In the Old Testament reading today, we have the famous scene known throughout the rest of the Scriptures as the waters of contradiction. The Israelites are faced with troubles: they are thirsty and they are in the desert. This reading resonates with us today because we are faced with the corona virus phenomenon, and we are concerned. When something bad happens, the question we often ask is, “why?”
The Israelites ask themselves, “Why are we here thirsty in the desert?” And they quickly come up with an answer: “Moses did it to us!” From the comfortable distance of history, we can see that they came up with the wrong answer. Moses was their savior, the man who led them out of slavery in Egypt. Moses was a prophet, who conversed with God and conveyed God’s power through the entire Exodus story. It was Moses acting as God’s agent who brought plagues and pestilence upon the Egyptians and spared the Israelites so everyone knew clearly that God loved his people and would save them from their earthly tribulations.
But the Israelites blame Moses for their troubles, and by extension, they blame God. As we all deal today with the Coronavirus, we are certainly tempted to blame others, perhaps even God, for our troubles. For most of us, our troubles are not the actual Corona virus but fear of catching it or irritation at the response to it.
The scene at the Waters of Contradiction is so important, it comes up again and again in the later Old Testament books. We sang Psalm 95 today, which refers directly to the event. Those who pray the Liturgy of the Hours know this scene well, for we start every day of prayer with this Psalm 95. There is obviously more to the story than just being thirsty and being mad about it.
So, like Paul Harvey, I’m going to tell you the rest of the story. And we find it in the Gospel today. The woman at the well is a woman with an irregular marriage history, one that is shameful enough she goes to get water from the community well in the middle of the day, when it is the hottest and she is least likely to bump into another person. But today, she does. And the other persona is not only not another Samaritan woman, it’s a Jewish man. The woman at the well has the same opportunity to respond to a difficulty in her life as the Israelites at Meribah or the world today facing the Coronavirus. But she does not get mad. She is initially quite confused, but that is because she is not seeing Christ for who he really is. Even so, she engages in conversation and relationship with Jesus, and something wonderful happens through that relationship.
She speaks the truth of her irregular marriage, and Jesus tells her that he knows all about it. It’s as though he has heard from the town gossip. He knows about her previous five husbands, and he knows that her current man is not her husband.
He knows what causes her shame. But she does not feel shameful in his presence. Unlike the Israelites at Meribah, the woman at the well accepts the reality of her difficult situation and responds with profound joy. She wants others to meet the man who knows everything she ever did. She asks if he could be the Christ, the anointed one who will establish the everlasting kingdom promised to David’s heir.
Today, with the Coronavirus, but really every day of our lives, we face situations that are objectively not good. We have a choice: respond as the Israelites did at Meribah, or respond as the woman at the well did. The Coronavirus is exposing to us everywhere how good our contingency plans were. And it turns out they were not all that great. From governments, to schools, to churches, to businesses, leaders everywhere are stumbling from response to response. The season of Lent is a period for us to practice our response to our next trouble or tribulation. Lent is our time to do some trial runs on real problems by fasting, and adding prayer time, and sharing our money.
Let’s go back to the start of Lent, when on Ash Wednesday the minister imposed ashes and said, “Remember that thou are dust, and to dust thou shalt return.” Did we take that seriously? Do we need a global pandemic to be reminded that our bodies came from nothing but dirt and they will ultimately go back to the dirt? Are we irritated by our own seeming insignificance, as the Israelites were irritated by their thirst?
Or, are we perhaps going to choose to be like the woman at the well, and extend our conversation with Jesus until we are not ashamed of our existence but neither are we prideful? Can we joyfully say in a few minutes the words of the Centurion, “Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldst enter under my roof, but speak the word only and my soul shall be healed.”
Like the Centurion, the woman at the well is a model for us in the sacrament of Confession, for she does not lie about her sinful past, or hide it, but states it plainly and accepts the peace of Christ. The joy of a full relationship with God is worth the momentary difficulty of making an honest and full confession. We are not worthy, but he has come under our roof. Could this one not be the Christ? Yes, yes, emphatically yes. He is the Christ. And the love of Christ will overcome every difficulty we face.
This is the beauty of the season of Lent. It is a time of preparation for the Passion of Our Lord. It is a time of honest self-examination. It is a time of spiritual development. Let’s take advantage of it. Let’s not rush to judgment about our circumstances. Let’s not get so busy assigning blame. Let’s wait on our Lord. Let’s remember those ashes. And let’s deepen our relationship with Jesus through the sacraments, through fasting, and through prayer.