The Third Sunday of Lent Ex 17:3-7; Ps 95; Rom 5:1-2, 5-8; Jn 4:5-42
Recently, I read an article about Benedict XVI’s visit to Britain in September 2010. You may recall the spiritual atmosphere on the streets of London, people dropping to their knees as his car passed by, and the awesome silence of the crowds in Hyde Park before the Holy Eucharist. Despite the negativity beforehand, he received an overwhelmingly positive welcome.
As Benedict himself said: “In the course of my visit, it’s become clear to me how deep a thirst there is among the British people for the Good News of Jesus Christ.” Later he added: “The hearts of the British are clearly open to the reality of God, as shown in the many expressions of religiosity my visit [evoked].”
This week, the third Sunday of our Lenten pilgrimage with Christ in the desert, the readings at Mass are all about thirst, water, drink and refreshment. These are symbols of faith and the Holy Spirit. We are given three wonderful passages of Scripture: from the Book of Exodus, the story of Israel in the desert tormented by thirst and how Moses struck the rock and water flowed for the people to drink; the Letter to the Romans, in which St Paul speaks of the love of God as like living water poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit lavished upon us; and finally, the magnificent account from John’s Gospel of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at the well.
Let us dwell for a moment on the Gospel. Give me a drink, Jesus said to the woman. What Jesus was really thirsting for was her faith, and like a piece of theatre, he led her on bit by bit. When he first spoke to her, she was shocked: “You, a Jew, ask me for a drink?” If only she knew who was asking. He would give her living water. That caught her attention: a spring welling up to eternal life?
When he said he knew she had had five husbands, she was amazed. How did he know that? This man must be a prophet; perhaps he was the long-expected Messiah? Then Jesus revealed all: I am he! She ran off to tell the whole town.
In Portsmouth, one of the things I like doing in the evenings is going out for a short walk; I often say the rosary. Since childhood, I’ve always loved the night sky, looking at the stars. But in the city, the traffic, the street lights and the shops are so bright, you can barely see the moon, let alone any stars. Spiritually, the secular culture we live in is like that. It’s full of great potential, wonderful things. It makes life busy, absorbing and bright. But like the city lights, it also easily obscures God, heaven, the angels and saints. People can easily end up distracted, living “horizontal” lives without the sacred canopy.
In Britain, we have so much to thank God for: our affluence and wellbeing, our medical and education systems, the fair and caring society in which we live. Yet many people are indifferent to God and their eternal destiny. As a consequence, there are now powerful forces of spiritual and moral malaise at work. With the secular culture in the ascendant politicians and policymakers, awash on a sea of relativism, take more and more wrong turns. As our country departs from its Christian patrimony, and from those fundamental beliefs and values that have made us who and what we are, we are entering the unknown.
Yet, as the papal visit demonstrated, Britain is not a spiritual desert. There are streams of spirituality running underneath. This is why since becoming Bishop of Portsmouth I have been calling our clergy and people to focus all their energy on the new evangelisation. Evangelisation is a two-way movement: breathing in and breathing out. It’s first about ourselves being evangelised, a lifelong endeavour, deepening our own faith in Christ. But it’s also about reaching out to others to propose to them the Good News.
Today we need what Pope John Paul II called an evangelisation “new in its ardour, new in its methods and new in its expression”, in order to reach the many non-practising Catholics and the many in our society who seem to know the basic elements of Christianity but find in it little meaning.
Strike the rock, and water will flow from it for the people to drink. In this third week of Lent, let us pray for the living water Jesus offers us: the Holy Spirit. Let’s ask the Father to pour that Holy Water into us. Let’s ask Him, too, to pour that water into the hearts of everyone in our land so that as they thirst for happiness they may find Jesus Christ in the full communion of His Church.
The Rt Rev Philip Egan is the Bishop of Portsmouth. This is the fourth in our Lenten series written by bishops from across Britain