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Third Week of Lent

Ex. 17:3-7; Rom.5:1-2, 5-8 & Jn. 4:5-42

Lent is a time when the Church accompanies catechumens on their journey of faith towards Baptism. It is in Baptism that the catechumen first receives the Holy Spirit for the forgiveness of sins. This work of the Holy Spirit is described in three different ways on the three consecutive Sunday of Lent beginning today. The image of the Holy Spirit which the readings put before us today is that of life-giving water.

Thirst is a limiting human condition with which we are all familiar. It is a signal that the water supply to our body is running low and that we had better do something about it. We are given a gentle reminder of the absolute need for water in order to sustain life. A person may survive for quite a few days without food; but he will not last long without water. Dehydration kills. We have all had the refreshing experience of consuming a cool drink when parched with thirst. That is exactly what happens in our spiritual life at Baptism. When our spiritual lives are parched by the heat of sin and we are on the point of death, the Holy Spirit comes as a fresh draught of life-giving water. St. Paul describes this, in today’s reading from the Letter to the Romans, as the love of God being poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. Indeed the outward sign of pouring water over the person’s head at Baptism effects the inward grace of the Holy Spirit being poured into the person’s heart.

This outpouring of the Holy Spirit was already foreshadowed in the Old Testament, as we heard in the First Reading. The people of Israel, having crossed the Red Sea, became parched with thirst as they journeyed through the heat. When they cried out for water, the Lord instructed Moses to strike the rock with the rod, so that water would gush forth for the people to drink. In this story, the rod symbolises the cross and the rock represents Jesus who struck down on the cross and pierced with a lance so that the Holy Spirit could flow into the world parched with sin. By God’s plan, Jesus had to die first so that His spirit, which is the Holy Spirit, could be released and then poured out on all mankind, as happened after His resurrection and ascension. This outpouring takes place through the Sacraments, the first of which is, of course, Baptism. The stream of blood and water which the centurion testified to having seen emerge from the Christ’s pierced side is the source of the Holy Spirit, the agent of the Church’s sacramental life.

The Gospel reading about the Samaritan woman’s encounter with Jesus brings home to us the same truth, namely, that Jesus is the source of the living water, which is the Holy Spirit. However, the story also gives us some valuable insights into the method of evangelisation, that is, of bringing people to faith in Christ. As a background to this story, it is useful to bear in mind that Jews and Samaritans despise each other. Samaritans were descended from the Jews but they had allowed inter-marriage with pagans and were, therefore, regarded by the Jews as having compromised their religion and therefore “unclean”. The Samaritans, for their part, accepted only the first five books of the Jewish Bible, rejecting all the prophets and wisdom books. Moreover, while the Jews worshipped in the Temple in Jerusalem, the Samaritans worshipped on their own mountain, Mount Gerizim. Jews, therefore, had very little to do with the Samaritans. Given such a background, it is wonderful to see the steps which Jesus takes in order to bring the Samaritan woman to faith in Him as the Messiah.

Jesus breaks down the barriers and opens a conversation, despite the fact that she was a Samaritan woman and of questionable morality. Far from despising her, He sees her as a precious human being to be brought to faith and salvation. The first step of evangelisation is to break down the barriers of prejudice and to be willing to reach out to all people.

Jesus takes His starting point the present situation of the woman. She has come to the well seeking water, and so He opened the conversation by asking for a drink. He starts on her wavelength. His unaffected simplicity unnerves the woman and she feels comfortable enough to enter the dialogue. We, too, have to meet people, not where we would want them to be eventually, but where they are at the present, here-and-now, with all their mess. The second step of wavelength is thus to establish a dialogue with the person.

Having opened a dialogue, Jesus then moves her on, step by step, along the journey of faith. His request for water is now followed by an offer of a different type of water which would quench her thirst, not temporarily, but permanently, referring, of course, to the Holy Spirit who was to come. When she expresses interest in this new water, He takes the next step by prophetically revealing her present marital situation, then enabling her to recognise Him as a prophet. Then follows a dialogue on where and how to worship God and Jesus teaches her that true worship depends neither on Samaritan or Jewish practices, but an altogether new order, namely the worship of the Father in spirit and in truth. Then comes the climatic conclusion of the dialogue when the woman expresses her longing for the Messiah, at which point Jesus intervenes to tell her that He indeed is the Messiah. The woman had finally come to believe in Jesus. Although in this particular story Jesus completes the step-by-step evangelisation of the woman in one simple dialogue, in practice, we may need several conversations and a longer period of time before we complete the evangelisation. We have to meet people where they are and move them gently along at their own pace.

Finally, the woman goes away and brings other people to Christ. Having been evangelised, she herself becomes an evangeliser. Every baptised person, whether man or woman, young or old, cleric or lay, is called to spread the Gospel which he/she has received. The work of evangelisation that needs to be done is enormous. Jesus Himself said that the fields are white and ready for harvest and that the reaping had already begun. His words are timeless. Today there are millions of people thirsting for the living water but look for it in the wrong places. As the Pope reminded us, the potential for evangelisation is enormous indeed. The work of Jesus has now to be done by us. Let us ask today for the grace to be courageous enough to let down our barriers and our shyness and to enter into dialogue with people. Let us meet them wherever they are, and lead them gradually to the joy and belief in Christ.

Lord Jesus, we pray that we may drink anew the living water of the Holy Spirit and so bring others to this spring of salvation.

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