Homily Possibilities for the Sunday Scrutinies


During the three middle Sundays of Lent, the Christian people welcome in a special way the Elect who are presented to Christ’s Church as those seeking full communion. The 3rd, 4th, and 5th Sundays of Lent thus provide great opportunities for deeper entry into the movement of Lent and liturgy. Those who stand before us are now enrolled in the Book of the Elect and we are to pray for them and feed them as richly as possible during these days especially. To that end, let us pray over the three very special Gospels and Prefaces the Church uses on these Sundays. Toward that end, I have offered some special reflections hopefully supplementing the homilies section which the Homiletic & Pastoral Review offers every month.

 

John 4:1–42: The Samaritan Woman at the Well

There is a lot going on in the narrative encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman that is easy to miss. Jesus is identified as “Lord” for the first time in the Gospel aside from a scripture quote (1:23) and it is believed to be used here to “emphasize Jesus’s supremacy over John” (the Baptist) who has also been baptizing in the region (Michaels, 232). The author wants to make it clear that Jesus is not merely a baptizer; and that is not what he is about in this narrative. It is also interesting to note, that the author mentions the name of the town and the country twice, reminiscent of the giving of the field by Jacob to Joseph which will be mentioned later in the Gospel (12) (Michaels, 236). To begin with, Jesus a rabbi, and a Jew, would not have spoken with a woman without her father or her husband, let alone a Samaritan woman with whom a Jew of that day would not have spoken at all. Therefore, it is easy to understand why the disciples questioned this exchange. To have asked for water from her well and from her dipper would have been considered impure and unheard of. Not to mention the fact, that the woman was a public sinner, and that would have only intensified the stigma of associating with her. The woman has gone to the well and is drawing water at noon, the hottest part of the day. The custom at the time would have been to draw water in the evening when it was cool, and with the other woman of the village. This way the women of the village would have an opportunity to share information (gossip) and have community. In this case, the gossip would have been about the Samaritan woman, who would have been the butt of the gossip because she had been married five times, and she was currently living with a man who was not her husband. So, the Samaritan woman chose to draw water at noon when she would have been alone and would not have had to face the scorn of the other women of the village. Being a woman and unmarried, in addition, she was a vulnerable and ostracized by her society. The site of a well is also a place where men have met brides before in the Old Testament (Gen 24:1–27; Gen 29:1–12; Exod 2:15–21), so we can also the see imagery of bride and bridegroom.

Enter Jesus, who speaks to her with respect, asks for water, the woman is surprised, and questions him. She is not submissive as expected, but “balks” at his request (Michaels, 239). She clearly does not know who he is or what he is offering at this point in the narrative. He offers her living water, which she takes at first blush as “flowing water” and he offers it to her forever. Here it is clear that this is not a story about a bridegroom and a bride meeting at a well, but it is about a fount of living water springing up within the heart of a believer. The living water, to which he is referring, is a metaphor for eternal life. In ancient Israel, living water referred to the Torah, for Jesus it is the gift of the Holy Spirit (Bruner, 253). This is another common theme found in John where divine wisdom replaces the Law (Ray, 115). The image of water also harkens back to the opening of the narrative where baptism was being discussed. At this, Jesus invites her to call her husband, and he reveals to her that he already knows about her five husbands, and that she is living with a man who is not her husband; and yet, he still wants to speak with her, and to drink her water. Moreover. Like a good missionary, we wants to include the whole family in the faith event (Michaels, 246).

It is important to note, how her estimation of Jesus changes through this encounter of faith. At first, she address him simply as a Jew, and later as a prophet. Finally, the woman gives her assent of faith to Jesus who identifies himself at the messiah (V.26). Coming to faith in Jesus because of his supernatural knowledge of her, and his respectful and kind treatment of her, she is compelled by faith to share the details of her encounter with Jesus with the other Samaritan town’s people. It is also significant to note that the woman leaves her water jar behind, which may be a metaphor for her conversion process, and leaving her sinful past behind to follow Jesus (Ray, 120).

It is important to mention that the narrative events here parallel Jesus’s encounter with Nicodemus. Nicodemus’s encounter was at night, the woman’s at noon; he was an Israelite she a Samaritan; he was a teacher she was a homemaker; he was male and she a woman; he was closed to learning, she was a progressive student; he understood Jesus as a teacher, she as a Jew, then a prophet, and finally the Messiah (Bruner, 253). The woman is depicted as being a much more apt and successful pupil than Nicodemus, who was both an educated man and a Jew. This reminds us, that faith in Jesus, eternal life, and conversion from sin is open to everyone who is open to it.

