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Third Sunday of Lent

March 27, 2011

Reflection by Fr. Michael Himes

Last Sunday the story of Jesus’ transfiguration before three of his disciples brought us to consider the need to see sacramentally. Recommitting ourselves to our baptismal vows requires that we grow as sacramental beholders in the sense expressed by Hopkins’s beautiful line, “These things, these things were here and but the beholder/ Wanting.” This is not an invitation to see things through pleasantly tinted religious lenses so that the day-to-day world appears “charged with the grandeur of God” (Hopkins again). Quite the contrary. The reason that sacramental vision is so central to the Catholic tradition is that it sees things as they really are—grounded in grace, held in being by the self-giving of God, endlessly loved into existence. On the third Sunday of Lent, our communal retreat to prepare to renew our baptismal promises focuses sacramental vision on the first of three themes central to Baptism. The other two will take center-stage in the following weeks. This Sunday invites us to consider water. 

The reading from John’s Gospel on the third Sunday of Lent describes Jesus’ encounter with an unnamed Samaritan woman who has come to draw water at a well.  Often in the Gospel of John we find Jesus speaking at cross-purposes with someone—Nicodemus, Martha and Mary, Peter, his disciples, Pilate or, in this case, the woman he meets at Jacob’s well. So Jesus seems to talk about one thing while his conversation-partner thinks he is talking about something else.  But I suggest a slightly different reading: Jesus and his hearer are talking about the same thing from different perspectives. These conversations at cross-purposes which occur throughout John’s Gospel are invitations to see familiar things in a new way. In terms of last Sunday’s reflection, they are calls to see sacramentally. The Samaritan woman thinks of water as a daily necessity which requires her going to the well and would be delighted if Jesus could supply that need without her labor. Jesus speaks of water as a life bubbling up within us. 

Throughout scripture, water is a precious commodity. Israel was bordered by desert. Having access to fresh or “living” water meant that people could live, their flocks and herds survive, and their crops grow.  Water was an obvious blessing. But those same people also knew that water might be very dangerous. The ancient Israelites, by and large, were not a sea-going people.  The Hebrew bible is filled with references to the Israelite army, but we do not hear much about an Israelite navy. Those who do not have much experience of the sea are often terrified of it. Water, the precious gift that made life possible, could also destroy it. Scripture describes God calling the world out of a watery chaos, and when the world almost sinks back into nothingness because of its sinfulness, an immense flood is the agent of its destruction. The sea through which Moses and the people of Israel pass from slavery to freedom can also destroy Pharaoh’s soldiers and chariots.  In both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures it seems that anyone who goes to sea—from Jonah to Saint Paul—is either shipwrecked or driven very close to it. One can hear the fear of a land-bound people when Psalm 107 proclaims that those who go to sea in ships experience the power of God and see his wonders in the deep. Water gives life and death.

Saint Paul’s statement that, when we were baptized, we died with Christ, were buried with him and have been raised up with him is so familiar that we may no longer be startled by its power.  Our baptismal ceremonies are probably far less dramatic than those that Christians experienced centuries ago. When they made their baptismal vows, they were plunged into a pool of water, symbolically drowned and buried, and then brought out of the water, newly born to be dressed in new clothing (for their former clothes belonged to someone who was now dead), given a new name and introduced to a new life in a new community. Water killed them and water gave them new birth. Who they were was submerged in the watery grave; who they now became emerged from the water of the womb. We have all heard the phrase “holy mother church.”  This is why Christians have called the church their mother: we have all been born from the baptismal pool which is her womb.

This is what we are preparing to celebrate once again this Easter (most vividly at the Easter Vigil). So this week in our communal retreat we are invited to look sacramentally at water, the water in which we shower, make the morning coffee or tea, wash the laundry, clean the car, and rinse the dishes, the water in which we died and were buried and from which we rose in the new life of Christ, the water of our grave and the church’s womb. In four weeks we will be asked to commit ourselves to this dying and rising again when we renew our vows of Baptism.

Alumni Responses to Third Sunday's Reflection

Lea ‘04 — As we remember the immense power of water this week and its deadly and disastrous effects in Japan, may we cling to the faith of Life rising up again in those ravaged communities and do what we can for those who suffer. Thank you, Father Himes, I can hear your voice when reading these reflections and sure do miss Wednesday noon Mass.

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