Life on the Chrism Trail

Homily for the Third Sunday in Lent

March 12, 2023
Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
Washington, D.C.

Exodus 17:3-7
Psalm 95:1-2, 6-7, 8-9
Romans 5:1-2, 5-8
John 4:5-42

“If today you hear His voice, harden not your hearts.” Oh, that today you would hear His voice: “Harden not your hearts as at Meribah, as in the day of Massah in the desert, Where your fathers tempted me; they tested me though they had seen my works.” “If today you hear His voice harden not your hearts.” The word Meribah means “to test” and the word Massah means to quarrel. These words became the names of the place in the wilderness where the children of Israel tested the Lord and quarreled with Moses on the beginning of their long journey in the wilderness out of slavery in Egypt and towards the freedom of God’s chosen people. It is part of the defining story of the Jewish people, and through our Baptism into the salvation won by Christ, it is part of our story as the Church — the new People of God.

There is a story told about a young Jewish man who is preparing for his bar mitzvah. He becomes frustrated with so many rules and obligations that he is learning in his study of the Torah and the Talmud that in exasperation he exclaims to his teacher, “Rabbi, there are so many laws and regulations, so many “thou shalt nots” to learn that I will never be able to follow it!” To which the rabbi replied, “No, there is only one “Thou shalt not.” It is “Thou shalt not return to Egypt.”

The hardness of heart that the Lord softens through the life-giving water provided instrumentally through the staff of Moses in the wilderness is precisely a disposition whereby the Israelites consider the suffering of slavery to be preferential to their journey in the wilderness to the Promised Land, a journey charted only by faith in God who illuminates the darkness by the pillar of fire in the night.

The hardness of heart is a disposition to remain a faceless mob of self-willed individuals, uncommitted to anything except to self-interest. The hardness of heart is a disposition that develops when their eyes grow accustomed to the darkness, and they wrongly consider this shadowy dimness to be true light. They become willing to survive in the twilight instead of flourishing in the light of God’s people. They prefer their willfulness to authentic freedom. Only God can give them true freedom and a real identity through His Covenant with them, patiently and mercifully given to them twice by God through Moses on Mount Sinai — the Covenant that is provisional and temporary, and to be fulfilled ultimately by the promised Messiah, whom we know through faith to be Jesus Christ, the Son of God. “If today you hear His voice, harden not your hearts.”

Today’s Gospel illustrates for us the power of the Lord Jesus Christ to overcome the hardness of heart made so by sin, with His grace of living water that will become in those who drink from it; that is, receive it, a spring of water welling up to eternal life. On a journey north from Judea back to Galilee, after walking all morning on hot, dusty roads, Jesus arrives around noon at Jacob’s well in the hostile territory of Samaria. Jesus remains at Jacob’s well not just to cool and refresh Himself but to reveal Himself to a Samaritan woman who would then become an instrument of His grace for many other people, leading them to saving faith in the One who alone is everlasting life.

The Samaritan woman is hard of heart and steeped in sin. Jesus overcomes the hardness of heart of the Samaritan woman by initiating a conversation with her. The conversation with the woman is not a quarrel. It is not an indoctrination or a lecture. It is a conversation in which Jesus listens to her so that she might know of God’s mercy and receive the liberating grace of the Truth. The conversation with her is not an example of accompaniment for its own sake. The woman is converted, not Jesus. The conversation at the well is perplexing at first, but it becomes deeply moving. This woman’s life is a mess. She has been married to five different men and is now living with a man to whom she is not married. She is riddled with shame so she comes to the well at midday, a time when nobody else would go to the well. That is, nobody, except Jesus, who is there for her. Jesus knows all of this, as He knows all things about each and all of us, and He loves her and us still the same. We should note that she already knew her life was a moral mess; she just didn’t know how to change her heart to find a path to peace.

Jesus acknowledges the emotional and moral chaos in her life without any scorn or contempt, but then He gently calls her to everlasting life through conversion and the acceptance of the Truth by the gift of God’s revelation. He makes no excuses or rationalizations for her miserable state in life. He does not blame culture, or gender inequity, or abstract structures of exclusion, nor does she. Even if these other things do exist, the Light of Christ makes clear that the heart of her misery is her sin. So, moved in the depths of her soul by His gracious mercy and the power of His Word, the Samaritan woman is enlightened and changed by the Lord Jesus, and she then shares the liberating truth of the Gospel with all the other people in her town, many of whom would come to believe as disciples of Jesus Christ.