The dialogue about the place of worship, the mountain, is also very important, for many reasons. One being that Jesus refers to God as “Father” (a deeply personal name) and that authentic worship consists in worshiping the Father in spirit and truth. Moreover, it is happening right now, because the woman is worshiping Jesus and it is promised in the future for the Samaritan people (Bruner, 263).

Because of her testimony, the Samaritan town’s people came to show interest in meeting Jesus. After he had stayed with them, and taught them, they too, came to faith. This not because of the testimony of the woman, but because they believed in his word (v. 40).

Our catechumens, now in the period of purification and enlightenment, are like us and the Samaritan woman. We are or have been vulnerable members of our world. And like the Samaritan woman we are sinners, in need of a savior. We too are thirsty for the living waters of eternal life. In fact, eternal life with God is the deepest desire of our hearts, even if we do not realize it. Like the Samaritan woman, Jesus comes to us, and meets us right where we are. He knows all of our sins, weaknesses, and failings, and invites us to faith never the less. And like the Samaritan woman, the natural consequence of any authentic faith experience in Christ, we are irresistibly compelled to share our faith with others. Faith sharing, like with the Samaritans, is the beginning of the personal encounter with Jesus, from which the font of living waters flows of eternal life flows.

As the villagers who heard the testimony of the Samaritan woman, let the testimony of these catechumens who are to participate in this penitential scrutiny be a means for each one of us to encounter the risen Christ, as they have. Let each of us be like the Samaritan woman, who has encountered Christ, and who leads others to encounter him and the promise of living waters that are baptism and eternal life in Christ.

John 9:1–41: The Man Born Blind

There are many kinds of blindness, physical blindness, cultural blindness, color blindness, and night blindness. However, I think the most serious form of blindness is spiritual blindness. Our reading from John’s Gospel gives us a rich canvas on many levels surrounding the idea of blindness. As Jesus and the disciples encounter the man born blind, we see a kind of blindness in the disciples as they discuss with Jesus about the moral history of the man born blind. At the time, it would have been commonly thought, that if a person had been born physically blind (or for that matter had been born with any type of disability), it would have been the result of sin (Exod 20:5; Deut 5:9; Tob 3:3–5). The disciples, like many, would have assumed that the blindness was a punishment for the sins of his parents or the punishment of a sin he had committed in a previous life (Ezek 18). This would have led to considerable stigmatization by the community resulting in social, moral, and religious isolation. The man born blind would have been denied gainful employment and meaningful participation in the community. And so on one level, Jesus wants to heal the spiritual blindness of the disciples and to help them to understand this blindness was not the result of sin. It is clear, that Jesus does not see this as a tragedy but as an opportunity to work a miracle for the man born blind, and to provide an important learning experience for the disciples (Michaels, 541). It is also noteworthy, that Jesus intuits that the man was born blind, like he intuited the martial history of the woman at the well (Bruner, 563).

Here Jesus mentions night (v. 4) we see the theme of darkness and light played out in the narrative as “day” as the time to proclaim the Gospel and “night” as the time of judgement and a time beyond the time for repentance (Michaels, 544). In addition, Jesus uses the pronoun “we” implying the communal and evangelical nature of the mission of the disciples and of the church (9:4) (Bruner, 565).

The second layer of healing takes place in the physical healing of the man born blind himself. Jesus deliberately chooses the method of healing to be a gradual one, one that involves physical contact and intimacy. Furthermore, one that involves the making of mud paste, thereby doing “work” on the Sabbath. The intimacy and contact effect a break in the stigma and isolation of the presumed sin. The gradual coming to sight of the man born blind is a metaphor, because coming to see Jesus literally, indicates more importantly, coming to see him on a faith level. Jesus sends the man to wash at Siloam in a play on words for being sent, as the man will be sent to the Pharisees and the greater community to profess his faith. It is also an n allusion to baptism to have the man wash in the pool. The mud, a metaphor for sin, is washed from his eyes and then he is able to see — the light of faith (Ray, 201). Because we are sensate beings, sacraments all use matter to affect their purpose; Jesus uses matter in the healing of this man’s blindness and effecting his conversion.

After the physical healing takes place, the real faith experience unfolds in the interrogation by the Pharisees. This interrogation spurs one of the longest dialogues in the New Testament. Naturally, the Pharisees will want to focus on the making of the mud and will want to use this infraction of the rabbinical law to discredit Jesus. However, aside from this point, the interrogation continues. At first, the man born blind, confesses Jesus as a prophet. When asked again, the man born blind confesses Jesus as the one who healed him. A rather vitriolic dialogue results where by the man born blind is dehumanized, dismissed, and expelled from the Synagogue. It is an interesting point of irony here, and again a contrast of light and darkness, when it is evident that the Pharisees are the ones who are really blind to faith and that the man born blind is able to see Jesus for who and what he is (9:34). The self-righteousness of the Pharisees (spiritual blindness), is contracted to the righteousness of the man born blind (having received the light of faith). It is important to note that the Pharisees never deny any fact of the miracle; they simply refuse to draw a conclusion from the facts in evidence (Ray, 209).

