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On the faith of it – what the Year of Faith might mean

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Fr James Lyons PP Sacred Heart Cathedral Parish
29 November 2012

John 4 – The Woman at the Well

altAs I started to think about this topic and how the beginning of this special Year coincided with the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council, I found myself remembering a little publicised episode that occurred during the first session of the Council. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed to capture the essence of what the Council promised – at least from the point of view of a priest ordained in the energy of this historic universal gathering of the Church.

I was in the seminary during the Council and news of its progress quickly became part of the curriculum. We followed the excitement of the debates through what were, by today’s standards, very primitive media, but we knew enough to appreciate the significance of opinions being voiced and we were in awe of the politics of conservative and liberal that strove for influence, with Bishops from every nation taking this unprecedented opportunity to articulate their love of the Church, their concerns for the Church and their hope that the Church and the World might understand each other better.

The incident I refer to had virtually nothing to do with these great debates – and yet I sense it has everything to do with what this Year of Faith is about. Addressing the Council Fathers early in the first session of the Council, during the debate on the Liturgy, an elderly bishop from Yugoslavia sought to have the name of St Joseph included in the Roman Canon (what we now know as the First Eucharistic Prayer). He spoke at length and with evident speech difficulty, to the annoyance of the Cardinal chairing the session who cut him off by assuring him that ‘We all love St Joseph!’

Three days later Pope John XXIII, on his own authority, ordered that the bishop’s request be granted and the Decree took effect December 8 1962. The Pope had followed the debates on closed circuit television in his apartments; he knew the Yugoslavian bishop personally and also knew that his nervous manner of speaking resulted from years of persecution and imprisonment. Despite poor health he attended the Council to make his speech. Pope John showed a profound pastoral sensitivity in that one simple act, not waiting for Conciliar consent but rewarding the love and courage and humility of one person with a gesture that said to all the Council Fathers, Everyone here is to be heard; every word has a sacred value; this Council will find its life in what you each have to offer and in the manner in which you each receive whatever is offered.

In announcing the Year of Faith, Pope Benedict XVI urged us to revisit the documents of Vatican II. From them flows the life of the Church into our 21st century. In them, we find a spirit of openness and excited optimism that needs to be recaptured today. St Joseph, husband of Mary, protector of the Holy Family, a just and righteous man, believed in his dreams to provide safety and security to the Chosen One of God – St Joseph, in a beautiful pastoral moment in that opening session of the Council, became its unofficial patron and set the scene for four dramatic years and 16 documents that would shift Catholicism into a new orbit and challenge faith like never before.

Pope John’s intervention in that first Council session, prefaced two concepts that have become vital ingredients for our local Church in the 21st century: by expecting the Council Fathers to listen to and learn from one another he signalled what we now refer to as Stewardship and Collaborative Ministry.

In honouring the aged bishop, Pope John was saying – everyone has a gift to bring to the table; and by the mutual exchange of our gifts the Church will progress. We will return to these concepts.

The Year of Faith has been promoted as an occasion to reach out to Catholics and Christians generally who have grown cold in their belief, who have been swayed by other invitations, disillusioned by a Church more legalistic than pastoral, or distracted by an increasingly secular and amoral world. But what will we reach out with? With what certainty and confidence can we encourage the lost, the hurt, the strayed and the disillusioned to return? What precisely will we be offering? And, why would we bother?

Moral boundaries are disappearing as modern societies show less and less willingness to interfere with the demands of citizens for unrestricted behaviour in personal and inter-personal relationships, and seemingly unable to cope with realities such as teenage suicides, the drug culture, binge drinking, one parent families. Rights are being separated from responsibilities and an over-emphasis on privacy makes a solid foundation for selfishness.

Lives are becoming more and more vacant: empty of love, empty of hope, empty of faith – empty of meaning. If they are to be replenished it has to be in the same order: feed a life with love and it will grow hope; and a life alive with love and hope is rapidly filling with meaning and is ready for the gift of faith. Timothy Radcliffe, former Master of the Dominican Religious Order has a most significant insight concerning faith when he writes, Faith is not primarily a matter of choosing what to believe, as if one were a consumer in a spiritual supermarket….Faith is our response to the astonishing discovery that we have been chosen. [The Tablet, 7 April 2012, page 17] – The response to an astonishing discovery. That’s what I want to explore here.

