3rd Sunday of Lent

3rd Sunday of Lent

Preached March 15, 2020; St. Peter Catholic Church, The Dalles, Oregon

Let me begin today with a doctrinal summary. The doctrine gives us the objective reality.
Today’s Gospel will help us discover how to encounter this reality in our lives. Doctrine and
lived faith go hand in hand.

Grace, as we teach the 1st graders, is God’s life in our souls. More precisely that is the reality of
sanctifying grace, since there is also actual grace, which are the helps that God gives us, light for
the mind or strength for the will, to lead us along the right path in life. Sanctifying grace is God’s
life in our souls, but it would be more precise to say that it is a participation in God’s life, since it
is not exactly the same as what exists in God, what is indeed God himself. Or, we could refer to
the classic definition given by St. Peter in his 2nd letter: grace is a participation in the divine
nature. (2 Pe 1:4)

This is what makes us to be truly children of God, or to distinguish the reality of grace from the
reality of the Only Begotten Son, “adopted” children of God. Indeed, St. Paul uses the language
of adoption. (cf. Rm 8:15; Gal 4:5) This adoption of grace, however, is more than the external,
legal adoption that takes place in human society, because the reality of divine life received from
God is real. St. John writes in his 1st letter: See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we
may be called children of God. Yet so we are. (1 Jn 3:1)

The reality of this gift of sanctifying grace underlies the words of St. Paul in today’s 2nd reading.
This is the reality that Christ won for us, when we were still enemies in sin, through his death on
the Cross. He not only forgives us our sins, but he gives us to share in his very own life, the life
of the Son of God.

We enter into this life through faith and baptism; the life of grace is the basis of our hope in
eternal life, which brings that life to fulfillment in the face to face vision of God; the most
perfect work of the life of grace is the love of God, that is enkindled in our hearts by the Holy
Spirit. Faith, hope, and love – which are called the ‘theological virtues’ – are the characteristic
virtues and actions that reveal the life of grace, the life of God’s children.

The life of grace was revealed in the Old Testament, we could say, by way of a living parable
written in the life of the people of Israel in their journey out of the slavery of Egypt ( symbol of
the slavery of sin), across the Red Sea (a symbol of baptism), across the desert (a symbol of life
in this world), to the promised land (a symbol of eternal life and the resurrection of the dead).
I have spoken in the past of the order of nature and the order of supernature (which is the
order of grace). After the sin of Adam, the natural life of man became as a desert, deprived of
the water of grace and incapable of producing the water of grace.

Once we come to recognize the emptiness of the desert of this present life – the coronavirus
pandemic certainly lays this emptiness bare for us – once we come to recognize that nothing in
this world can truly satisfy us, can truly make us happy, once we come to recognize the truth of
Ecclesiastes, Vanity of vanity, all things are vanity, (Eccl. 1:2) we could readily fall into despair.
We might want to flee back to Egypt, hide ourselves in a life of pleasure, recreation, and
distraction, pretending that we haven’t seen the truth. We might want to rebel against those
who led us out, so to speak, those who led us to recognize that this world truly is like a
waterless desert.

Nevertheless, we must learn that in the desert of this life there is a ‘rock’, stable and
immovable, that contrary to the nature of rocks, pours forth from its open side, the water of
the life of grace. That rock is Jesus Christ himself, stable and immovable, the same, yesterday,
today, and forever, (He 13:8) whose side was opened by a lance as his dead body hung upon
the Cross. From the opened side of Jesus there came forth the life-giving fountain of blood and
water, the fountain whose flow reaches us in the sacraments, especially baptism and the Holy
Eucharist.

This fountain, however, is not just ‘out there’. It is opened up in our interior, it is the fulfillment
of Jesus’ promise to the Samaritan woman, it is the fountain of living water, the fountain of
sanctifying grace, that springs up to eternal life – this life cannot be touched or harmed by the
coronavirus.

