The Third Sunday of Lent
March 19, 2017
Click here to listen to this
homily (.mp4 file)
St. Patrick’s Day weekend so maybe I can get away with repeating a favorite
story about a British fellow visiting New York. He hailed a taxi Sunday
morning and told the Irish cabbie to take him to Christ Church. The cabbie
threaded his way through mid-town Manhattan and pulled up in front of St.
Patrick’s Cathedral. The Brit 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 a story that skates
on rather thin ecumenical ice, but maybe I can get away with it this close
to St. Patrick’s Day, and it does relate lightheartedly to today’s readings:
to the Gospel, for sure, but even to the reading from Exodus where the big
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. At 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 had our heart set on attending, or the world seems to be losing
its moral compass and falling apart, where is God then? All too quickly the
question of the complaining Israelites becomes our question: “Where is the
Lord? 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 was something you could almost feel, wasn’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 through 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 with them and 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’ especially encouraging, 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 and God can sometimes seem very far away.
But in the midst of their searching and wondering they have found Jesus as
we have, and they’re 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, of course. But
knowing it and experiencing are two different things. My friends, may
we experience today in the Eucharist the living water that is Christ!
Father Michael G. Ryan