Father Donald Senior, CP

March 15: Third Sunday of Lent

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Is the Lord in our midst?

Ex 17:3-7; Ps 95:1-2, 6-7, 8-9; Rom 5:1-2, 5-8; Jn 4:5-42

This blunt complaint to Moses at the end of our first reading from Exodus sets the tone for this third Sunday in Lent. One of the intriguing traits of the Bible is its refusal to idealize either the ancient Israelites of the Old Testament or the disciples of Jesus in the New Testament.

In this famous incident during the exodus, we hear a refrain that happens over and over. Even as God has arranged their escape from crushing slavery, the Israelites complain to Moses, “Why did you ever make us leave Egypt? Was it just to have us die here of thirst with our children and livestock?” 

At other points, these same escapees long to return to the “leeks and onions” of Egypt. Good food, it seems, is more attractive than freedom. So insistent are the complaints of the people about his leadership that Moses cries out to the Lord: “What shall I do with this people? A little more and they will stone me.” God then blunts the threat against Moses by empowering him to draw water from the rock.

One might consider the disciples chosen by Jesus as somewhat like their counterparts, the Israelites whom Moses had to contend with. The Gospels portray the disciples as chronically dull, having great difficulty understanding Jesus’ teaching and acts of healing. 

When Jesus reaches out to the children who long to be with him, the disciples shoo them away. When Jesus expresses concern about the crowds who are hungry, the disciples tell him to let the crowds fend for themselves. When Jesus speaks about his impending death, Peter and the other disciples rebuke Jesus for talking that way. When Jesus falls asleep in their boat during a storm, the disciples accuse Jesus of not caring for them. Most serious of all, when Jesus falls prey to his enemies, Judas betrays him, Peter denies him and all the disciples abandon him.

The human weakness of the followers of Jesus is on full display in the Gospels. In the New Testament, as in so many of the Old Testament accounts, the point is not to crush the people’s spirit, but to illustrate that human frailty is met with divine mercy and compassion.  There is the famous text in Deuteronomy 7:7: “The Lord your God has chosen you from all the peoples on the face of the earth … not because you are more numerous than all the peoples that the Lord set his heart on you and chose you, for you are really the smallest of all peoples. It was because the Lord loved you and because of his fidelity to the oath he had sworn to your ancestors, the Lord brought you out with a strong hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery.” 

Paul says something similar to the Christians in Rome: “For Christ, while we were still helpless, yet 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.”

That intersection between God’s gracious mercy and human frailty also plays out in the John’s account of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well that we hear this Sunday. As it is well known, there was antipathy between Samaritans and other Jews in Jesus’ day. There is a lot going on in this story worthy of comment, but one key point is that although Jesus and this woman have different perspectives about the temple and other religious practices, they engage in a clever, almost playful, dialogue. 

Through Jesus’ keen knowledge, the reader learns that the woman has a troubled marital history. She has had five husbands and is now, apparently, alone. Perhaps that is the reason she is at the well when no one else is there.

Jesus does not condemn her but offers the gift of “living water” that will lead to “eternal life.” Because of her encounter with Jesus this Samaritan woman has experienced God’s unconditional mercy. That is a message worth pondering this Lent.


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