We are in Cycle A of the Sunday readings, during which we would expect to read another passage of Matthew’s Gospel. Instead, this Sunday we read a dialogue from John’s Gospel. The dialogue is between Jesus and a Samaritan woman. This dialogue comprises the Gospel reading for the Third Sunday of Lent in Cycle A because the Cycle A Lenten readings were chosen with the Catechumenate in mind.
The Elect who are awaiting Baptism, and the candidates for full communion with the Catholic Church, are in their final weeks of preparation for the Easter Vigil and the Easter Sacraments. The readings for the Third, Fourth and Fifth Sundays of Lent are directed to them and their proximate preparations for Christian Initiation and Full Communion.
The Liturgy of the Word for these last Sundays before Holy Week addresses various aspects of the conversion process. In this Sunday’s reading Jesus says about himself, “My food is to do the will of the one who sent me and to finish his work.” (John 4:34) This is a description of the intended goal of ongoing conversion.
The dialogue between Jesus and the woman describes the process of her slow realization of Jesus’ identity. At first, she perceives him to be a slightly quirky Jewish man who has little regard for the long-standing enmity between Jews and Samaritans. Then she begins to think of him as a fraud who makes preposterous promises such as “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again; but whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst; the water I shall give will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4:13-14) Eventually, she comes to regard him as a prophet. Finally, she acknowledges him as Messiah, and runs to share the good news with her neighbors.
Through the course of the dialogue the woman moves from alienation to curiosity to desire to affiliation with Jesus, and ultimately, to mission. The application to the lives of those who will receive the Easter Sacraments is obvious. They were once alienated from God. Their interest in religion brought them to the Catholic Church and instructions in the Faith. The instructions, and their on-going conversion, brought them to desire membership in the Church. At Easter, they will be admitted to Baptism and the table of the Lord’s Supper. This privilege brings with it the mission to evangelize.
The message for the Elect and Candidates is about the necessity to remain in dialogue with Jesus and his Church. Ongoing conversion is like a dialogue. It requires lots of time and effort. It requires that one remain engaged in the process and attentive to the direction the dialogue takes. As with all conversations, our dialogue of faith often takes unexpected turns. Sometimes, it leads us places that we did not foresee. It always, however, ends in a saving and life-giving relationship with God.
The goal of a life-giving relationship with God is central to this dialogue that Jesus initiates with the sinful woman. He said, “whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst; the water I shall give will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4:14) At first, the woman failed to understand what he was talking about. She came to understand his words by remaining engaged in the conversation. Eventually, she even came to embody the meaning of those words when she went back to the town and gave witness that she had found the Messiah promised by God.
This dialogue describes the process in which every believer must be engaged. Every baptized person is obliged to give public witness to their faith in order that others might enter into a life-giving dialogue with Jesus the Messiah. As we can see in the Church today, this does not happen often enough. Not all the baptized live up to their baptismal vows, and not all of those who make an effort to be faithful find the strength to participate in the Church’s mission. The reason for this is simple: not all have stayed in the dialogue long enough to find the “spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4:14)
Both recent research and anecdotal evidence indicate that the vast majority of Catholics have yet to find that life-giving spring. The Catholics who are most involved in their parish community are also the ones most likely to spend a lot of time and energy in search of their next infusion of spirituality from someone else. It might not appear to be a bad idea to be in search of more and better retreats or talks or programs or inspiring examples, but there is a hidden danger in looking constantly for one’s next, big experience of spirituality. The hidden danger is that one can become dependent on the spirituality and faith of someone else.
The consequence of looking to others to supply one with spirituality is that it becomes a substitute for developing one’s own spirituality. To rely on regular input from others for one’s faith life can lead to being satisfied with someone else’s spiritual progress, and never to make any spiritual progress in one’s own life.
The absence of that “spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:14) from the lives of many Catholics is clearly evident in the lack of evangelization that is being accomplished today. The lack of a self-sustaining spirituality translates into no ability to finish the work of the Father. (John 4:34)
The “spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:14), can be found in only one place. It can be found only where the Samaritan woman found it: in an ongoing dialogue with Jesus the Messiah. Motivational talks, pious devotions, meaningful reading and powerful retreats are insufficient in themselves. The need to find the next spiritual leader or inspired preacher is an indication of the absence of a self-sustaining spirituality. The constant search for the next meaningful message is probably more of a hindrance to spiritual growth than it is a support.
It is possible to find the water that leads to the end of thirst. That life-giving water is Jesus the Messiah. He is found in the ongoing dialogue that happens when one prays with the Scriptures. There are numerous forms of Scriptural prayer. No form of contemplating the Scriptures is any better or worse than any other, as long as it is real prayer that leads to real dialogue with Jesus the Messiah.
Do you want not to have to go back to the well daily to draw water again and again to slake your spiritual thirst? Do you want to have within yourself a “spring of water welling up to eternal life”? (John 4:14) If so, you have only to stay in conversation with Jesus. If you are faithful to daily meditation with the Scriptures there will come a time when you no longer seek to be fed spiritually by someone else because you will have found the spiritual food of finishing the work of the Father.