3rd Sunday Lent Year A
23 March 2014
How many times have you been through Lent?
I don’t remember my first Lent but I guess I must have been eight, nine or ten years old the first time I gave up sweets or biscuits or fighting with my sister for Lent. That means I’ve been through Lent very many times; well over fifty times! And it seems to me that every year my need for conversion of heart and contrition is at least as great as it was the year before.
In some years the experience of Lent has been extraordinarily satisfying; richly sustaining my spirituality and drawing me into a new intimacy with God. But in some years, Lent has pasted disappointingly almost without notice; perhaps a few token gestures of sacrifice and an attempt at extra prayer but nothing that’s made any real difference in my relationship with God. And while in these ‘dry’ Lents I have blamed a busy schedule or other circumstances that have hampered my progress, the truth is that in those years I’ve simply not made Lent a priority in my life; to my own detriment.
Lent is a blessed time each year in which we are encouraged to assess and reflect not just on our faith but on the very purpose of our existence. Is the world a better place because of my life and my actions? Do people find and see Jesus in my words, my touch, my behaviour? Am I sorry for the times that I have selfishly failed to love God and my neighbour? Am I sorry enough to humbly seek forgiveness through the sacrament of reconciliation; humbly seek God’s loving grace to give me strength to do better, to serve better, to love better?
Repentance is not a one off event. Well I wish it was! The day after I finished my pilgrimage to Santiago de Compestela last year I remember approaching the young priest in the confessional in the cathedral with some reservation about his capacity to understand the temptations, the habits and the behaviour of a man at least twice his age. I imagine the youth have the same reservations about approaching a much older priest. I’m not sure if he heard the details of my confession because he made no reference to any of my sins. He took my hands in his and in halting English told me over and over again how much Jesus loves me and how he had been longing for this very moment. He was as overcome as I was by the intensity of that realisation. The realisation that though I had received the sacrament many times before, my whole life experience, good and bad, had brought me to this moment in Santiago de Compestela; this intense encounter with Christ.
I left the cathedral feeling as though I had been reborn but within the hour I had let myself down and spoken sharply and unkindly to my walking companion and close friend – hardly the behaviour of a disciple. Such is the fickleness of our human nature and such is the necessity and ongoing need for the sacrament of reconciliation; and our need for Lent.
In the first reading we get a glimpse of this sad truth of the fragility of our relationships with each other and with God. In the reading, the Israelites who had been led by Moses out of slavery in Egypt, who had escaped with God’s direct intervention through the sea from the Egyptian army, are fed up with Moses and fed-up with God. Why did you bring us out of Egypt? Just so that we can die in the desert? Is the Lord among us or not?
When things were going their way, they were happy to sing songs of faith and worship. But when the going got tough, they put God to the test and expected him to sort it out. Do we not sometimes find ourselves in a similar position? A position in which we find it easy to believe in a kind and merciful God when we are living comfortable, well fed, health lives but in which our faith is rattled by misfortune, hardship, disease and death. The advantage we have over the Israelites in the desert is that we have the example of Jesus who showed us through his life the face of the loving Father and in his death our horrifying human capacity for malice and cruelty. And in all of this, God is ever present.
He is not pulling the puppet strings and planning our every next move but rather he waits for us to turn to him for grace; to turn to him in pain as in joy, in darkness as in light, in sickness as in health.
Paul reminds us in the second reading that “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.” In our deepest being we know that that love is there and we know the emptiness that haunts us when we smother it. How often we press for the satisfaction of our immediate wants even when we know that these are seldom what we really need. Our thirst remains even after we’ve drunk the best champagne.
In the Gospel reading about the Samaritan woman at the well we meet a woman who has had a very difficult life. Shunned by society because of her scandalous relationships in and out of marriage, she’s forced to draw water from the well alone in the heat of the day.
Notice that when she approaches the well, Jesus is already there waiting for her and it is he who initiates the conversation. He asks her to share with him some of the water from the well. Water is the essence of life. It occurs to me that Jesus asks her to share her life with him and offers her eternal life in return. Jesus knows everything about the woman’s shameful past but doesn’t condemn her; rather he commends her for her truthfulness.
It was the very circumstances of her dissolute past that brought her to that moment at the well where she was alone with Jesus. It is the same for each of us. We find God not in spite of our past failings but through them.
In a paragraph from James Martin SJ’s newly published book Jesus: A Pilgrimage he sums this up well: “There is no post-conversion person and pre-conversion person. There is one person in a variety of times, the past informing and forming the present. God is at work at all times.”
Everything that we have experienced in our lives right up until this very moment has prepared us for our next encounter with Christ in this season of Lent.