Living in a rather humid climate, we may be tempted to romanticize the desert. In certain circles, it is even trendy to speak of spiritual “desert experiences.” In the Bible great things did indeed happen in the desert. But let’s not romanticize it! Deserts are harsh and hardly habitable places. Even relatively livable deserts like Judea and Samaria - or California - are places where water is scarce. So access to it is power. Even Jesus, wandering through Samaria at the hottest hour of the day, needed to ask for a drink. Having no bucket of his own, he must at first have seemed to the Samaritan woman as powerless indeed; but at least there was a well there!
There was, however, no well at Masah and Meribah, where, in their thirst for water the people grumbled against Moses [Exodus 17:3-7]. They grumbled. Actually they did a lot of that while in the desert. No surprise there! That’s one of the things people do when frustrated. They grumble. They complain. They attack their leaders - and one another. Poor Moses! How his faith must have been tested by all their endless complaints! “What shall I do with this people? A little more and they will stone me!”
Obviously, we are looking here at very typical human behavior – both on the part of the people and Moses’ reaction – typical human behavior, unique neither to the Bible nor, for that matter, to the desert. People complain constantly, and those they complain about constantly complain - about being complained about! It’s become a commonplace observation – itself yet another complaint – that contemporary American society has been increasingly paralyzed by a corrosive climate of criticism of (so it seems) virtually everything and everyone. Sadly some of the same can be said even within the Church. Such an atmosphere takes its toll on everyone, as it obviously did with Moses.
But Moses’ frustration was far from the end of the story. God is so much bigger than our complains, quarrels, and conflicts. However deep-seated human sinfulness and however widespread its destructive consequences, God still has the final word: water will flow from the rock for the people to drink.
For us, of course, the water from the rock foreshadows that living water that Jesus promised the Samaritan woman, the water that eventually flowed from the side of the dead Christ on the cross as a symbol of the water of baptism, that is meant to drown all our thirsty grumbling in his new and risen life.
In his 2011 Lenten message, Pope Benedict commented on the dialogue between Jesus and the Samaritan woman: “The question that Jesus puts to the Samaritan woman: ‘Give me a drink’ [John 4:7] … expresses the passion of God for every man and woman, and wishes to awaken in our hearts the desire for the gift of ‘a spring of water within, welling up for eternal life’ [John 4:14]: this is the gift of the Holy spirit, who transforms Christians into ‘true worshippers,’ capable of praying to the Father ‘in spirit and truth’ [John 4:23].”
The season of Lent is organized around two converging themes: conversion and repentance - and two corresponding sacraments: baptism and penance.
Foreigner though she was, the Samaritan woman was responsive to Jesus and receptive to conversion. Indeed, she became a missionary – and apparently quite a successful one, preaching not just with words but by the powerful witness of her transformed life. Perhaps the people in that Samaritan city simply sensed that what Jesus had done for her was what we all need and want – to be known and loved as we truly are and so to find the refreshing possibility of renewed life. Hence the significance of her story for those preparing for baptism at Easter.
But what about the rest of us, baptized long ago and life-long (or at least long-term) members of Christ’s Church? Have we perhaps lost some of our fervor? Are we maybe more like Israel in the desert, quarreling and testing the Lord, wondering “Is the Lord in our midst or not?” The Israelites had 40 long years ahead of them in the desert, and there would be more scenes such as this one. It seems that no matter how many times God quenches our thirst, as long as we remain in this desert, the same questions continually confronts us: “Is the Lord in our midst or not?” It’s a question we cannot escape, anymore than the Israelites could escape on their own from the desert in which they found themselves.
In Jesus, God has given us an answer once and for all. It is up to us, then, to do like the Samaritan woman and take that answer seriously, and so be able to say with Saint Paul: we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ [Romans 5:1].
Lent challenges us to rediscover the new life first offered us in the living water of baptism, offered again and again in the sacrament of penance.
Homily for the 3rd Sunday in Lent, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, March 27, 2011.