Monday, March 24, 2014

Homily Notes for the 3rd Sunday in Lent: Thirsty at the Well

This past week, a priest-friend and mentor of mine passed away. His name was Father Ray Ryland and he was a priest at St. Peter’s in Steubenville, where I attended Holy Mass when I was in grad school. Father Ryland was a convert from Unitarianism, who later become an Episcopalian minister, and then converted to the Catholic Church. He had an amazing thirst for Truth and a certain belief that if you seek, then you shall find. He found the Truth in the Catholic Church and he knew it—and it made him one of the most peaceful men I knew. His serenity—not to mention his amazing intellect—were incredibly attractive. He had something: a fountain of living water within him. And it made him peaceful—confident in the Lord no matter the struggle. I’m sure you’ve known people like this. I thirst for that kind of peace.
I thought of Father Ryland as I was reflecting on the readings. Here was a man of peace who had found what quenched his thirst. And I saw in him a great contrast to the woman who comes to Jesus at the well. Let us turn our thoughts to her.

The Woman at the Well: Drawing Water at Noon

The woman comes to the well because she is thirsty. And it is obvious by her bucket that she is thirsty for water. This is her basic thirst.
But there is something deeper going on. And we know it because she is coming to the well at noon. This is odd because nobody drew water at noon—it would be in the brightest and hottest part of the day. Everyone would have drawn at dawn. So why is she drawing at noon?
It’s because she is one of “those women.” She has had five husbands. Five! Can you imagine the gossip about her, all the women of the town talking at the well? The crass words, the judgments, the names? So, this woman doesn’t draw at dawn when all of the other women are there. Perhaps to avoid the gossip. Perhaps to be alone with her thoughts and her guilt.

The Woman at the Well: Drawing at Jacob’s Well

But there is something interesting about this well. This is Jacob’s well—Jacob from the book of Genesis in the Old Testament. It is the well where he quenched the thirst of Laban’s flocks. And who was Laban? Laban was the father of Rachel. It is at this very well that Jacob and Rachel would meet. And they would marry. So, this well was rather important—and our woman knew this.
She has been looking for love—for faithful, satisfying love—and she still hasn’t found what she’s looking for. She’s had five husbands. And who knows why—who knows, really: maybe they left her. All this serves to prove that this woman has been hurt… and she’s coming to the well, not only to quench her thirst, but maybe like Rachel, she will find her true love. Maybe she will find the man of her dreams, the one who will be faithful.
She comes to the well at noon. I repeat that again because this time has a special meaning: it is the exact hour when Rachel met Jacob. It is the hour she meets Jesus. (And for completion, it is the hour of Jesus' crucifixion too)

The Woman at the Well: Call Your Husband

            So far, we can say that the woman has two thirsts: for water and for love.
But this well goes deeper. When she meets Jesus, they have a discussion about her five husbands. But this isn’t just about her “husbands,” per se. Jesus is talking about something deeper. In order to understand this, we need to flashback…

            Seven-hundred years before Jesus, Northern Israel was conquered by the Assyrians. The Assyrians took away all of the rich and educated people and left behind all of the poor. In time, the Assyrians brought in five other nations who each had their own gods. These nations intermarried with the poor Jews (see 2 Kings 17:24-34). This mixed people, known as Samaritans, abandoned their worship of God and began to worship the five other gods. What is interesting is that the Samaritans called these pagan gods "Ba’als"—which means “My Master,” and also “My…. husband.” So the conversation isn’t just about human husbands—this is about the woman and all the Samaritans and their worship of false gods.
            So, when Jesus tells her to call her husband, what he is doing on a deeper level is asking the woman to call upon her false gods. Call upon those, he is saying, in whom you are placing your life and your trust. See if they will satisfy you. Do they satisfy your deepest thirst?
            Does getting more money—does that satisfy the deepest thirst, or you do always need more? What about the husband-god of lust—when you indulge are you deeply satisfied or do you keep coming back to that old well? What about the drink? Or the anger? Or just the self-appointed god of you? Are you satisfied by this? How is that working out for you? Or turning your children into gods, answering their every beck and call—is this what life is all about? Call your husband, see what you are spending your time on, who has your heart,…..
Let us spend a moment to reflect on this.

