Fr. Roger J. Landry
Espirito Santo Parish, Fall River, MA
Third Sunday of Lent, Year A
March 3, 2002
Ex 17:3-7; Rom 5:1-8; Jn 4:5-42
1) In 1941, underneath St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, a pagan necropolis, an ancient pagan cemetery, was found dating from the 1st to the 3rd centuries AD. It had been buried underground when Christianity was legalized in the 320s in order to build the Basilica of St. Peter right on top of the apostle’s tomb. Then it was forgotten about for 1600 years. Starting during World War II, in secret, they excavated the entire area, found St. Peter’s original tomb, found his bones, and found lots of mausolea, sarcophagi, urns and bodies, most of which and whom were pagan. This was a pagan necropolis and the pagans buried their dead there for 250 years. When the emperor Constantine was about to level the Vatican hill in order to build the first basilica to St. Peter and fill this whole cemetery in with dirt, he allowed the pagans to remove their dead loved ones to re-inter them elsewhere. Most of them did. But at the same time, while many bodies were being taken out of the necropolis, some Christians were bringing bodies in. They didn’t care that they would never again be able to visit their loved ones; they just wanted their loved ones to be buried as close as possible to St. Peter, whom they wanted to pray for their loved ones. The Christians took the old pagan tomb stones that were left behind, flipped them over, and did their own chicken scratch inscriptions for the loved ones whom they were burying in others’ mausolea, thinking all the while that those mausolea would be buried underground forever. Well, starting in 1941, these tombs were unearthed.
2) I spent four years of my life, right before I was ordained a priest and during my first year of priesthood, taking several thousand pilgrims to St. Peter’s tomb and past these hastily done and make-shift Christian tombs and inscriptions. These inscriptions testify to the great faith of early Christians. One of them is very relevant today. It was inscribed in rough-hewn Latin with a few mistakes. It said, “Look here at a spiritually rich and chaste woman, Amelia Gorgonia, who lived 28 years, 2 months and 28 days.” The Romans — Christians and pagans both — would remember just how many days a loved one had lived, so precious was that person’s life. When it was a child who had died, they’d often put down the minutes as well. There were three other sayings on that back side of a former pagan tombstone. The first was “Dormit in pace,” “she’s sleeping in peace.” The second was “I have done this for a very sweet spouse,” meaning that her young husband, still very much in love with her had done the inscription himself. Then, finally, there was a third expression and an image done by that same husband. The inscription was “Anima dulcis Gorgonia,” “Sweet-souled Gorgonia” and the picture of a woman drawing water from a well, expressing her husband’s Christian hope of what Amelia was doing right then in the afterlife. I used to ask the pilgrims if they had any idea where that image might come from and why it would be on a tomb stone. Every once in a while, someone would get the right answer. The image was meant to evoke the scene in today’s Gospel of Jesus’ meeting with the Samaritan woman. The reason why it was on a tomb stone was that it was meant to symbolize her husband’s hope that Amelia was now experiencing the fulfillment of that promise Jesus made, to give us living water, a stream inside of us, welling up to eternal life. It was her husband’s prayer that Amelia was now drinking from that stream who is Christ, the living water, in heaven.
3) This image of the woman drawing water from the well was one of the more popular images the early Christians used to use to describe the afterlife. Christianity was illegal through the first few centuries AD and Christians could be killed just for being Christian. So on their tombstones, they would use symbols the meaning of which they’d understand, but the pagans wouldn’t. To the pagans, this was just a symbol of a woman drawing water from a well. To the Christians it was a symbol of heaven. Why heaven? Well, thirst was taken to be a symbol of desire, and to have all your desires fulfilled, all your thirsts fulfilled, never being thirsty again, Jesus said, is exactly what heaven will be like. Thus this image is all about heaven, and this Gospel is all about the living water that Jesus died to give us which he wants to well up inside of us into eternal life.
4) Therefore, today, we have to talk briefly about three things.
a) This promise that Jesus makes, to give us inside himself, the font, the source, the well of living water;
b) Why Jesus does this.
c) What our response needs to be.
5) Jesus gives us this font of living water inside of us on the day we’re baptized. He literally drowns us spiritually in this living stream of baptism, and we rise with him, with this spiritual water giving complete life to the soul. Just as the human body is composed of more than 90% water, the human soul is meant to be completely composed of this Living Water who is Jesus. So from the day of our baptism, we have this source inside. It is augmented whenever we receive the sacraments, particularly the sacrament of the Eucharist. When he spoke plainly about the Eucharist, he said, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” Just as God allowed the Rock to be struck with a staff in the desert to give water to the Israelites, so God the Father allowed the soldier to strike his Son, Jesus, in the side with a sword, and out flowed “blood and water” giving life to the sacraments of the Church. This is a reality. We have that source inside of us.
