THIRD SUNDAY OF LENT

(Cycle A)

 

Exodus 17,3-7

Romans 5,1-2.5-8

John 4,5-42

 

            This Sunday’s liturgy of the word is centered on the symbol of water. In the desert, Moses strikes the rock and from it flows water that quenches the thirst of the people (first reading). Jesus offers to the woman of Samaria the “living water” that “wells up to eternal life” (gospel). Water is a reality that man in the land of the Bible continually seeks anxiously since it is a symbol and condition of life and fecundity. This reality, loved and desired with man’s whole being, body and soul, becomes a symbol of God. For Jeremiah, God is the “source of living waters” and not “broken cisterns” (Jer 2,13). St Paul, in his commentary on Exodus 17, says that that rock from which water flowed in the desert “was Christ” (1 Cor 10,4). The water that Jesus offers to the woman of Samaria at Jacob’s well, is he himself, his life-giving word, interiorised through the action of the Holy Spirit, the gift of new life.

            This symbolism of water calls to mind the mystery of baptism, in which the word of Christ and the power of the Spirit, sacramentally present in the water, sign of fecundity and new life, transform man into a new creature who announces to the world the wonders of God. Lent is the ideal moment par excellence for a renewed baptismal catechesis that would bring us to live more radically the commitments of our own baptism.

 

            The first reading (Ex 17,3-7) narrates one of the most critical moments in the journey of Israel in the desert. The people suffer because of the thirst that they are experiencing and they rebel against Moses. The people think that they will die in the desert. They do not see beyond it; they believe that the desert is their definitive situation. They lost sight of the goal to which they are going and, due to thirst, fear and tiredness, they also forget all that God has done for them. The situation is so grave that they even tried “to stone” Moses (v. 4), which shows that Israel, although it has gone out from Egypt, carries within its heart the irrational and aggressive structures of the Egyptian oppressor. It still has more confidence in violence than in God’s power. In the desert, as a time of temptation and of trial, Israel will have to pass definitively from idolatry to true faith, from the violent mentality of the Egyptian oppressor to the attitude of a believer founded on confidence in God, from where a new humanity and a new way of relating among men and women will come from.

            The Lord commands Moses to strike a rock with the same staff that he used to do some of the wonders in Egypt (v. 5). Each time that Moses used his staff in Egypt, the cosmic and universal power of Yahweh was clearly manifested. Now that in the desert, he strikes the rock with the staff, Yahweh once again presents himself as God of the cosmos and the Lord of nature. What is decisive in the miracle is not the blow that Moses gave, but the presence of the Lord who makes the action of Moses effective: “I will be standing there in front of you on the rock.” (v. 6) Everything takes place before the “elders of Israel” (vv. 5.6), since they will be the qualified witnesses of the event before the unbelieving people. The water that flows from the rock is an expression of the cosmic power of Yahweh and, therefore, a symbol of the life that God can and desires to give to his people.

            The text concludes emphasizing the contrast between the promise of God to Moses (I will be standing there in front of you”) and the question of the people who tempted the Lord (“Is the Lord in our midst or not?). The entire history of Israel and the life of every believer revolve around the dialectic between these two sentences. The desert emerges when man questions about the presence of God in the midst of darkness and trial. This same desert is, however, the favourable space and time to renew his knowledge and experience of the God of life, the God who makes water flow from the rock in the desert, when all seems to have reached its end.

            In the desert, Israel experiences that Yahweh is the Lord of life. This is the paradox of the desert of Israel and of all our deserts: in the place of absolute barrenness, the God of life is revealed once again. The desert, naturally barren, is the most adequate space so that the life-giving power of God, symbolised by the water, may be manifested.

 

            The second reading (Rom 5,1-2.5-8) marks the beginning of the second part of the Letter of St Paul to the Romans. The theme of the justice of God (Rom 1-4) follows the predominance of love (Rom 5-8). Paul describes the situation of grace in which man, “justified” by God, finds himself, that is to say, man who has initiated gratuitously a “just” relationship with God. He finds himself reconciled with God, has entered into a situation of peace and of hope: a peace that overcomes all afflictions and an active hope that really transforms the present. Everything is grace received through “our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 1). Therefore, there is no reason for vainglory. The Christian places “his boast” not in the merits of his works, but in “the hope for the glory of God” (v. 2), in the afflictions that strengthens him (v. 3), in God himself (v. 11).

