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Well, well – well?

well-w-bucket‘There were two wells and three water jugs…’ It sounds like the beginning of a bad joke yet this is the scenario St. John presents us with. The woman and her water jug both come to be filled at the well. There they meet Jesus who is both a water jug and a well; He thirsts and He satisfies. There are two different understandings of thirst at play here which Jesus gradually helps the woman to appreciate.

In the Scriptures Jesus speaks of thirst at a deeper level than that of simple bodily needs. For example He says, ‘blessed are those who hunger and thirst for uprightness’ (Matthew 5:6); or again while hanging on the cross, ‘I thirst’ (John 19:28). However, by asking the woman for a drink after the ardours of His missionary activity, He clearly recognises the importance of physical thirst too. On this, St. Augustine writes: ‘Jesus is strong and weak: strong, because in the beginning was the Word; weak, because the Word was made flesh.’ Just as in the parables, Jesus draws on everyday mundane examples familiar to His hearers in order to bring them to a deeper awareness of God’s love.

Who among us therefore, does not know what it means to thirst? We can identify with this because we know it and because we know it, we know the struggle involved to satiate it. There is something profound about the woman’s desire and her request of Jesus to give her some of that living water He offers ‘so that she may never thirst again’ (John 4:15). It is the story of our limited human nature that while striving for ultimate fulfilment, understands the disillusionment with temporal goods. ‘Into the sea go all the rivers and yet the sea is never filled and still to their goal the rivers go’ (Ecclesiastes 1:7). Though necessary for our physical well-being, material things are unable to satisfy our deepest longings and still we continually devour those externals in the hope of filling that internal, God-shaped void He alone can fill.

We consume food and drink, alcohol and drugs, fashions and trends, art and literature, music, sport and culture and so much more. To stay at that level though is a problem for Jesus. Consumers are good for business but to settle for being mere consumers is a poor substitute for any person, whom God has made in His own image and likeness. Jesus is our mirror and our compass, reminding us of our humanity and our relationship with God. Rather than remaining at the level of consuming externals, important as they are, Jesus promises a spring of living water internally, welling up to eternal life. It is an invitation to relationship with God. It shows itself as a disposition or state of existence in which a person is so convinced of God’s love for them that they become lovers in return. The spring of living water gives life perspective, meaning and hope. This is something the market cannot offer.

Of the two wells then, Jesus and the water well, which of them should we draw from to be well? This is the key question; where is life in its fullest sense to be found? We should reasonably draw from both since we have physical and spiritual needs alike but there is certainly an order of importance. We are more than the consumers the economy tells us we are. We are more than the posh apes coughed up by the universe that the human sciences would have us believe we are. Many centuries ago Pope Saint Leo the Great joyfully exclaimed ‘O Christian, be aware of your nobility’ as he pondered the mystery of Christ’s incarnation. By highlighting the inability of the water well to satisfy our deepest desires, Jesus points us to the source of that nobility – God; the source of all life.

The Third Sunday of Lent Year A (John 4:5-42)

Ash Wednesday Hunger

HungryWith Ash Wednesday looming in sight one of the brothers was asked what the season meant for him and he said with a laugh “hunger”. His ‘smart answer’ in a sense is right because Lent is about getting in touch with the hunger for God buried in every human heart. This hunger according to St. Thomas Aquinas is the result of us being created for God. Creation is God’s way of inviting us into the sheer ecstasy of being in loving friendship with Him. This will be achieved when we see God as He really is face to face. The Angelic doctor teaches that the true desire in all our willing is really this ‘beatific end’ whether we are aware of it or not. So on Ash Wednesday when the Lord summons us through the Prophet Joel in the first reading  to “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning” (Jl 2:12) we could say in a sense God is calling us to cleanse our hearts from all its disordered desires and vices so that we can, through his mercy, experience that internal hunger for Him as our beatifying end.

 

But we know all too well that we tend to fill this hunger for God with other things. These other things Aquinas says are typically pleasure, power, wealth, honour, fame and glory. The last three are particularly appropriate for our Ash Wednesday liturgy since Jesus in the Gospel tells us not to undertake prayers, penances and fasts for the sake of gaining people’s good opinions and praise. Instead of seeking applause and honour for our works, which is nothing but ambition, our Lord wants us to be virtuous, that is acting in accord with His will. He wants us to realise that what truly matters is our interior dispositions and not what other people see us doing. He desires us to be hungry for Him and not for people’s praises.

 

I am reminded of an episode in the life of St. Therese of Lisieux. In her autobiography she recounts an episode from her community life: she felt like rushing to do a certain chore but sacrificed not doing it in order to give another sister the opportunity to be charitable. Neither did she want to draw any attention to herself. Despite her hidden sacrifice she was castigated by a fellow nun for being so lacking in generosity.  When Jesus calls us to act in secret for our Father not only do we loose the admiration of others we can even become misunderstood. This is part of carrying our daily Cross by which God’s grace sanctifies us and makes us joyful in our hunger for God. 

 

Lent is about rending from our hearts  the many things in which we seek our happiness apart from God. It is about rediscovering  the hunger in us for God as our ultimate happiness. This hunger instils in us a sense of wonder and awe because of the reality that lies before us. The Christian singer Laurie Mangano sums up this hungry heart when she sings, “ I can only imagine what my eyes will see when your face is before me, I can only imagine… surrounded by your glory what will my heart feel? Will I dance for you Jesus or in awe of you be still? Will I stand in your presence or to my knees will I fall? Will I be able to speak at all? I can only imagine.”

 

Reflection on First Reading and Gospel for Ash Wednesday – Year A (JL 2: 12-18) and (Matthew 6: 1-6, 16-18)