3rd Sunday of Lent (A – Scrutinies) – March 20, 2021
St. Paul – Lyons, KS
Exodus 17:3-7; Psalm 95:1-2, 6-9; Romans 5:1-2, 5-8; John 4:5-42
Entering the Wilderness
People have started making fun of my homilies—I’m glad people feel comfortable enough to do that. But usually what people say is, “Oh we know what you’re going to say, Father. You’re going to say something like, ‘We need to step back and look at what’s really going on. What’s really going on in this story?’” It’s just the eternal teacher in me. Like, We just need to step back.
All during Lent, what are we doing? All of Lent we are preparing to enter into the life that Jesus is offering to us. For those of us that are already baptized, we already possess that life—that life is within us, growing within us, and so we are preparing for a renewal of that life, to re-enter that, to accept that gift once again. The Catechumens (those that are not baptized) are preparing to enter into that for the very first time.
This is the life that we need. This is my bold claim for the day. This is the life that we need.
And even though it is freely given to us, it doesn’t come without cost. This is what we hear about all throughout scripture, all throughout the Gospels. Last week we heard about the transfiguration, but right before the Transfiguration Jesus makes that famous prediction that he would “suffer, be rejected…and [then] be killed” (Mark 8:31)—there is this cost involved. And then, if that wasn’t enough, he says, “Whoever wants to follow me, be my disciple, have this life as well must deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me” (Mark 8:34-35)—again, there is this cost involved.
But then he immediately goes up the mountain and is transfigured. And what we see in his transfiguration, what we see in that event, is the veil pulled back. We see what’s really going on in Jesus. There is this radiant life pumping within him, this radiance and life that is within him, that we can’t always see day after day. But in that great Transfiguration event, we can see it. That is the life God is promising to us! That’s what I mean by we are preparing to enter into that life. God is promising us this radiant, transformed life, this new life. And again, not just one day when we die, but now, even now. And I want that. If you tell me you can have that one day when you’re dead, that’s nice, but I want that now. I want that life of Jesus now.
There is this great story from the desert fathers (and I’ve shared this before). One day the young monk goes to the old monk and says, “You know, I say my prayers, I fast, I do all of these little things, and I pray and I meditate, I live in peace as much as I can, I purify my thoughts. But I feel like I’m missing it. What else am I supposed I do?” [And that’s us, especially during Lent: “I’m doing my prayer and fasting and almsgiving: What else am I supposed to do?”]Then the old man, the old monk, the old wise and holy monk stands up, and holds this hands like this, and fire starts to dumping out of his hands. And he says, “If you will, you can become all flame” (c.f., The Sayings of the Desert Fathers). It’s this story of this great “transfiguration” going on in that old monk. Because he has it, he has that life pumping within him. In this transfiguration like event, the young monk can see in this old guy, “He has it. He has what I’m looking for.” That’s what I want! (I also want fire shooting out of my fingers.) But that’s what I want! I want that life!
So the question is: How do we get that? How do we enter into that? And again, just like Jesus, we’re going to have to enter into “suffering, rejection, death”; it’s “denying yourself, taking up the cross, following” him on this path. The problem is that is very abstract. What does this look mean? It means we get this “practice run” during Lent; this is what Lent is all about. We’re supposed to enter into the desert, enter into the wilderness. That is where we will begin to be able to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him.
Lent, at its foundation, is entering into the “desert,” into the “wilderness,” into this desolate place. We all know about how Jesus entered into the desert for forty days. But, that’s something we need as well. The life Jesus is trying to give us—the path to that life runs through the desert.
Avoiding the Desert Wilderness
We like to avoid the desert…at all costs! And I don’t mean we like avoiding “doing things” for Lent—that’s also true. But I’m talking about the desert—your personal desert.
In scripture (and in reality), the desert, the wilderness is a place of death, of suffering. In the desert, if you go out there, there’s no water, no shelter, nobody—you’re going to die. It’s just a place to die. And if we’re forced into the desert, we immediately begin to look for ways to escape it—naturally! What would you want to be in a desert? We look for shade, for shelter, for food, for water. Even when we’re told about the great things on the other side of the desert—“Just walk through and you’ll see!”—even then we try to avoid it.
