For Christian communities practicing the Gregorian-based church year, today is the 3rd Sunday of Lent. Yesterday evening, at the Roman Catholic parish I regularly serve, I presided at the Vigil Mass. The liturgy included the First Scrutiny for a couple young men elected for sacramental initiation at Easter.
The gospel proclamation for the First Scrutiny is from John 4: 1-42, “The Samaritan Woman at the Well.” How to preach in the contemporary Roman Catholic context on a complex story featuring a “fallen women,” divorced and remarried no less than five times? How to proclaim a life-giving word enabling two young men to be a sacramental sign of conversion for all in this season?
Here follows the contours of my homily.
I opened with a challenge: This entire story can either decline into age-old misogyny or invite us to fresh lenten reflection on the sin of idolatry. The alternative pivots on the woman’s response to Jesus’ telling her she’s had five husbands. Acknowledging him as a prophet, she names a divisive issue, one of many between those ancient Samaritans and Jews: Which mountain is the proper place of divine worship?
A simplistic, uninformed interpretation (one I have heard in sermons and even witnessed once in a comedic dramatization) depicts a wily woman quick to turn the conversation from her sexual wickedness to a different, arcane theological topic. And so, pastorally patient Jesus kindly drops his point to roll along with where she wants to take the conversation.
And the audience for such a proclamation of God’s word? Well, of course, wicked women, cunning in covering over their unrepentant adulteries. How can that be a life-giving word of lenten conversion to all assembled? And more, how to this particular assembly, about to pray with two young men for their further Purification and Enlightenment as they approach the paschal sacraments?
What saves the story, thus making it a saving story for us, is responsible, exegetical knowledge about its pivotal symbolism. As I first learned from Sandra Schneiders, the problem with the five husbands precisely concerns worship of the one true God. The story reveals the reconciling mission of Christ Jesus, a gathering in of peoples. Encountering him, prejudices and mutual (often, self-serving) condemnations give way to shared life in the One through whom all is created and all redeemed. And such saving activity is the glorification of God — true worship.
The woman, with her (sordid) history of five husbands, is an embodied sign of the wayward ways of Samaria. One of the reasons the Jews (descendants of the ancient Southern Kingdom of Judah) condemned the Samaritans was their religious impurity. Back in the eighth century BCE, Assyria conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel, exiling the inhabitants and settling in their place foreigners from five other lands Assyria had likewise conquered (see 2 Kings 17). Yes, count ’em, five (v. 24), each of which peoples brought their own gods. Over the ensuing centuries, the people of Samaria developed beliefs and practices mixing those of ancient Israel with strains of those five others. Just as the Hebrew prophets depicted the covenant between Yahweh and Israel as husband and wife, so also the marital imagery for people and their divinities was a wider semitic phenomenon.
Thus does this lenten word from John’s gospel open out from a moralistic lesson about women and adultery to a lenten invitation to reflect, in the company of the newest respondents to Jesus’ offering of living water, on a range of sins, social and personal. In their mutual animosities, the ancient Jews and Samaritans confront us with those of our time and place: assertion of religious purity or superiority, with willful ignorance of troubled histories, participation in ethnic-nationalist antipathies, quickness to join in various forms of prejudice and bigotry, failure of courage to prioritize the gospel over other social or personal values, condemning the “other” rather than looking to one’s own sinfulness.
In John 4, Christ Jesus proclaims to the Samaritan woman–and through her to her entire people–the dawning worship of God in spirit and truth. Worship is not about a fixed, sacred site (one mountain) but a world-encompassing glorification of God. That divine glory shines through human lives of mercy and justice, across boundaries, through conversion to the Christ who demonstrates a love fearless in the face of human prejudices. (Consider: A Jew should not be sharing anything with a Samaritan [v. 9], this man should not be openly speaking with a woman [v. 27]).
Our sacramental-liturgical worship together as members of Christ’s body is for the assurance and strengthening of our entire lives as worship of the one true God. But this is the God of Jesus, not the gods of any human making, who govern our passions and priorities. We need only revisit Romans 12:1 to learn again that our ethical lives are the stuff of holiness, our “spiritual worship.”
The homily concluded in transition to the First Scrutiny: The Samaritan woman became to her people a sacrament (an embodied sign of divine grace freely received). Her townsfolk responded in kind. Our two brothers who come forward for this First Scrutiny are the sacramental occasion for us all to continue what we so fervently began on Ash Wednesday: turning from sin—including whatever idolatrous attitudes, habits, or practices counter the gospel’s salvation—in preparation for baptismal initiation or renewal at Easter.