Homily at St Philip Evans on the Third Sunday of Lent, With Scrutinies (Year A Readings).
The Seven Word Sermon: We are spiritual and religious, following Christ.
Would you prefer to be religious, or just spiritual?
One ancient interpretation of the word “religion” is “reconnect”. Today’s Gospel begins with a connection between two people. Jesus, tired and thirsty, speaks to a woman with a bucket – an unaccompanied woman out in the noonday sun. The place and the time suggest that she is unwelcome in this village. But Jesus makes the first move – He makes a connection.
Simple moments like make a huge difference. I once had a conversation with an elderly Jehovah’s Witness, in which I asked her how she had come to join them. She explained she’d been brought up Church of England, but when her beloved dog died, her vicar was unconcerned; her neighbours, who were Witnesses, expressed a lot of sympathy – so she joined their community.
In every religion, we will find that there are many members whose main reason for being there is a sense of belonging, a familiarity and safety which brings a deep comfort through being with the people, or in the building. They flourish because of this sense of “connection”. This will even be true of some of us in this parish, because we are human beings too.
Jesus takes the conversation to the next level. He starts talking about ‘living water’, an inner experience which is clearly life-giving. Today we might call this ‘spirituality’, which is all about the inner life and our sense of connection with God. The woman is clearly interested – after all, who wouldn’t want this wonderful gift if it were freely on offer? So how is she to become connected to this water supply?
Jesus draws attention to the woman’s marital status, or lack of it. There is something shameful about her current state in life: that’s why she’s out, alone, in the noonday sun. There’s at least a hint that her current relationship is with a man married to someone else. The woman is all too aware of the guilt she feels. So as soon as Jesus begins to hint that receiving this living water depends on her integrity in relationships, she quickly changes the subject. So Jesus wants to be religious? She quickly brings up the obvious problem with religion: Different leaders propose different rules. Who’s to say which rules really matter?
Jesus doesn’t give the answer she expects. Rather than defend the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, he speaks of spirit and truth. ‘Spirit’ is about connection with God. ‘Truth’ means that there is a right answer and a wrong answer. But how is the woman to find the right answer? There is only one person she can trust to bring that, the long-promised Messiah. “Gotcha!” says Jesus (though not in those words!) Suddenly, she realizes that Truth Himself is sitting in front of her, speaking to her!
Annoyingly, this is where the woman’s story stops. We’re not told what she does about her current relationship. We’re not told how she experiences this gift of life-giving water. We only know that she does become a spring of hope for the village, by calling all the local people to come and hear Jesus.
Two weeks ago, I preached about marriage, and explained that it was God’s plan that a man and woman should make a public, lifelong commitment to come together before starting their shared life. Today’s Gospel reminds us that Jesus came with an invitation for everyone, especially those who aren’t living by their religion’s rules. Jesus wants EVERYONE to taste the living water. But what Jesus offers is religion, not spirituality. It is an invitation to reconnect with God, and it comes with rules – God’s rules. The woman at the well recognizes that Jesus is the Messiah, the one person with authority to tell her how to live her life.
Jiao, Russell, Dariella, not many weeks from now you are due to be baptised. If what you are really looking for is to belong to this community, think twice about Baptism. You are already welcome among us, and you are getting to know other members of the church community. You will always have a place among us. But Baptism is not simply about being a full member of this parish, about taking communion because the people around you are doing so. Baptism is your declaration that you want to connect with our religion, the religion which recognises Jesus as Messiah, Teacher and Lord.
And to all of us who were baptised on the say-so of our parents, today presents a challenge. Are we proud to be religious? Are we confident followers of Jesus? If we met Jesus in person today, what would he speak to us about? Is there anything in our lives He would challenge? Lent is the season when we challenge ourselves so Jesus doesn’t have to. Jesus has living water on offer, a gift which will refresh our inner spirit and give us new purpose in life.
To receive this living water we must first accept Jesus as Lord and deal with anything in our life which is not connected to his will. To help you with this, there is an examination of conscience from Pope Francis in today’s newsletter. To help you with this, The Light Is On For You in the confessional this Wednesday at 7 pm, and on the coming Wednesdays in March also.
We don’t like being challenged to change. We grumble – we say we like spirituality but not what our religion asks of us. Moses had the same problem in the wilderness. The Israelites liked being rescued from Egypt, but didn’t like the barren desert which God had brought them to. Even Moses doubted that God was going to provide water for their thirst, until it happened.
“It is by faith that we can receive God’s glory”, says St Paul. What does faith mean? It’s not only about the religious ideas in our heads. True faith is when we act believing that Jesus is Lord and his teaching is true. We must take a step of faith, before we can taste the living water.
My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, God is offering us something truly amazing – His own Spirit living in our hearts, guiding us daily, helping us hear God’s voice. But to receive this gift, we must deal with sin. We must live our life in all respects – in our caring for the needy, in our commitment to prayer, and in our sexual relationships – according to God’s law. We must be religious – followers of the Catholic religion – to make the connection which allows us to receive God’s Spirit in full. If only you knew the gift of God! Once tasted, who would settle for anything less?