Turning from broken cisterns to the Source of living waters

This is a translation of the Spanish homily that I preached on this Sunday.
5th Sunday of Lent, Year C: March 17, 2013
Isa 43:16-21; Ps 126; Phil 3:8-14; John 8:1-11

Encountering our Lord Jesus is an unforgettable experience. To meet him for the first time, or to meet him in a new way, is something we never forget. Surely the accused woman whose story is told in our Gospel reading today never forgot this man who literally saved her life and probably changed its course from then on.

Not all of us meet Jesus in such a dramatic fashion. Indeed, for many of us, the first time we met him is a time we cannot remember, because we were infants when we met him in baptism: when he transformed us by his grace, washing away our sins, filling us with the Holy Spirit, and adopting us as sons and daughters of God joined to his own Sonship. But if that was the first time, it was not the last. And we are entering a season of meeting him again in a new way: for soon, our RCIA candidates will be baptized or received into the full communion of the Catholic Church; soon, many of our children will receive his forgiveness in their first confession, will receive his Body and Blood in their first Holy Communion, will be strengthened by the anointing of the Holy Spirit in confirmation.

Do you remember those times? Do you remember the anticipation; the way you dressed; how excited your parents and relatives were? Do you remember how you prayed beforehand; and maybe you were nervous; and how you desired this strange new encounter with your Lord? Do you remember the moment of receiving his sacramental grace in an utterly new way; and the moments that followed? See, I am doing something new! Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?

For myself, I was raised Protestant; and so I was 28 when I went through RCIA and went to confession for the first time and received Holy Communion (real, true Holy Communion) for the first time. And I remember. I remember that I had to say some things to the priest that I never wanted to say to another human being; and I remember that, as I did so, it felt as if I were pulling things out of my arms and legs. I remember when I finally received Holy Communion after attending Mass every Sunday for more than a year, wanting to but not being able to; I remember the amazing feeling of being loved and embraced and filled, of finally being united with my Lord. That is my experience; and I bet you remember yours as well.

The woman in our Gospel reading today surely remembered hers. And I want to consider her story together with another story in the Gospel of John of another encounter between Jesus and a woman.

That story comes earlier, in chapter 4, as Jesus was traveling through Samaria, on his way from Judea in the south to Galilee in the north. He was passing through the territory of the Samaritans, a people who didn’t get along well with his own people, the Jews; and in the middle of the day, at noon, he encountered a Samaritan woman at the well. Why she was there alone, in the heat of the day, would become clear a little later. They talked about different things; he asked her for water, and he told her that he could give her living water such that she would never thirst again, but would have within her a spring of water welling up to eternal life.

And when she asked him to give her this water, then came the key moment.

Jesus said to her, “Go call your husband and come back.” The woman answered and said to him, “I do not have a husband.” Jesus answered her, “You are right in saying, ‘I do not have a husband.’ For you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true.” (John 4:16-18)

This is why she was at the well, alone, in the heat of the day: because of her public shame and rejection by the other, more respectable women of the town. And here our Lord Jesus gently touches her heart. He identifies the desire, the thirst, within her during her whole life that has motivated her to search for love and fulfillment, seeking it from one man after another. And he identifies the great hurt and disappointment that she has suffered, as one man after another has betrayed and rejected her. And yet he does not condemn her, but rather he stands before her as the true fulfillment of what she has been seeking. He knows her, and he invites her to turn to him, and to find at last in him what she has been seeking for so long.

And the story that we heard today, from chapter 8, has similarities to that other one. Once again, a woman has been seeking love in the arms of a man—her desire for love leading her to betray the vows that she made to her own husband, and to risk the danger of being caught and stoned to death. And that danger has indeed come to pass. Her paramour, who was also caught, has fled, leaving her to face public shame and execution alone; or perhaps it was all a trap, and he was an accomplice of the Pharisees who played on her desire into order to lure her into sin and death, simply to catch Jesus. Either way, her desire for love has also led her into betraying and being betrayed, into being caught and publicly shamed and now facing imminent death, terrified and surrounded.

And here too our Lord Jesus touches her heart. Here at last is a man who does not betray or hurt or use or accuse her. Instead, he respects her; he protects her and saves her life; he treats her with dignity; and he shows her mercy. “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” “No one, sir.” “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more.” Jesus has set her free from the immediate threat of her life; and he sets her free with his words to turn away from sin: to turn away from the sinful paths by which her desire for love has led her to all the wrong places, and instead to follow him.

What a Lord we follow! What a Savior! For he takes the initiative to find us in our sin and suffering: not to condemn us, but to reach out to us; to show us love and mercy; to protect and save us; to set us free from what harms and binds us and call us to himself. This is the good news that we proclaim to everyone; and how happy are all who come to know him. The woman at the well; the woman caught in adultery; I myself; and I hope you as well; we can all join St. Paul in exclaiming:

I consider everything as a loss because of the supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have accepted the loss of all things and I consider them so much rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him… to know him and the power of his resurrection…

It is worth it to know and love him, and be loved by him. It is so worth it.

And yet there are some of you here today who have known him—who remember how special it was to receive his forgiveness in confession and his own self in Communion, not only the first time but many times over many years—but now you have stepped away from him. You knew him from the beginning, but then you walked away from him in order to seek love in the arms of a mere human being, outside of valid marriage. You have done what the Lord said through the prophet Jeremiah: you have forsaken him, the source of living waters; and instead you have dug yourself cisterns, broken cisterns, that hold no water. (Jer 2:13) How sad, how tragic, to make that exchange: to walk away from your Savior, in hopes that the sinful and incomplete love of a human being, outside of valid marriage, will make up for losing him!

And yet the story is not over. You are still here at Mass, near to our Lord Jesus—and how good that is, that you have not abandoned him completely, when you know that so many have! You are still here; and he is still calling you. He still invites you to come back to him; he still urges you, as he urged the woman in today’s reading: “from now on do not sin any more.”

And I urge you: do not remain in the desert, in the wasteland, having separated yourself from his forgiveness and his love. You remember what it was like to be so close to him, being cleansed and fed by him in the sacraments. You remember! Please, make an appointment to speak to me or Fr. Diaz or Msgr. Brennan about how you can leave sin behind and enter into a valid marriage. Return to the arms of our Lord Jesus. For he is the source of living waters; he is the one who puts water in the desert and rivers in the wasteland; and to gain Christ and be found in him is worth paying any price.

As our new Holy Father, Pope Francis, said earlier today:

…we go back to the Lord. The Lord never gets tired of forgiving. Never! It is we who get tired of asking for his forgiveness. Let us ask for the grace of never getting tired of asking for forgiveness because He never gets tired of forgiving. Let us ask for this grace.

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