|Date:||February 23-24, 2008, Third Sunday in Lent, Cycle A|
A religious ed teacher was quizzing his class on the New Testament. He said, “Who can tell me what the Epistles are?” One of the girls in the front row threw up her hand and waved it wildly. The teacher nodded for her to answer. In a loud voice filled with conviction, the little girl stated, “The epistles are the wives of the apostles.”
So what do you call the husband of an apostle?
This gospel story is especially pertinent to the discussion we had last month as Generations of Faith when we reflected on our belief in a Church that is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.
Over the centuries, the word apostle has come to mean specifically one who is sent by Jesus. Some of the more famous apostles are people like St. Peter and St. Paul but today’s Gospel story tells us about one of the earliest apostles, the Samaritan woman. The gospel does not name her but the Orthodox tradition honors her as St. Photini or St. Photina, or in Russia, Svetlana. The name means “equal to the apostles”.
As you probably know, the Samaritans were the remnants of some of the tribes of Israel who lived in the northern kingdom after the split of Israel in the 8th century BC. The Jews thought they had lost their racial purity by intermarrying after being conquered by the Assyrians in 722 BC, and so they looked down on the Samaritans. The Samaritans despised the Jews because, after the Jews returned to Jerusalem from their captivity in Babylon, they refused to let the Samarians help rebuild the temple. So the Samaritans built their own temple on Mt. Gerizim.
On top of that, it was considered very bad form for a Jewish male to talk to a woman in public, let alone a stranger, and a Samaritan on top of that. So the woman must have been shocked when Jesus not only addressed her, but actually asks for a drink from her. So it is understandable that as they start to talk, she misses the point of what Jesus is saying, taking literally what Jesus is saying metaphorically. She tests Jesus to see if he will dismiss her as unworthy because as a Samaritan she does not worship in Jerusalem.
Then Jesus touches her heart by telling her about herself. Now there are all sorts of traditions that have grown up around this woman, most of them completely unsupported by the facts given in the gospel. Some say that she is coming to the well alone at noon rather than with the other women in the cooler early morning because she is shunned in her own community as a sinner because she has had so many husbands. Of course, I am sure that there are people here today who would say that anyone who has had five husbands is more likely to be a saint!
Jesus points out these details of her life, not to condemn her, but to awaken her to the fact that she is trying to fill the wrong hunger, to satisfy the wrong thirst. How true is that for so many of us today, spending our whole life chasing after the American dream of material riches, and never satisfying the real hunger in us? Something in the way Jesus talks to her opens her eyes and she sees him for who he truly is. There is often this contrast between the sight of those who are on the fringes who see Jesus truly, and the blindness of the apostles who keep missing the point. The woman runs back to the village and, on the strength of her testimony, the townspeople come out to see this Jesus who might be the Christ.
In the story of this Samaritan women we see more clearly what it takes to be an apostle. This is important for us because all of us are called to be apostles, sent forth from the baptismal font to share the good news that Jesus is savior of the world. No one can opt out of this mission because they are unqualified. It is not our qualities or position in life that matter; Jesus is the one who gives us the courage and the wherewithal to be effective. The story makes it clear that there 3 things that are important to be an effective apostle: first we must acknowledge that we have a hunger/thirst that only God can satisfy; second, we must have a personal relationship with Jesus - it is not enough to hear about someone else’s relationship; and lastl, once we have led someone to Christ we must step aside and let them develop their own personal relationship with Christ. Apostles are not to be permanent mediators standing between Christ and those who hunger and thirst.
This is particularly important here in 2008 in the parish of St. Isidore in the Archdiocese of Boston. We are living in the midst of a sea change of what it means to be Catholic, members of a Church we profess to be one, holy, catholic and apostolic. The sea change is from living in an era when most Catholics were cultural catholics, born catholic but limiting their participation in the Church's life to praying, paying, and sometimes obeying, to a time when each one of us called to active participation in the Church's mission. As a community, primarily of lay people, we are called to holiness, to community, to mission and ministry, and to adulthood/Christian maturity, according the the US Conference of Bishops. (Called and Gifted for the Third Millenium - 1995 - http://www.usccb.org/laity/calleden.shtml). Holiness is that ever deepening relationship with Christ - we can only claim to be holy because we have put on Christ in baptism. Community is the realization that God calls us to be one - we cannot be individual Catholics - that is a contradiction in terms. Mission and ministry means that baptism, not ordination, calls us to participate in the mission of the church which is to spread the Gospel of forgiveness and the coming of the kingdom. And maturity, that is really the killer isn't it. Maturity means every one of us putting in the effort to understand the Gospel, to care for the young especially in their religious formation, and to live with mystery especially the paschal mystery of Christ's suffering, death, and resurrection.
I look out at this assembly, at this community and I see so much promise, so much reason for hope. But it is currently mostly potential as opposed to realized hope. I think I am being conservative in saying that if we don't start moving some of this great potential to actual involvement, this parish will not survive the next round of consolidation. I also think I am being conservative by saying that if even a small fraction of us respond to those calls to holiness, community, mission, and maturity, that this parish could be the model for the Church in this country, certainly this Archdiocese for the 3rd millenium.
The reaper is already receiving payment and gathering crops for eternal life, so that the sower and reaper can rejoice together. Let us all share fully in the fruits of their work.
(a rehash of the homily I gave in February of 2005)