Homily on the Third Sunday of Lent, Cycle A, for the Diocese of Yakima
Exodus 17:3-7; Romans 5:1-2, 5-8; John 4:5-42
Most Reverend Joseph J. Tyson, Bishop of Yakima
How might we understand our emptiness and our sadness at not having a public celebration of Eucharist? I think we need not go any farther than the picture St. John presents of this Samaritan woman at the well. Like us, she has an empty bucket. Like us, she labors day after day returning anew with an empty bucket. What does all this emptiness mean?
“She is a symbol of the Church,” states St. Augustine. Then St. Augustine goes on to unwind the sources of her emptiness. She is a Samaritan with whom Jews would have no contact. She is a woman who has come up empty being with a number of different men. She is a “foreigner” outside the dominant culture.
Yet, St. Augustine goes on to note the irony of her conversation with Jesus. “He asks for a drink, and he promises a drink. He is in need as one hoping to receive, yet he is rich, as one about to satisfy the thirst of others.” The emptiness point to her need – not just for “running” or “pure” water, but the “living” water that is Jesus.
It is as though St. Augustine sees in her conversation with Jesus, his own conversation with Our Lord. Indeed, noted Oxford scholar Robin Lane Fox in his book, “Augustine: Conversions to Confessions” suggests that St. Augustine’s life came about from a series of “turnings.” God turns towards him as the source of life. St. Augustine turns in conversion towards God and aversion from his infantile emotions, drives and passions. St. Augustine turns away from the faith of his mother and towards the Manichean sect that saw Jesus as a fine human and wise philosopher. Yet his turn towards Greek philosophical reasoning “turned” him again back to the faith of his mother. The homilies of his mentor St. Ambrose filled his emptiness. The waters of baptism through the hands of St. Ambrose filled him up.
Yet our emeritus Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI identifies a final conversion at the end of his life: “When Augustine felt his death approaching, he ‘excommunicated’ himself and took upon. Himself ecclesiastical penance. In his last days, he set himself alongside, in solidarity, with public sinners who seek forgiveness and grace through the pain of not receiving Communion. He wanted to meet his Lord in humility of those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for Him, the righteous and gracious One.” In a certain sense, Pope Benedict suggests that St. Augustine wanted to meet the Lord in the same way this Samaritan woman met the Lord.
Pope Benedict goes on to ask the reader a series of probing questions: “Do we not often take things too lightly today when we receive the most Holy Sacrament? Could such a spiritual fasting not sometimes be useful, or even necessary, to renew and establish more deeply our relation to the Body of Christ?”
For a variety of reasons that I am not yet free to share, I have been deeply involved in the coronavirus crisis. I have been impressed by the robust COVID-19 protocols in place in our hospitals and health care institutions. I am humbled by the dedication and the long hours of our many health care workers involved with care for the sick.
Because the impact of this virus is so real, Pope Benedict XVI’s insight has also become real. We are fasting from the Eucharist so other can live. In many ways, this Lent has pushed us very quickly to Good Friday. As Pope Benedict notes, in the early Church, not only was there no celebration of the Eucharist on Good Friday, there was also no distribution of communion, unlike our present Good Friday liturgy. Everyone fasted from the Eucharist that day.
This is what I am asking you to do now. We have a public health crisis. The best available scientific evidence suggests that good hygiene and social distancing are the best ways to curb the rapidly growing pandemic. So that is what we are doing. We are fasting from the action of the Eucharist. We are spreading our normally packed Masses across a broader time frame for personal prayer and meditation. We are doing this together regardless of whether we are in a tightly packed Mass in Spanish or a more evenly spaced Mass in English. We are doing this together across the 39 parishes and three missions of the Diocese of Yakima. We are fasting from the Eucharist so that other might further feast on the gift of life.
In our Eucharist today, let us remember those who are sick in any way. Let us remember the many caregivers – some of whom are working long hours. Let us remember the many first responders often exposed to various illnesses. Let us pray for more open hearts that respond in compassion and seeking a common good and well-being of our communities. Like the woman at the well, may our own emptiness and longing, help focus us on the one who fills us with life: Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Artwork: Jesus and the Samaritan woman. A miniature from the 12th-century Jruchi Gospels II MSS from Georgia. Anonymous.