The true wisdom of Lenten readings is revealed

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As we move into Lent, it becomes obvious how carefully the Readings of the Liturgy have been selected to draw us deeper into the truth of our faith.  They are not drum rolls to Easter but lessons about what it all means for us, what it means to be a baptized person, one now called into the Body of Christ, in and for the world, writes Greg O'Kelly SJ, Bishop of the Diocese of Port Pirie, South Australia.

In the round of readings for this Cycle A, the Old Testament selections for the five Sundays of Lent recall the Creation story of man and woman placed in the Garden, the call of Abraham "our father in faith", Moses bringing forth water in the desert, the anointing of David the symbol of the Messianic King, and God's promise to open the graves of the dead.

The Gospel readings for the same Sundays are the testing of Jesus with invitations to wealth, display and power, his transfiguration revealing the divine, the conversation with the Samaritan woman, the encounter with the man born blind, and the raising of Lazarus.  Themes of calling, God-within, the living water, faith and light, resurrection.

Together these are strong accounts from the Scriptures old and new about the truth of Christ and the impact on our lives of his Resurrection, told mainly through encounters.

A principal theme for this third Sunday is expressed in the second reading, St Paul to the Romans, that "what proves that God loves us is that Christ died for us while we were yet sinners".  We see of the mercy of God granting water in the desert to a people turning against the Lord, putting God to the test.

We see Jesus in the Gospel treating with dignity and kindness a highly disreputable woman at the well, offering her the living water.  And we think of ourselves, how God in Christ comes to meet us wherever we are, at whatever stage of faith or lack of goodness, inviting us to drink of his love and be renewed.

Let us reflect on this woman of Samaria, whose personality through feisty conversation with the Lord becomes more detailed than most other figures in the Gospels.  The Samaritans as a race were reviled by the Jews. They were descendants of those left behind when the Northern Kingdom of Israel was conquered and led into slavery by Assyria, more than 700 years earlier.

They had in time intermarried with idolators, pagan peoples who had been introduced into the country. They were hybrid Jews, an anathema to the orthodox.

Jesus breaks down barriers on several levels even by talking to this woman, as the shocked reaction of the disciples shows.  First, she was a Samaritan.  Second, she was a woman, and no rabbi or devout Jewish male would talk to a woman in public, not even one's wife or daughter. It would defile him.

Third, this woman clearly had a very poor name.  She came to a well almost a kilometre's walk out of the village (which had its own well), and at midday, the heat of the day, when there would be few to encounter.

The women of the village probably shunned her because of her reputation; she was now living with her sixth partner, a lot even by our present practices, with never a marriage commitment having ever been made, never a love blessed.

She was a victim of some circumstance that had led her down such a path, and had no doubt been used by men as an object for their temporary convenience, and she had perhaps allowed herself to be used that way, because of a heart broken and calloused by false words.

To be a disciple, to live the love of Jesus, leads us necessarily to break down barriers between ourselves and others, to treat all with dignity and respect, not just those racially or religiously or politically different to us.

But even those whose opinions or causes we find not only objectionable but destructive of morality and right order in society, such as proponents of abortion, euthanasia, same-sex marriage.

We are called to fight what is not right, but not to judge the hearts of others. In opposing the stance of another to which we object, it is all too easy to slip into impugning the character, and that is especially wrong for Christians.

Of the many women in the Gospels, it is the three sinful ones who bring out so much of the    humanity and compassion of the heart of Jesus.  Mary Magdalene is cited by Jesus as an example of forgiving love.  The woman taken in adultery hears his heart-changing words, "neither do I condemn you; go now and sin no more".

The Samaritan woman transforms from being an aggressive personality, made so by life, to a procession of titles, calling Jesus first' "What? you are a Jew", to "you are a prophet, sir", to an inkling that Jesus is the Messiah, then to be, this disgraced and reviled woman, the first to hear Jesus word, "I who am speaking to you, I am He."

It is through conversation with Jesus that this woman changes from rejection to faith.  She leaves her water jar to go off and tell the rest of the village about Christ. She changes from opposition to proclamation.

She wants others to know of this living water, to bring new water jars to be filled, the hearts of those who have not yet met him. Our daily prayer in Lent, a few minutes only, is our means for conversation with Jesus now, but we must not fill the time with words, but like the Samaritan woman, allow Jesus to reply. "Be still, and know that I am God".

Water is such a powerful image in an arid land like Palestine.  Here in this diocese, which includes most of South Australia and includes Uluru, we know how water transforms. In recent times we have seen Lake Eyre come alive again, as we have the Riverland of the Murray, and all the cattle stations and aboriginal lands of the north.  It is like hope born again.

The water of baptism caused life in our souls.  We were consecrated in baptism through water and the Holy Spirit to become "priest, prophet and royal person".  The priest in us is called to anoint the hurts of others, to be reconcilers, blessers, paths to God for others. 

The prophet in us is to proclaim the Gospel by deeds of love and justice.  The royal person, as did the kings and queens of old, is to care for the outcast, the widow and the orphan, the poor on the edges.

May Jesus, who sat by the well "thus tired", give our hearts this Lent his sense of compassion and being poured out for others, and may the water that He gave  us at baptism continue to be that spring welling up within us to eternal life, as he told that Samaritan woman that day.

And may the conviction continue to grow with us that we are so precious to him, even with all our failings, and that "what proves that God loves us is that Christ died for us while we were still sinners."