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Jesus with the woman at the well (today's gospel),
said to be from a 13th-century church in Ethiopia.

You're a Christian community leader. Thank you!

Know this about next Sunday's Bible readings.


Skip the introduction

I'm Greg Warnusz, of Holy Name of Jesus Catholic Church, Saint Louis, Missouri, USA, since 2005, author of Lector's Notes at https://lectorprep.org since 1999, and web steward for FOSIL since about 2010.

This (and following weekly messages) aim to help you apply the Bible readings you'll hear in church to the life of the parish (or other Christian community) that you hold dear.

These are not devotionals (those are everywhere). I'm offering what I learned in the seminary, this intellectually honest way to read the Bible:
  1. Learn what the writer of the Bible passage was trying to help his or her ancient community cope with (my specialty).
  2. Ask how your own community today is dealing with something like that (your specialty).
  3. Suggest the connections, craft a biblical approach to your community's mission.
  4. Remember Bible passages were composed for whole communities, not just for individuals.
  5. Then the rest is up to you (readers / listeners), your communities, and the Holy Spirit.
Step 1), above, is the hardest. I offer this because I'm grateful for the seminary education I received and the continuing education I enjoy. Step 2) is my passion because my beloved parish community faces serious demographic challenges and will soon face ecclesiastical ones.

This is a new endeavor, likely to improve with age. Next week's may be shorter. It takes 3 years for Catholic and most Protestant churches to complete their surveys of the whole Bible and start over. Stick with me. Thanks.
 
So what did Sunday's (March 15, 2020)
Bible readings mean when written,
and what might they mean now?

 
Ancient Judea was conquered by the Babylonians about 600 years before Jesus. Leaders and citizens of Jerusalem were herded off to Babylon, where they were more or less enslaved for 60 years. This period is called the Babylonian Captivity, or the Exile. It devastated the people’s hope and national pride. At its end, many didn’t even want to go home, and those who did found the restoration of their homeland depressingly slow. So their leaders and priests began to retell the inspiring stories of their heroic ancestors.

Today’s first reading (Exodus 17, below) is about their patriarch Moses, set hundreds of years before the Exile. The whole Moses lore has perennial themes: God insists on recruiting him while he protests his unworthiness; his faith in God wavers, as does his confidence in the people he’s trying to lead; the people challenge his leadership; they want to go back to Egypt; their obedience to God wavers; sometimes they imitate their pagan neighbors by worshiping idols and growing ethically lax. It’s back and forth for Moses’ whole lifetime, and after.

The water-from-the-rock episode is in our liturgy today because this is the one Sunday every three years that we hear the "living water discourse" in the gospel. It's John 4, the story of Jesus in conversation with the Samaritan woman at the village well. The psalm we sing in response to the first reading points out the tendency of God’s people to grumble, backslide, and stay stuck.

As community leaders, you might let the first reading encourage you when your people’s nostalgia saps their resolve to make needed changes. Or maybe even you need to ask, “Do I believe the Lord is in our midst or not?” or “How, exactly, is God with us on this journey?” Perhaps there are memories of heroic ancestors that you should recall. And if these connections, loose as they are, don’t give you an “Aha!” moment, consider today’s gospel, explored below.

How might you apply the second reading (Romans 5, below) to the community you lead? Well, what was Paul trying to do for his community? They were split about what kind of requirements to impose on each other. The Christians with Jewish backgrounds were rightly proud of their heritage and viewed Jesus as its fulfillment. They continued to follow the Law of Moses -- not just ten basic commandments but a few hundred laws about kosher cooking, family life, sanitation, fine points of Sabbath observance and more. The problem in Rome was that some Jewish Christians expected Gentile converts to adopt Jewish practices as part of becoming followers of Jesus. This did not go down well. (The ancient Jewish practice of circumcising males was -- forgive me -- the messiest part of the debate. It’s one thing to have the rabbi do a bris on your newborn son, but quite another to ask adult Gentile males to submit to this ritual surgery.)

