Sunday of the Samaritan Woman
Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday May 17, 2009
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
Christ is Risen!
Jesus says remarkable things to the Samaritan Woman, speaking of a life that seems so far removed from what we experience in our daily lives. He says to her that if she drinks the water he offers she will never thirst again and that it will become a spring of water in her "welling up to eternal life." In another place he says, "out of your belly shall flow rivers of living water."
What could he be talking about? Is such a thing possible for us? Why do our spiritual lives seem so barren? In today's Gospel the Samaritan Woman's experience points to some clue for us. It is a sacramental encounter. I want to focus on only one aspect of this morning. The necessity of repentance and purification.
The Lord, at his most scandalous, initiates a dialogue with a Samaritan Woman at Jacob's well. He breaks so many religious, cultural and social laws it is hard to count them all! As Dn. Jeff told us last week, "God is both king and rebel." Here he is as the Glorious, Divine Rebel.
The Lord knows the Woman at the Well is a sinful woman; that she has had many husbands and is living with another man, but He does not judge or condemn her. He gently, compassionately and masterfully leads her in confession, modeling for her the truth of who He is and who she may become. The Lord speaks and then graciously awaits her response. He reveals more and more as He perceives she is able to embrace transcendence. She asks to receive the living water and the Lord desires to grant her request, but first He helps to pave the way by revealing the things that stand in the way. She must first confess and repent of her sins.
Purification is the first step in the spiritual life because virtue is the necessary foundation. If we attempt to embark on the spiritual life without this, we will be as the foolish man who built his house on the sand. At the first appearance of temptation the house crumbles because its foundation is weak. But the house built on the firm foundation of virtue stands firm. Not even a legion of demons could bring it down.
One wise teacher wrote that "purification is the systematic pruning away of all sources of distraction." Jesus helps the Woman at the Well prune away the things in her life that distract her from an intimate relationship with God based on "spirit and truth." This is what the sacrament of Confession is all about; not just the listing of sins, but the uprooting of the causes of sin. As we progress in the spiritual life what we confess becomes more and more subtle, as we begin to work with the thoughts, emotions and conditioning that give rise to our sin.
Denied the living water of God, we search for other sources of water we hope will quench our thirst, but they produce only more thirst. The soul's search for alternative gods turns into craving and addiction to things that satisfy only for a moment and then the moment is gone and with it, happiness. We must wake and be honest with ourselves and start to whittle away these distractions, to leave behind all our earthly cares and the half-baked solutions we concoct that do not, and never will, work. As the great Western mystic Meister Eckhart wrote:
"It is a fair trade and an equal exchange: to the extent that you depart from things, thus far, no more and no less, God enters into you with all that is his, as far as you have stripped yourself of yourself in all things. It is here that you should begin, whatever the cost, for it is here that you will find true peace, and nowhere else."
If our spiritual lives are non-existent or barren, then be sure that at the root of the problem is that our hearts and minds are filled with distractions from the remembrance of God. It is a struggle. Have no doubt, but a struggle which produces fruit an hundred-fold. When there is nothing to hinder the cooperation between the Holy Spirit and the human spirit, the living water begins to flow.
I recently watched an amazing video produced by the BBC. It documented the experience of an Anglican priest, Fr. Peter Owen-Jones as he followed in the footsteps of St. Antony the Great of Egypt. After visiting his monastery by the Red Sea he went up the mountain where the Great Saint lived in a cave continuing his struggle for many years. With teaching and the prayers of Fr. Lazarus, an Australian Coptic monk who was dwelling near the cave of St. Antony and had been for eight years, to help him Fr. Peter lives for three weeks virtually alone as St. Antony had done. At the end of three weeks of struggling with his own "demons," his fears, temptations, loneliness in a place where he could not grasp hold of the things he would normally use to distract him from the struggle, he reaches a place of peace at which he says, "I am actually beginning to enjoy this and that is a worry." Allow me to quote his final reflection.
"The goodness is the struggle and to be aware that it is a struggle; to be aware that we are constantly making choices between the good and the bad - the good choice and the bad choice...I have come to acknowledge since being here of the importance of that struggle...not to engage in it means that we just fall asleep, we become numb and I was numb when I got here. I know that now...and I'm beginning to come alive again now. And it's painful. It's really painful, like being born, but it's true. So, there we go, another day. Another beautiful day."
It is as simple and as difficult as this that we learn to always choose what is good, wise and skillful so that the Lord's work finds in us a willing partner. The struggle for purity is worth the sacrifice. "The proof," as they say, "is in the pudding."