The first two Sundays of Lent we read the Temptation in the Desert and the Transfiguration, which for many centuries have set the tone for the season. But for the next three Sundays, the revision of the Lectionary after Vatican II has rediscovered readings that the early Church used for people preparing for Baptism at Easter. (These readings are mandated for this year, Year A; they are optional for Years B and C.)
We rediscover the true meaning of Easter and Lent. Every Sunday we celebrate the Resurrection – but originally, Easter added to that a celebration of new Christians being plunged into Christ’s Death and Resurrection. Easter is about Baptism. Lent is about the preparation for Baptism. And though at first, Lent was just for the catechumens, we all enter into their preparation – we all become catechumens, we all rediscover our need to be plunged into the waters of Christ at Easter.
The Old Testament readings for Lent give a quick overview of the history of God’s People before Christ – a catechumenate people, preparing to be plunged into Christ. This year, those readings are Adam and Eve, the promise to Abraham, the Exodus in the desert, the choosing of David, and Ezekiel’s dry bones in the desert: all awaiting Easter.
The Gospel readings for these three weeks, from John, are the woman at the well, the man born blind, and the raising of Lazarus. Each of them speaks of how we long to be plunged into Christ.
This week’s Gospel, the woman at the well, is long. The drama is exquisite, and I can write nothing to compare with hearing that story in its entirety. Here I only point out some parallels to Lent.
The disciples are gone, allowing the woman to be alone with Jesus. The intimacy is exquisite. And we come to this desert of Lent to be alone with Jesus.
He speaks to her, enters into her daily life, even her prejudice and ignorance. In this intimate time, Christ comes to meet us.
And when he does, he confronts her sin, her many husbands. Pope Francis speaks of the kiss of Christ’s mercy on our sin. In the desert of Lent, when the emptiness of our fasting meets the weak but real love of prayer and almsgiving, our sin is laid bare; but Christ is so near that rather than fear, we delight in his intimacy. Search me and know me!
From talk of sin, he moves to talk about true worship: “You Jews worship in Jerusalem,” she says. Jesus takes her beyond talk of externals: “true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth.” In Lent we discover that worship is in the heart, and so it is about truth – the truth, for example, of our own moral state. We need this time of silence to get to the heart.
And then she goes into the town to tell her friends. And we find that the roots of true mission are not in programs or training – this woman doesn’t come across as a brilliant talker – but in personal knowledge of Jesus. She can speak of him, draw others to him, because she has been near him. The only true source of evangelization is this encounter in Lent.
John repeats the point about evangelization. When the disciples come, he says, “My food is to do the will of the one who sent me and to finish his work.” It is John’s gloss on “Man does not live by bread alone.” We fast, and learn that there is a deeper food that we need. We need Jesus in our hearts – and we need to go forth.
And so the disciples, too, are sent into the fields to reap the harvest, based not on their genius, but on the work of Jesus in their hearts and in the world.
The other two readings give us a more practical and then a more spiritual take on this encounter at the well.
In the reading from Exodus, the Israelites complain, “Why did you ever make us leave Egypt? Was it just to have us die here of thirst?” Moses too complains, “What shall I do with this people?”
Really they ask, is the Lord in our midst or not? But Jesus gives them to drink. Just as he teaches the woman at the well through physical thirst, so he teaches them through a cup of cold water that yes, he
cares for them.
But in the reading from Romans, we discover that the true fountain, the true living water, is not bodily, but spiritual. “Because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” Poured out from the pierced heart of Jesus, who “while we were still helpless, died at the appointed time for the ungodly.”
Mercy pours from his merciful heart. These are the true living waters, the true refreshment for our souls, in this desert of Lent and in the baptismal waters of Easter.
Into what new intimacy is this Lent leading you?