3rd Sunday of Lent 2011

Homily by Fr. John De Celles
St. Raymond of Peñafort, Springfield, Va.

“I thirst.”
Jesus said these words as he hung on the Cross.
But he also could have said them as he came out of his 40 days in the desert
where he was tempted by the devil.
And he also probably said them to himself
in the scene recorded in today’s Gospel,
as, tired from his long journey, he sat down by a well in the hott mid-day sun.

But, while Jesus’ thirst was genuinely physical in each of these cases,
his was also a spiritual thirst that came from being surrounded by sin
–from entering into sinful human life,
the life of those who had been cast out of the lush garden of Eden
into the starkness of the barren desert wasteland of sin.
The thirst of those deprived of the waters of ever-lasting life and grace.
It is not his thirst, just as it is not his sin, but he accepts it as his own.

And thus spiritually parched he encounters someone
who has contributed greatly to his thirst by her many sins:
A woman who comes out in the mid-day sun, the hottest time of the day,
in order to avoid her neighbors:
she is a notorious sinner–an adulteress—
both spurned by others and afraid of their animosity.

And yet this is exactly why Jesus is here
—he’s come specifically to meet her, because she is a sinner.

And Jesus deals with her the way he deals with all sinners.
First, he goes someplace he knows sinners will be.
For example, he goes to dinners with tax collectors,
because that’s where the sinners hang out.
And he goes to the temple, to meet the hypocritical priests and scribes
who worship God with their words, but not with their hearts.
And he goes to the Samaritan well in the middle of the day
to meet the woman who’s sins keep her away the rest of the day.

And just like he does with all sinners, he waits for her.
No matter how many times sinners ignore him or run from him,
he waits for them.
Like the father in the story of the prodigal son, he waits for them to return to him.
Patiently, he waits for you and me for years and even decades.
Tired and thirsty in the heat of the mid-day sun,
he patiently waits for the woman at the well.

And when she approaches, he is the first to speak
—he will not be silent in the face of sin.
And he speaks to her in very direct and clear tones: “Give me a drink”
Right to the point—and yet subtle in his own way,
as he draws her into conversation.
And right to the point—he quickly confronts her with the truth
Just as he spoke to the Pharisees, confronting them very directly with their sins:
“you Pharisees cleanse the outside of the cup …
but inside you are full of …wickedness.”
And to the money-changers in the temple:
“It is written, ‘My house shall be a house of prayer’;
but you have made it a den of thieves.”
So he speaks to the woman at the well:
“You are right in saying, ‘I do not have a husband.’
For you have had five husbands,
and the one you have now is not your husband.”

And finally, he treats each person uniquely
and does whatever is necessary to help the individual sinner:
—he knows very well that every sinner is different,
and that each needs a slightly different approach.
So sometimes, with sinners who needed it,
Jesus had to raise his voice in righteous anger:
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!
…You serpents, you brood of vipers,
how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?”
And sometimes he resorted even to physical force:
even making a whip to drive the money-changers out of the temple.
But sometimes, the sinner simply needs
a calm and gentle, but strong and clear, voice,
as with this broken, lonely woman at the well.
This is how Christ is: adapting to the person,
but always with directness and truth,
never compromising or backing down,
and no half-measures.

It’s incredible, all Jesus does just to save sinners.
He suffers for and because of our sins,
and yet he comes seeking us,
waits patiently,
tells us the truth
—even when that might mean we’ll walk away—
and he approaches each of us in the way best suited for us personally.

Yet even all this isn’t enough to win sinners back.
Because God loves us so much that he gives us the great gift of “free will”
–he gives us and respects our freedom to choose.
Two weeks ago we read how Adam and Eve made the wrong choice.
They chose in effect, as so many since them have also,
to live thirsty in the empty desert of sin,
rather than in the lushness of paradise
with its refreshing cool waters of grace.

And so it is with the woman at the well.
She must choose.
She brings her dry, empty water jar out
looking for a way to temporarily quench her thirst.
But rather quickly she discovers she has a choice.
She can choose to be satisfied temporarily with pleasures of the world,
and die in sin,
or she can accept the love and grace of Jesus and his Holy Spirit,
and live forever.
She can wallow in the filth of her own sin,
or she can be cleansed and refreshed in the waters of Baptism.

Like Eve before her, she must choose.
But unlike Eve before her, she chooses well.
So, unlike Eve, who hid from God when he came looking for her in the garden,
the Samaritan woman admits the sins of her past to God—Jesus—
and repents.
So that while before, she carried her empty jar as a sign
of her dependence on the pleasures of the world
now Scripture tells us:
“The woman left her water jar and went into the town.”
Now leaving her sins behind, she’s not afraid to run to her neighbors
and share the good news that she has found the Messiah.

The choice might seem simple and obvious to us.
But if it’s so easy, why do you and I have such a hard time imitating her?
Why don’t we leave behind our sins like an empty water jar
and run out and tell the good news to our neighbors?
To choose Christ is hard
—especially when it means rejecting a whole way, or pattern,
of sinful living accumulated over years.

Consider for example 3 patterns of life
that effect almost everyone in one way or another today
—patterns as old as the story of the Samaritan woman.

