I admit that this Lenten season is turning out to be one like no other that I have experienced in my lifetime of 57 years. Having lived in Italy for two years while obtaining my licentiate degree in Canon Law, I find it surreal to think that all public gatherings, including the celebration of Holy Mass, have been suspended until April 3 due to the coronavirus in that nation. Throughout the world, there are reports of people struggling with such isolation and the loss of everyday social interaction. Nonetheless, such quarantine measures have become necessary to stop the spread of this potentially deadly virus.
This leads me to the scene of the Gospel reading for the coming Third Sunday of Lent, where you and I encounter the Samaritan woman. There is a reason she is coming to the well in the middle of the day under the scorching sun. She has been ostracized by the community and lives in a certain isolation because of her acknowledged failure to live in a committed relationship. On a totally natural plane, after five husbands — which means five sets of in-laws — some bridges may have been burned within the village and area in which she lived.
This being said, notice how Jesus invites the woman out of her isolation. He wants to make her trip to the well worthwhile for her not only through the physical act of obtaining water, but also by helping her to know she is not really alone. In essence, it is a continuation of the Gospel of the Transfiguration where Jesus does not remain on the mountain but comes back to everyday life to continue proclaiming that God is with us wherever we find ourselves in life.
That is what is going on in the Gospel story of the Samaritan woman. Just like the moment of the Transfiguration was meant to be reassurance for Jesus’ close friends — Peter, James, and John — the same can be said of Jesus entering into conversation with the woman at the well. The fact that he would ask her for a drink of water meant that she was not a nobody and still could make a difference in the lives of other people.
As we continue to read the story in John, chapter 4, it can be observed what a difference connection with Jesus makes for that woman of Samaria, spiritually and socially. Jesus is tearing down barriers wanting that woman to know that in God all can find their home! It is an equalizing moment where Jesus demonstrates that not just “religious” persons have the market on God, but when the “market” collapses in life, God is there for you and me wherever we find ourselves!
What I am trying to get at is that the fact that illness can affect each one of us is a great equalizer. No one is better than anyone else when it comes to the coronavirus. It could happen to any one of us. That being said, can illness then be a lesson in how we treat one another? In last week’s column, I mentioned my own self-reflection on how I treat those around me when I am ill. This week I would like to take it a step further and say if Jesus could sit at the same well with the Samaritan woman, is there not room for both saints and sinners in our churches today? And those who are saints, would they not be the first to acknowledge their own sinfulness as well as to radiate Christ’s merciful and caring gaze to those they encounter at “watering holes” along the way?
In one of his Lenten homilies last year, Pope Francis stated:
“Jesus gives three practical suggestions to help us get in the habit of being merciful. First: to not judge. We should refrain from judging, especially in this time of Lent.
Also, it is a habit that gets mixed up in our life even without us realizing it. Always! Even by beginning a conversation: ‘Did you see what he did?’ Judgment of others. Let us think about how many times each day we judge. All of us. But always through beginning a conversation, a comment about someone else: ‘But look, that person had plastic surgery! They’re uglier than before.’
Learn the wisdom of generosity, the main way to overcome gossiping. When we gossip about others we are continually judging, continually condemning, and hardly forgiving” (18 March 2019).
I am sure gossiping is one reason the Samaritan woman went to the well when she did. Jesus also tells his disciples that we will “reap what we sow” (cf. Jn 4:35-38). Yes, brothers and sisters, we are living in times many of us have not seen before, but could it be also an opportunity like Jesus had with the Samaritan woman to bring neighbors to greater belief.
For me, that is what the mission of Pope Francis has been about over the course of the last seven years since his election on March 13, 2013, as Bishop of Rome and Universal Pastor. He has been challenging the Church to be a living Gospel for all people to hear by the witness of those who claim to be its members. Pope Francis continues to be an inspiration for my own pastoral ministry and I invite all of us to keep him in prayer daily:
O God, shepherd and ruler of all the faithful,
look favorably on your servant Francis,
whom you have set at the head of your Church as her shepherd;
Grant, we pray, that by word and example
he may be of service to those over whom he presides
so that, together with the flock entrusted to his care,
he may come to everlasting life.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the
unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.