At this point in the narrative, Jesus returns to the man born blind and leads him to ever-deeper faith and finally the man born blind confesses faith in Jesus to the question, “do you believe in the Son of Man? I do believe Lord and worshiped him” (v. 40). This demonstrates that Jesus has the power to restore the faculty of physical sight, and also, to illuminate the soul with the supernatural light of faith and salvation. The Pharisees remain blind because they will not be delivered of their blindness, the man born blind, on the other hand, is delivered of his blindness because of his openness and docility — two essential characteristics of any authentic disciple.

John uses a familiar theme in his writings that we see in this narrative, and that is the contrast of darkness and light. The people of darkness are associated with worldliness and sin; the people of light are associated with heaven and a life of genuine faith. There is also a further dichotomy here because the audience is also divided as to believing in the miracle or not, and in the identity of Jesus or not (v. 16), and the man born bind is in fact, drawn into the split himself.

The journey of faith is a unique one for each one of us. This Gospel narrative reminds us of the journey of many of our catechumens here present or of our own faith journeys. Many people live much of their lives, and certainly begin them, being in a state of spiritual blindness. Most of us will come to believe in Jesus gradually, as a process of faith development as we encounter him. Most of us will gradually come to see who Jesus is, and as our faith grows, will better be able to live our faith and express our faith to others. Often, we may find that our faith will be rejected, denied, or ridiculed by others, or by our culture. Like that of the man born blind, we may find that there is a price to be paid for living and expressing our faith in Jesus. Nevertheless, no matter how our faith is received by others or rejected by them, Jesus is always with us, and within us, leading us from blindness to sight, from death to life.

John 11:1–44: The Raising of Lazarus

Today as our catechumens celebrate the third and final scrutiny, we are faced with the stark reality of death in the Gospel. I have heard it said, and I believe it is true, that the fear of death is the source of all of our fears. Death is the ultimate unknowable, the ultimate uncertainty, and the ultimate gamble, depending upon how one looks at it. In our world, where physical proof and scientific evidence are so highly valued, the secular world view offer us no answer for death. Is it simply going out of existence? Is it the final absurdity of life’s meaninglessness? Is it one of many possible ends offered by any one of many religions, take your pick? Is there any possibility of assurance about the hereafter? Yes, because those questions are not scientific questions, or physical proof questions at all, they are faith questions. Moreover, we have a faith that answers them.

Jesus hears about the illness of his dear friend Lazarus, one would think that Jesus would go to him immediately, but no, Jesus has another thing in mind altogether. Therefore, he delays his arrival because no matter what he finds, he knew he would be able to bring good out of it. It is also clear, at this time, that Jesus’s life is in jeopardy, and so the question is not only the potential death of Lazarus, but also the potential death of Jesus (v. 4) (Michaels, 613). Jesus’s response to the request of Lazarus’s sister did not imply that he would not die, nor that he had not died, but that the incident would bring glory to God. Here again, Jesus longs for the faith of the disciples in performing this greatest of miracles before the passion (Bruner, 661). When Jesus and the disciples arrive in Bethany, they learn that Lazarus has been dead for four days. That is to say, that he is certainly dead, and that his soul has definitively separated from his body. It was believed that the soul hovered above the body for three days hoping to reenter it, but when the soul perceived the changes in the body, it definitively departed and an extra day is included (4) to make this very clear (Michaels, 628). This is also an allusion to Jesus’s own three days in the tomb, and his coming to Bethany, an allusion to his coming to Jerusalem. Martha is strong in her faith that Lazarus will rise again, but Jesus invites her (and everyone else) to even deeper faith in him by what is about to happen. It is clear that Martha does not know exactly what is going to happen, but she is filled with trust in Jesus, like Mary at Cana. Martha will be rewarded for her faith by seeing the glory of God.

It is interesting to note how the dichotomy (a favorite literary feature in John) between Martha and Mary continues to exhibit itself in the text. Prayerful and suffering Mary remains in the home sitting shiv ah, while pragmatic and resilient Martha leaves the house to greet Jesus.

