Scripture in Depth
The purpose of the Lenten readings is to prepare for the participation in the paschal feast.
The Old Testament readings focus upon salvation history as the presupposition of, preparation for, and in some respects a prefiguring of, the redemptive act of God in Christ.
The second readings set forth our participation in the death and resurrection of Christ through baptism and in the Christian life.
The gospel readings of series A, after the accounts of the temptation and the transfiguration, which are traditional on the first two Sundays, take up the great Johannine signs, which are prefigurements both of the saving events of Christ’s death and resurrection and of our participation in those saving events through baptism.
Reading I: Exodus 17:3-7
The Revised Common Lectionary addition of verses 1-2 [Webmaster note: Revised Common Lectionary first reading is Ex 17:1-7] provides the context of the reading, explaining “where” in verse 3. Although the Lenten OT readings in all three years form an independent series highlighting important moments in Israel’s salvation history, today’s reading fits in very well with the Gospel, where Jesus promises the Samaritan woman the water of life.
In the dry climate of Palestine, water is an obvious symbol of salvation and the allusion to the sacraments is not far below the surface in the Johannine discourse recounted in the Gospel.
In 1 Cor 10, Paul uses the episode of the rock from Exodus 17, etc., as a type of the Christian sacrament (specifically there with reference to the eucharistic cup).
But a different emphasis in this first reading is suggested by the responsorial psalm (Ps 95:8). This psalm picks up the theme of the Israelites’ hardening of their hearts during their wanderings through the wilderness: “Do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah in the wilderness,” which recalls Ex 17:7: “[Moses] called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the LORD.”
It is worth noting that the letter to the Hebrews (Heb 3:7-4:11) takes up the theme of Psalm 95 and uses it as the basis for an exhortation to the Jewish Christians at Rome. They had been Christians for more than a generation.
The first flush of their enthusiasm had worn off, and they were finding life wearisome. The author of the letter compares their situation to that of the children of Israel in the wilderness, who were also finding the going tough and were getting tired.
Responsorial Psalm: 95:1-2, 6-7, 8-9
This psalm is also used on the eighteenth Sunday of the year in series C. The emphasis today rests clearly on the third stanza (see the commentary on Reading I above).
Reading II: Romans 5:1-2, 5-8
In Rom 3:21 through chapter 4, Paul explains the act of God in Christ in terms of justification. He now sums up his argument (“Since we are justified”) and unfolds its consequences: we have peace with God, we have access to grace, and we have a joyful hope of sharing the glory of God.
The ground of all this is that the Holy Spirit has been given to us. Justification and the gift of the indwelling Spirit are really one and the same thing. When a person receives the gift of the indwelling Spirit, he or she is justified. When a person is justified, he or she receives the gift of the indwelling Spirit.
In a course of lectures on justification delivered in his Anglican days and reissued many years later after he had become a Roman Catholic, John Henry Newman sought to find a via media between the Reformation and the Council of Trent on the doctrine of justification, a way that would do justice to the legitimate concerns of both sides and yet transcend the antithesis.
The interesting thing for us is that he sought it precisely in this understanding of justification as the gift of the indwelling Spirit.
On the one hand, this avoided the notion suggested by much Reformation theology that justification is no more than the external imputation of righteousness, leaving a person just as much a sinner as before, and, on the other hand, the Tridentine suggestion that justification means what it means etymologically, namely, to make just, implying that the justified person has already become righteous in a moral sense.
The Reformers were right in protesting that the justified person is still a sinner, and the Tridentine doctrine was right in asserting that justification makes a real difference.
The way out of this dilemma is suggested by Rom 5:4 (included in RCL): justification is the gift of the indwelling Spirit, which initiates a transformation into the risen state.
The (indented section) above was written for the first edition of this book, before the appearance of the Lutheran-Catholic Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (1999) which has sought to reconcile the issues exactly along the lines proposed here.
The RCL reading [Webmaster note: RCL second reading is Rom 5:1-11] adds verses 3-4, which expand on the theme of hope introduced in verse 2 and resumed in verse 5. Hope grows out of the endurance of tribulation.
The other additional verses, 9-11, make it clear that for Paul justification marks the beginning of life in Christ, while salvation is its ultimate consummation. These verses also introduce the term “reconciliation” as an alternative metaphor for justification.
Justification is a metaphor from the courtroom, while reconciliation speaks of the resolution of personal, civil, or international conflict.
Gospel: John 4:5-42
A multiplicity of themes jostle one another in this dialogue between Jesus and the Samaritan woman. Among them are:
(1) Jesus’ request for water, leading to the declaration that he is the giver of life;
(2) Jesus’ suggestion that the woman call her husband, leading to an exposure of her matrimonial past (which some take as an allegorical reference to the Samaritan Bible, which has only the first five books of the Old Testament);
(3) the woman’s shift of the conversation to the basic dispute between the Jews and the Samaritans—the proper place to worship YHWH—leading to Jesus pronouncement that the old Jewish-Samaritan debate is about to be transcended by worship in spirit and truth;
(4) the woman’s assurance that the dispute will be cleared up in the messianic age, leading to Jesus’ declaration that he is the Messiah;
(5) the woman’s departure to fetch her friends to see Jesus, interrupted by the sixth theme and resumed later in the conversion of many Samaritans; and finally, sandwiched between the two parts of the fifth theme,
(6) the disciples’ return to Jesus and their perplexity over his refusal to eat, leading to the declaration that his food is to do his Father’s will, followed by sayings about the harvest, the latter preparing the way for the Samaritan conversions.
The short form of the Gospel simplifies the discourse by omitting (2) and (6).
There are many reasons why modern scholars do not regard the Johannine discourses and dialogues as transcripts of what the earthly Jesus actually said.
There may be an original nucleus to this story, in which Jesus encountered a Samaritan woman and asked her for some water to drink, leading to some pronouncement by Jesus about the imminence of the kingdom of God.
But the original point has been lost, and the story as it now stands has been expanded to cover various topics of interest in John’s church, topics that came up largely as a result of the Samaritan mission, but also topics that express the evangelist’s interpretation of Jesus as the bringer of the final revelation of God.
On the whole, we must take the dialogue as a Christian meditation on the meaning of Jesus for faith: he is the bringer of salvation; he exposes human sin; he inaugurates the true worship of God, which transcends all human approaches to God and is a worship in spirit and truth, a worship based upon the gospel.
It is because Jesus is the bringer of the final revelation of God that he draws all to himself as Savior of the world.
Reginald H. Fuller
**From Saint Louis University