Third Sunday in Lent Year A - Dom Peter
Actually the idea of passing gifts around is not new. Many cultures, particularly tribal ones, use this method as part of the formation of alliances and consolidation of power. In other cultures, especially in monarchies, the accession to power includes the king or queen distributing gifts to the people. We see King David do this is the story of him dancing with abandon before the ark. He slaughters an ox and a fatling every six paces, and then once the ark has arrived in Jerusalem, he distributes the meat to all the people, along with bread and raisin cakes. The distribution of the sanctified Body and Blood of Christ this morning to the assembled Church has a similar connotation to it.
But to what does Our Lord refer when he tells the Samaritan woman, “If you knew the gift of God,” she would have asked Him for living water? What is this gift of God? I wonder if it would be too much of a stretch to construe this phrase ‘gift of God’ with an objective rather than a subjective genitive. That is to say: what if the gift is not simply what God gives, but as in the phrase ‘a gift of flowers’, the gift of God is…God. St. Paul teaches us that there are many gifts but one Spirit. Jesus, who is the One Who will baptize with the Holy Spirit, will say to the crowds in Chapter seven of John’s gospel, “Whoever believes in Me,…Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.” John goes on to tell us that He was speaking of the Spirit, though the Spirit had not yet been given. The Spirit was finally given when Jesus Christ broke the bonds of death and ascending on high, as the Letter to the Ephesians puts it, “He led captivity captive, and he gave gifts to all.”
Today’s gospel has traditionally been used for the catechesis of newcomers to the faith who were preparing to receive the gift of God in baptism at the Easter Vigil. Perhaps we can hear it best if we cast ourselves in the role of the catechumen, and try to hear Jesus’ words afresh, in preparation for the renewal of our baptismal graces at Easter, at Jesus’ triumph over death and coronation as the true King enthroned on high. To do this, we must put ourselves in the place of the remarkable woman at the well, the woman of Samaria.
When she hears that there is a kind of water that wells up eternally within, so that those who drink of it do not thirst, her response is, “Sir, Kyrie, please give me this water, so that I don’t have to come to this darn well every day.” There is a certain plaintiveness to her request. She is there at midday, the time of day that another Mediterranean native, St. Benedict, recommends for resting and not being out-of-doors. She is there at this uncomfortably hot time of day because then no one will see her, a woman whose choices in life have left her an outsider, a concubine who has known five husbands before her present significant other. The very obligation to provide the necessities of life is a painful daily reminder of her shame and disgrace in the eyes of the others of her town. It was shocking enough when the disciples saw that Jesus was speaking alone to a woman, and worse that she was from the heathen Samaritans. What if they had known of her dicey background?
Jesus saw something else in this woman of course, as our God always does in each of us. Our God comes to the rescue of sinners, the lonely and outcast, the destitute and hurting, and He always comes not merely to save, but with a mission for us. Tradition remembers this woman as Photina or Svetlana, equal to the Apostles. Something about her, perhaps the very fact that she was far removed from the levers of power in her world, made her receptive to Jesus’ message. Her conviction that Jesus is the Messiah allows her to win over the very villagers whose company she had been avoiding. She becomes, like Mary Magdalene, the model for the Apostles, sent by Our Lord to share the Good News: if you knew the gift of God, you would ask, and I would give you living water, my very life, the Holy Spirit, communion with the God who loves you.
Do we know the gift of God? Are we, who have received the Holy Spirit, alive to the Divine Life within us and within those Christians around us? How would our lives change if we really knew the gift of God? How might we learn to love the Church more and to love Her members more, the Church whose very soul is the Holy Spirit, flowing from the heart of our loving Savior on the Cross? How might we learn to listen to one another?
If we struggle to know this gift of God, is it because we are comfortable? Because we are afraid to expose our hidden hurt and shame to God’s healing embrace? Do we spend all of our time hewing out cisterns of our own, cisterns that hold no water, thinking up ‘economic (and other) stimuli’, all the while forgetting the gift of God already in our hearts? Do we search for meaning and happiness by avoiding others who remind us of our woundedness, either by their talents or by their own poverty?
My sisters and brothers in Christ, our Lord is seeking us out in our pain and weakness. Let us in simplicity say with the Samaritan woman, “Lord, give us this gift of the Holy Spirit, that we may no more thirst!”