Third Sunday of Lent – March 19, 2017 – St. John’s, Goshen
True, integral Christianity has two dimensions, one inner, one outer, and they are both represented in our New Testament readings today.
Our second reading was taken from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, a letter that is almost entirely devoted to the question of how we human beings can be in a right relationship to God. His premise is that all of us–whether Jews or Gentiles–have fallen short of what we should be as creatures and children of God, and that the recovery of a right relationship with God is impossible by our own efforts. This right-making was initiated by God and was accomplished by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and it must be appropriated by each of us by an acknowledgment of our need, a confession of our sins, a surrender of ourselves in faith and obedience, all of it the gift of God’s Spirit transforming our minds and hearts.
This is what St. Paul has been describing: “Since we have been justified [set right] by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith to this grace in which we stand, and we boast in hope of the glory of God. And hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” Notice the words that describe our inner state: peace with God, access by faith to his grace, hope, love for God poured into our hearts–all of this is “the grace in which we stand.” This is the inner dimension of our religion, the “worship in spirit and in truth” that Jesus speaks of in today’s Gospel, not a matter merely of words or of external gestures or even sacred rites such as the one we are carrying out here at this Mass, but a faith, hope, and love that surge from our deepest selves as if from an ever-fresh, ever flowing spring.
And how did we come to enjoy this peaceful state? It was because God came to meet us in Jesus Christ. The initiative was from God’s side, and it was inspired, not by anger but by love: “God proves–demonstrates–his love for us,” St. Paul says, “in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” Christianity has this outer dimension. It is not a religion of human initiative, but of divine gift. Even when we were not seeking God–while we were still sinners–God was seeking us, and, thanks be to God, he found us in Jesus Christ.
Today’s Gospel shows us a moment in that divine search. “Tired from his journey, Jesus sat down by the well.” When he asked the Samaritan woman for a drink of water, St. Augustine said, he was really expressing his thirst for her faith. And he gains it by the end of their exchange as he gradually transforms her understanding of the realities of thirst and water and life. “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again,” Jesus tells her, “but whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst; the water I shall give will become in her a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” See our two dimensions again: it is from Jesus that we receive the thirst-quenching water, but that water is supposed to become an ever-flowing well within us.
This simple encounter inspired some of the most beautiful lines in all of Christian poetry. They are found in the poem that has often been set aside as too gloomy, the Dies irae. The first of these verses runs: “Recordare, Jesu pie, quod sum causa tuae viae. Ne me perdas illa die.” “In your kindness, Jesus, remember that I am the reason for your journey. Do not allow me to be lost on that day.” We–all of us and each of us–are the reason why Christ undertook his journey in our humanity.
And the next verse: “Quaerens me sedisti lassus”–“You sat down wearied by your search for me.” The medieval poet has personalized the search: Jesus was not seeking just that woman; he was wearied by his search for me, the poet says, and that “me” is everyone who reads or sings or hears this hymn, that is, the poet’s “me” is you and me. Think of yourself as if you are one of those lost children whose photographs we see with the plea: “Have you seen this child?” Think of the father or mother tirelessly searching for that child, and you know the passion of God’s search for his lost children in Jesus, there, in the noonday sun, wearily sitting down, and asking for a drink of water.
“You exhausted yourself looking for me,” each one of us could say to Christ: Quaerens me sedisti lassus. The hymn’s stanza continues: Redemisti crucem passus–“You redeemed me by suffering the cross”–that was how hard Christ’s journey was. And then comes the final, poignant plea: Tantus labor non sit cassus”–May so great an effort not be in vain.
And with that prayer we are brought back to where we began, because whether Christ’s painful and wearying search for us has been in vain will depend on whether or not we find ourselves found in Christ, allow ourselves to be found by him, and so enter into the peace and grace of the love of God that has been poured forth into our hearts by the Holy Spirit.