Returning to the well

In the fourth chapter of St John’s gospel, we witness the meeting between Jesus and the woman who came at midday to draw water from the well, and we become part of an extraordinary encounter. Because she came alone to the well in the heat of the day and not at the regular time with the other women in the cool of the early morning, we get a hint of her unpopularity. We have this confirmed when Jesus discloses that she has had four husbands and ‘the man you are living with now is not your husband’. She snatches at the possibility of not having to appear in public at all when Jesus offers her ‘living water’ – ‘Give me some of this so that I may not have to come here and draw water again!’

Jesus has come across a dejected and rejected person who only comes to the well out of sheer desperation – she needs water to survive – and even then she’s careful to come when nobody else is likely to be around (Midday). Jesus exposes a deeper need, one she hadn’t recognised or, if she had, did not know how to satisfy it – a need to belong, to be accepted and loved for herself, giving her life a purpose – a reason to live, which is more than just existing. Jesus offers her a way to begin that journey as he chooses her and opens a door for her into herself.

There are several ‘stages’ in this story. I’ve turned them into 12 ‘stations’ – like the Stations of the Cross – stopping points to catch your breath as the enormity of what is happening sinks in. I call them ‘well stations’:

  • The first station is Jesus on his way home. This is an important part of the setting. He’d been in Judea and was only going back to Galilee because of opposition from the Pharisees. To get to Galilee he had to pass through Samaria. It was a three day journey. I see him feeling frustrated and somewhat dejected. His message is being blocked. Returning to Galilee is unscheduled; it wasn’t where he intended to be heading right now. Have your plans ever been interrupted, your first choice no longer available? How do you react to losing control of your programme? Could your loss be part of God’s plan?
  • The second station is Jesus sitting near the well, exhausted and thirsty. As in the Agony in the Garden he couldn’t manage alone; he yearned for company, but he also needed some space for himself – to sort out his frustration and try to understand why his plans had to be changed. He was pleased the disciples had left him to himself, yet his own company wasn’t enough. He was struggling for relief from the inner turmoil, and his thirst was a symbol of that. He couldn’t get a drink of water without a bucket to dip into the well. Like the ‘Ancient Mariner’ he had water, water everywhere…!
  • The third station is the arrival of the woman and the risk Jesus takes in asking her for a drink. He’s a Jew, she’s a Samaritan; he’s a man, she’s a woman. Jacob’s well was located at a major intersection on the road: to the west lay Samaria and to the north east the lake of Galilee. The village of Sychar was about half a mile from the well. The well had served the community for hundreds of years. It was common ground. We’re aware, though, that the need for water both unites and divides people [like the question of ownership?!]. At this moment, Jesus and the woman share a common need – they’re both thirsty. But only one has a bucket. Jesus takes the risk in being the first to speak. Notice that he doesn’t ask for anything the woman’s not capable of giving. What’s the risk factor in you opening a conversation with a stranger when you’re on common ground – like in a lift?
  • The fourth station shifts the risk to the woman as she responds rather than ignores this inappropriate approach. Do you sense the ease with which she replies? She’s not threatened by the presence of Jesus. She is surprised and she has questions. She’s not impolite, but neither is she ready to cooperate. She’s measuring the risk. Building a relationship requires great patience.
  • The fifth station tracks us through a dialogue between Jesus and the woman from ‘You have no bucket, sir!’ – to her hearing about living water that she thought would enable her to avoid the well altogether. She suddenly sees an escape route from having to come to this public well and suffer humiliation from her people. We need to be able to discern people’s motives for believing – or not believing.
  • In the sixth station the woman is forced to encounter herself as Jesus asks to meet her husband. I have no husband! Jesus knew from her desire to avoid the well that she was socially unclean. He gave her an opening to talk about herself. There is no preaching from Jesus. No judgement. Just a genuine interest and an invitation to trust
  • The seventh station has the woman realising that she’s in the presence of someone quite special (a prophet?); it’s a scary moment and she tries to steer the conversation to a theological level. Trying to distract from the real issue is a ploy we all use. The woman’s own faith is well formed in her own tradition and Jesus respects this. He follows her thought, taking his cue from the woman’s responses. He is about to offer her a new way – but he doesn’t rush, despite his own eagerness.