6) That brings us to the question of why? Why do we have this source inside of us? There’s a reason for it. It’s because Jesus himself has a thirst. It was one of the last things he said before he died, “I thirst.” He wasn’t simply thirsty for gall, or water. He was thirsty for us, for you, for me. There’s a wonderful tradition in the chapels of the convents of the Missionaries of Charity, the order of religious women founded by Mother Teresa. I’ve had a chance to pray and help out the MCs, both in New Bedford, in Toronto and in Rome. In every chapel of their Order, right next to the Crucifix, there’s a sign, saying, “I thirst!” It’s meant to express Jesus’s tremendous thirst for souls, his desire for us, to see us — and that includes you — saved, to see us say “yes” to all that he wants to give us, to receive his tremendous love. Jesus, through his Passion, death and Resurrection, made himself the stream of living water inside of us because He thirsts for us with tremendous love.
7) That brings us to the third item: What should our respond be to this thirst? The only adequate response is to go to that source and drink of it in abundance, to have a deep, overwhelming thirst for it, for Christ. We’re called to thirst for Him, to love Him, to take advantage of this stream of living water inside, to bathe in it, to surround ourselves in, to swim in it, to overflow with it. We have that stream of living water inside, but so many of us don’t really have the faucets turned on. Thirst, again, is a symbol for desire, and so many of us don’t have the desire to have that faucet of God turned, full-throttle, all the time. We try to turn the faucet on just a little, and only at certain times. I’ll turn it on for an hour on Sunday. I’ll turn it on for 10 minutes before I go to bed. I’ll turn it on when I’ve got some problem. But then we’re always turning it off. Jesus says to us, like he said to the Samaritan woman in today’s Gospel, “Give me something to drink,” and very often we’re not ready to give him ourselves, overflowing with his own living water.
8 ) Or what happens, as well, in our lives, is that the pipes containing this living water get all plugged up with sins. Our sins clog up these pipes and prevent this living water from flowing. We can allow the pipes to get all rusty through sin and the failure to take God seriously and put Him first in our lives. That’s why it’s such a tremendous gift that Jesus, the source of living water, gave us the Sacrament of Reconciliation, which is God’s roto-rooter, where God goes in with a plunger, or sometimes with his own bare hands, and takes out all of the mess so that his graces, his living water, can flow through us once more. But, again, we’ve got to have the good sense to call in the plumber when we need it. We cannot fix all of these problems ourselves.
9) God ultimately wants us to overflow with this water. He’s given us the source. He himself is a plumber who’ll clean our the pipes any time we mess them up through sin. He wants to give us everything, but there’s one thing that he won’t do for us, because he created us free. He can’t force us to turn on the faucet. He’ll help us to turn it on, especially when we need it, but he doesn’t force the response. He’ll give us the initial thirst we need for that water, but if we try to pretend that that thirst isn’t there, or try to quench the thirst with spiritual coca-cola, then we’ll always underappreciate the tremendous well we have inside. I remember once drilling for a well on the property of my mother’s relatives in New Hampshire. We kept going deeper and deeper. Finally we hit the water and up it flowed. I was just a young boy. But I thought that was one of the coolest things I had seen up until that point. There was a treasure of clean water underneath the ground. It was just sitting there waiting to be tapped. My relatives are still using that clean, fresh water to this day. But they needed to desire the water enough to drill the well. They needed to make the sacrifice to keep drilling, to hunt after that water, until it flowed. And once it started to flow, they needed to take care of it. To keep out contaminants, from chemicals, to leaves, to all types of other things that might do damage to it. We’ve got to have that same desire, to drill that well, to let it flow, to keep out contaminants. Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for holiness, for they will be filled.” Today, during this Lent, we’re called to ask whether we’re really thirsting for the holiness of God, whether we’re really keeping the faucet open, whether we’re responding to the treasure we have inside and tapping that tremendous reservoir.
10) We need to grow in it each day. There’s the beautiful vision of the prophet Ezekiel. God allows him to see the vision of water flowing from the Temple in Jerusalem. The water starts out as a small stream, in which he was up to his ankles. He went further along and then it got deeper, up to his knees. Then further it was up to his waist. Then it went up to his head and it was necessary to swim in it. This is what we’re called to do in our Christian life. We start off in the water as little babies, drowning in the water of baptism, but as we grow, that water which was enough to drown us is only now ankle-deep. We’re called to continue in the stream, getting deeper and deeper into it, until we’re literally swimming in that stream coming from Christ, who is the living Temple of God and the Living Water, every minute of our existence. Just as that stream in Ezekiel’s vision gave life to all types of vegetation on the banks of the river, so we’re called to pass on this life of Christ to all those who come into contact with the stream of living water we have overflowing in us.
11) That river is meant to lead us all the way home to the eternal shore. In the last book of Sacred Scripture, the Book of Revelation, in the Last Chapter of the Book, in the fifth last verse in all of God’s sacred Revelation, the Holy Spirit says the following: “The spirit and the bride say, “Come.” And let everyone who hears say, “Come.” And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.” We have to thirst to get to heaven, we have to take the water of life as a gift and consume it to the dregs. Jesus says in the previous chapter of the Book, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.” The thirsty will receive this gift from Jesus. He died to quench our thirst in this life and in the next. Those who are saints, those who enter into that stream, live in it and died in it, will have the following reward, as we read in the same last book of Sacred Scripture: “They are before the throne of God, worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne shelters them. They will hunger no more and thirst no more. He will guide them to springs of the water of life.” Jesus is that Spring. He thirsts for you. He thirsts for you. How badly do you thirst for him?