I find it interesting that my desires are like a deep well that just can’t be completely satisfied—that I’m always longing for more, as though my desire was for the infinite...
Which desire would I marry it for eternity?

            Imagine, brothers and sisters: Jesus is standing right before us, right now, saying “I will give you water so that you will never thirst.” I have something greater than these old wells of desires for money, fame, lust, despair…  You don’t have to go to those old wells anymore. Come to me.

Give Me a Drink: A Divine Proposal

            When Jesus asks to the woman to call her husband, she responds: “I have no husband.” This too has some history to it. While her people have five husbands—five gods—she is particularly a part of the Samaritans who have even abandoned the worship of those five gods. Hence, “I have no husband.” She has no one. No God.

            At this point, we remember what Jesus said at the beginning of this whole Gospel. He started out by saying: “Give me a drink.” This is historically important. This was the request that was made in Genesis to determine if Rebekah was the divinely-intended bride for Isaac (Gen 24:14).
            What’s going on then is that Jesus is not proposing marriage to her in the human sense (ie, to quench the second thirst). Rather, what Jesus is doing is proposing a divine marriage: I want to be your God, I want to be the one who quenches your thirst, I want to fulfill your heart’s desires. I want to be your “husband” in the fullest sense: the God who is your everything.
            All of this is to fulfill what is said in the prophet Hosea 2:14-20:

Therefore, behold, I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her.  And there I will give her her vineyards, and make the Valley of Achor a door of hope. And there she shall answer as in the days of her youth, as at the time when she came out of the land of Egypt.  “And in that day, says the LORD, you will call me, ‘My husband,’ (lit. “my man”) and no longer will you call me, ‘My Ba’al’ (lit. “my master,” formal: “my husband”). For I will remove the names of the Ba’als (the pagan deities) from her mouth, and they shall be mentioned by name no more. And I will make for you a covenant on that day with the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the creeping things of the ground; and I will abolish the bow, the sword, and war from the land; and I will make you lie down in safety. And I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love, and in mercy.  I will betroth you to me in faithfulness; and you shall know the LORD.

            This is a divine proposal! That Jesus shall be our God and we shall be his people! Married! Another word for this is covenant.
            Hence there follows a conversation about worshipping God in spirit and in truth. Many of the Samaritans who had given up the five gods start to believe in the one, true, God, but they never actually enter the covenant—they never enter Jerusalem which was the place of worship (Ps 132:13). Instead, the Samaritans built their own temples and tried to be in relationship with God without following the proper form of the covenant. This is analogous to the modern day spirituality where people say they believe in Jesus, but not in religion. Or, another analogy: where couples live together, but delay in entering the formal covenantal relationship with each other and God (ie, the sacrament of marriage).
Jesus invites the woman to worship in spirit—that is, filled with love for the one, faithful, satisfying God—and in truth—that is, within the form of the covenant he has given.

Hope Does Not Disappoint

            This morning, Jesus invites us into this satisfying covenant of divine love. It is for this reason that he approaches the well. Yes, he approached the well too! And he isn’t looking for the perfect person—rather, he reaches out to the imperfect woman precisely where she is so as to lift her up into the ecstasy of divine love.
            And is she satisfied?
            Look at her reaction: she goes and tells all of the people about this Jesus. They have been thirsting too! And they are changed—they see that she is changed: could this be “that woman”?  And they believe! And back at the well… she has left the bucket. Her thirsts have been quenched!

            I am reminded here of the words of our 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.

The love of God has been poured into our hearts! She has left her bucket. No more old wells. And she is overflowing. She must spread this good news to others.

 “I Thirst”

            There is one final thing to say. Jesus said, “Give me a drink.” This means that Jesus thirsts as well. This is shocking to me. God… thirsts! The Almighty… longs for us. He longs to have our love. He longs to pour his love into our hearts and bring us the happiness and satisfaction for which we are longing!
            He echoes this again from the cross when he says, “I thirst.” What is he thirsty for? Water? No. He is thirsty for our love!
            From his side pour forth blood and water: the waters of baptism, the blood of the Eucharist. In this Church, then, we have this new well, this spring of life-giving water. Of the Eucharist he says, “Take this all of you and drink of it… The blood of the new and eternal covenant…” poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.

            Come, then, brothers and sisters. Let us draw deeply from this divine spring of love. Let us open our hearts, our buckets, and be filled with this life-giving water.