This week, I received an e-mail from my elder godson. He wrote to ask me if I would be willing to officiate at his wedding. To say the least, I felt honored to be asked and began to think nostalgically about the day of his baptism.
It’s impossible to minimize the significance of water throughout the history of Judaism and Christianity. The first visual mentioned in the Book of Genesis after the creation of light is water. In that account, the second day was characterized by the separation of land and water. It is one of the few events on which Genesis and the Theory of Evolution agree.
The human side of the Israelites is amplified in Exodus (17:3-7), where they are saved from slavery in a flamboyant and miraculous fashion. It is obvious to an extreme that God has them in His special care. Yet they barely get to the open desert before they start complaining bitterly of impending death from thirst. From a purely human perspective, this is a realistic fear. A couple of hours in the desert without water can lead to extreme dehydration and resulting disorientation. Several days without water, in any setting, is almost certain to cause death.
Still, this is not just any group of people. This is God’s chosen people. Who can blame Moses for his frustration at their short attention span? Nonetheless, this is God’s chosen people. God shows His love and providence. He instructs Moses to strike a rock and begin the flow of water. Even Moses finds this instruction to be a stretch of his faith, so much so that he strikes the rock twice, jeopardizing his own salvation, but that’s a different homily. The point is that God does provide water to preserve their lives, their culture, and human salvation. Now flash forward a couple of thousand years to First Century Israel and the Gospel of John (4:5-42).
Jesus is seated with a woman at Jacob’s Cistern, a crucial source of water in Jerusalem. The scene is remarkable for several reasons. First, the scene is between Jesus and a woman. Even in the contemporary Middle East, such a scene would be unlikely, at least where Orthodox Jews or observant Muslims are concerned. Women are to be at home, their own homes. For a lone woman to be out, means that she is both unattached and immodest. Yet we see Jesus speaking to just such a woman, and a Samaritan woman at that. What He says to her changes her life forever and for the better.
Now, it would be easy to literally interpret the words of Jesus and simply conclude that, where this woman is concerned, He is some sort of super psychic, or maybe just a counselor who has done His homework, and certainly He is all that, but there is more, and the woman quickly realizes it.
Hers is hardly an exemplary life, five failed marriages, and that doesn’t count the dalliances in between. She realizes that, as a result of her encounter, and she does something about it. She makes up her mind to change things going forward, and she tells her friends, partly perhaps, out of pride, but also out of a sense of commitment, a sense of sharing, and that leads us to the message of St. Paul, in his Letter to the Romans (5:1-2, 5-8).
There are many fundamentalist Protestants who use the first verses of the readings to dismiss the importance of our own acts, our own participation in our salvation. That is the danger of quoting, and reading, Scripture selectively. Indeed the first part of the reading seems to say that we may rest assured that the acceptance of God’s grace and Christ’s gift leads to our own salvation. That is true, and all true Christians should believe it, but that is not the whole story. The rest of the story occurs in the next few verses. Works and deeds do matter. Jesus endured incredible pain, and horrible execution to atone for our sins. His actions saved us. Our actions, with His grace, can save others, or serve as an example to drive others away from the faith. Works do matter.
So what we have in these readings is a formula for salvation. It begins, as it did for my Godson, with the waters of Baptism, but it must not stop there. We must, through the sacraments and the refreshing waters of our own witness, nurture the message in our own lives, and carry that message on to others, just as the woman at the well did.
We’ve reached the halfway point in the Lenten journey. If we haven’t already begun to live the message, it’s not too late to start. If we have started, we must redouble our efforts so that when Easter comes, we may celebrate our own mini Resurrection with the true Resurrection of Christ.