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Third Sunday of Lent

March 15, 2017
Third Sunday of Lent
March 19, 2017
First Reading: Exodus 17:3-7
Responsorial Psalm: 95:1-2, 6-7, 8-9
Second Reading: Romans 5:1-2, 5-8
Gospel: John 4:5-42
Two weeks ago we heard proclaimed the Gospel passage about Jesus' temptations in the desert. Each Lent we kick off the season with that narrative, beginning with Jesus being led (or "driven" in Mark's account) into the desert by the Holy Spirit. There we are reminded of some of the archetypal temptations that face human beings: power, security, immortality. While it may not seem as apparent as the desert temptations, we have in this Sunday's readings yet another encounter with temptation; one that is as omnipresent as the big three in the desert, if also one that is not as commonly recognized.
In the First Reading we hear about the grumbling of the people against Moses. They are upset about the lack of food and drink, which symbolizes the discomfort of the journey out of Egypt and toward the Promised Land (note that this episode-- like Jesus in the Gospel two weeks ago-- also takes place in the desert). What arises in the midst of the discomfort is a frustration with the changes that are taking place and the unknown future that lies ahead. The people suggest in their cry of complaint that they were better off as slaves in Egypt where at least their thirst was quenched and the stomachs filled, even if they were captive and without freedom.
This time the temptation in the desert is one rooted in the fear of change and the willingness to hold onto situations and circumstances that are familiar rather than risk the trust in God that comes with real freedom.
Some people would rather stay in the same miserable circumstances, pretend they do not see the problems around them, stand for sub-par treatment, or even worse, when they are faced with the possibility of change-- even change for the better. This is, perhaps, an extreme illustration of the popular expression, "the devil you know is better than the devil you don't." Our situation may not be the captivity of Egyptian slavery, but many of us can relate to the temptation to stay where we are, do what we've been doing, and avoid the risk of change out of fear.
Contrast this with what we see play out in the famous Gospel encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well. In this exchange, there is a lot of reason for both Jesus and the unnamed woman to fear the encounter with the other: social norms, religious differences, patriarchal discrimination, and differing standards about ritual purity, among others.
And yet, unlike the thirst in the First Reading that leads to the temptation to lament leaving captivity for freedom, this thirst leads to a bridging of relationship-- including the crossing of gender, religious, and social divides. Rather than resorting to what they had always known from their respective community's traditional expectations, both Jesus and the Samaritan woman appear open to the unknown and willing to step into the perhaps uncomfortable place of relationship hitherto unimagined.
What fears prevent me from reaching out to the other? What holds me back in places where I feel most comfortable and unchallenged? How might I move into the desert, not grumbling and resentful, but open to the invitation of the Spirit?
As we continue on our Lenten journey this year, may we include in our examination of conscience both those times when we have succumbed to the temptation to stay in the familiar out of fear of the unknown as well as those instances when we have failed to trust in the work of the Spirit leading us to new encounters with others.
Visiting Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology