Mar 19, 2017: 3rd Sunday of Lent (A)

 

1st Reading – Exodus 17:3-7

In those days, in their thirst for water,
the people grumbled against Moses,
saying, “Why did you ever make us leave Egypt?
Was it just to have us die here of thirst
with our children and our livestock?”
So Moses cried out to the LORD,
“What shall I do with this people?
a little more and they will stone me!”
The LORD answered Moses,
“Go over there in front of the people,
along with some of the elders of Israel,
holding in your hand, as you go,
the staff with which you struck the river.
I will be standing there in front of you on the rock in Horeb.
Strike the rock, and the water will flow from it
for the people to drink.”
This Moses did, in the presence of the elders of Israel.
The place was called Massah and Meribah,
because the Israelites quarreled there
and tested the LORD, saying,
“Is the LORD in our midst or not?”

Today’s reading describes events which took place just before the Israelites arrived at Mount Sinai, which would have been about three months after they left Egypt — very early in the Exodus, but after the manna and the quail (Exodus 16).

In those days, in their thirst for water, the people grumbled against Moses,

This is the second incident involving water. In the first (Exodus 15:22-27), their water was too bitter (i.e., alkaline) to drink.  The Israelites grumbled against Moses, the Lord told him to throw a piece of wood into the water, and it became sweet.

In this case there is no water at all. They grumble against Moses again but their quarrel is really with God: they do not believe he can be their God in the wilderness and don’t trust him to provide for them.

saying, “Why did you ever make us leave Egypt? Was it just to have us die here of thirst with our children and our livestock?”

God had miraculously delivered them out of Egyptian bondage just three months prior, yet they suggest that it was done not out of God’s lovingkindness, but so they will die of thirst in the wilderness.

So Moses cried out to the LORD, “What shall I do with this people? A little more and they will stone me!”

The seriousness of the situation can be seen in Moses’ fear that he will be killed by this rebellious mob.

The LORD answered Moses, “Go over there in front of the people, along with some of the elders of Israel, holding in your hand, as you go, the staff with which you struck the river.

Lest the people forget the marvels of the past, or question whether Moses is still the agent of God, Moses is instructed to employ again his staff.  This is the same staff that had already been turned into a serpent, used to bring forth the plagues of frogs and gnats, used to turn the Nile into blood, and parted the Red Sea.  The staff was a symbol of Moses’ authority and the divine power it could wield.

I will be standing there in front of you on the rock in Horeb.

“Horeb” is a general name for the mountain range that runs through the region. Sinai is one of its peaks. Generally, the name is used interchangeably with Sinai.

Strike the rock, and the water will flow from it for the people to drink.” This Moses did, in the presence of the elders of Israel.

Notice that there is no divine rebuke, but only the command to take some of the elders and go to the rock and strike it. God responds to their defiance by giving in to their demands. The elders represent the people and are witnesses.

From this incident, rabbis later built an oral tradition that this rock as a source of water followed the Israelites through the desert. St. Paul refers to this oral tradition in 1 Corinthians 10:4.

The place was called Massah and Meribah,

Massah means “testing” and Meribah means “dissatisfaction” in Hebrew.  The place is remembered not for the manifestation of divine power that met the people’s need, but for the murmuring that demonstrated their rebellion.

because the Israelites quarreled there and tested the LORD, saying, “Is the LORD in our midst or not?”

One wonders how a people who have been the beneficiaries of God’s abiding concern and miraculous protection can be so faithless and lacking in trust.  After all that God has done, they still put God to the test.

One also wonders why God endures such thanklessness, rebellion, and audacity — another example of his boundless and compassionate love for sinners.

2nd Reading – Romans 5:1-2, 5-8

Brothers and sisters:
Since we have been justified by faith,
we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,
through whom we have gained access by faith
to this grace in which we stand,
and we boast in hope of the glory of God.

And hope does not disappoint,
because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts
through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
For Christ, while we were still helpless,
died at the appointed time for the ungodly.
Indeed, only with difficulty does one die for a just person,
though perhaps for a good person one might even find courage to die.
But God proves his love for us
in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.

Today’s second reading is an instruction on justification.

Brothers and sisters: Since we have been justified by faith,

The earlier part of this letter to the Romans shows that faith is not just believing, but living out that belief in certainty that God is true to his covenant. In fact, in the first and last uses by Saint Paul of the word “faith” in this letter (1:5 and 16:26), it is not “faith alone”, but “obedience of faith” to which he refers, thus setting the context for the use of the word “faith” throughout the entire epistle. The only use of the term “faith alone” in the entire Bible is in James 2:24, which reads “See how a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.”

