Reflections in a Time of Challenge: 5th Sunday of Lent

The 5th Sunday of Lent closes a very ancient tradition in the church. Although there is an option for different readings, the third, fourth and fifth Sundays in Lent always have the option of three very lengthy readings from the Gospel of John. The readings deal with the 1) the encounter of Jesus with the Samaritan woman at the well; the cure of the man born blind; and lastly the account of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. From earliest times the church saw in these readings the final preparation for candidates who would be baptized on Holy Saturday.

 While each of these readings appears different, the church sees in them important lessons for those who are about to become believers, as well as those who are already believers. Each of these stories individually and collectively is about the progressive revelation as to who Jesus is.

With the woman at the well Jesus speaks to a Samaritan woman. At the time of Jesus — and even today in some circles — a rabbi will not speak to his wife in public. Even worse, Jews and Samaritans has been sworn enemies for over 400 years. Jesus asks the woman for water and then challenges her to seek “living” water. He promises the woman water which will become a spring of everlasting life. She misunderstands and thinks of physical water. In is conversation with her Jesus reveals her past to her. She responds that Jesus is a prophet. Later, when she expresses her belief in the Messiah, Jesus reveals that he is the one who has been promised. As a result of the woman’s witness, we are told many Samaritans came to believe. The woman goes from looking for easy water to a deep belief in Jesus as the Messiah who offers the water of life.

We saw this phenomenon in the readings last week, with the account of the man born blind. Immediately after being cured, he refers to the “man called Jesus” as the one who healed him. When roughly interrogated by the Pharisees, he proclaims Jesus a prophet. After further questioning and abuse, the former blind man encounters Jesus, who asks him if he believes in the Son of Man. When the man questions who that might be, Jesus reveals himself and the man believes: he goes from being physically blind to spiritually enlightened.

A similar dynamic is going on this Sunday in the story of the raising of Lazarus. Clearly the starting point for the story is the dead Lazarus and his sisters, Martha and Mary. When Jesus arrives, Martha goes to him and professes her faith in the power of Jesus. However, when Jesus says Lazarus will rise, Martha misunderstands and speaks of the general resurrection of the dead at the end of time. Jesus explains to her that he is the Resurrection and true life. Jesus offers not merely the extension of human life; he offers the fullness of life that transcends physical death. So he can say “whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live and everyone who lives and believers in my will never die”

For catechumens, the message is clear: as they come closer to baptism, their sight becomes insight and their insight becomes belief.

Even if you are not a catechumen waiting for baptism, there is still much to learn from these readings, particularly in these uncertain and anxious times. We are called to reflect on Christ as living water springing up to eternal life, to see Christ as the Light of the World, and to anticipate in Christ the Resurrection and true life. The readings, in short, prepare us across three Sundays to welcome the Risen Christ, Light of the World and Water of Life on Holy Saturday.

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