from now.  They are entering the final phase of their journey toward the Easter sacraments.  Like us, I am sure they have their moments of doubt and desolation.  God can sometimes seem very far away.  But in the midst of their searching and wondering they have found Jesus as we have, and are coming to know Jesus as living, life-giving water, water that can satisfy every human longing and every human thirst!

     Soon, they will come to know that life-giving water in a unique way in the Eucharist.  We know it already. But knowing it and experiencing it are not the same.  May we experience today in the Eucharist the living water that is Christ!

     Father Michael G. Ryan



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Seattle, Washington  98104
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