|Date:||March 26-27, 2011, Third Sunday in Lent, Cycle A|
Last Sunday evening I had the pleasure of helping to lead the Confirmation Candidates in a walk-through of the Triduum. At one point, as we were talking about how the various ritual moments of the Triduum were connected to our baptismal call to be the Body of Christ and to participate in Christ's mission to bring salvation to the world, one of the candidates asked this very interesting question. She asked, "When the kingdom of God is finally established, will that be the end of everything. Will there be nothing more to do?" That is a very interesting question because I would suggest that most of us have an understanding of heaven or the coming of the kingdom or the end of time, as ..... nothing. Everything is done and there is nothing left to struggle against, to live for, really. That is a pretty depressing future to look forward to for most of us. I know that there are many who are exhausted from caring for a sick parent, or trying to work two or three jobs just to keep food on the table and a roof overhead, who would think that doing nothing would be heaven. But for most of us, that doesn't sound appealing.
When the early Christian communities talked about salvation, they meant something quite different from what most of us think of when we hear that word today. They certainly would not have thought about salvation as nothing, an end, and they did not think of it as far off, something they would only experience when dead. To them salvation was their lived experience of being filled with the Holy Spirit of Jesus that made them feel more alive than they ever had felt. It was that feeling of heightened, more intense living that they termed salvation. It was a salvation that was experienced in their day to day life rather than some far off dream of completion, of being done.
I think today's Gospel and Exodus readings point to this understanding of salvation as being more alive, being more human, more fulfilled than a sense of completion or doneness. And together with that Confirmation candidate's question, they also remind of us of perhaps the biggest obstacle that keeps us from experiencing salvation.
In that famous passage from Exodus, the Israelites grumbled against God and they tested him for leading them out into the desert to die of thirst. The chapter before this, they grumbled and tested God because they were hungry and God fed them with manna in the morning and with birds in the evening. Both times they complain that they were better off back in Egypt as slaves next to their fleshpots and abundant supplies of water. 400 years of slavery had beaten them down so they preferred slavery to the freedom of the promised land. The salvation promised them was not an end to working and living but the promise of being able to work and live as free people rather than slaves. Their hunger and their thirst in the desert was a wake up call that what they really hungered for, thirsted for, was freedom, not the easy food and drink they had as slaves. That is why they had to wander in the desert for a generation to rekindle that thirst for salvation that had been beaten out of them in Egypt.
The Samaritan women thirsts as well. The literal thirst that drives her to the well in the middle of the day's heat is also just a symbol of the real thirst in her soul for salvation. Think of how her life had beaten her down. In those days, only the man could write the decree of divorce. So here is a woman who has been cast off 5 times already. Imagine what that had done to beat down her self image, her self-worth. She thinks her greatest gift would be a source of fresh water so she would not have to trudge to this well and back every day. Then she encounters Jesus. The real thirst in her heart pushes her to dare to talk to this male Jew in public. Even to challenge him and his Jewish attitudes toward the Samaritans. In return she has her real thirst satisfied. Suddenly confident, she returns to the town and shares the news that she has talked to the Messiah.
Both of these stories remind us that we are built with a hunger, a thirst for this kind of salvation. We yearn to experience life as fully human. Like the Israelites in the desert and the Samaritan woman and St. Augustine, all too often we mistake that thirst for a literal thirst. We settle for the mundane pleasures of this world, or drive ourselves crazy trying to satisfy our thirst with all the things the world offers as distractions from the real experience. And when I look around at the state of the Church in our county, and even in the world, it seems that there is just no thirst for salvation because we have been sold a bill of goods that salvation is just not that exciting. It is nothing, an end, and as far as we can tell, a dead end.
So my answer to that candidate's question is an emphatic no! The kingdom of God is not about it being all done. Heaven is not sitting around doing nothing. Salvation is living more fully, filled with the Spirit of the God in whose image we are made. It is continuing the creation of the world but no longer shackled by the limitations we experience this side of salvation. It is going from trying to play Malaguena on the guitar with the skill of Charlie Cornell to playing it with the skill of Andre Segovia. It is going from playing basketball the way a typical high school team plays it to playing it the way the original Dream Team played it.
I pray that we look deep into our hearts and see that thirst, and recognize it for what it is. It will never be satisfied by what the world presents as salvation. It will only be satisfied by the salvation that Christ offers us. Let us thirst for that salvation; let us hope for that salvation. And that hope does not disappoint because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.