Why does the Church exist? What is it’s purpose?
It’s an important because you are the Church, and share in her purpose in your own life.
The purpose of the Church is to evangelize, according to Pope Paul VI.
If that comes as a surprise, then I’d have to assume we’re not doing a very good job of it.
The truth is, even if we want to evangelize, we really don’t know how to do it well.
John’s Gospel account of Jesus and the Samaritan woman is a great example of an individual evangelized by Jesus who moves from unbelief to belief – and a new life as a disciple.
Jesus leads the woman across five spiritual thresholds, each of which require grace to cross.
I. It’s noon, and Jesus meets a woman of Samaria at a well.
She’s there at the wrong time of day – should be there at morning or evening.
She shouldn’t be talking to a man unaccompanied by her husband, and she especially should not be kibitzing with a Jew.
She has every reason to be suspicious of him, and perhaps a bit ashamed for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
He must know there’s something wrong with her, that she avoids the women of the village.
Yet something must have told her he was worthy of at least a little trust, this solitary Jew. Maybe it was simply the fact that he, in asking for a drink, indicated that he would touch something she had touched first, or that she had something good that she could give him.
This is the first step in being evangelized – we have to trust: either God, or the Church, or (normally) an individual Christian.
In the first reading we have an example of God once again inviting the trust of the Israelites – they need a reminder of the concern he showed for them when he answered their prayers and brought them out of Egypt.
They have a short memory, and a real need. God provides, again.
Evangelization doesn’t happen without trust, without a relationship of some kind – and it has to be a real relationship, whose purpose is friendship, and not simply seeing the other as an evangelization “project.”
Perhaps it is this basic trust in at least some Catholics that keeps those of us at this threshold in the Church, even when the decisions of the hierarchy disappoint us or scandals erupt.
I presume we are all at least at this threshold, or why would we be here?
II. Jesus accepts her courage to trust and piques her curiosity in himself, speaking of a mysterious living, or free-flowing, water that he can give in place of the stagnant water from the well.
She demonstrates her trust by now referring him as, “sir,” but throws down a feisty, implied insult, “who do you think you are, anyway, someone greater than the great patriarch, Jacob?”
Jesus is a master at generating curiosity. He’s asked 183 questions in the Gospels.
He answers three of them directly.
The others usually are “answered” with another question.
And his answer to where he will get this living water, while not another question, is cryptic and enticing, “the water I shall give will become?a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
Curiosity is an important threshold in the journey to becoming a disciple – and the curiosity must be about Jesus: not simply the Church, or Church practices or teaching (ashes…on your forehead??), or even a follower of Jesus – but curiosity about Him, the most unique, curiosity-rousing person who ever lived.
III. Now the woman is open to something new. She sees a better way of living.
This openness is another threshold – one that is hard for us to cross.
We are afraid of change, and will often resist it until we are utterly miserable. “Give me this water,” she asks, “so I don’t have to keep coming here to draw water.”
Give me water so I don’t have this daily reminder that I am an outsider in my own village.
Give me water so I don’t suffer from thirst.
Our willingness to change is normally founded on some selfish hope – something better for me.
On the way of conversion, there reaches a point in which we realize there may be a different way of looking at life, a different perspective that we never knew existed.
To the atheist it might well be the possibility that God exists – and this has to be seen as better than the alternative.
For the Catholic, it might be the realization that faith is a journey, not a guilt trip; not a series of rules to be followed, but a lived relationship with God in Jesus that is more wilderness adventure than clearly marked, crowded, highway.
Initially, this new reality may seem ludicrous, horribly foreign, and thus many never become open to change – especially those whose lives are comfortable.
How hard it is for the comfortable to enter the kingdom of God!
IV. In every process of evangelization and conversion comes a fateful moment.
In the Gospel it comes as a kind of shocking non-sequitur. Her openness to Jesus and the eternal-life-giving water he offers is met with a request: “Go, call your husband and come back.”
Perhaps this touches upon the reason for her visit to the well at mid-day. Five husbands!
How many of them were previously husbands of other women in the village?
And now living with a man who perhaps someone else’s husband?
Such women are not welcome at cocktail parties, the beauty shop, the office water cooler – or the village well.
In every conversion process, as we draw closer to Jesus, the light that has come into the world, we have to become aware of our shadow.
After the miraculous catch of fish, Simon begs, “depart from me, Lord, I am a sinful man.”
When the Pharisees and scribes stand in the light, they cannot accept they have a shadow at all, and therefore must declare Jesus to be evil – a glutton, drunkard, and one who himself is possessed by the Prince of Demons.
This threshold is a delicate point in our conversion.
St. Paul tells the Romans, “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”
There is no escaping it.
The five and a half husbands are a sign of the woman’s shadow, and she must see it – see the failed relationships and the pain associated with each one.
If nothing else, she must see the fact that at least maybe she’s hard to live with.
It is this recognition of our fallen condition, of the hash we are making of our life, that leads us from mere openness to change to seeking a change – and seeking that change in relationship with Christ. People at this threshold want to know what to do – especially how to pray, and so the woman turns the conversation to prayer; specifically where to pray: Samaria or Jerusalem.
Jesus leads her deeper.
The issue is not where to pray, but how – “in Spirit and in truth” and God seeks such worshippers.
In the process of conversion and evangelizing or being evangelized we have to remember that it is not just we who are active participants – but every step of the way is made possible by the God who is first seeking us.
In fact, St. Paul tells us, God proves his love for us, in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.
Finally, Jesus brings the woman to the final threshold.
God desires the whole of who we are: body, spirit, soul.
Are you willing to lay aside everything – all your self-made plans and dreams – to acknowledge him as Messiah – the one who saves you from alienation from God the Father?
The woman says the Messiah “will tell us everything when he comes”, and Jesus speaks plainly to her like to no one else in the Gospels. “I am he, the one speaking with you.”
To believe that – to cross the final threshold and become a disciple of Jesus and to make His will my own - is to be justified by God.
Justification and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit are the same thing for St. Paul, and both are the outcome of God’s love demonstrated on the cross.
Through the cross God accepts us sinners, and his acceptance of us is manifested by sending his Spirit to dwell in us and gradually transform us.
Eventually – if we desire it with our whole heart - we will become in reality what we are in theory, namely, holy.
So at that critical moment, as we wait for her response, up come the bumbling disciples, interrupting the story.
We might be wondering as to her response – did she cross that threshold or not? – but for one clue.
Left behind, just as Simon left his fishing nets to follow Jesus, is the woman’s empty water jar.
You might wonder, “How can we be sure she became a disciple, that somehow she underwent a conversion?
Because immediately she goes to her fellow villagers and invites them to “come see a man who told me everything I have done.” That is her definition of the Messiah.
What’s more, she acts as a disciple.
When someone experiences Jesus showing them their sin, and at the same time helping them realize that they are loved and forgiven, everything changes.
What once was hidden from others – or what we attempted to hide – we proclaim from the rooftops because it no longer matters – it’s been forgiven.
When we experience faith as a relationship in which we are loved more than we could ever deserve, we want to tell others of the good news we have experienced.
It’s news that seems too good to be true and must be shared.
The Samaritan woman’s testimony leads her fellow villagers to Jesus, who discover for themselves that he is their savior and “the Savior of the world.”
And as they approach, Jesus turns to the disciples and says, “someone else has done the sowing an you will be reaping the benefits” – the Samaritan woman disciple and evangelist.
So as we enter more deeply into this season of Lent, the question every one of us must ask ourselves is, “at what spiritual threshold am I?”
And if the signs are not there that I am a disciple, then let’s pray that we get real thirsty, really soon.