Lent: the Johannine Gospels
By Fr. David N. Power, OMI
The three passages from the Gospel of John for the middle Sundays of Lent were introduced for the instruction of the elect, so that they would come to know the presence of Jesus in their lives and come to purify their faith in him ahead of the Easter sacraments. Though intended immediately for them, they are instructive for all on the nature of faith in Jesus Christ.
The first story is that of the meeting of Jesus with the Samaritan woman who came to draw water at the well, coming on her own to avoid others who would scorn her as a sinner and shun her company. Jesus knows she is a sinner and is intent to make her come to grips with her state and in this way to access true faith in God. His approach amazes her; it is not right for a man to converse alone with a woman, nor for a Jew to ask anything of a Samaritan, one who is alien and considered unpure. His first request is very simple, to be given a drink of water. It is an appeal to her compassion, to look outside herself and her miseries to heed the need of another, making a first step towards conversion. Speaking of her male companions, Jesus draws her into the thought of how broken her life has been, not only her marriages broken but she herself. Her first reaction is to taunt him somewhat, to deflect the confrontation by some derision. What in the end however amazes her and draws her to Jesus is that he knows her, knows what is inside her, and addresses her in a loving and forgiving way. Because she is known and forgiven, made aware of good forces and energies in her life, she goes off as an apostle to tell others of the one whom she has met.
In this story, we see a true process of reconciliation at work. The woman needs to admit to what has taken place in her life, without self-justification. But she also needs to be able to tell the story, to voice the need, the hurt, the failures and sorrows of her life, in face of the other, the other who is compassionate and loving. In the conversation, her deeper desires come to the surface on the encouraging words of Jesus, she can even approach the question of where God dwells in the midst of human failure, however awkward her way of putting the question is. From the conversation she derives a new energy, an impulse to speak the things of God, the possibility of salvation, before others, to whom she becomes a witness.
During Lent the Church, faithful and ministers, need to be careful about how they mark the sacrament of penance within a longer process of conversion. Five minutes in the confession box, a hurried avowal in the middle of a penitential service, is not enough. The possibilities of letting the story be told, the deeper avowal made, the depths of desire unearthed, have to be opened up. Hearing the other, comforting the other, talking of God with the other, is not restricted to priests, nor can they numerically suffice. Communities of faith badly need to form spiritual directors, members of the congregation, who have the ability to hear the other’s story and to engage with it in the search for faith in Christ. To be sure, the sacramental moment has its place but it is not the whole of the story of conversion and reconciliation.
This is where the proclamation of Gospel intends to catch the elect on their journey, and indeed all those who seek conversion and a purification of their faith. It is daunting to look at oneself as one stands in the eyes of God, and indeed perhaps in the eyes of others who witness one’s moral weakness, but it is the beginning of faith. One allows oneself to be seen by God as a sinner but in this very acknowledgment one knows mercy and compassion and healing.
With what is quite a simple story of a woman restored to life, John’s Gospel weaves biblical images which deepen the understanding of Jesus and of his mission. First, there is the conflict between Israel and Samaria, allowing Jesus to show that there is no limit to God’s love, no barriers between peoples that can hinder the truth of the Gospel and the extension of divine mercy. Second, there is the image of the temple. As a way of deflecting the penetrating gaze of Jesus, the woman asks him about worship in the Jewish temple and in the Samaritan temple. Jesus shows her that for those who believe in him, God has no fixed abode other than the human heart, where God is worshipped in spirit and in truth. For those who believe in him as the one sent by the Father and the saviour, he can be found anywhere and he can be joined anywhere in offering true worship.
Then there is the imagery of water, most appropriate of course for those who are to be baptized or wish to have their baptism renewed, to find life and vigour through it. In this story, the water is water to drink, water to slake thirst and refresh. It is in this image that Jesus speaks of himself as a source that is unquenchable, as a source of living water never running out but flowing over so that it is never drawn to the dregs. He is a source from which one can and has to keep on drinking, to have life from him.
On their return with provisions to eat, Jesus tells his disciples that he has food to eat of which they nothing. His very food, that which us his sustenance and nourishment on his own journey through these lands is to do the Father’s will, to go in search of sinners to bring back to God. As Jesus is wont to do, he turns the metaphor around to speak of the harvest which yields fruit but which needs to be reaped. His preaching alone will not suffice; others must join him in the quest for sinners and disciples. It is easy to see how these images could draw a congregation to the communion table, where sinners are welcome but also where the harvesters will be fed from the food of life in order to join Jesus in the reaping, in the work of mercy for which he came from the Father.
