A reflection on the readings for March 12, 2023, the Third Sunday of Lent.
Catholicism in the US is at a very critical juncture at the moment. Just as an example, 20 years back, we used to have four sessions of the Rite of Election in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati – two at the Cathedral and two for Dayton at Immaculate Conception Parish. Both the Cathedral and this huge church would overflow for both these sessions in English. Fast forward to 2023. We still had four sessions but two were in Spanish. There were only two sessions in English between Cincinnati and Dayton, and even those were barely full. Catholicism is in a decline in the US. For that matter, organized religion is in decline in the US. And yet, here you and I are in church, continuing to be Catholics in these complicated times.
In this context, I believe that the story of the Samaritan woman invites us to reflect on our faith both in Christ and the Church a little more deeply. I would like to use this story to make three points.
Religion is Love, Love is Religion
The Samaritan woman reminds me of me. I think of how she came to the well with a jar. A well is refreshed by an ever-flowing spring. A jar, on the other hand, can hold only so much water. Sooner or later, it empties out and the water gets stale. The story of the Samaritan woman is about a God who is like a well and we who come to God with our little jars. Often, we hold on to the jar as if it is the well. We read a similar story in today’s first reading. When the Israelites got thirsty in the desert, they lost sight of what God had done in the past and the future to which God was leading them. They forgot that God was the well that could quench every thirst. Sometimes we make God as small as the jars we carry. God is about so much more and offers us so much more.
Jesus’ words to the Samaritan woman are very relevant for us today. Jesus said, “If you knew the gift of God and who is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” God does not just fill our little jars, but rather, God opens a spring within us. This is exactly what St. Paul means when he says in today’s second reading, “The love of God has been poured out into our hearts.” Today, let us drop our jars; let us allow Christ to pour God’s love into our hearts and open the spring of living water within us.
Faith – An Encounter with Christ
In the final analysis, the story of the Samaritan woman is a story of a faith-encounter. It’s the story of a woman outside the Jewish tradition who had a face-to-face encounter with Jesus, the Messiah. Even though at the beginning of the story the woman did not know who Jesus was, at the end of the story she came to believe in Jesus as the Messiah. St. John concludes the story with the words, “Many of the Samaritans of that town began to believe in him because of the word of the woman who testified, ‘He told me everything I have done.’” St. John’s point is – the Samaritan woman believed and, because of her faith, an entire town came to believe in Jesus.
The story is a truly well-woven story. The Samaritan woman engaged Jesus on many levels before she came to have faith in him as the Messiah. She engaged him on a sociological and intellectual level, on the doctrinal differences between Jews and Samaritans, and even tried to evade some uncomfortable details about her private life. However, all these things receded to the background once she realized the significance of the moment. Once she recognized Christ, every other thing moved to the periphery.
The story of the Samaritan woman makes me reflect on my own faith. What does it mean to have faith in Jesus Christ? Of course, I can reflect on religion as a sociological phenomenon, as a theological pursuit, as a doctrinal endeavor, or even as a ritual practice. I am not saying that intellectually reasoning out our beliefs, our doctrines, and our rituals are not important. But at the core of it all lies something very simple and basic – standing face-to-face with Jesus the Messiah. Faith and religion first and foremost are about standing face-to-face with Christ. When faith and religion are about what we can get out of it, then we are like the Samaritan woman who came to the well with the jar. When faith is primarily about our intellect, our doctrines, and our rituals, faith is “something.” But once we stand face to face with Christ, then faith is “Somebody.” Once we meet Christ, the sacraments and our worship are not something we do, but Somebody we meet. Once faith emerges from a face-to-face encounter with Jesus, religion, theology, doctrines, rituals, and daily prayer take on a whole new meaning.
I am inviting you to take time this week to reflect on the meaning of faith and belief for you. What is faith? What is religion? What does it mean for you to believe?
Faith as Conversation
Perhaps you are as conscious as I am about the socially and politically contentious times in which we live. Sadly, religion is woven into these contentions. People are becoming more and more intolerant, disrespectful, hateful, and violent about their politics and also their faith. As a result, the fastest-growing segment of believers in the United States is called “the nones” – people who are spiritual without identifying themselves as religious or declaring allegiance to any religious tradition.
The fact that in Biblical times, when religious wars were rampant, a man and a woman, an insider and an outsider, a Jew, and a Samaritan could have a face-to-face conversation about society, politics, religion, and faith is very relevant for me. Jesus, though he was the Son of God, did not compel or threaten the Samaritan woman. She was honest with her views and Jesus merely offered her the possibilities. Even after the Samaritan woman came to believe in Jesus as the Messiah, her testimony to her townsfolk is impressive. She does not compel, she does not argue, she does not condemn but merely points out the One who “told me everything I have done!”
Perhaps, our faith that stems from our face-to-face encounter with Christ is such that it only leads to honest, respectful, loving, and caring conversations with other people. May our faith never lead us to intolerance, disrespect, hate, and violence. May our testimony never compel, always and only point to Christ – “the one who is called the Christ.”
As Christ comes to us in this Eucharist, let us stand face-to-face with Christ. Let us allow Christ to touch the very core of our being. Let the mercy and love of God transform us forever. And let that be our story.
Image Credit: Photo by Max Tcvetkov on Unsplash
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Fr. Satish Joseph was ordained in India in 1994 and incardinated into the archdiocese of Cincinnati in 2008. He has a Masters in Communication and Doctorate in Theology from the University of Dayton. He is presently Pastor at Immaculate Conception and St. Helen parishes in Dayton, OH. He is also the founder Ite Missa Est ministries (www.itemissaest.org) and uses social media extensively for evangelization. He is also the founder of MercyPets (www.mercypets.org) — a charitable fund that invites pet-owners to donate a percent of their pet expenses to alleviate child hunger. MercyPets is active in four countries since its founding in December 2017. Apart from serving at the two parishes, he facilitates retreats, seminars and parish missions.