Saint Paul’s life-experience had convinced him that keeping the Jewish law should not be a requirement for Gentile Christians, and Paul was a Jew and he kept those laws! He remained astonished at his own conversion (the Damascus-Road knockdown, Acts 9). He went from vigorous persecutor of Christians and defender of the old ways, to energetic, widely traveling apostle for Jesus Christ, not just to Jews but to Gentiles. He felt deeply the loving mercy of God in all this, because God was not punishing him for having persecuted followers of God’s own Son. Paul now saw his own attempts to obey the Law of Moses as trying to earn God’s approval, when God simply wants to give, freely, unconditional love. Furthermore, Paul realized the Law was an impediment to accepting God’s love in faith. It’s insulting to try to earn something that another wants to give you freely. So if God’s love can’t be bought by good behavior, we shouldn’t ask for obedience to obsolete regulations as the price of admission to the church. (Read the last line of today’s Romans passage with this explanation fresh in your mind: “But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.”)

So …. what? These ideas may prompt you and other leaders to evaluate the demands you make on members and prospective new members. You can also ponder whether you have undue allegiance to old ways of doing things. And check if you are, consciously or not, comparing your community to others that are outwardly more prosperous. If the megachurch has a higher profile (or higher steeple) than your mission church, it’s not because God loves your church less or because you’re less obedient. And is that even the right comparison to make?

Before we study today's gospel, John 4, below, let’s review something about all the gospels and their compositions. Generations of teachers and preachers from most denominations have realized that the gospels are not verbatim recordings of the deeds and words of Jesus. Some such memories and witness-accounts are there, but each evangelist shaped the traditions handed down to fit the needs of a specific community. Each audience/church was interacting with its own larger culture, rival communities, its persecutors, its internal conflicts, its memories and hopes. Matthew wrote for Jewish converts, so he depicts Jesus as a new Moses. Luke’s audience was Gentile, so he’s got to explain how a sect originating in the famously exclusive Twelve Tribes of Israel came to break off and welcome pagans. John wrote, a whole generation later, for a community beset by demands that they abandon faith in Christ and return to Judaism. This is why there’s more than one gospel. And it’s what you’d expect because you believe the Good News is meant for all the ends of the earth and the Holy Spirit inspired the biblical writers.

So what’s John the evangelist trying to do for his community (and, likely, for ours)? Start with the discrepancies and unexpected elements; that’s where the writer wants the readers to struggle and figure out how to move their community forward. Well, this story is set in an unlikely locale, Samaria, the turf of an old tribe of heretical misfits (in the eyes of mainstream Jews). The woman shouldn’t be there; in a culture where men and unaccompanied women were supposed to keep their distance, only men could be at the town’s well at midday. The conversation was culturally out of line. Rabbis like Jesus didn’t instruct women, and women didn’t discuss political topics like “messiah” and “temple.” The woman makes rapid progress in her appraisal of Jesus, first, somewhat contemptuously calling him a “Judean,” then “sir,” “prophet,” and finally “Messiah.” Then the whole village calls him “savior of the world.” (I owe much of this analysis to the late Georgetown U. scholar John J. Pilch.)

Thus, for his own community, John may have been strengthening his readers for a more decisive break with Judaism. He may have welcomed more authoritative participation by women and/or wanted to prepare his church for the culture clash that would follow. Maybe “Samaria” is symbolic of any place or people where some don’t think it’s worth getting involved. Maybe he wanted Christians to recognize that we each make progress, at different speeds, in letting our loyalty to Jesus grow, so they should be patient with each other and with themselves.

The same kinds of challenges, and other analogous ones, may be roiling your community. Now you have one more Sunday’s worth of biblical learning about how you might lead.
 

