3rd Sunday of Lent Exodus 17:3–7; Romans 5:1–2, 5–8; John 4:5–42
God-shaped hole The human heart has a deep-down thirst that only God can satisfy.
Atourist who had just returned from the Holy Land tells this story.
One day he was sitting by a well in a field. An Arab woman came down from the hills. Over her shoulder was a big leather bucket. In her hand was a ball of twine and a tiny leather bucket.
The woman tied the twine to the tiny bucket and lowered it into the well. When it was full, she pulled it up and poured it out into the big bucket. When she had filled the big bucket, she left the well and returned to the hills.
A little later an Arab man appeared. But he had nothing to lower into the well. Since he was extremely thirsty, he got down on all fours and lapped up the water the woman had spilled.
This simple story illustrates a point that the woman makes in today’s gospel. She tells Jesus.
“Sir, you don’t have a bucket, and the well is deep. Where would you get that life-giving water?”
But Jesus explains to the woman that he isn’t talking about physical water to quench physical thirst. He’s talking about spiritual water to quench spiritual thirst. Pointing to the water in the well, Jesus says:
“Whoever drinks this water will get thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again.”
The point Jesus is making is this: We all have a spiritual thirst, similar to our bodily thirst for water.
What is this spiritual thirst that we all have?
What is this inner emptiness that we all experience? Old Testament writers spoke of it as a thirst for God.
For example, the psalmist says in Psalm 42: As a deer longs for a stream of cool water, so I. . . thirst for you, the living God.
Similarly, the prophet Isaiah has God say: Come, everyone who is thirsty. . . . Come to me. Isaiah 55:1.3
Finally, Jeremiah compared God to a spring of fresh water. Jeremiah 17:13
The thirst we all feel is a thirst for God. It is the same inner thirst that people have experienced since the beginning of time.
The great Saint Augustine explained it this way: Our hearts are made for God, and they will not rest, until they rest in God.
A later writer put it more poetically, saying: Our hearts have a God-shaped hole in them, that only God can fill.
This leads us to a great tragedy in modern times.
It is this: We are trying to fill the God-shaped hole in our hearts with something other than God.
We are trying to satisfy our spiritual thirst with something other than God. The British writer Frank Sheed talked about this modern tragedy in his book Theology and Sanity.
He says the human heart has a spiritual thirst. But instead of helping people satisfy this spiritual thirst, in a spiritual way, we give them material things.
We try to distract them from what is troubling them, the same way we distract a crying baby by giving it candy and by making funny faces at it.
Trying to satisfy a spiritual thirst with material things is like trying to satisfy a physical thirst with salt water. The more we drink, the thirstier we get.
In his book Me and Other Advertising Geniuses, Charlie Brower talks about the foolishness of trying to satisfy a spiritual thirst with material things. He describes a business friend in words like this:
My friend Bill is one of those guys who’s still searching for success, even though he’s already found it. He’s one of those guys who’s still scoring touchdowns, even though the game’s over and won.
My friend Bill has done everything they’ve told him to do. But he’s still thirsty and unhappy.
He’s come to the end of the rainbow, but there’s no pot of gold there. He’s found the buried treasure, but it’s empty. He climbed the mountain, but there’s another mountain on the other side.
The point is, material success, alone, leaves us empty. There’s something inside us that material things, alone, can’t satisfy. Saint Augustine called it spiritual “restlessness.” Frank Sheed called it an “absence of meaning.” Charlie Brower described it as an inner “void.” But it all comes down to the same thing.
In every human heart there’s a thirst no water can quench. There’s a restlessness no success can satisfy. There’s a void no material object can fill.
This brings us to the “good news” contained in today’s gospel:
Jesus, and Jesus alone, can satisfy the thirst in our hearts. Jesus, and Jesus alone, can fill the void in our lives.
Jesus is the Son of God, come to fill the God-hole in each of us. Jesus is the Prince of Peace, come to calm the restlessness in our hearts. Jesus is the water from heaven, come to satisfy the thirst we feel.
Whoever drinks the water that I will give him,” says Jesus, “will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring which will provide him with life-giving water and give him eternal life.”
Let’s close with a prayer:
Lord Jesus, you are the life-giving water for which we thirst. You are the happiness and success for which we strive. You are the peace and joy for which we search.
Lord Jesus, our hearts were made for you, and they will not rest until they rest in you.
