Sunday, March 27, 2011

Drink Deeply (Lent 3A)

Today's homily isn't science fiction, but I'd like you to do some time-travelling with me. Let's imagine attending Mass 1500 hundred years ago, in the year 511, on the Third Sunday of Lent.

Many things about the sixth-century liturgy would be new to us. But at least one thing would be familiar: today's Gospel. For on the Third Sunday of Lent, even 1500 years ago, the Gospel reading was almost certainly the one we've just heard.

Why, do you suppose, given so many modern changes in the Church, are we following such an ancient plan—especially since there's no obvious connection between the Samaritan woman and Lent?

To answer that question we need to take a look at Lent. By 511 the overall structure of Lent—40 days of preparation ending with the rites of Holy Week and the triumphant Easter Vigil—was pretty much as we know it now, after some centuries of development.

The chief focus of Lent, though, was different. The VIPs, the people in the front-row seats during Lent, weren't the Christians in the congregation but the newcomers, those who had received the marvelous grace of a call to conversion.

These converts, called catechumens or "the instructed," had been kept waiting for a long time. For as many as three years they'd been taught and observed, and during all that time they had to leave Mass after the liturgy of the Word, since they were not yet ready to share fully at the table of the Lord.

Finally, though, they were almost ready for baptism. The home stretch was like a long retreat: for forty days they fasted and prayed, and received an intense and rich series of talks on the fullness of the Christian life.

The whole community eventually joined in, taking advantage of this period to look into their own hearts and to consider their own baptismal commitment.

The entire congregation shared in what has been called "the great catechesis" (Adrian Nocent, The Liturgical Year, vol. 2, p. 69). The readings of the first two Sundays of Lent presented the key themes of salvation: the reality of sin, made clear in the temptation of Christ, and the sure hope of victory, prefigured in the Transfiguration. (If you think back, those were the Gospels we heard last Sunday and the week before.)

Once the stage was set by those readings, things got up-close and personal. On the third and following Sundays came three powerful encounters between the convert and the Church. They were called scrutinies—not exams, but a series of special prayers over the catechumens casting out evil to prepare them for baptism.

We celebrated the first of the three scrutinies with our catechumen Maureen this morning. She moves closer each week to the new life of baptism, which she will receive at the Easter Vigil, and we rejoice with her. But we also must ask: are we moving ahead ourselves, or staying put?

The catechumens who'd waited three years for baptism, three years for the gift of the Spirit, and three years for the Body and Blood of the Lord didn't need a homily in 511. They were good and thirsty, and they'd have immediately applied the story of the woman at the well to themselves. They didn't need any encouragement to join in the woman's eager prayer: "Sir, give me this water!" The living water that Jesus promised her was the bubbling stream of grace and the cleansing flood of baptism for which they'd been thirsting for years.

Perhaps we're not so lucky. We've been sipping from the water for a long time, just enough to keep us from thirsting, and we may have forgotten what it feels like to take a good cold drink tastes like. Some of us are like hikers on a hot day who have enough water along to avoid dehydration, but not enough to enjoy.

With luck, though, the hikers will come across a mountain stream, with clear cold water racing over the rocks. They'll plunge their faces into to brook, and gulp the water freely, to slake their thirst, cool their bodies, and just for the sheer delight of it.

That's the experience today's Gospel offers each of us, no less than it did 1500 years ago, no less than Jesus did when he spoke with the Samaritan woman. Not a tepid Christianity that keep us from drying up, but a personal relationship with Christ that washes away past sins and irrigates our hearts with His life-giving Spirit.

Lent is many things: a time of penance, a time to take stock, a time of conversion. Most of all it is an invitation. Jesus asks us: do you want more? A trickle or a flood? He speaks to us no less personally than he spoke to the woman at the well, no less than to those preparing for baptism.

And he waits for an answer: not at Easter, but now. Meet Jesus at the well today. Sit quietly at home for half an hour, and ask for the gift of God. Ask for the living water, and meet your Saviour, the Saviour of the World.

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