Saturday, May 7, 2011

11-03-27: 3rd Sunday of Lent

Third Sunday of Lent

Exodus 17:3-7/ Psalm 95 / Romans 5:1-2,5-8 /John 4:5-42

Wells were the singles’ bars of the ancient world. Not a few romantic relationships in the ancient world began by a well: looking for that drink on an especially hot day or for that tall drink of water after a long haul pushing sheep from one pasture to another. That’s why today’s gospel is especially scandalous, iconoclastic really: Jesus by the well looking for a drink and along comes Samaria’s femme fatale. Scholars tell us it’s an odd time of day for the Samaritan woman, now on her sixth relationship, to come to the well for water. A time of day when the other women of the town would have already come and gone from the well. Was she looking for number seven, perhaps? Jesus tells her to “go get her husband.” “I haven’t got one,” she says. I’m available, she seems to suggest.

Scandal is heightened by the fact that Jesus and the woman are found there by the disciples on their return from town. They are more shocked by the fact that Jesus is talking with a woman than by the fact he’s talking with a Samaritan. It’s simply not acceptable for someone in Jesus’ position to be alone with a woman at a well, no matter how thirsty he might have been. And the disciples, so typical of us all, quickly change the subject and start talking about food. Scripture scholars have picked up on that and suggest the whole passage is really a treatise on the Eucharist. They wax eloquent about eternal life and Jesus’ identity as Messiah and Lord. All well and good – it’s no doubt the evangelist’s intention. But it’s not so good if you’re trying to whitewash the event on which the revelation hinges – hard core scandal.

Ever since Nikos Kazantzakis got himself excommunicated from the Greek Orthodox Church in 1955 for writing his novel, The Last Temptation of Christ, in which he suggested Jesus might have struggled with sexual desire, not many have ventured into that particular DMZ. Kazantzakis said later that he wanted to show Jesus as a man who struggled and, in so doing, would be more attractive to us; we would be able to love Christ more, Kazantzakis once said. Despite the sexual revolution and its prurient aftermath, it seems we modern believers are just as intimidated by sex and scandal as those disciples finding Jesus alone with a woman. When faced with the embarrassment of sex we do our best to change the subject as well. Let’s talk about lunch. Just think of the sex scandals that have bankrupted American dioceses and brought the Irish Church to the verge of collapse. For as terrible as the abuse endured by innocent children was, the ensuing cover-up seems that much more unacceptable. And all because bishops wanted, above all else, not to give scandal. So, they swept things under the rug, pretended nothing happened, and talked about lunch.

Situations that have the potential to give scandal are always with us. Trying to avoid them usually just exacerbates a situation. Maybe today’s gospel, for all its theological eloquence about the Eucharist and eternal life, at least acknowledges that the core of the story is an encounter which produces scandal, and sexual scandal at that. We know the outcome. Salvation is revealed and imparted in the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman who, we might infer, no longer will be visiting the well after hours. But the initial feelings experienced by both participants in that awkward and exhilarating encounter is precisely the place where most of us can enter the story. We’ve been there, we know the terrain, though we’ve seldom, if ever, been invited to express those feelings of desire and ensuing emptiness – the thirst which is the very heart of the story, the thirst we desperately seek to quench but aren’t sure how.

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