The second Johannine story, now from John 9, is that of the faith journey of the man to whom Jesus gave sight. It is a story which can image the journey of faith undertaken by catechumens and baptized alike. The first point of the story in the answer Jesus gives his disciples is the dismissal of false ideas about human weakness and about God. There is no connection between the bodily infirmity of this beggar and sin, but in what he is he has a place in God’s loving design and his acceptance of Christin faith is a lesson to be passed on through the ages, from generation to generation. To come to the fullness of faith, he had to travel a long journey and pass through many hardships. He was separated from the synagogue which could not bring itself to recognize Jesus as one sent by God. He was scorned and derided by those learned in the Law. He was rejected by his own family, which did not want to take any responsibility for his beliefs and new way of life. It was purified by these hardships that he again met Jesus and at his invitation came to a final profession of faith in him. The lectionary here presents a conundrum. The passage got into the liturgy from the Latin translation of the Gospel, which allows the man a profession of faith in Jesus as the Son of God. The original Greek text, and so the present English translation, makes his profession a belief in Jesus as the Son of Man. This is the apocalyptic figure of one sent from on high by God to bring the reign of God into the world. The two meanings converge in the expression of the Church’s faith in Jesus.
In the narration if this story, John uses two baptismal images, water and light. To be cured the man is sent to wash in the pool of Siloam, which we are told means sent by God. Believers are invited to Jesus as the one sent by God and to wash in the waters that cleanse them from sin and blindness, giving them new life in Christ. The second image is that of light. Jesus is the light sent into the world. It is light which casts the kind of radiance shown on Tabor, or a light that guides people through the darkness in their journey of faith. People respond to this image according to the spiritual experience they enjoy in their encounter with Christ on the journey of their lives.
Since there is always a light burning on the Eucharistic table, it serves as the light which draws, as the light that invites people out of darkness to unite with Jesus himself in his journey to Jerusalem and in the celebration of the mysteries, the paschal liturgy of earth and of heaven.
The third Lenten story, from John 11, spirals of course around the manifestation of Jesus as the Resurrection and the Life, the one into whose life the catechumens are to be drawn. It is presented as a tale in which Jesus is involved in the loss of a friend to death and in the grief of his sisters. In following his Father’s will he must tarry before going to the bed of Lazarus and the home of Mary and Martha. Not only these two, not have only himself, but his disciples too had to be brought face to face with death, with human mortality and with the disruption of the life of the living by death. Jesus weeps with the sisters, weeps out of his love for Lazarus and for them. He is deeply involved in the loss and the darkness encountered in death, first that of another and then one’s own, his own since he knows that he is under threat by his enemies, that in a short time he is to undergo the worst that this world has to offer, betrayal, cruelty, death itself.
Over all this there prevails the promise of the resurrection but the sisters, like those now in the assembly, have to be instructed in the true meaning of this promise. Martha appears to have been one of those Jews who believed in the resurrection of the body and there is something almost mechanical in her response to Jesus and her affirmation of this article of faith. Mary is less readily comforted; she wants death undone and to have this desire met she runs to Jesus, leaving others behind by the dead body of her brother. To Martha, Mary and all around, Jesus proclaims that he is the Resurrection and the Life. All that believe in him have true life, an unending life, now and in eternity. Darkness, death, loss, grief, may seem to have won out but they have not. When his friends see Jesus himself put to death, they are to know that life endures, not only endures but is given more abundantly. They do not wait for this life at the resurrection of the body but they have it now, they enjoy it even in the midst of death, in any affliction and turmoil that the world brings upon them.
To complete the symbols of water and light and food in the earlier stories, this one offers that of Life, of the life that is given by God without calculation when he sent his Son into the world. It is by profession of faith in this Life that the catechumens, the elect and the baptized are readied to hear the story of the Passion on the last Sunday of Lent and to walk their way through it to the life of the Paschal Mystery into which they will be initiated in the celebration of the Easter mysteries.
These three Gospel stories give us narratives in vivid detail, making it easy to listen to them. They are told in such a way that the hearers of the Word can enter into the stories. They can find themselves in them and they can find how they work themselves out in their own narratives through the gift of faith. They present three images imprinted on the mind around which the story and the promises may spiral: Water of life, Light in darkness, Life and Resurrection in the midst of death. In these images it is Jesus whom they proclaim as the one sent by the Father, as the Son of Man with us on life’s journey, as the Son of God in whose own life with the Father they are elected to share.
In the Lenten liturgy these three Sundays are known as Sundays of the Scrutiny of the elect. The Gospels and other readings invite them to look into their hearts to find what still lurks there of sin but most of all to plumb the depths of their faith in Christ. They are also ready to let the Church scrutinize their lives to see if they are worthy, if they live deeply enough from faith to be true candidates for baptismal initiation and enlightenment. Seeing these baptismal candidates scrutinized, the whole assembly can look into their hearts and renew their faith in Jesus Christ, living source of life, light of the world, the resurrection and the life in whom sinners are made a new creation in the Spirit.