Series II 3rd Sunday of Lent Exodus 17:3–7; Romans 5:1–2, 5–8; John 4:5–42
Two miracles We should share with others the good news of what happened to us through the waters of baptism.
In 1887 a seven-year-old girl named Helen Keller lived in Alabama. But she was not an ordinary little girl. She was blind, deaf, and dumb.
Helen lost her sight and hearing as the result of an illness when she was about one and a half years old. Since she could no longer hear, she soon lost her ability to imitate sounds and thus to speak.
She was like a little wild animal, with no way to communicate with the world.
Yet before Helen died, she would graduate from college with honors, become a widely acclaimed author, be the White House guest of every American president from Grover Cleveland to John F. Kennedy, and become an inspiration to handicapped people the world over.
The story behind her amazing achievement dates back to a spring day in 1887 when a 20-year-old woman named Annie Sullivan came to Alabama to be Helen’s private teacher.
Annie’s first big step in establishing communication with little Helen came several weeks after her arrival. Helen describes it in her autobiography, The Story of My Life. She writes:
[My teacher] brought me my hat, and I knew I was going out into the warm sunshine. This thought . . . made me hop and skip with pleasure.
We walked down the path to the well-house, attracted by the fragrance of the honeysuckle with which it was covered. Some one was drawing water and my teacher placed my hand under the spout. As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water. . . . I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motion of her fingers.
Suddenly . . . [the] mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that ‘w-a-t-e-r’ meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free! . . .
I left the well-house eager to learn. Everything had a name, and each name gave birth to a new thought. As we returned to the house every object which I touched seemed to quiver with life. That was because I saw everything with the strange, new sight that had come to me.*
Helen’s experience at the well that spring day changed her life forever.
The story of Helen Keller at the well bears a striking resemblance to the story in today’s gospel.
It too took place at a well. It too involved a teacher and a student. In it the teacher also used water to communicate an important message to the student. And that message changed the life of the student forever.
As in the case of Helen Keller, it lifted the Samaritan woman out of a world of darkness and opened to her a world of light.
Like the life of Helen Keller, the Samaritan woman’s life was changed forever. ______ * Helen Keller, The Story of My Life (New York: Doubleday & Co., 1954), p. 23. In the early days of Christianity, the Samaritan woman became a popular image of catechumens. They were adults learning to be Christians and preparing for baptism at the Easter Vigil.
They too would soon meet Jesus at a well. Water would also play an important part in that meeting. Their lives too would be changed forever.
This brings us to our parish and ourselves.
In our parish on the Vigil of Easter, catechumens will be gathering around a well. And, as in the case of the Samaritan woman and Helen Keller, the water in that well will change them forever.
Likewise, on the Vigil of Easter, we will gather around the same well to renew our own baptismal vows.
And that brings us to the practical message contained in today’s gospel story.
It is important to note what the Samaritan woman did after her encounter with Jesus at the well. The Gospel says:
[T]he woman left her water jar, went back to the town, and said to the people there, “Come and see the man who told me everything I have ever done.”
The Gospel adds that the people left the town and went to meet Jesus.
And so the woman, who had been a great sinner, became Christianity’s very first missionary. After her encounter with Jesus at the well she went off to share the good news about Jesus with her friends and neighbors.
Herein lies the practical message in today’s gospel for each one of us here.
We too should respond to our encounter with Jesus at the well of baptism the way the Samaritan woman did.
We too should do what Helen Keller did. We too should share with others the new life that our teacher made possible for us. We too should go off and share the good news of Jesus with others.
Let me illustrate one way we can do this.
Of the 70 million Catholics in the United States, 15 million are inactive. That averages out to 600 Catholics per parish who are not practicing their faith.
Statistics show that two-thirds of all Catholics who eventually return to the Church do so because a friend or a relative invited them to return.
Statistics also show that the best recruiters of inactive Catholics are Catholics who themselves were once inactive.
Herein, I believe, lies an area of missionary work in which every Catholic in this church today can and should be involved.
We all know inactive Catholics who, through our Lenten sacrifices and loving invitation, might find their way back to the Church again.
Jesus assures us that there is more joy in heaven over one person who has strayed from the fold and returned than over a hundred persons who have no need of salvation. Let us close with a prayer:
Lord, like Helen Keller, who discovered new life at a well of water, and like the Samaritan woman, who discovered new life at a similar well, help us share with others the life that we too received at the well of baptism. It is the very least we can do in return for your great gift of life to us. M. L.