“Let no one say to himself: ‘If [justification] is from faith, how is it freely given: If faith merits it, why is it not rather paid than given?’ Let the faithful man not say such a thing; for, if he says: ‘I have faith, therefore I merit justification,’ he will be answered: ‘What have you that you did not receive?’ If, therefore, faith entreats and receives justification, according as God has apportioned to each in the measure of his faith, nothing of human merit precedes the grace of God, but grace itself merits increase, and the increase merits perfection, with the will accompanying but not leading, following along but not going in advance.” (Saint Augustine of Hippo (A.D. 417), Letter to Paulinus of Nola, 186,3,7]

we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,

We have no right to this relationship with God. It has been given to us, won for us by the Lord Jesus Christ.  In fact, we did not even deserve it.

through whom we have gained access by faith to this grace in which we stand, and we boast in hope of the glory of God.

Through his sacrifice, Jesus opened the way for us to approach God.  We may be brought by Jesus to the threshold of God’s presence, but we ourselves must take the step over that threshold.  We do this by faith.  With this step of faith we no longer stand in enmity; we now stand in grace, in peace with God.

The form of the verbs indicate that this justification has already taken been accomplished by the Lord Jesus Christ.  He has already gained our salvation, but we have not yet completely worked it out, and so we live in hope.

And hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

Paul further develops a theme of hope.  He maintains that its foundation is the love God has for us.  This love was first shown to us in Christ’s willingness to die on our behalf even when we were still alienated from God.  It is further poured into our hearts through the Spirit, who has been given to us.  The prodigality of God’s graciousness is beyond comprehension — it is poured out like water, life-giving, enriching, overflowing.

Note the unmistakable anticipation of the trinitarian theology here.

For Christ, while we were still helpless, yet died at the appointed time for the ungodly.

We were sinners, alienated from God, when Christ died for us and gained access for us to the grace that places us in right relationship with God.

Indeed, only with difficulty does one die for a just person, though perhaps for a good person one might even find courage to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.

Paul tries to explain the astonishing character of this gesture when he says that it is hard enough to die for a good person; to die for someone who is not good is almost unthinkable.  Yet that is exactly what Christ did.

“If Christ gave Himself up to death at the right time for those who were unbelievers and enemies of God … how much more will He protect us with His help if we believe in Him! He died for us in order to obtain life and glory for us. So if He died for His enemies, just think what He will do for His friends!” [The Ambrosiaster (A.D. 366-384), Commentaries on Thirteen Pauline Epistles]

Gospel – John 4:5-42

Jesus came to a town of Samaria called Sychar,
near the plot of land that Jacob had given to his son Joseph.
Jacob’s well was there.
Jesus, tired from his journey, sat down there at the well.
It was about noon.

A woman of Samaria came to draw water.
Jesus said to her,
“Give me a drink.”
His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.
The Samaritan woman said to him,
“How can you, a Jew, ask me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?”
(For Jews use nothing in common with Samaritans.)
Jesus answered and said to her,
“If you knew the gift of God
and who is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink, ‘
you would have asked him
and he would have given you living water.”
The woman said to him,
“Sir, you do not even have a bucket and the cistern is deep;
where then can you get this living water?
Are you greater than our father Jacob,
who gave us this cistern and drank from it himself
with his children and his flocks?”
Jesus answered and said to her,
“Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again;
but whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst;
the water I shall give will become in him
a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
The woman said to him,
“Sir, give me this water, so that I may not be thirsty
or have to keep coming here to draw water.”

Jesus said to her,
“Go call your husband and come back.”
The woman answered and said to him,
“I do not have a husband.”
Jesus answered her,
“You are right in saying, ‘I do not have a husband.’
For you have had five husbands,
and the one you have now is not your husband.
What you have said is true.”
The woman said to him,
“Sir, I can see that you are a prophet.
Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain;
but you people say that the place to worship is in Jerusalem.”
Jesus said to her,
“Believe me, woman, the hour is coming
when you will worship the Father
neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.
You people worship what you do not understand;
we worship what we understand,
because salvation is from the Jews.
But the hour is coming, and is now here,
when true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth;
and indeed the Father seeks such people to worship him.
God is Spirit, and those who worship him
must worship in Spirit and truth.”
The woman said to him,
“I know that the Messiah is coming, the one called the Christ;
when he comes, he will tell us everything.”
Jesus said to her,
“I am he, the one speaking with you.”

