By FATHER DONALD DILGER
Third Sunday of Lent, Year A
First Reading: Exodus 17:3-7; Response: Psalm 95:1-2, 6-7, 8-9; Second Reading: Romans 5:1-2, 5-8; Gospel: John 4:5-42
Parts of the Book of Exodus form a travelogue of the Israelite journey to Mt. Sinai. This was a time of testing, a time of temptation. Not only did the Lord test them. They also tested the Lord, as our reading tells us: “They tested the Lord, saying, ‘Is the Lord in our midst or not?’’ A dangerous game, considering the many attributions to the Lord of a hot temper! Those descript-ions are examples of authors creating God in their own image and likeness. Among other tests, there are tests relating to water. The first test: after crossing the Sea of Reeds and a three-day trek, they reached the Wilderness of Shur, today part of northeast Egypt near the Mediterranean Sea. The water there was too bitter to drink. To appease their grumbling, Moses consulted the Lord. He pointed out a tree to Moses, who threw the tree into the spring, “and the water became sweet.”
A second water test is today’s first reading. They arrived at a place called Rephidim in the Wilderness of Sinai. This time, there was no water at all. The grumbling became outrageous and dangerous. They accuse Moses of leading them out of Egypt so that they, their children and their cattle would die of thirst. Moses complains to the Lord, “What shall I do with these people? A little more and they will stone me!” The omnipotent Problem Solver had a solution. It involved Moses’ famous staff, with which he had parted the water for them to cross safely to the other side. The Lord instructs Moses to stand in front of the people along with some of the VIPs of Israel, take the staff and strike the rock “in front of which I will be standing. Water will flow from it for the people to drink.” And so it was. The authors note that the place was called “Massah and Meribah because the Israelites quarreled there and tested the Lord.” The selection of this story for our first reading was determined by the importance of water in today’s gospel reading.
Psalm 95 was selected as a response to the first reading because the selected verses contain a reference to the water temptation at Meribah and Massah, which are Hebrew nouns meaning “quarrel” and “temptation.” The psalm contains a warning in the people’s response, “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.” The Lord closes with a perplexed complaint, “They tested me, even though they had seen my works.”
In the second reading, Paul writes to the Christians of Rome. Paul asserts that Christians enjoy peace with God, “justified by faith,” that is made acceptable to God. This peace comes to us through faith in Jesus, who introduced us into the Divine Presence. That faith itself is a gracious gift – a grace from God. Paul expands the effects of this grace. The Holy Spirit has been given to us. A thought about how totally unearned is this gift of God leads him into the claim that Jesus brought about this graciousness of God while we were totally helpless – Christ dying for us, the ungodly. He notes that one might get up the courage to die for a good person; but God, in Jesus Christ, proved his love for us while we were not good – that is, still sinners.
Today’s gospel reading, involving Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well, is the first of three selections from the Gospel of John on the third, fourth and fifth Sundays of Lent. They are uniquely adaptable to the instruction of people preparing for baptism. There is only enough space here to emphasize a few points. As background, we are asked to remember that there was a centuries-long hostility, sometimes deadly, between Jews and Samaritans. Adding to this problem is the fact that, for the Jews of Galilee, the easiest way to go south to Judea to visit Jerusalem and its temple was a direct route through Samaria. Jesus was accustomed to break through society’s barriers. He does so here by taking the initiative to speak not only to an unknown woman in public, but a Samaritan woman. A simple request by Jesus, “Give me a drink.” They were both at a well supposedly dug by Jacob, an ancestor recognized and honored by Jews and Samaritans. The woman is not shy. She says, “How can you, a Jew, ask me a Samaritan for a drink, when you know that we two nations have nothing in common?”
The author is using a favorite teaching method. It begins with a statement from Jesus to a so-called “straight man (woman),” who is expected to respond with a not-so-bright answer. She did that. Jesus elevates the conversation to a new level — from the material to the spiritual. Jesus points out that if she knew God’s gift, now present with her, she would have asked him for a drink of “living water.” She remains true to her role as a “straight woman.” Living water to her meant water flowing in a stream. Besides that, Jesus has no bucket to draw water out of Jacob’s well. Jesus explains what he meant by living water — a spring of water that leads to eternal life. She asks for a drink of it. She does not know, but we know that, in John 7:37-39, the living water Jesus gives is the Holy Spirit. A dialogue next occurs between the two about the woman’s husband. She replies, “I don’t have one.” Jesus notes that she has had five, and now has one who is not hers. She recognizes him as a prophet.
She asks whether true worship is in Jerusalem or in Samaria. Jesus responds with a famous principle, “Salvation is from the Jews,” but a time is coming when true worship will stretch far beyond either location. He reveals that he is the Messiah. She returns to her village and tells them about Jesus. His disciples now take on the roles of straight men. They offer him food. He replies that he has food, about which they know nothing. That confuses them. He looks up and says, “The fields are ripe for harvest.” What does he mean? In the distance, they see coming toward him and them the woman’s whole town. They are the harvest, his food. The woman had been their apostle. The Samaritans now proclaim Jesus “Savior of the world.” By such stories about Jesus, catechism was taught to prospective converts in the last quarter of the first Christian century.