March 19, 2017
Paulist Fr. Rich Andre preached this homily for the 3rd Sunday of Lent (Year A) on March 19, 2017 at St. Austin Parish in Austin, TX. The homily is based on the day’s readings: Genesis 17:3-7; Psalm 95; Romans 5:1-2, 5-8; and John 4:5-42.
As we move deeper into the season of Lent, we move into the Gospel of John. The next three Sundays’ gospels are chosen in particular for people coming into communion with the Church in the Easter season, because these are three fantastic stories about people growing in relationship with Jesus Christ.
Today, we hear the story of the woman at the well. Let’s set the scene: Jesus’ conversation is remarkable in three different ways.
- Samaritans and Jews were sworn enemies of each other – each group considered the other to be apostates to the God of Abraham.
- Jesus is speaking to an unknown woman. Even today in the Middle East, men do not speak to unknown women without a chaperone.
- Last of all, this woman is coming to the well in the middle of the day. Women would typically go to the well at dawn, before it was hot, to gather all the water they needed for the day’s chores, and also to socialize and catch up with one another. This woman is apparently an outcast in the village.
We’ll learn why the woman is an outcast soon enough, but it’s clear Jesus knows why before he begins to speak with her. And yet, he befriends her. Let’s focus on that aspect of the story today. God knows our sins, and yet he invites us to stay in dialogue. Let us take a moment to acknowledge our sinfulness.
While many people have been coming to St. Austin’s for years, or even decades, I find that at almost every Mass, there is someone visiting here for the first time. That is not the case of most Catholic churches in the United States, especially parishes with such inconvenient parking. Why do newcomers keep coming to St. Austin’s?
Except for any newcomers with us today, the rest of you probably know that the priests of this parish belong to a religious community called the Paulist Fathers. I’m definitely biased, but I think part of the reason we attract people is that the people of St. Austin’s so fully embody the Paulist spirituality.
What is Paulist spirituality? Sometimes I explain it to people this way: you and I are here to serve the people outside the church walls. We do this in four ways:
- You and I are called to be evangelizers. We witness to the gospel in a way that encourages other people to become disciples.
- You and I are called to be reconcilers. We bring peace to those who feel hurt by or alienated from the Church.
- You and I are called to be ecumenists. We seek unity with all other Christians.
- You and I are called to be interreligious dialogue partners. We build bonds with people of non-Christian faiths.
No community besides the Paulists combines evangelization, reconciliation, ecumenism, and interreligious dialogue into one mission. Many people argue that these goals are at odds with one another. Today’s gospel passage makes it clear that there are ways to pursue all these goals at once. Jesus witnesses to the truth of the Jewish faith to a Samaritan woman. He also acknowledges the beliefs that they hold in common. He befriends an outcast, but without glossing over her sinful actions. In other words, he meets her where she is.
No matter whether we’re newcomers or old timers at St. Austin’s, whether we’ve never studied the faith or we have a theology degree, whether we’re lay people or ordained ministers, whether we’re extraverts or introverts, we all have the skills to be evangelizers, reconcilers, ecumenists, and interreligious dialogue partners.
One of the best evangelizers I’ve ever met was my friend and colleague in Tennessee, Dr. Ruth Queen Smith. And she insisted that all we need to do to be successful evangelizers is to tell our personal stories. No matter how incompetent we feel in speaking about theology, all of us are undoubtedly the experts about our own journey of faith. As Ruth always said, no one listening to your story is going to dispute the details of what happened to you.
I know how hard it can be to tell personal stories. As a preacher, I’m tempted to stick to generalizations and abstract concepts. But you have repeatedly taught me that my preaching is more relevant to you when I talk about how the gospel is relevant to me. When I think that my homily is too self-centered and not focused on the gospel, many of you tell me that that is when you feel I best preach the gospel.
So, here is my advice on how to be an effective evangelizer, reconciler, ecumenist, and interreligious dialogue partner. It’s very simple: treat people as Jesus treated the woman at the well. In other words:
- Treat people with respect. Jesus did not condemn the woman.
- Don’t tell other people what you think they believe. Jesus told the woman what he believed, and he listened to her explain what she believed.
- Jesus didn’t pressure the woman to change her beliefs or her lifestyle. He simply and gently witnessed to the potential her life had.
In other words, Jesus met the woman where she was. He did not demand that she first change in order to become worthy of his attention.
And what did Jesus’ attention do for this woman? Surprise, surprise: she becomes the first evangelizer in the Gospel of John. She shares her story of faith with the people in the village of Sychar. They, in turn, come to believe, first because of her story, but then because of their own experiences of Christ.
So, I have two reflection questions for us to consider on the next leg of our Lenten journey:
- How has your faith changed your life?
- Have you told anyone about it today?