At that moment his disciples returned,
and were amazed that he was talking with a woman,
but still no one said, “What are you looking for?”
or “Why are you talking with her?”
The woman left her water jar
and went into the town and said to the people,
“Come see a man who told me everything I have done.
Could he possibly be the Christ?”
They went out of the town and came to him.
Meanwhile, the disciples urged him, “Rabbi, eat.”
But he said to them,
“I have food to eat of which you do not know.”
So the disciples said to one another,
“Could someone have brought him something to eat?”
Jesus said to them,
“My food is to do the will of the one who sent me
and to finish his work.
Do you not say, ‘In four months the harvest will be here’?
I tell you, look up and see the fields ripe for the harvest.
The reaper is already receiving payment
and gathering crops for eternal life,
so that the sower and reaper can rejoice together.
For here the saying is verified that ‘One sows and another reaps.’
I sent you to reap what you have not worked for;
others have done the work,
and you are sharing the fruits of their work.”

Many of the Samaritans of that town began to believe in him
because of the word of the woman who testified,
“He told me everything I have done.”
When the Samaritans came to him,
they invited him to stay with them;
and he stayed there two days.
Many more began to believe in him because of his word,
and they said to the woman,
“We no longer believe because of your word;
for we have heard for ourselves,
and we know that this is truly the savior of the world.”

Today’s gospel reading describes Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritans, which occurred very early on in his ministry.

Jesus came to a town of Samaria

A bit of background information is appropriate.  During the Assyrian occupation (which began in 721 B.C.E.), most of the inhabitants of Israel had been carried off into exile; some remained behind and intermingled with the people whom Sargon II (king of Assyria) had imported from Babylon, Cutah, Affa, Hamath, and Sepharuaim.  In intermarrying with them, a new people was formed.  From that time on, these people were called Samaritans (2 Kings 17:24).

Friendly relations existed between the Samaritans and the kingdom of Judah until the Babylonian exile. When the Samaritans desired to assist the repatriated Jews in rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem, their offer was refused (Ezra 4:2-3). The Samaritans therefore built a temple of their own on Mount Gerizim. The Jews regarded them as racially impure and compromisers in religion.  These two groups shared a profound mutual contempt for  each other.

called Sychar, near the plot of land that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there.

Sychar means “liar” or “drunkard”. Archaeologists have identified it with Askar, a small town on the southern base of Mount Ebal, about a mile north of Jacob’s well. Saint Jerome identifies it as Shechem, as noted in Syriac manuscripts. Genesis 33:19 tells of Jacob’s purchase of the land and Joshua 24:32 tells us that Joseph was buried there.

Jesus, tired from his journey, sat down there at the well. It was about noon. A woman of Samaria came to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” His disciples had gone into the town to buy food. 

Jesus’ fatigue and his request for a drink set the stage for the first section of the reading, which can be considered a discourse on living water.  Note that Jesus initiates the conversation.

The Samaritan woman said to him, “How can you, a Jew, ask me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?” (For Jews use nothing in common with Samaritans.)

Not only was it unheard of for a rabbi to speak familiarly with a woman in public, it was also unheard of for a Jew to request a drink from a Samaritan. Jews considered Samaritans, and therefore their utensils for eating and drinking, unclean.

 Jesus answered and said to her, “If you knew the gift of God and who is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’

The word used here for “gift” is dōrea, does not refer to an ordinary gift — the word is used almost exclusively to refer to divine bounty.

Jesus himself, whom the woman does not yet recognize, is the gift. She sees only a Jew who is a very bold and thirsty traveler.

you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”

“Living water” could refer to running water, especially a kind of font that bubbles up from a spring.  However, by referring to the “gift of God,” Jesus is clearly inferring a deeper meaning.  This living water seems to have a very special character.

The living water metaphor has a long and rich history in the religious tradition of Israel.  The prophets used it to refer to the spiritual refreshment that flowed from the Temple (Ezekiel 47:1; Zechariah 14:8).  It is also a reference to the teaching of the wise (Proverbs 13:14) or to Woman Wisdom herself (Sirach 24:21, 24-27).

The woman said to him, “Sir, you do not even have a bucket and the cistern is deep; where then can you get this living water?

It should have been clear from what Jesus said that he was not talking about well water.  However, as Nicodemus did (John 3:4), the woman takes Jesus literally. She thinks he’s talking about flowing water as an alternative to the water in the well.

Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us this cistern and drank from it himself with his children and his flocks?”

Jacob’s well was considered a sacred ancestral spot.  The Samaritans also claimed descent from the patriarchs, through the Joseph tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh and thus refer to Jacob as their father.

The woman is asking, if Jesus doesn’t intend to get water from this well, where will he get it? Even Jacob had no better source than this well.

Jesus answered and said to her, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again; but whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst; the water I shall give will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

Just as he did with Nicodemus, Jesus uses this misunderstanding as an opportunity for instruction.

The water from Jacob’s well was merely water; it could not permanently quench the thirst of those who drank from it.  On the other hand, one drink of the water Jesus gives is enough to satisfy one forever.

The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may not be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”

The woman’s response is cryptic.  Does she still misunderstand, or is she playing along with the metaphor?

 Jesus said to her, “Go call your husband and come back.” The woman answered and said to him, “I do not have a husband.” Jesus answered her, “You are right in saying, ‘I do not have a husband.’ For you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true.”

In saying “the one you have now”, Jesus is referring to himself. Jacob met his wife at a well; Jesus is telling her that he is not destined to be her husband.

The woman said to him, “Sir, I can see that you are a prophet.

Jesus’ unexplained knowledge of her marital situation prompts her to call him a prophet.  However, this is a curious statement coming from a Samaritan — the Samaritans rejected the prophets, who did not speak kindly of them. The only prophet they accepted was the one who was to come as promised in Deuteronomy 18:15-19. What she may be really saying is that Jesus is that prophet, the one who is to come — but that is unclear.

Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain; but you people say that the place to worship is in Jerusalem.”

Her recognition of him as a prophet prompts her to engage him in a discussion about the proper place to worship God, the second section of the reading.

In Deuteronomy 12:5-6, the Law prescribed a single site for worship without naming it.  The Jews believed Jerusalem was this favored place, and they pointed to the prophetic tradition to substantiate their claim (Isaiah 2:3, 24:3).

This conversation takes place at the foot of Mount Gerizim (Mount Ebal in Jewish terminology), the Samaritan place of worship; here the patriarchs had sacrificed (Genesis 12:7; 33:20) and here according to the Samaritan version of Deuteronomy 27:4, the Israelites had first set up an altar in Palestine.

 Jesus said to her, “Believe me, woman, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You people worship what you do not understand; we worship what we understand, because salvation is from the Jews.

Jesus draws a significant theological distinction between these two religious groups, which have common ancestry.  He insists that the promises of salvation were fulfilled through the Jews.

But the hour is coming, and is now here, when true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth; and indeed the Father seeks such people to worship him.

Once again, Jesus moves the conversation away from what is merely perceptible to the level of deep spiritual meaning — from a discussion of the place of worship to one that characterizes the manner of worship.

When the eschatological hour arrives, all religious observance, regardless of how noble and efficacious it may have been, will be superseded by worship animated by the Spirit.  The time “is now here” because Jesus is present and has begun the work leading to the presence of the Holy Spirit in the church — a monumental shift which will remove barriers such as the division between Jew and Samaritan and the designation of a specific location for worship.

God is Spirit, and those who worship him must worship in Spirit and truth.”

The Spirit reveals truth and enables one to worship God appropriately (John 14:16-17).

The trinitarian character of this statement is clear: in the age of fulfillment, God will be worshipped in the Spirit that will be given by Jesus.

The woman said to him, “I know that the Messiah is coming, the one called the Anointed; when he comes, he will tell us everything.”

Again, this is peculiar language for a Samaritan.  The Samaritans believed that only the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament) had been revealed by God, and therefore rejected the prophetic promises of a messiah.

Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking with you.”

This is the one occasion before his trial when Jesus is recorded designating himself as the Messiah. Perhaps the political overtones associated with this title made it unwise for Jesus to use it often.

The account goes to great lengths to contrast the Jews and Samaritans.  This woman is a subordinate member (a woman) of a despised people (a Samaritan).  Not only that, her character is questionable.  She is alone at the well at a time when women do not normally draw water, and she engages in conversation with a strange man.  She has had five husbands, when the Law of Moses frowned upon more than three marriages. Yet she is the one Jesus approaches; she is the one to whom he reveals himself as the Messiah.  This theme undoubtedly underscores the universality of Jesus’ invitation.

At that moment his disciples returned, and were amazed that he was talking with a woman, but still no one said, “What are you looking for?” or “Why are you talking with her?”

