Sunday, March 7, 2010

Living Water: Lent 3 A

Close your eyes and let your imagination take you back almost two thousand years.

You’re a Roman soldier—or perhaps his wife. You were raised in a respected family, raised in the traditions of ancient Rome and its empire. Caesar, the emperor, was venerated as a god both in military ceremonies and in the home.

But a friend, or a neighbour, or maybe a relative began to talk to you about a different God: not the emperor you see pass by on his chariot, but an all-powerful God who came to earth—as a Jewish man, of all things.

The more you learn about this Jew, killed by soldiers of your own army, and the more time you spend with his followers, the more sure you become—this is what you want. Freedom from the fear of ruthless pagan gods, a promise of life that will never end, a way of living that’s rooted in the good, the true, and the beautiful.

Eventually, you are ready to join this new and wonderful religion. Your new friends—they call themselves your brothers and sisters—say they will get you ready to take the plunge. And they mean that literally: to become a Christian you must be submerged in water in the dark of night. Baptism, they call it.

It’s exciting and terrifying at the same time. Not that many years ago your regimental sergeant was executed when he refused to pay homage to the divine Caesar. The persecutions come and go, but at the very best your career is finished. For the family, things will likely become very tough as relatives and neighbours turn away.

You’re not entirely sure what all it will cost you, but it doesn’t really matter. You’re ready to die if that what it takes.

Do you have the picture in your minds? Now let’s ask ourselves: what did those Romans expect from baptism, at that price?

Would they have put their lives on the line for a “membership card”? For a friendly community in which to network? As an excuse for a party or a chance to put their children in a good school?

You know the answer as well as I do. The early Christians put their lives on the line because they were convinced that after baptism nothing would ever be the same again.

They expected something marvellous would happen as they arose from the baptismal font. They knew they might have to pay a great cost, but they anticipated something truly priceless.

Now fast forward from ancient Rome to Vancouver in 2010. What do we expect from baptism, that sacrament most of us received as infants, not as free-willed adults? Has it made all the difference to our lives? Can it?

Hope abounded in the hearts of catechumens partly because of the catechesis—the instruction—that the community provided them during their intense preparation. One of the key texts used was the Gospel we have just heard.

Today the Church still reads this Gospel to help our catechumens prepare for baptism. But the rest of us are not ignored. We may have been baptized as infants, but the life-changing grace of the sacrament must be welcomed throughout our lives if it’s to make all the difference.

Catechumens, candidates and Catholics: today we’re all invited to step into the sandals of the woman of Samaria.

Perhaps that seems strange—she lived long ago and far away. And yet few figures in the Bible are more universal, more modern, than that Samaritan woman. She’s not satisfied with things as they are, and she wants to know the truth. Isn’t that the human condition? St. Augustine certainly thought so, because he said “You made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until the rest in you.”

The problem is, some of us have been shoving aside our doubts and fears and desires for so long that we no longer think about our deeper hungers and thirsts. That’s why Jesus takes his time with the woman at the well. First, he awakens her thirst. Second, he offers to quench it.

The Samaritan woman does her part. She doesn’t turn and run—or argue or get defensive— when Jesus starts talking about her personal life. She asks the right questions. Step by step she lets Him explain that there is living water no ordinary well contains. But most of all, she admits her hunger and thirst for truth.

This is exactly what goes on in the lives of our catechumens as they prepare for baptism. They encounter Jesus. They acknowledge the truth about their lives. They ask the right questions. And they allow themselves to feel their hunger for truth and their thirst for the living water that wells up to eternal life.

But what about the rest of us, baptized as infants? Are we just onlookers as Jesus speaks to the woman of Samaria, as He speaks to our brothers and sisters preparing for their baptism?

Yesterday I hiked up to the Cleveland Dam with Daniel, our visiting seminarian from Alberta. I thought he would be impressed by the sight of the water cascading into the canyon, but it wasn’t that successful—he compared it to the waterslide at the West Edmonton Mall!

Well, wherever the water is gushing, it’s a perfect symbol of the abundant grace that flows into the hearts of the baptized. But torrents of water are probably not what come to mind when we think of our own baptism—more like a trickle: enough to keep us going, but not exactly Niagara Falls.

As Lent progresses, Jesus calls us to drink deeply of the living water. He wants us to admit that we’re parched most of the time, preoccupied with daily life, not the abundant life.

The Lord speaks to everyone here just as personally as he spoke to the Samaritan woman: If you knew the gift of God—the gift you have received, or are offered, in baptism—you would ask for living water. Water that washes away the daily grime of sin, water that refreshes, water as peaceful as a mountain creek and as powerful as a cascading falls.

Perhaps the image doesn’t quite work for us, accustomed as we are to indoor plumbing and plenty of fresh clean water. Then think about the biblical understanding to get the message: “Water is first of all the source and strength of life: without it the earth is nothing but an arid desert, a land of hunger and thirst, where men and beasts are doomed to death.” (1)

We drink deeply first of all that we may not die. The water of life is just that. But we drink deeply—that is to say we let the graces of baptism flow freely in our lives—that we might not live unsettled lives, lives of unfulfilled longing and fear. We’re meant to live with confidence, abundantly and fully; that was promised us in baptism.

God is faithful to his promises; the only question is whether we’re opening our hearts to the spiritual gifts we’ve already received—gifts and blessings that are dormant until we join the woman of Samaria in crying out “Give me this water so I may never be thirsty again.”

One of my favourite preachers says that if we don’t take the call of Lent to heart, then we can be like someone who is thirsty and reads about water, listens to talks about water, sings songs about water, and joins discussions groups about water—until finally one day, he or she dies of thirst. “What happened? He or she never drank the water.”

“Jesus has living water that will bring life to your life.” (2)

1) Dictionary of Biblical Theology, new revised ed., 644.
2) S. Joseph Krempa, Captured by Fire, Cycle A, p. 34).

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