In his celebrated 1975 document on evangelisation, Pope Paul VI offered what he called signs of love in those who seek to evangelise. One of them is ‘respect for the religious and spiritual situation of those being evangelised. Respect for their tempo and pace; no one has the right to force them excessively. Respect for their conscience and convictions, which are not to be treated in a harsh manner.’ (EN 79)

  • The eighth station – As her thirst for more than well water becomes apparent, he leads her to the water that will truly make her ‘well’ and turn her into a well from which others can draw life. Another of Pope Paul’s signs of love in the evangeliser, ‘is concern not to wound the other person, especially if he or she is weak in faith, with statements that may be clear for those who are already initiated but for others can be a source of bewilderment or scandal…’ (ibid)
  • Then, at the ninth station, as the woman shows her hope in the promised Messiah, Jesus – for the first time in public – claims that title: Í who am speaking to you, I am he!’ Before the woman can respond the disciples return. They could have broken the spell, but though they are bewildered, they sense the mystery of the moment and they say nothing. Perhaps the woman is impressed by their respect; perhaps she sees a community in their togetherness, confirming what she’s just experienced. Never underestimate what your own closeness to Jesus can bring to another person
  • The tenth station – the woman puts down her bucket! Living water is not carried in buckets, but in hearts opened and filled with God’s presence. The water she had carried from the well would quickly disappear and another trip to the well would be necessary… Of course she would still need water to drink and for cooking and washing, but her ASTONISHING DISCOVERY through her encounter with Jesus would give her trips to the well new meaning. Knowing herself as chosen, would change her to the point where people would ask, What’s happened to her? Why is she like this? [see 1 Peter 3:15] Do people say that of you regarding your faith?
  • At the eleventh station, Jesus is no longer thirsty of hungry; he is more than satisfied by the resurrection he has witnessed in the well-woman, now extremely ‘well’! In seeing her fulfilled, he is filled.

I’m sure most, maybe all, of you have been filled up with the satisfaction of seeing someone succeed or grasp a skill you have been teaching them. Can you share you faith with the same result?

  • Finally, the twelfth station gives us the fruit of conversion and renewal: a missionary heart beats out into the world. The woman fulfils the purpose of evangelisation – to influence and transform humanity from within [EN 18]. (Jesus never got that drink of water he asked for!)

This is a story of ‘gradualness’ – a gentle unfolding of truth; an entry into faith that is at once calm and challenging, non-threatening yet life-changing.

The ‘well story’ tells us that faith is first of all an encounter – it has nothing to do with knowledge. Knowledge and belief are not identical. Faith as an encounter is a running into something that you’re not expecting, and do not immediately understand, but which catches your attention and tells you this is worth exploring. (Timothy Radcliffe’s ‘astonishing discovery’). The encounter becomes a challenge as you start to experience the possibility of there being another way of understanding life, another way of seeing reality. ‘I know the Messiah will come’ says the woman, dredging the remnants of her catechism days (her knowledge) – like saying, ‘Yes, I’ve heard about God but God doesn’t really impact on my life; I’m doing okay without God!’ Jesus turns her life around by entering her consciousness and her conscience with the truth about himself: I am what you’re looking for!

I am the acceptance you crave; I am the way you seek; I am the truth and the life you thought you’d never have. Once again, notice Jesus chooses to reveal himself to this woman. (see Matthew 11, 25-27)

The Year of Faith is a call to return to the well – to the love that awaits to renew and refresh us – to the one who knows the struggles of our heart, the doubts and fears that entangle us – who wants to set us free with the living water of his care and companionship – who longs to wash away our desperation with the balm of his gentle presence. Perhaps, above all, the Year of Faith is a call for recognition of the choice that has been made of you and of me and of all the baptised.