John’s Gospel does not tell us this woman’s name, though an ancient Christian tradition assigns her the symbolic name of Photina of Samaria, meaning the luminous one from the Greek word for light, phos. This light is the Light of Christ, the fullness of Revelation, the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

Our lives within our families, our nation, and within the Church are too often filled with testing and arguing, with moral confusion and chaos, with doubts and insecurities which lead us to do strangely destructive things, not least because we fear death and want to live forever but know that we will all die.

Without our reliance upon faith, hope, and love, such fear compels us to test the Lord and quarrel with His Church because we do not like what the Gospel reveals and want the Church to change the teaching given to Her by Christ to suit our preferences and to pacify our fears. We numb our consciences and allow our eyes to grow accustomed to the mediocre darkness of our sins, become indifferent to those whom we hurt, and soon insist that our sins are not really sins at all. We capitulate and we turn away from the means of grace because we conclude that the grace of God is insufficient to change us, and so we no longer follow the Way of the Cross.

Yet, our sins are real. They really offend God, and they really harm us and others. We cannot explain them away. The Good News of salvation is that only Jesus Christ forgives our sins, heals our wounds, answers our doubts, replaces our fears with confidence, and resolves our quarrels because He is the living water that becomes in those who believe and trust in Him a spring welling up as the grace of eternal life. The ordinary way that this spring of living water opens up is through Baptism for which our catechumens are preparing this Lent to receive at the Easter Vigil, and the promises of which we the baptized are preparing to renew on Easter Sunday.

The confidence that this living water brings is described beautifully by Saint Paul in today’s second reading: “Hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” Through the grace of Baptism we are washed clean of sin and given the virtues of faith, hope, and love. In receiving this sacrament, we are illuminated because we receive the Light of Christ in which we see the world as it really is as it has been redeemed by Christ.

We need the grace of this hopeful confidence because we cannot live by the faith of others, and so we must each make an intentional and graced decision for Christ as did the Samaritan woman. Making that committed decision for Christ demands that we receive the liberating truth of the Gospel in communion with the Church and without testing and quarreling.

One reason the Church in our time is in such distress is that too many of the baptized are not making a decision for Christ and instead are engaged in endless testing and quarreling because they are afraid to trust that Jesus of Nazareth is light from light and true God from true God.  Such fear is not limited to Catholic politicians who serve the culture of death and reduce the Eucharist to a talisman for their lifestyles and the Lord Jesus as a partisan mascot; nor is such fearful lack of decision limited to elite Catholic intellectuals who espouse the tyrannical agenda of relativism through corrupt ideologies inciting racial enmity, sexual narcissism, and gender confusion; nor is such a fearful lack of decision limited to theologians, bishops, priests, and even cardinals who would suggest a selective form of amnesia regarding the Divinely established nature of the Church and her hierarchical ministry as part of the Deposit of Faith, or also, in the words of the late Joseph Ratzinger, “degrade the human conscience to a mechanism for rationalization while it should represent the transparency of the human subject for the Divine and constitute the very dignity and greatness of man.”

No. It is each of us in our human condition prone to sin to continue to test God and quarrel with His Gospel entrusted to the Church in the frenzied search for a compartmentalized ethic of life that suits our disordered desires rather than enlightening us in the saving truth of the Word of God. Each of us, left to our own devices, prefers to allow our eyes to grow accustomed to the gloomy twilight of sin and return to our own private slaveries in Egypt.

Lent is the time for us enter into the conversation that Jesus initiates with us at the well. Lent is the time to hear clearly and embrace fully the Word of God, the Word Eternal, Incarnate, and written, in order to become, like the illuminated Samaritan woman of the Gospel, true and humble disciples of the Lord Jesus and grateful instruments of His grace for others. Then, having been converted to the new life of grace by faith, hope, and love, we exercise in the present moment the privilege and responsibility to lead every person we encounter to the One alone who died for us when we were still sinners, the One alone who gives us living water welling up to eternal life, the One alone who is the Savior of the human race and the Divine Redeemer of the world, the One alone whose Body and Blood we offer and receive, the Lord Jesus Christ. “If today you hear His voice, harden not your hearts.”

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