First consider the debasing attitude she had toward sex
—she had committed the sin of adultery over and over again.
Today we’re surrounded by this same mentality.
And the incredible saturation of society with immodesty and lust
makes it so overwhelming
that for some, sexual sins become almost like an addiction.
Whether large or relatively small, mortal or venial,
from the way they dress to they way act,
otherwise good people get so easily and unexpectedly caught up in it,
and try as they might can’t seem to find a way out.

Look, for the example,
at the pressure on young couples dating and struggling to be chaste.
–and consider how falling just once,
makes it seem impossible to return to chastity again.

Or look at pornography—or rather don’t look at it.
But it’s everywhere—and God didn’t make us for this kind of
constant and unnatural barrage of the senses and appetites.
Then there’s the terrible debilitating habits of masturbation and contraception
—both so easy to fall into,
but both so degrading to sexuality and the human person.
The woman at the well knew how hard this type of life is to put behind you
—and unfortunately way too many people today do too.

Then consider the related pattern of life that degrades marriage itself.
It became too easy for the Samaritan woman to set one man aside
and take another
—or perhaps for one man to set her aside leaving her prey for another.
The same is true today:
look at all the folks who so easily set aside their marriage vows
when times get tough,
or because their spouse isn’t quite
as young and pretty or handsome as they used to be;
or look at all the people who marry for all the wrong reasons,
and who wind up in miserable marriages, and then in divorce.
Or look at all the couples who are not married
but act like they are by cohabitating
—just like the woman at the well with her current man.

And finally, consider the world’s attitude toward women.
The woman at the well lived in a time
when men were forbidden to even talk to a strange women in public.
Today we pride ourselves on the progress we’ve made in respecting women.
But have we really progressed?
Then why is spousal abuse and abandonment so common?
And why does pornography overwhelming involve
the degradation of the female body?
And why does society degrade the women who want to be mothers,
and even insist that a really liberated woman
must be free to kill her unborn babies?
And why do we deceive women into thinking that contraception
will somehow give them greater freedom,
when in fact the exact opposite is true.
The woman at the well knew how it was to be trapped like this,
and so do many here today.

Sin and patterns of sin are hard to overcome.
The apostles realized this and once asked Jesus in frustration:
“if this is the case, then who can be saved.”
No doubt the woman felt this most of her life, no doubt we often do too.
And there is only one answer—the answer Jesus gave to his apostles:
“With men it is impossible, but not with God;
for all things are possible with God.”

Most of us don’t get to see Jesus face to face, like the Samaritan women did.
But even so, Jesus promised the apostles:
“Behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the world.”
And on the first Easter he told the apostles:
“as the father has sent me, so I send you.”
…whose sins you forgive are forgiven.”
And so he continues to come to sinners
in the person of His priests and in His sacraments.
In particular he comes to us in the sacrament of penance:
he comes to us, waits for us, speaks to us,
and meets us with the compassion or correction we need to start again
And in Jesus’ name the priest washes us clean from sin
by the power of the Holy Spirit.

And yet, how few take advantage of this wonderful sacrament.
Think about this:
last week we gave Communion to maybe 3000 folks
at Sunday Masses in this parish.
And yet we heard maybe 200 confessions all last week.
That’s less than 7 % of Communions.
I gave up being an accountant 20 years ago
—but as a priest, something about those numbers troubles me.
Especially when you consider that a lot of those folks who came to confession
go to confession at least once a month, if not more often.
Which means a huge number of folks just don’t go confession.

In just a few minutes we will call to mind how,
on the night before he died on the Cross
Jesus took bread and wine and said
first “this is my body… this is my blood”
and then “do this in memory of me”
So we know that in Holy Communion Christ comes to us sinners,
just as surely as he came to the woman at the well.
But remember, before Christ would give the Samaritan woman
the life giving water,
he first had her face and confess her sins,
and leave her life of sin behind, like she left her empty water jar.
How many of us need to confess and leave our sins behind
before we ask Christ to give us himself in the Eucharist?

Now, of course you only have to go to confession before Communion
if you have a mortal sin to confess.
Maybe you don’t have a mortal sin to confess
—but then again, maybe you do.
I’m not saying you’re all terrible sinners,
I just know that sometimes we just get so used to our sins
we sort of accept them as part of us,
like the woman at the well did—until Jesus confronted her with the truth.

But, even if you don’t have a mortal sin to confess,
why wouldn’t you want to go to confession
to be washed clean from all your sins—even venial?
To a get a brand new fresh start on life?
Why wouldn’t you want to take the time to examine your conscience well
and humbly confess your sins to Christ?
And more importantly,
why wouldn’t you go just to receive the grace poured on you
in the sacrament?
Remember, it’s not just a priest waiting for you in the confessional
—it’s Christ himself.
Just like he waited for the Samaritan woman at the well.

But in both of these sacraments, as in all things, he needs us to choose.
We can come to confession or not, we can make a good confession or not.
We can receive him worthily or unworthily in Communion…or not.
And we can be open to the grace of both Communion and Confession…or not.
We must choose.

This Lent, imitate the woman at the well
and recognize that Jesus comes to us and waits for us, and loves us
—sinners that we are.
As she leads us to Christ,
let us choose to allow him to change our hearts and our lives,
so that we will no longer seek the temporary satisfaction
of the empty pleasures of the world,
waiting to die in the thirst of our sins,
but instead choose to let Christ fill us to overflowing
with the waters of everlasting life,
and live in his love—now and forever.

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