Just over a year ago the College of Cardinals elected Pope Francis to be the Bishop of Rome and our Holy Father. Over this past year he has become a media sensation the likes of which we have not seen in our lifetimes. It seems that his words and actions make the news each and every day.
This is curious to me because the Catholic Church has not enjoyed much favor in the press over these past few years. Not only that but the public opinion polls indicate that 20% of Americans report that religion is of no consequence to them. The polls further indicate that regular attendance of churchgoers, Catholic and otherwise, has fallen off dramatically over the past few decades. Yet Pope Francis seems to be changing those numbers.
Why has there been this decline in religious observance we ask? The reasons are multiple and at the same time complex. We don’t have time here to delve into the reasons why and so I will spend these few minutes we have now suggesting how we should relate to both people of little or no belief as well as other Christians who do not share our Catholic Faith. Today’s Gospel account (Jn 4:5-42) should give us some good ideas.
I want to begin with the woman of Samaria who Jesus encountered at Jacob’s well. It was an ordinary day when Jesus did something quite unconventional. He asked the woman for a drink of water and she responded by asking “How can you, a Jew, ask me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?” We need to remember that both Jewish and Samaritan religious leaders taught that it was wrong to have any contact with the opposite group, and neither was to enter each other’s territories or even to speak to one another. Each group held to the position that the other had somehow corrupted the beliefs of Judaism. Each group believed that they held to the pure Jewish religion that had come down from Abraham and Moses and that the true Messiah would come to save them. Hence the Jews despised the Samaritans and the Samaritans returned the favor.
Not only that but the religious authorities based in Jerusalem and its Temple taught that rabbis should not be seen in public talking with a woman and further that touching Samaritan eating utensils rendered observant Jews ritually impure. Jesus had broken their rules by both talking with the Samaritan woman and drinking from the same cup that was used to bring up water from Jacob’s well.
Pope Francis has repeatedly called upon all Catholics, especially priests and bishops, to go out and mingle with people who were “on the fringes” of society, the poor, the marginalized, the shunned… the smelly sheep. He told us that we priests should have “the smell of the sheep,” especially the lost sheep. In other words it is the wish of our Pope that we take seriously today’s Gospel account, do the unconventional thing, and reach out to those who are impoverished, impoverished not only financially but also the spiritually impoverished. Sinners, he tells us, should be loved and priests should go out to meet them as Jesus met the woman at Jacob’s well.
Notice that in today’s Gospel account Jesus took the initiative. It was He who approached the Samaritan woman. The Samaritan woman did not first approach Jesus. Pope Francis wants us to likewise take the initiative.
Moving on, in response to the Samaritan woman’s question Jesus tells her that if she knew who He really was she would have asked Him for “living water,” water for living, not for water that simply quenches dry throats. He was interested in giving her the waters of God’s graces, waters that satisfy our spiritual thirsts. His words were, “Everyone who drinks the water from this well will be thirsty again; but whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst; the water I shall give will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
In the world that surrounds us we know that many people are thirsting for love. In their loneliness and isolation they are thirsting to belong and thirsting to know the meaning and purpose of their lives. We who have Christ’s Sacraments, have living water, water for really living, to give them… only they don’t know it. Here is where we can give them good news; here is where we can evangelize them. After all, the whole meaning and purpose of evangelization is to share God’s Good News with those around us, especially those who are living on the margins of God’s love, those who are spiritually impoverished.
There are those who think that they have made such a mess of their lives that God wouldn’t want to have anything to do with them. They are, of course, quite wrong. We should note that the Samaritan woman had made a mess of her life and yet Jesus loved her and wanted to restore her to wholeness, to bring her back into a wholesome way of living. That was news to her ears, indeed very good news. Gradually the Samaritan woman began to see Jesus not just as another Jewish rabbi but more than that. She saw that He was a prophet. Then toward the end of their encounter the woman said to Him: “I know that the Messiah is coming, the one called the Christ; when he comes he will tell us everything.” Well, he told her everything about who she was and what she had done with her life. Then Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking with you.” With that she realized that He was the Messiah, dropped her water jar, and when off to her home town to tell everyone what had happened. As a result of her words, many of the Samaritans of that town began to believe in Him. Later, in their own spiritual growth, they realized for themselves who He was.
Pope Francis wants us to see ourselves as the Samaritan woman, to realize who Jesus of Nazareth really is, to know Him as the Messiah, our Savior, and to share our stories with those around us. When we do this we are evangelizers, we are apostles, messengers of God’s presence and love among us, messengers of our own encounters with God.
Many, of course, will not believe us. Materialism and secularism hold many people in an array of false gods — self-centeredness, the love money, the love of acquiring more and more things, the lust for pleasure, and so forth. But many others will recognize that their spirits are dry and that they thirst. For those who will listen to our testimonies the words of Jesus we just heard will ring in their ears: As He said to the woman: “But the hour is coming, and is now here, when true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth; and indeed the Father seeks such people to worship him. God is Spirit, and those who worship him must worship in Spirit and truth.”
Pope Francis is a wonderful gift to us from God. He is actually preaching living in his own lifestyle the Good News of Jesus Christ. To me, today’s Gospel account has come to life in Pope Francis. Certainly I could better follow his example and actually live as he is asking me to.
How about you? Like the woman as the well we have Good News to share.