Where were the disciples during this encounter? They were shopping! They’d gone to get some supplies. Did they all have to go? How many does it take to buy a loaf of bread, a few olives and a cluster of grapes? They missed a great experience in evangelisation. But maybe it wouldn’t have happened if they’d been there. Maybe Jesus needs to be alone with the troubled person, the seeking person, to allow the quiet that privacy brings for the ‘still small voice’ to be heard; to open the person in readiness for the community that will arrive at just the right time to welcome and embrace the one newly revived with living water.

The disciples were surprised to find Jesus talking to a woman – and a Samaritan woman at that! But they hadn’t yet grasped the significance of the meeting; they had no idea how the encounter could have nourished Jesus to the point where he was no longer hungry – the shopping you’ve done is of no importance to me! He had fed by feeding the woman’s thirst for meaning.

What I find especially revealing in this episode is that Jesus at no time asked or expected the woman to believe in him. He wasn’t looking for her faith, but her love, which would bring her response. He knew that without love she could never believe. It wasn’t faith that took her back to her village and into the milieu that had ostracised her. She spoke to her people out of love, from a desire to share what she had discovered – come and see the person who has helped me recognise my true self; who has opened me to the wonder of my being. Faith came with and from her love.

Joy and confidence are the marks of a person who’s comfortable and at peace; not pretending to be someone else but happy just to be who they are. The woman who met Jesus at the well did much more than return to her people, she encouraged the people to become one with her – and to return to the well with her – and in this way she brought them to Jesus. No longer alone, no longer an outcast, no longer a tragic figure afraid of what she might encounter by going to the well.

Let’s apply all this to the Year of Faith:

First of all, we believers need to be careful that we don’t act with closed minds. We mustn’t be so self-assured that we are not open to others’ points of view, or tell ourselves that we have nothing else to learn about our faith. This is as bad as being a self-assured atheist! The Samaritan woman had her beliefs but she allowed room for doubt. The Second Vatican Council, which we are urged to revisit this year, took a similar stance when it declared the Church open to dialogue with the world, acknowledging that the Church did not have all the answers and desired to engage in conversation about the many problems threatening human life. [see Pastoral Constitution on the Church, paras. 2 – 5] It’s helpful to note that Jesus did not bring certainty; he didn’t do away with suffering; his path was not paved with gold. He died with a question on his lips, My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?

A second point in our approach should be to make it clear where we locate God. If God is ‘our God’, the God of our ancestors, then there is danger that we will confine this God to our camp. God will be expected to conform to our expectations. Remember John’s cautionary comment that ‘no one has ever seen God’ and yet God is ever present, ever watchful (Psalm 139). Is it too scary, then, to allow ourselves to think of God as being alone at the well, thirsty, but without a bucket? (Helpless, as in Nativity; St Paul: Jesus ‘emptied himself…’ – Philippians 2:1-11)

Peter had to make a crucial adjustment to his own thinking when he had the vision of the sheet being let down from heaven containing all kinds of animals. He refused the invitation to eat, saying that nothing unclean would ever pass his lips. He was told very clearly by God, I have made nothing unclean! [see Acts, 10] We need to let go of God, allow God room to move and risk finding God where we would never have thought to look.

Remember what attracted people to the gospel in the earliest days of the Church? See how these Christians love one another! It was love not faith that made the difference. And the new commandment Jesus gave the disciples? It wasn’t a commandment to believe but to love. This is my commandment: love one another as I have loved you.

Tomas Halik a priest theologian of the Czech Republic, reminds us in his 2009 book, Patience with God, that St Therese (Little Flower) had a crisis of faith before she died. There are some who argue that she even lost her faith. But Halik also notes that Therese called herself ‘a sister to atheists’ and says that faith can overcome unbelief only by embracing it. [see page 35]. If Therese lost her faith, Halik proposes, it was because she no longer needed it, such was her love. St Paul is clear: faith and hope will come to an end; they will become unnecessary, irrelevant, as God’s love for us and our love for God overwhelms us.