 

            The gospel (Jn 4,5-42) narrates the encounter of Jesus with the woman of Samaria, who together with Nicodemus (symbol of the official Jewish orthodoxy: Jn 3) and the royal official (symbol of the pagans: Jn 4,46-54), is a collective character that represents an entire people, the Samaritan people, traditionally considered by the Jews, for different historical reasons, as religiously contaminated by paganism and theologically heterodox.

            For a right interpretation of the passage of the Samaritan, it is necessary to go further than a simple moralistic or psychological reading of the text. The narration is not absolutely the story of conversion of a sinful woman, to whom Jesus miraculously “foretells” her anomalous sexual life and pedagogically invites her to conversion. The text is not easy, since it infers different themes (water, marriage-concubinage, true worship, the theme of harvest) and at the same time it is developed with symbols of great theological profundity.

            The first global point of reference for the interpretation of the narration is the progressive manifestation of the person of Jesus, who is initially presented as a “Jew” (v. 9), then as “somebody greater than Jacob” (v. 12), then as a “prophet” (v. 19), “Messiah” (v. 29) and, finally, as “Saviour of the world” (v. 42). The whole text revolves around only one central theme: the mystery of the person of Jesus.

 

1. Jesus gives the living water. Jesus is the great gift of God (Jn 3,16), who, giving his word, greater than the Mosaic law (Jn 1,17) (“the water from Jacob’s well), generates eternal life in the believer, that is, the very life of God (“spring welling up to eternal life”). The water from the well quenches the thirst every time it is drunk, but there is a need to drink again. The water that Jesus offers quenches the thirst definitively because within the person, it becomes a spring that flows endlessly and communicates immortal life. The water is the word and the truth of Jesus, which cannot remain exterior to man: the believer should interiorise it in his heart under the action of the Spirit (Jn 7,37-38). The water is the word of Jesus, which becomes “spirit and life” within us (Jn 6,63); even more, it is Jesus himself, who through his word read and meditated in the community and under the action of the Spirit, progressively reveals himself to us and makes us sharers of his life as Son.

 

            2. Jesus Prophet invites to fidelity to the only God. As a prophet Jesus denounces the “adultery” of the people of Samaria who, since ancient times, adored “five divinities” (2 Kings 17,24-41). His language is that of the ancient prophets (cf. Hos 2), who considered idolatry as adultery, as infidelity of the people (wife) to Yahweh (husband). In the light of chapter 2 of the Prophet Hosea, it is easy to see in the “Samaritan woman” the personification of the people of Samaria, unfaithful to the husband Yahweh, given over to lovers –idols, perverting the cult, threatened to die of thirst. Jesus, like Yahweh in ancient times, woos the people again, speaking to them in their heart and reconciling them with him (Hos 2,16).

 

            3. Jesus Messiah proclaims the true worship. The theme of “worship” is closely related to the problem of idolatry. As Prophet-Messiah, Jesus announces the true worship that should be rendered to the only and true God: “in Spirit and Truth”. In the gospel of John, the term “Truth” indicates the revealing dimension of the word of Jesus; the word “Spirit”, the loving dynamism of God that transforms the believer interiorly, “guiding him to all truth” (Jn 16,13), that is, to the vital understanding of the word of Jesus. Christian worship is done under the action of the Spirit, but always in the Truth of Jesus. For the Christian, this worship is the expression of his faith in Christ Jesus and of his communion with him. The expression “to worship in Spirit and Truth” does not indicate, therefore, a simple spiritual or interior worship, but designates the entire existence of the Christian formed by the word of Jesus and animated by the action of the Spirit, and which is necessarily and principally manifested through love. The true worship to the Father is a life marked by the loving filial obedience to him and by the concrete and efficacious love to others considered as brethren. The Samaritan speaks simply of “God”, but Jesus speaks of the “Father”, before whom all men and women are children, and brothers and sisters among themselves.

 

            4. Jesus is the Saviour of the world. The Samaritans, with their adherence to Jesus, inaugurates the universal perspective of the Messianic work and of the mission of the Church. They are the first fruits of the crop, already ripe for the great harvest of the universalism of salvation (Jn 4,34-38). Jesus is not a national Messiah, but, as the Samaritans recognized him, “the Saviour of the world” (Jn 4,42). His mission is universal. For him, there are no differences between individuals and between peoples. The new era without temples, where the true worship is living according to Jesus’ word, annuls the redoubts of religious nationalism. The new spring of living waters that substitutes the old well of Jacob, makes the Israelite ascendancy irrelevant. The new face of God that reveals Jesus eliminates the religious discussions and the differences in worship, since there is only one God, Father of all humanity.