Here are the texts


Reading 1, Exodus 17:3-7

In those days, in their thirst for water, the people grumbled against Moses, saying, “Why did you ever make us leave Egypt? Was it just to have us die here of thirst with our children and our livestock?”
So Moses cried out to the LORD, “What shall I do with this people? a little more and they will stone me!”
The LORD answered Moses, “Go over there in front of the people, along with some of the elders of Israel,
holding in your hand, as you go, the staff with which you struck the river. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock in Horeb. Strike the rock, and the water will flow from it for the people to drink.”
This Moses did, in the presence of the elders of Israel. The place was called Massah and Meribah,
because the Israelites quarreled there and tested the LORD, saying, “Is the LORD in our midst or not?”
(Back to the application)

Reading 2, Romans 5:1-2, 5-8


Brothers and sisters:

Since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,
through whom we have gained access by faith to this grace in which we stand, and we boast in hope of the glory of God.

And hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts
through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
For Christ, while we were still helpless,
died at the appointed time for the ungodly.
Indeed, only with difficulty does one die for a just person,
though perhaps for a good person one might even find courage to die.
But God proves his love for us
in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.
(Back to the application)

Gospel reading, John 4:5-42

Jesus came to a town of Samaria called Sychar,
near the plot of land that Jacob had given to his son Joseph.
Jacob’s well was there.
Jesus, tired from his journey, sat down there at the well.
It was about noon.

A woman of Samaria came to draw water.
Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.”
His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.
The Samaritan woman said to him,
“How can you, a Jew, ask me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?”
—For Jews use nothing in common with Samaritans.—
Jesus answered and said to her,
“If you knew the gift of God
and who is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink, ‘
you would have asked him
and he would have given you living water.”
The woman said to him,
“Sir, you do not even have a bucket and the cistern is deep;
where then can you get this living water?
Are you greater than our father Jacob,
who gave us this cistern and drank from it himself
with his children and his flocks?”
Jesus answered and said to her,
“Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again;
but whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst;
the water I shall give will become in him
a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
The woman said to him,
“Sir, give me this water, so that I may not be thirsty
or have to keep coming here to draw water.”

Jesus said to her,
“Go call your husband and come back.”
The woman answered and said to him,
“I do not have a husband.”
Jesus answered her,
“You are right in saying, ‘I do not have a husband.’
For you have had five husbands,
and the one you have now is not your husband.
What you have said is true.”
The woman said to him,
“Sir, I can see that you are a prophet.
Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain;
but you people say that the place to worship is in Jerusalem.”
Jesus said to her,
“Believe me, woman, the hour is coming
when you will worship the Father
neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.
You people worship what you do not understand;
we worship what we understand,
because salvation is from the Jews.
But the hour is coming, and is now here,
when true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth;
and indeed the Father seeks such people to worship him.
God is Spirit, and those who worship him
must worship in Spirit and truth.”
The woman said to him,
“I know that the Messiah is coming, the one called the Christ;
when he comes, he will tell us everything.”
Jesus said to her,
“I am he, the one speaking with you.”

At that moment his disciples returned,
and were amazed that he was talking with a woman,
but still no one said, “What are you looking for?”
or “Why are you talking with her?”
The woman left her water jar
and went into the town and said to the people,
“Come see a man who told me everything I have done.
Could he possibly be the Christ?”
They went out of the town and came to him.
Meanwhile, the disciples urged him, “Rabbi, eat.”
But he said to them,
“I have food to eat of which you do not know.”
So the disciples said to one another,
“Could someone have brought him something to eat?”
Jesus said to them,
“My food is to do the will of the one who sent me
and to finish his work.
Do you not say, ‘In four months the harvest will be here’?
I tell you, look up and see the fields ripe for the harvest.
The reaper is already receiving payment
and gathering crops for eternal life,
so that the sower and reaper can rejoice together.
For here the saying is verified that ‘One sows and another reaps.’
I sent you to reap what you have not worked for;
others have done the work,
and you are sharing the fruits of their work.”

Many of the Samaritans of that town began to believe in him
because of the word of the woman who testified,
“He told me everything I have done.”
When the Samaritans came to him,
they invited him to stay with them;
and he stayed there two days.
Many more began to believe in him because of his word,
and they said to the woman,
“We no longer believe because of your word;
for we have heard for ourselves,
and we know that this is truly the savior of the world.”
(Back to the application)

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