We want to avoid that! At all costs! That’s our first reading: Moses just took these people out of slavery, puts them on the path to the promise land, but what do we hear? “In their thirst for water, the people grumbled. ‘Why did you ever make us leave Egypt?’” (Exodus 17:3). Just think about that. Moses just took them out of slavery, they’ve been free for a couple weeks, and he’s told them that they are on the road to the promised land, to a land flowing with milk and honey. And the first thing they want, first thing they say, “Eh, let’s just go back to slavery. Slavery’s not that bad, I guess.”
That’s what I’m talking about. We want to avoid the desert—especially the desert that is very unique and personal to you. Even when we know that we’re going to go right back into “slavery,” we try to avoid the desert, the wilderness. Promise or no promise about what’s on the other side of that desert, we want to avoid it.
The “Wells” We Drink From: Numbing Ourselves to Our True Thirst
What does this look like for us, though? It does not mean you gave up chocolate for Lent, but you ate some chocolate, and now you need to go to confession for that. No. Think of it this way, ask yourself: “What do I do when I’m bored? And what do I do to keep myself from feeling that?” In other words: what is your desert, and (since you can’t get out of that desert) what “well” have you dug to keep yourself from feeling that boredom? That is us avoiding the desert. We enter into the desert, and immediately we start looking for shade and water. God has opened up a path to that life we want, remember? But once we’re on that path…we easily avoid it.
This season of Lent is not about adding all of these disciplines into your life for forty days so that you can kick a habit, lose a few pounds, pray more. It’s not about having discipline for discipline’s sake. I know some people that go hard for Lent, just to see if they can, “No food for forty days!” That’s not entering the desert. That’s just…dumb.
Again, the desert is the path where you are bored, and nothing, “What do I do?” Do I pull out my phone, and start scrolling to numb out so that I don’t feel bored anymore? [Have you ever heard of someone freak out because they had to go to the bathroom without their phone?]
The desert is entering into that place of boredom, but also that place of great hurt, or shame; it’s entering to that painful memory, or anger or shame. When we start to engage that desert place, when we begin to feel that “thirst”—that’s when we often start looking for ways to numb ourselves out, to look for our “well.” We’ve all put a well in our deserts to keep us safe and happy. But that well is not going to satisfy. It will numb us out for a little while, but it will not satisfy.
The Samaritan Woman and Her Well
The story of the Samaritan woman is very famous. But she comes to this well every single day; every single day she comes to this well (which is fine, people drank water back then, too). But what does Jesus say? He says, “Whoever drinks this water is always going to be thirsty for more.” And then we find out what Jesus is actually saying. Jesus points out that she has been quenching her thirst with all of these different men—that’s he problem. She’s had five different husbands, and she’s on number six right now.
We do the exact same things, though. We go to our different wells and we draw every day. For some of us it’s our “well” of alcohol or drugs or pornography. For some of us, it’s our “well” of wealth or trying to make more money. For some the desire for other’s respect. For some of us it’s guarding our time. For some of us it’s preserving the life we want by not having more children, “Because I like my lifestyle and more children would mess that up.” For some of us it’s cable news or social media, scrolling through Facebook or Tik Tok. We all have our wells that we love to go to! We thirst and look for “water” wherever we think we can find it. We dig these “wells”—anything that can help us feel better—but in the end it doesn’t satisfy. And that’s Jesus’ point: you will have to keep coming back, and in the end you’ll just be dead in the desert.
It’s Not Something That We Thirst For, but Someone
The good news is that it is beside our well, the well we have dug out in our desert, that the Lord waits for us. Not on the other side of the desert—waiting for us to figure it out ourselves. No, he’s there. And it’s there—and only there—that the Lord offers to give us a water that will quench our thirst forever, that will give us “eternal life,” the life that come through Jesus, the life we saw in his Transfiguration—the life we’re looking for.
Again, the hard work of life, the hard work of Lent isn’t making sure you don’t eat chocolate, it’s not about trying to fix things or develop good habits. The hard work of life and Lent is admitting that the well you go to to quench your thirst isn’t what you’re really looking for—but following the One that you discover is sitting next to your well, offering to quench your thirst, offering you living water. Jesus is offering to walk with you. Not to magically take you out of the desert, but to walk through it with you.
There are no magic solutions or shortcuts—the invitation is still that you must deny yourself, take up your cross and follow him; you still have to walk through the desert. But you do not have to do it alone, you don’t have to rely on your own strength. The Lord strengthens us, and in this Eucharist he provides the daily bread.