3rd Sunday of Lent
March 7, 1999
Rom 5: 1-2, 5-8
Christian Brothers, Iona College, New Rochelle
[On Saturday evening, March 22, 2014, I celebrated Mass for Scouts and Scouters prepping for NYLT in Putnam Valley. I preached from notes on the gospel of the Samaritan woman (John 4). So--here's an oldie, but on a different text.]
“The love of God has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Rom 5: 5).
That we are sinners is self-evident. The 2 stories that frame Paul’s theological reflection on justification this evening illustrate the range of our human sin. In the Exodus story the Hebrews in the desert offend God directly by displaying a lack of trust in his leadership. In the Gospel the Samaritan woman offends God indirectly by her sinful interpersonal relationships.
That God would extend forgiveness to us is less evident, but conceivable. Every religion seems to have some kind of ritual for seeking forgiveness, for making atonement, usually involving sacrifice. But who could ever have imagined that God’s forgiveness would be given thru his only Son? “We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ…. For Christ died at the appointed time for the ungodly” (5:1,6). The sacrifice of atonement for our sins is not a sheep or a bull but the Lamb of God.
When the Jewish people celebrate the seder in a few weeks, they will celebrate their own mysterious inclusion so many centuries ago among those whom God ransomed from Egypt. I don’t know whether they have the same sacramental sense concerning Israel’s journey thru the Sinai—if I may apply the Christian theological term sacrament to such a similar concept by which the people of today are saved by what God did long ago. Does the 20th-century Jew thirst along with Moses’s companions, and does he too witness Moses striking the rock, and does he too drink from the flowing water? I don’t know.
But we 20th-century Christians are mysteriously included among the disciples in the upper room, on Calvary, at the empty tomb, around the risen Christ. What happened so long ago to Peter, James, and John, to Mary of Nazareth, Mary of Magdala, and the Samaritan woman, happens to us and for us today, and in the process transforms us from sinners to saved.
How so? “The love of God has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” Jesus offers the Samaritan “a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:14), which refers not just to baptism but especially to God’s presence that comes to us in that sacrament. In ch. 7 John makes this connection explicit: At Jerusalem for the feast of Booths, “Jesus stood up and exclaimed, ‘Let anyone who thirsts come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as scripture says, “Rivers of living water will flow from within him.”’ He said this in reference to the Spirit that those who came to believe in him were to receive” (7:37-39).
This imagery of living water flowing from within a person, John paints for us also at the crucifixion: “One soldier thrust his lance into [Jesus’] side, and immediately blood and water flowed out” (19:34). This flowing water, as well as the blood, is the life of the Church of Christ.
The living water is the sacramental symbol of the real presence and activity of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit of God connects us personally to the saving mysteries, puts us into the upper room, atop Calvary, within the empty tomb, around the risen Lord. In faith we drink deeply of the Spirit and are justified: cleansed, made whole, made holy. “The love of God [is] poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”
Paul writes, “While we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). Here’s a mystery! He uses the past tense: “we were sinners.” The gift of the Spirit is so powerful that we are fundamentally changed, and now we stand—present tense—in grace, at peace with God and full of hope for a share in God’s glory (5:1-2), rather than filled with shame in God’s presence, like the 1st man and woman in their sinfulness (Gen 3:10).
If only we didn’t keep reverting to sin and shame! If only we didn’t keep grumbling against the Lord and testing him (cf. Ex 17:3-7)!
But our thirst for the living water of grace can still be quenched. Lent, in particular, calls us back to our watery spiritual origins, to our baptism into the death and resurrection of Christ, into a life that is dead to sin and alive to God in grace, thru the gift of the Holy Spirit. We will use the sacrament of reconciliation to renew our conversion to Christ. The Holy Spirit still pours God’s love into our hearts thru this 2d sacrament of forgiveness. In sacramental penance, we sinners again find our “peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” as, once more, the Holy Spirit does his thing in us.
In Lent we also practice specific acts of penance to remind us to die to sin and live for God. We pray, allowing the Holy Spirit to connect us to Jesus and the Father; we don’t know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself inter-cedes for us (Rom 8:26-27). At the Eucharist we invoke the Spirit over our gifts of bread and wine, that they might become our food of everlasting life, the very body and blood of Jesus, who “is truly the savior of the world” (John 4:42).
Every day—not just in Lent—we beg Jesus, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may not be thirsty” (John 4:15) for eternal life. Every day the Holy Spirit offers us the blood and water of Calvary. Every day “God proves his love for us” and restores our hope of loving and being loved—for eternity.