Third Sunday of Lent – March 15, 2020

In the 1980’s and 1990’s, progressive liturgiologists recommended emptying holy water fonts during Lent; this recommendation was intended to emphasize the fact that Lent is the season of proximate preparation for the celebration of Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist at the Easter Vigil. Progressives opined that the physical environment of a church building should reflect the nature of Lent as anticipating, but not yet celebrating, Baptism. In some parishes, the holy water fonts were not only emptied of holy water but were filled with sand or dry sticks. One of my professors in Seminary went even further by suggesting that the Baptized should consider fasting from Eucharist during Lent.

Conservative liturgiologists, of course, found these practices to be offensive. They wanted to maintain a consistent habit of blessing themselves with holy water at the beginning of Liturgy. On March 14, 2000, the Congregation of Worship settled the dispute by saying that removing holy water from fonts is prohibited, except during the Triduum (Prot. N. 569/00/L); progressives were disheartened, but conservatives were over-joyed.

As you are aware, Bishop Parkes updated his guidelines for churches and schools regarding precautions about the spread of coronavirus. One of his new directives requires that all churches empty holy water fonts for the foreseeable future. This new directive is a response to phobics, but I’m sure that it will revive the conflict between progressive and conservative liturgiologists. I wonder how long it will be before priests are instructed to turn their backs to the congregation, not as ad orientem but as ab infirmis.

I understand completely the reason that worship is such a contentious topic, but I’m surprised each time I witness a dispute over an action that purports to be directed to God. Today’s Gospel reading provides an example of a dispute about worship in ancient Hebrew religion.

Samaritans and Jews shared a common Israelite ancestry; both groups used the Torah as Scripture, but that’s where the similarities ended. During Jesus’ lifetime, the two groups of Israelite descendants hated and distrusted one another. One of the many disagreements that separated them was the question about where one was to worship God. Samaritans believed that God could be worshiped only on Mount Gerizim (in Samaria), while Judeans believed that God could be worshiped only in Jerusalem (in Judea).

Jesus’ perspective on the nature of faithful worship is worthy of note. When the Samaritan woman tried to steer the conversation away from the mess of her life, Jesus steered her back to the topic by saying, “true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth.” (Jn. 4:23)

The descriptor “Spirit and truth” sounds very abstract, but Jesus was not making an abstract statement. In this context, “Spirit and truth” are as concrete and particular as Gerizim and Jerusalem. In John’s Gospel, the “Spirit” is the Paraclete promised to those who remain faithful to Jesus’ teaching (Jn. 14:26); the “truth” is Jesus and his teaching (Jn. 14:6).

According to Jesus, then, the worship that is pleasing to God is inspired by the Holy Spirit and focused on Jesus and his teaching. This sounds very expansive and open to many possible interpretations, but Jesus intended a very narrow interpretation.

Everyone has a natural desire to know and love God, and everyone finds a way to fulfill that innate desire for God. Unfortunately, not everyone finds and worships the real God. Many of the ways that people choose to fulfill their religious appetites constitute activities and commitments that are self-serving, delusional, and destructive. For this reason, Jesus defined authentic worship in very narrow terms. Authentic, faithful worship of God is led by God’s inspiration and leads the faithful to practice Jesus’ teachings.

The teachings of Jesus span a wide range of illustrations and topics, but they can be summarized in a few, short statements such as the following.

Faith isn’t faith unless it’s lived consistently in every moment of one’s life – right up to the moment of death, whether on a Cross or otherwise.

Hope isn’t hope unless it is focused on a future not defined in materialistic terms.

Love isn’t love unless it leads to self-sacrifice.

The reason that worship is such a contentious topic is that true worship exposes the powerlessness of the false gods we prefer over the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Consumerism is easier to embrace than faith, self-concern is easier to practice than hope, and anything is easier than making a sacrifice for the benefit of someone else.

According to Jesus, authentic worship requires that one acknowledge God’s authority over one’s life and follow in Jesus’ footsteps each day. The telltale indicator of the absence of authentic worship is the denial of truth; the Samaritan woman tried to distract Jesus from announcing the Good News of salvation because his preaching exposed the falsehood in her life. The reliable sign of the presence of authentic worship is that one’s spirituality is like “a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (Jn. 4:14)