The position of Fredrick Bruner is that Jesus, being very human, is moved with grief and weeps at the death of his friend and at the sorrow of Lazarus’s sisters. He rejects the notion that Jesus was angered by the lack of faith that he experienced, but rather that “death hurts everybody” (Bruner, 676). Another opinion, one held by J. Ramsey Michaels is that Jesus was not moved with grief and wept; but rather that he was angry and deeply troubled by the anger he felt at Mary’s disbelief and or angry and deeply troubled at the disbelief of the Jews as well (Michaels, 637). Never the less, angry or grief-stricken, or not, Jesus proceeded with what he had come to do. It does however; beg the question, what is God’s response to death consequent to the fall? Anger, grief, frustration, disappointment or a combination of all of these (Ray, 232)?

Jesus, also made an “I am” pronouncement to Martha, and likewise she makes a proclamation of her faith in him (v. 25–26). Jesus then orders the stone to be removed and calls Lazarus to come out. Lazarus is returned from death to life, and he emerges from the darkness of the tomb to the light of life. This is the seventh and final sign of Jesus before his own resurrection.

Freedom from the burial bands and eternal life are synonymous here, and Lazarus goes from the darkness of death to the light of life by the will of the Father. It is significant here, that the bystanders are able to hear the words of Jesus to the Father, indicating that he is not doing this on his own, but by the power and will of the Father (v. 41). Lazarus is bound with his burial wrappings, still, and so Jesus orders that he be unbound from them. Many would conclude that this is a resuscitation of the dead Lazarus. Michaels on the other hand, contends, that this is not a resuscitation (v. 44), but rather a resurrection, and deliberately prefigures the resurrection of Jesus, including specifically mentioning of the removal of the stone (Michaels, 646).

Like the man born blind, the raising of Lazarus causes a split among the Jews. At first, when they were divided over Jesus grief over the death of his friend and his inability to prevent the death as he was able to heal the man born blind (v. 36–37). The second division occurred at the conclusion of the miracle event when some actually believed in Jesus and came to faith, others claimed to, but reported the matter to the Pharisees for their disposition (v. 45–46).

Like for Lazarus, Jesus wants life and not death for everyone. However, without Jesus, death is the only possible outcome for any of us. Like Lazarus, often Jesus and faith in him comes into our lives at the behest of another. Lazarus was truly dead, as many are likewise truly dead to sin. Jesus has the power to bring all of us from death to sin to life in him. The tomb where Lazarus had been placed was dark and isolated. The places were many people dwell are likewise dark and isolating. The darkness can be very effective at hiding the things we do not want to see, it can become our comfort zone. It is at the same time very isolating, because sin is very isolating, it isolates us from God and from others. Faith in Jesus brings us out of that darkness and isolation in to the warm and beautiful world of light. The isolation of sin is broken and we are drawn into a warm and welcoming community of believers like ourselves, who will love and accept us. In addition, like Lazarus, we may be bound with the trappings of the tomb, remnants of our former life of darkness and isolation. Those bands must come off if we are to move freely in the world of life and light. Therefore, each one of us is wise to ask him/herself, if there anything that is binding me, anything that is a remnant of darkness and sin that clings to my life? If so, than let us move forward in removing those ties to the past and to the darkness, and walk forward in the light and life of faith. This will lead us ultimately to eternal light and life. The power over death that Jesus demonstrated for Lazarus, can and will be demonstrated over our own death, if we place our faith in the LORD of life, and follow Jesus.

 

Works Cited and Consulted

Bruner, Fredrick. The Gospel of John: A Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012.

Byrne, Brendan. Life Abounding: A Reading of John’s Gospel. Collegeville: Liturgical, 2014.

Gorman, Michael. Abide and Go: Missional Theosis in the Gospel of John. Eugene: Cascade, 2018.

Michaels, J. Ramsey. The Gospel of John. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010.

Morris, Thomas. The RCIA Transforming the Church. Mahwah: Paulist, 1989.

Ray, Stephen. St. John’s Gospel: A Bible Study Guide and Commentary. San Francisco: Ignatius, 2002.

Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. Washington D. C.: USCC, 1988.

Turner, Paul. Celebrating Initiation: A Guide for Priests. Franklin Park: World Library, 2007.

Wagner, Nick. The Way of Faith: A field guide for the RCIA Process. New London: Twenty-Third, 2008.

Fr. William Dillard About Fr. William Dillard

Fr. William Dillard is a priest of the Diocese of San Diego and an Oblate of Mount Angel Abbey. Ordained in 1998, Fr. Dillard has served in parishes in the Diocese of San Diego and the Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon. He is currently the Director of Spiritual Formation at Mount Angel Seminary.

Comments

  1. Avatar Michael P. Keller says:

    I sincerely thank the spirit of Christ that is in you William, that His spirit gave you the insight to write the forgoing articular. I know that the Christ that is in each of us, who His unconditioned love, desires to bring us all from the darkness of death into His illuminating light, from sickness to complete health, by the renewing of our body, mind, and spirit. I love you brother, my nephew, my son. With all my love, uncle Michael.

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