The disciples’ attitude reflects both the contempt of the Jews for the Samaritans and the male chauvinism that regarded giving instruction to a woman as a waste of time.

The woman left her water jar and went into the town and said to the people, “Come see a man who told me everything I have done. Could he possibly be the Messiah?”

The third section of the reading begins: the acceptance of Jesus by the townspeople.

The woman leaves to spread the word without the usual warning of “tell no one.” She is the first evangelist.

They went out of the town and came to him. Meanwhile, the disciples urged him, “Rabbi, eat.” But he said to them, “I have food to eat of which you do not know.” So the disciples said to one another, “Could someone have brought him something to eat?”

The woman fully realizes who Jesus is, but the disciples are slow to understand. They still take everything in its superficial sense.

Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of the one who sent me and to finish his work.

In these words Jesus sums up his entire career.

Do you not say, ‘In four months the harvest will be here’?

This appears to be some sort of Palestinian proverb. It takes four months from planting to harvest.

I tell you, look up and see the fields ripe for the harvest. The reaper is already receiving his payment and gathering crops for eternal life, so that the sower and reaper can rejoice together.

The harvest of which Jesus speaks is of God’s planting and is ready now (see Matthew 9:37-38).

In this harvest there is no interval at all from sowing to reaping, the sower and the reaper rejoice at the same time when their jobs are finished.

For here the saying is verified that ‘One sows and another reaps.’

Job 31:8; Ecclesiastes 2:21.

I sent you to reap what you have not worked for; others have done the work, and you are sharing the fruits of their work.”

As in the second reading, we are reminded that God’s saving grace has been given to us, won for us by the Lord Jesus Christ.  We have no right to it, we did not earn it by our works.

Many of the Samaritans of that town began to believe in him because of the word of the woman who testified, “He told me everything I have done.” When the Samaritans came to him, they invited him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. Many more began to believe in him because of his word, and they said to the woman, “We no longer believe because of your word; for we have heard for ourselves,

Many believed because of the woman’s testimony; many more after hearing Jesus’ words for themselves.  The word of salvation takes root in the hearts of the despised and marginalized, and it grows into a great harvest.

and we know that this is truly the savior of the world.”

Note that an entire group of Samaritans has come to accept the idea of a messiah — a significant departure from their traditional theology — and that Jesus is he.

Jesus has transcended national and cultural barriers in instructing the Samaritans, and in so doing has laid a basis for a universal affirmation of God’s salvation.

Connections and Themes

Scrutinies.  The Third, Fourth, and Fifth Sundays of Lent mark the period of scrutiny for the catechumens.  The gospel readings for these Sundays have a special catechetical significance. (In Years B and C, the gospel readings for Year A are preferred when there are catechumens journeying with us toward Easter.)  The stories found within them include Jesus’ encounter with the woman of Samaria and his revelation of himself to her as the Messiah; the miracle of his giving sight to the man born blind and his eventual revelation of himself to him as the Son of Man; and finally, Jesus’ raising of Lazarus from the dead and his revelation of himself to Martha as the resurrection and the life.

When one reads these stories of the extraordinary nature and miraculous power of Jesus, the account if his passion takes on a very different character.  Jesus could not possibly be the powerless victim of treachery or circumstances.  Instead, his suffering and death could have happened only because he allowed them to happen.  This is precisely the message we find in the passion narrated on Palm Sunday.

For what do we thirst? The people in the desert and the Samaritan woman thirsted for water, but they thirsted for meaning as well.  In this world filled with such great excess and unmeasured need, for what do we thirst?  How many possessions are enough, and when do we cross the line into “too much”?  If possessions are not our concern, might we be thirsting for acclaim, prestige, status?  Or are our desires more concerned with comfort, pleasure, or satisfaction?  For what do we thirst, and what will we choose?

Choose Christ.  The gospel readings for the scrutiny Sundays very clearly lay out the choices placed before the catechumens and the rest of the believing community.  This Sunday it is between water that quenches thirst and water that does not.  Jesus identifies himself as the source of water that guarantees eternal life.  He places before the Samaritan woman a choice that requires a step of profound faith.  She knows the thirst-quenching quality of the water from Jacob’s well, but she is not acquainted with the water promised by this stranger, a stranger who is also an enemy of her people.  The choice is not an obvious one.  It is a choice made in faith.

A similar choice is placed before us.  We know the demands of our culture; we are acquainted with the circumstances of our lives.  Are we able to acknowledge the sins of which we are guilty, recognize the grace being offered to us (outlined in the second reading), and make the right choice?

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