Ars Praedicandi: 3rd Sunday of Lent, Ed Foley

It is probably not kosher for a preacher to admit
that he doesn’t read a lot of theology anymore.
Especially if he is a retired theology professor.

While I read some, at lot of it for me
seems either very theoretical and unrelated to Christian living
or unnecessarily narrow, even colonial
and inattentive to the ever-expanding diversity
that is a hallmark of human existence.

Maybe that is why the scientific world fascinates me so much,
where curiosity and unsolved mysteries take the lead
and so many of my unexplored presumptions are exploded
with new discoveries that give us hints
about the world and cosmos that we inhabit
but about which we know so little.

It doesn’t take a genius to perceive that the key metaphor
flowing through today’s readings is water:
stories of gushing streams from rocks,
wisdom refrains warning against dried up hearts,
Pauline allusions to the Holy Spirit being poured out
as an antidote to desiccated lives,
and liquid Jesus
spiritually shape-shifting as a Samaritan friend,
a bucket-less font of wisdom,
and a purveyor of living water.

Awash in such aquatic imagery a preacher could ponder
all of the biblical references to water
and there are well over 700 of them to study
from the very beginning of Genesis to the end of Revelation.

But I have to admit that what captivated me more
is water’s role in the survival of every known species:
from scorpions to rattlesnakes
and tuna fish to tigers.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that all creatures “drink” water.
Some, like freshwater fish or desert lizards,
absorb water into their bodies from their environment
through a process of osmosis.

As I got absorbed in this water thing
I learned how some creatures can survive
for days, weeks, months, even years without water:

  • cheetahs for 10 days
  • bats for 6 months
  • desert tortoises for a whole year
  • and a kangaroo rat for up to 10 years.

Human beings don’t have that kind of physical tolerance.
We can survive for a month or longer without food,
if we are in relatively good health,
but when it comes to water, it is more like 3 to 5 days
and dehydration can occur when losing as little
as 3% of our body water.

When it comes to understanding why water is so critical
for our biological survival
scientists point to its many characteristics, e.g.,

  • its cohesive capacity to bond with other molecules,
    • sometimes called the universal solvent
  •  its ability to support cellular structure
  • and its buffering power against dangerous effects of acids and bases.

Folk wisdom teaches that you can’t get blood out of a turnip,
yet scientists are now genetically modifying plants
to produce human blood proteins.

Similar folk proverbs contend that
you can’t squeeze water from a stone,
though scientists are proving that wrong as well
with astrophysicists extracting water from meteorites
and hydrogeologists extracting it from the earth’s crust.

One could metaphorically suggest that the exodus people
in the first reading
“squeezed” water out of the rock at Massah and Meribah
where they “tested” the Lord.

On the other hand, the Samaritan woman in John’s Gospel
did not have to squeeze life-giving water out of Jesus.
No one did!

Rather Jesus freely gives his life-giving water
which ironically squeezes the truth out of her,
liberating her for true worship and discipleship.

In this encounter, the notable and essential characteristics
of Jesus’ life-giving water
for sustaining Christian living are clearly on display.
Jesus-water, like it’s physical counterpart,
also has a cohesive capacity,
not for the cohesion of molecules
but for the cohesion of people
allowing even strangers and enemies,
Samaritans and Jews, to bond.

And his gracious abundance has its own buffering power
against the acidic prejudice, violence, and hatred
that too often poisons our environment.

These effects permeate today’s gospel
where his countercultural hospitality
not only transformed one woman’s life,
but revealed the beauty of the stranger to his own disciples.

Furthermore, the “holy hydration” of this one woman,
triggered a kind of sacred osmosis through which
an entire community was transformed
into a gathering of believers.

It may be more than fanciful theologizing to suggest
that water is a gift from heaven.
Some scientists believe water is an alien visitor to earth
arriving 4 billion years ago when a heavy bombardment
of countless meteors delivered oceans to earth

Supporting evidence is the existence
of huge amounts of water in asteroids,
which scientists are hoping to extract
in order to establish infrastructures for surviving in space.

Others believe, however, that water was inside our planet
from its origins, coming to the surface over time.

Supporting evidence of this theory are
the hydrous materials recently discovered inside the earth
prompting some to believe
that there is more water below earth’s surface
than the oceans above (up to 6 quintillion gallons!)

While I have no idea which theory is scientifically accurate,
in Christ both have to be theologically true.
Jesus is the life-giving water that comes down from heaven.
He is the divine meteorite who bombards the world
with torrents of grace and love.
He is God’s Word that
the prophets foretold will rain down upon us (Isaiah 55).
He is the ascended one who pours out his Spirit
on disciples of every age.

But this is also the Word made flesh
revealed in earthbound wells, rivers and seas
who unsealed the way to eternal life in his own baptism,
who turned a seashore into a recruitment center for disciples
and who in teaching and healing,
welcoming and embracing
quenched the thirst of everyone from the high born
to God’s most beloved divorcee
as long as they were willing to drink of his gospel truth.

The season of Lent can be appropriated in many ways
with its ecclesial permission to cut back on chocolates and liquor
and drop a few pounds in the process;
or invitation to reflect upon our sinfulness
and schedule that annual confession.

But this third Sunday of Lent,
which the church designates as the premiere day
for the first public scrutiny of the elect
moving towards Easter sacraments,
reminds us that Lent is first and foremost
a font journey,
a well-drawing opportunity,
a rock-striking moment for those thirsting for life eternal.

Scrutinies are an immersion into life-giving water
with its cohesive capacities to bond us together in Christ,
its abilities quench every spiritual thirst
and its buffering power against greedy living
toxic prejudices
and every form of violence
that confront us with such distressing regularity.

Furthermore, it is not simply the elect
who benefit from these pointed rituals
for when Trent, Aaron, Sunayana, and Kelly
step forward for exorcism and blessing
they grace the whole of the church
with their courageous witness.

They rehydrate those of us who have strayed
from that baptismal well
and in a miracle of holy osmosis
allow those of us spiritually parched,
even scorched by the demands of everyday living,
to be vicariously renewed, revived, even restored
so that we might take up again
the mission of the Samaritan affirming Christ
to proclaim good news to the poor,
freedom for prisoners,
healing for the afflicted,
and freedom for the oppressed.

While not as difficult as cajoling water from a rock
this “well journey” is still demanding.
And so, for the elect as well as for those of us,
washed in the gracious overflow of their journey
with the poet, we stand at the edge of that Samaritan well
and pray:

If you stand
at the edge
of this blessing
and call down
into it,
you will hear
your words
return to you.

If you lean in
and listen close,
you will hear
this blessing
give the story
of your life
back to you….

Sit at the rim
of this blessing.

Press your ear
to its lip,
its sides,
its curves
that were carved out
long ago
by those whose thirst
drove them deep,
those who dug
into the layers
with only their hands
and hope.

Rest yourself
beside this blessing
and you will
begin to hear
the sound of water
entering the gaps.

Still yourself
and you will feel it
rising up within you,
filling every emptiness,
springing forth
anew.

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