Msgr. Joseph Prior

(See the readings for the Third Sunday in Lent — Year A Readings — March 20, 2022)

The crew of Apollo 17 took the first photograph of Earth from about 18,000 miles away from the planet’s surface. The famous image has been called the “Blue Marble.” Since then we have seen more images of the Earth from space. The images are beautiful to see.

The “blue” in the marble is the water that covers so much of the planet. That water is what sustains life – human life as well as animals, plants and smaller creatures. The image helps us to appreciate the abundance of water and life with which we are blessed.

Water is necessary for life. When space exploration missions leave Earth to explore various extraterrestrial bodies, one of the first things they look for is signs of water because of its association with life. Water provides a rich symbol for the grace that God bestows upon his people, grace that gives and sustains life.

The first reading for this Sunday’s liturgy comes from the Book of Exodus. The story recalls the Israelites, now set free from slavery in Egypt, wandering in the desert on their journey to the Promised Land. The people grumble and complain to Moses that they are thirsty. So much so that they forget the greatness of God’s compassion and power — “Why did you ever make us leave Egypt?” — they grumble.

Yet, despite the complaints, God sees their need and he provides for them. He instructs Moses to strike a rock, as he does this water flows. God of his own power provides for his people. The water here represents life.

Water likewise plays an important part in Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well in the Gospel passage. Here a transition takes place during the encounter. The conversation begins with natural water but quickly moves to a new understanding. Jesus will speak of “living water” which only he can provide. The encounter points forward to the gift of life poured forth in baptism.

The encounter is extraordinary and rich. The woman whom Jesus meets is in need. Her needs are not so much for water to drink but something deeper. As the story develops, we realize she has been in five failed marriages and now she is living with a man who is not her husband. She is broken. Although she has had relationships, she is alone. She is in need of healing and life. The healing she needs will not be provided by water from the earth. Hence Jesus says to her: “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again; but whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst.”

“Sir, give me this water, so that I may not be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water,” the woman asks. The question proves a turning point. Jesus will now speak of faith. The gift of life-giving water comes through faith in him. He says: “The hour is coming, and is now here, where true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth; and indeed the Father seeks such people to worship him. God is Spirit, and those who worship him must worship in Spirit and truth.”

When the woman then speaks of the coming Messiah, Jesus tells her, “I am he, the one speaking with you.”

The outpouring of living water will come through Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection. When the disciples return, they are amazed at his speaking with the Samaritan woman yet no one questions him. The woman leaves and tells others about him who then come to Jesus with her.

As this is happening the image of life-giving sustenance switches from water to food. The disciples are concerned that Jesus has not eaten anything. When they ask him, he says: “My food is to do the will of the one who sent me and to finish his work.” He is clearly pointing to his mission of giving himself in complete faith. He will embrace the passion and death that leads to life for all.

The response of the woman and the crowd to this encounter is faith. They come to believe in him through the encounter saying: “We know that this is truly the savior of the world.” During the ministry Jesus has been calling people to faith in him. This faith will open the door to the life-giving water that only he can provide, the “living water,” of which he earlier spoke.

As we continue our Lenten journey toward Easter we have the opportunity to be renewed in faith. In many parishes throughout the world men, women and children are preparing to receive the life-giving waters of baptism. We walk with them in this journey of faith. As we do so we are also being prepared for our renewal of faith at Easter. We remember the life-giving waters that have been poured out on us, we remember the “living waters” that come through faith and we are sustained in life by them.

One important aspect of Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well is the person with whom Jesus spoke. As the Gospel itself references, it was highly unusual for a Jew to speak with a Samaritan and alone with a woman. This, coupled with her troubled relationships, carries a symbolic aspect. She represents everyone in need and especially the outcast.

The life Jesus offers is for all. Everyone is invited to share the living waters. No one is so broken that they cannot be healed. No one is so far from the community that they cannot be welcomed.

The Apollo 17 photograph of the Earth, the “Blue Marble,” provides an abundant image of water. God created the universe and blessed us with life. He graciously has provided water to sustain our bodies with life. In Jesus, he gives us an even more abundant blessing, the gift of living water. The living water wells up from within to heal, strengthen and sustain us in life.

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Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.