In a small but insightful book titled, This Time of the Church, published earlier this year, Australian priest, Frank O’Loughlin asserts that Christendom has ended and we are now in an age of Pluralism. Christianity is still alive, but it no longer permeates society, particularly Western society. People are no longer ‘socialised’ in a culture that accepts the Christian story as basic to its foundation. There are many world-views and several value systems – a plurality of them. It is in this environment that the Year of Faith must find a place. We Christians can no longer assume a hearing when we speak; our recent history of scandals has severely weakened our credibility and played into the hands of those who judge religion as the root cause of all the world’s evils. Yet, despite the multiplicity of choice – or perhaps because of it, the well still attracts. Everyone must go to the well in the daily struggle to survive, and each day people hope they might find there a reason to prevent them having to return – the question for so many people is why can’t I find meaning in my life to make it all worthwhile? The daily pressures, the routine, and the bucket that can never carry enough…

Near the beginning of that 1975 document on Evangelisation [p.3], Pope Paul VI tells us that the message of Jesus is necessary, unique and irreplaceable. But, he writes, ‘It brings with it a wisdom that is not of this world – so expect resistance, incomprehension, misunderstanding.’ Knowing that, we must nevertheless enter the world so loved by God [John 3:16] with a commitment to love, and, with the kind of love St Paul champions, be ready to excuse, to trust and to endure whatever comes.

Being in the world Jesus came not to condemn but to save, we neglect the world at our peril. It is in the world and for the world that the Year of Faith will both find and leave its mark. How?

Since the Vatican Council of 1962-65, nine Eucharistic Prayers have been added to the Order of Mass; there have also been three Eucharistic Prayers for Masses with children. Twelve in total. None of them has any reference to St Joseph. Is there any significance in that? Probably not, except that unexpected intervention of Pope John XXIII fifty years ago in the opening session of the Council, placing St Joseph in the heart of the Church great prayer of thanksgiving, the Eucharistic Prayer, gave a universal voice to the frail, hesitant and barely tolerated but faithfully pleading voice of one scarcely known bishop. This wonderful example of listening and hearing and responding with a truly Christ-like sensitivity and love, is something we cannot afford to overlook. Perhaps that is what needs recovering more than anything else in this Year of Faith: a listening heart – from the Vatican to the smallest parish. So, in the unique and consecrated Year:

  • we must give the greatest value to individual gifts
  • we must listen to and truly hear the voices of those who feel they have no voice or that what they do say will make no difference
  • we must learn not to be surprised to find God where we ourselves would not choose to be found
  • we must take to heart and practice the words of the prophet Micah: live justly, love tenderly and walk humbly with your God
  • we must see the world as a beautiful well, with deep-down life-giving water, rich with potential, with the Spirit of the living God hovering above, waiting to respond in partnership with people of faith to transform that life-giving water into living water – the waters of justice, the waters of harmony, with waters of peace; waters that carry the world into the fullness of life with the Creator – God
  • and, we must individually return to the well, to meet the one waiting there, to open our hearts in humble adoration, to fill ourselves with the living water that flows with the presence of love, to let go of our bucket that can only ever gather what can never fully satisfy and become for others the peace we find at the well.

What were reportedly the Cistercian monk Thomas Merton’s, last words are relevant here: What we are asked to do today is not so much to speak about Christ as to let him live in us so that people may find him by feeling how he lives in us.

Theologian, scripture scholar and storyteller, Megan McKenna, tells the story of a Latin American historian writing about hearing the word tik for the first time. He was at an assembly of an Indian tribe of the Mayan culture. Unfamiliar with the language he was totally lost, describing a heated discussion as being like ‘crazy rain’. One word kept repeating – tik. It came again and again through the argument and debate.

From his general knowledge he knew that the word used most often in any language is the word for ‘I’ and he thought that made sense – everybody was trying to get their personal point across, so tik must mean ‘I’. He was amazed when he learned that tik means ‘We’. (We Live Inside A Story, Megan McKenna, 2009, pg 175, Veritas Publications) The people certainly had personal viewpoints but they saw everything in the context of the community where ‘We’ and ‘Us’ are more important and more often used words than ‘I’ and ‘Me’.

May the Year of Faith be a Year for you and I to truly become We and Us, for the good of our world and the glory of God.

An open, listening and welcoming heart is the best start to developing a truly global, fruitful and enduring conversation.