Saturday, March 22, 2014

Third Sunday of Lent


            Like so many people, English poet Francis Thompson spent much of his life running away from God. At one time he’d trained for the priesthood but was rejected as unqualified. He later studied medicine, but never managed to pass his final examinations. Hopeless and angry, he turned away from God and became a destitute opium addict on the streets of London.

            Yet all was not lost. He managed to submit an essay and a poem to a Catholic magazine. For months they sat unread in a file. But when they were finally examined, it was determined that they were the work of a true talent. The magazine editor and his wife befriended Thompson and arranged for his stay at a countryside monastery, where his health improved, and his faith in God was restored.

            Thompson ultimately composed the “Hound of Heaven,” a well-known and much-loved poem. It describes God, like a hound chasing a hare, patiently but persistently pursuing the poet’s soul, in spite of his futile attempts to flee, avoid, or find substitutes for God. “I am He Whom thou seekest,” concludes God. “Rise, clasp my hand, and come.”

            We can see a similar pattern in the relationship between Jesus and the Samaritan woman, as described in today’s gospel. Like Thompson, she at first didn’t want anything to do with Jesus. When she saw him approaching, her first thought must have been, “Please- just go away!” There was a reason she was drawing water at noon, the hottest part of the day: She wanted to avoid meeting anyone else! But Jesus understood that. And so it was he who opened the conversation.

            This has been the experience of many people, including myself, and perhaps you too. We didn’t set out on a quest for Jesus; we didn’t go looking for God. Instead, it was God who came looking for us. As a priest friend of mine once said, “God isn’t like a stuffy aristocrat, sitting aloof in a drawing room somewhere, keeping a polite distance from us. Instead, he’s more like a Jewish mother, nudging us, pushing us, cajoling us, craftily scheming that we might allow him into our life.”     

But back to the Samaritan woman. After Jesus’ initial approach, she remains guarded and cautious- and rightly so! As there was a long-standing animosity between Jews and Samaritans, it was highly unusual for Jesus to have spoken with her. And there were gender issues too. Men just didn’t speak in public with women, who were considered second-class citizens.

            The Samaritan woman was understandably suspicious of Jesus’ motives, and she hesitated to accept his gift of living water. But don’t we sometimes act this way? Is not “No thanks, I already have all I need” our first reaction when someone tries to interest us in something religious? We get defensive, because we wonder what their true intentions are.

            Thankfully, Jesus knows us- and the Samaritan woman- all too well. He persists and convinces her to accept his gift. But she sadly misunderstands what it is he offers. So Jesus tries a different tactic, revealing his knowledge about her multiple marriages. Jesus doesn’t reject her for this. He doesn’t say, “Come back here after you straighten out your life.” He says instead, “I know what your life is like, and with the grace I’ll give, it can change for the better!”

            This is an important point, because for many people an imperfect past is an obstacle to continued conversion. One Methodist pastor recalls how he and his wife once suggested a dinner gathering with friends who had just moved into a new home. The new homeowners were eager to meet at a restaurant, but the pastor sensed that they weren’t ready for houseguests. The conversation at dinner confirmed this. “We want you to come see the house,” they said, “but only after we get it all cleaned up!”

            The pastor concludes, “Is not this our way with God? We want everything to be just right when we relate to God. And when it’s not, we turn away and try to run. We dare not invite Christ into our life! The only problem: God pursues us.”

            Again, back to the Samaritan woman. By this time, she’s warming to Jesus. She’s gone from seeing him as a hostile male Jew to perceiving him as a prophet! But maybe this frightens her a little. We can imagine that she’s had some painful relationships, in light of her five ex-husbands. Perhaps she’s afraid of getting too close to Jesus. And so, to sidetrack their new friendship, she asks distracting questions about the proper place for worship and the coming of the Messiah. In effect, to keep things from getting too personal, she steers the conversation away from matters of the heart to matters of the head.

            We're sometimes guilty of exactly the same thing. We can be attracted to God, but we don’t want to get to close to him. Who knows what that may involve? We find it easy to pray to “Almighty God,” a title that reflects God’s distance from us. But it can be hard to call God “Father,” as Jesus always did, because this implies love, family, and intimacy. So often we seek to keep God at arm’s length- just like the Samaritan woman.

            But Jesus wanted more from his relationship with her, and we wants more from his relationship with us. He’ll stop at nothing short of a deep, abiding friendship. At the end of their conversation, Jesus revealed to the Samaritan woman that he is the Messiah, and her faith came to completion. Today, Jesus continues his conversation with us, that we too might drink his living water. “How wonderful and how great,” wrote St. Cyprian, “is the patience of God!”

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