That is the doctrine to be believed, but it seems that the reality either remains completely
hidden from us, or dormant within us, or else we have lost it through sin – even like the
Samaritan woman. How can this doctrine pass from being dry words – like another form of a
desert – and become a truly vital reality, indeed, the vital reality in our life?

The Samaritan woman came out to the well at midday, in the blaze of the sun, so full of shame
that she did not come in the cool of the morning or evening with the other women. There she
encountered a mysterious stranger. When it was all over, she went away leaving her water jar
at the well. She had been freed of her thirst for things of this world, a thirst that had led her
down the path of her life of shame. Her thirst had been slaked by a taste of the living water
given by Jesus; now she desired nothing but Jesus’ living water, the life of grace.

The same Jesus who spoke to the Samaritan woman is here. He is present in the Holy Eucharist.
We receive him in Holy Communion. We can visit him during the day. We do this many times,
but the reality hardly seems like the encounter the Samaritan woman had with Jesus. Have we
left this building, leaving our jar at the well? Or do we go away without having slaked our thirst;
do we go away still panting after the things of this world? Do we grumble and complain about
the Mass, because we are bored, because it is too long, or because we have not been
entertained? Or because we are paying attention to all the sinners and hypocrites we see (or
think we see) in the church? Or because we are disappointed by a lack of community?

The Samaritan woman left her jar at the well, but her story should leave us with hope. She
started off skeptical of Jesus. She tried to resist his promise, though she couldn’t quite escape a
longing for that living water.

Now the Book of Revelation says of Jesus that his eyes are like flames of fire. (Rev 1:14) The
letter to the Hebrews tells us what this means: The word of God is living and effective, sharper
than any two-edged sword, penetrating even between soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and
able to discern the reflections and thoughts of the heart. No creature is concealed from him, but
everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must render account. (He 4:12-
13)

A few words from Jesus about her life, and she began to realize that those eyes, like flames of
fire, were upon her, piercing her soul and her heart. She was scared, but did not flee. She tried
still to fend him off with excuses, but she heard his call to worship in spirit and truth. Still, she
did not want to trust herself to the man in front of her – who was he?

She made one last attempt at defense, When the Messiah comes, he will teach us everything.
Yes, she wanted to receive the teaching of the Messiah. He would make everything clear.
Nevertheless, she was unsure about the man in front of her.
Jesus replied, I am he, the one speaking with you.

At that moment her soul had been laid completely bare; she knew in whose presence she
stood. At that moment she gave Jesus the drink he had asked for, her faith. She received also
the drink that he promised and so left her jar at the well. She believed and she drank. She
worshipped in spirit and truth. Her life would never be the same again.

So here is the question for each one of us: we come here and find not a mysterious stranger,
but an even more mysterious host, a frail white wafer. That silent host stands as a challenge for
us. Do we believe? Will we give Jesus the drink of our faith? In the silence of the host, Jesus
speaks to us and tells us, If you knew the gift of God and who this is before you, you would ask
and you would discover the fulfillment of all your desire.

Will we simply slam the door in his face? Or, as we set up our defenses, will we have at least a
tiny spark of longing – perhaps? What if? Even more, as his gaze begins to pierce our soul will
we flee in fear, or will we let ourselves be drawn, even as we try to resist?
To really come into the presence of the one how knows us to the core, because he created us,
the one from whom no secret is hidden, is indeed a terrifying prospect – even though in truth
we cannot hide from him.

If like the Samaritan woman we are at least willing to pursue the dialog of a true encounter
with Jesus Christ, he will indeed lay bare our soul; if we have the courage to continue, we will
discover the true love of God that will overcome all obstacles. If we let ourselves be known, we
will then be on the path to knowing, even as we are known. (cf. 1 Cor 13:12) Then the living
water of grace will no longer be for us a dry doctrine, a matter of a few words, but a living
reality springing up to eternal life.

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Fr. Joseph Levine graduated from Thomas Aquinas College and after a long journey was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Baker, Oregon. He currently serves as pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in The Dalles on the Columbia River.