Series III 3rd Sunday of Lent Exodus 17:3–7; Romans 5:1–2, 5–8; John 4:5–42
Witness Preaching Jesus by work and word.
The Samaritan woman said,“Come and see the man who told me everything I have ever done. Could he be the Messiah?” John 4:29
In 1957 the federal government ordered Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, to become racially integrated.
Melba Patillo was one of the nine Black students escorted to class by U.S. marshals. Whites lined the sidewalk and jeered.
In the course of that year, Melba was spit upon, tripped, and called names. What pained her most, however, was being ignored by the other students.
Not long ago she wrote a book entitled Warriors Don’t Cry. In it she writes: “All I wanted them to say was, ‘Hello, how are you? What a nice blouse.’ ”
Melba recalls lying in bed at night filled with fear. But she rarely cried, because her grandma kept telling her, “God’s warriors don’t cry.”
One day she wrote in a diary:
I am growing up too fast. I’m not ready to go back to Central and be a warrior . . . I just want to stay right here, listening to the songs of Nat King Cole.
The story of Melba Patillo highlights the whole problem of prejudice.
Unfortunately, it is as old as the world. And it was part of the world in which Jesus lived as well.
For example, Jews harbored a deep prejudice against Samaritans. Jesus spoke out against it, forcefully, in a variety of ways.
He shocked his Jewish listeners by making a Samaritan the hero of one of his best-known parables: the parable of the Good Samaritan.
And many Jews were no doubt irritated when Jesus pointed out that ten lepers were healed one day; but the only one to return to give thanks was a Samaritan.
Many Jews were no doubt shocked to learn that Jesus asked a Samaritan woman for a drink from a common cup Samaritans used.
It was like a white man in the south, in pre-civil-rights days, asking a Black woman for a drink from a common cup that Blacks used.
Even the Samaritan woman was shocked, saying to Jesus: “You are a Jew, and I am a Samaritan so how can you ask me for a drink?” But Jesus did something even more dramatic to make a statement about the prejudice against the Samaritans of his time.
In the long version of today’s Gospel, Jesus tells the woman that she has been married to five men. She responds, saying:
“I know that the Messiah will come, and when he comes, he will tell us everything.” Jesus answered, “I am he. . . .”
The woman left her water jar and went into the town and said to the people there,
“Come and see the man who told me everything I have ever done. Could he be the Messiah?”
Many Samaritans from the town went out to the well to meet Jesus. After talking to him a little while, they invited him to their town. Jesus stayed with them two days, teaching them.
When Jesus left, the woman’s neighbors said to her:
“We believe now, not because of what you said, but because we ourselves have heard him and we know that he really is the Savior of the world.”
So the Samaritan woman, who started out as an outcast like Melba Patillo, became the very first missionary to the non-Jewish world.
Later, the apostle Philip would go to Samaria and build on the work she began. He, in turn, would be followed by none other than Peter and John. But it was the woman at the well who led the way.
I t happened that in the early days of Christianity, the Samaritan woman became a popular symbol for adults preparing for baptism.
They were to respond to their encounter with Jesus in baptism as the woman responded to her encounter with Jesus at the well: by sharing the Good News of Jesus with others.
Herein lies the practical message in today’s Gospel for each one of us.
We, too, should respond to our encounter with Jesus at the well of baptism the way the Samaritan woman did.
We should share with others the Good News and the new life that we have received in baptism.
Let me illustrate one important way we can do this.
Reliable estimates are that perhaps some 20 million Catholics in the United States are inactive in their faith. That averages 700 Catholics per parish.
Statistics show that the best missionaries to inactive Catholics are friends, neighbors, or family members.
Statistics also show that nearly two-thirds of all Catholics who become active again, do so because a friend or relative invited them to return.
Herein, I believe, lies an area of missionary work in which every Catholic in this church can and should become involved.
We all know inactive Catholics who, through our Lenten sacrifices and our loving invitation, might find their way back to the Church. Jesus assures us that there is more joy in heaven over one person who has strayed from the fold and returned than over a hundred persons who have no need of salvation. Let us close with a prayer that we will share the Good News Jesus by both work and word. And may we do it with the zeal of the woman at the well and the courage of Melba Patillo:
Father, you so loved the world that in the fullness of time, you sent your only Son, Jesus, to be our Savior.
We now ask you to send workers into the harvest, For the harvest is great, but the workers are few. Bless the vineyard of the world with workers who will teach in your Son’s name, walk in his footsteps, and break bread in his memory. M. L.