In many ways, the journey of the people Israel through the desert toward the promised land is our own journey.
By Deacon Frederick Bartels
23 March 2014
On this Third Sunday of Lent, the first reading from Exodus (17:3-7) recalls Israel’s journey through the desert. In many ways, the journey of Israel toward the Promised Land is presently our own journey. As Israel thirsted, so too do we thirst, although perhaps in a different way and for different reasons. The people Israel frequently fell into unfaithfulness, idolatry, and distrust in God. Do we not do the same types of things? Even so, driven by divine love, God continued to lead his people toward the Promised Land, as he does with us, which is in fact not merely a place to put up shelter, nor a plot of ground upon which to temporarily live, but is a Person: Jesus Christ.
The question for your lenten journey today is twofold: First, do I thirst, and if so, for what or for Whom do I thirst? Second, is my path of life committed unwaveringly to the destination of the Promised Land?
Wondering in The Desert
The reading from Exodus situates us within Israel’s journey through the desert toward the Promised Land. Along the way, the people Israel thirsted for water and grumbled against Moses, which, because Moses was their leader instituted by God, meant that they were in fact grumbling against God himself. The people were sorry for having left Egypt, and they feared they would soon die of thirst in the desert.
In fact, all along their journey, they had complained against God and his representative, Moses.
Recall how God delivered the Israelites from 400 years of Egyptian slavery with signs and wonders (see Exodus). He saved them from death at the Passover by the blood of the passover lamb. He led them from slavery toward freedom, and went before Israel as a pillar of fire by night and cloud by day. He took them in his hand as they crossed the Red Sea and defeated their enemies who were in hot pursuit. He led them into the desert toward the goal of the land of promise, a land flowing with milk and honey (Numbers 14:8).
Nevertheless, although surrounded by the signs and wonders and loving presence of God, the Israelites complained. They doubted God’s divine presence; they distrusted in his providential plan; they were unfaithful and fell back into their old ways of idolatry; they were often interested in little more than filling their bellies. Instead of looking forward and upward, their gaze remained rigidly cast back the way they had come.
It is important to point out here that we are often not so far removed from the people Israel. That is, do we not do the same types of things? Do we trust in God’s unfailing care and constant presence, or are we, deep down, convinced that God does not really intervene in our personal lives and work for our good?
Do we focus our gaze on the Promised Land and purposefully walk in that direction, truly living our lives for the love of God, or are we more often interested in the mundane stones at our feet?
Do we thirst for God? Or is our thirst more for filling our bellies? The fact is, human nature has not changed. We continue to struggle with remaining faithful, as did the Israelites. It is important for us to admit our weaknesses and our need for God’s mercy, forgiveness, and unceasing aid.
All along the way, as Israel journeyed through the desert, God continued to struggle with a hard-hearted, stiff-necked people. Yet God unwaveringly continued to urge them forward toward the goal—a goal that was God himself and the reception of divine love.
God said to the people through Moses even before their journey began: “I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and great acts of judgment, and I will take you for my people, and I will be your God” (Ex 6:6-7).
In our first reading today we learn that there, in the desert, when the people cried out in thirst, Moses prayed to the Lord and he answered their needs by giving them water from the rock. In the face of their disobedience and distrust, God nevertheless continued to care for his people.
Even so, they tested the Lord saying, “Is the LORD in our midst or not?” (Ex 17:7).
We know that the Israelites continued to struggle with remaining faithful. Consequently, by their own choice, they became desert wanderers for forty years.
The Promised Land
But God had a plan for his people. He was not merely leading them to a piece of land or a suitable place upon which to live out their remaining days. On the contrary, he was leading them toward a Person who is himself the Promised Land: the Son of God made man; the Divine and Human Lover who would love to the end and beyond. The goal was Jesus Christ.
In today’s gospel, the Samaritan woman, laden down with a heavy water jar, journeyed to the town well. For her, that day must have seemed to be yet another ordinary, monotonous day. She did not know the Messiah was waiting for her at the well. When she arrived there, she was surprised by the Jew—Jesus—who asked her for a drink. His question was not directed at urging her to serve him, he was not asking her to draw up the water, but rather Jesus asked her for a drink in order to get the Samaritan woman’s attention. What happens next is interesting, revealing, beautiful.
Then, according to his divine, infinitely loving nature, Jesus offered her a priceless gift: living water that will become a “spring of water welling up to eternal life” (Jn 4:14). You see, Jesus is not asking the Samaritan woman for anything. On the contrary, he is offering her an incomparable and indescribably magnificent gift. And it is offered freely. What is this gift? It is Jesus himself.
The Samaritan woman is surprised. Confused. Unsure of what Jesus is saying, she nevertheless desires this water. She says, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may not be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water” (Jn 4:15).
She misunderstands. She is not yet aware that Jesus is himself the living water. Notice that, although she was uncertain, even confused, the Samaritan woman’s heart was open to Jesus. In fact, she had been waiting and looking for him. We know this because she said: “I know that the Messiah is coming, the one called the Christ” (Jn 4:25).
Then, Jesus opened up her life story and unfolded her situation, the pain, the trouble in her life. In that moment the truth began to dawn on her. She began to see who Jesus really is. She became so excited that she left her water jar and rushed off to town. Her experience is uncontainable. She tells those she met, “Come see a man who told me everything I have done. Could he possibly be the Christ?” (Jn 4:29).
And what came of her excitement? The Samaritans as a community also became excited. They invited Jesus into their midst.
Consequently, they came to believe that Jesus “is truly the Savior of the world” (Jn 4:42).
Lent: Come to the Well and Drink the Living Water of Jesus Christ
Our Lenten journey is, in a number of ways, a journey through the desert. We too thirst. We too doubt. We too fail. Again, the questions we must ask and answer are these: for what or for Whom do I thirst? Second, is my path of life committed unwaveringly to the destination of the Promised Land?
You see, my friends, it is important for us to reflect on our journey through the desert. The key to a fruitful Lenten season is not so much in realizing we are on a journey, but coming to recognize with clarity the purposefulness of our path or the lack of it. Are we journeying toward the Promised Land? Or, on the other hand, have we become merely desert wanderers, lost in our way, who stumble along aimlessly?
The strength of our position along the journey is indicated by our level of faith in Jesus Christ. Does your faith burn within you? Do you, like the Samaritan woman, rush off to town, forgetful of even taking water with you because you are so excited at having encountered Jesus Christ, who is himself the Promised Land?
Recall that in virtue of your baptism Christ has poured Living Water into you: He has sent his Spirit into your heart and infused your soul with divine love, giving you a share in his own supernatural, divine life. In virtue of your faith and the sacraments of life you have received in the Church, you have drunk from the well of living water.
If you have encountered Jesus and embraced him, you now live in the Promised Land.
Are you so filled with living water that you can barely contain your joy? Do you live your faith openly, talk ardently of your love for Jesus Christ and his Church, and urge others to give themselves over to Christ? Do you invite your family members, friends, and coworkers to the divine liturgy, that beautiful and wondrous gift in which Jesus offers himself for the redemption of all? Simply stated, do you evangelize as did the Samaritan woman?
It is important to note here that, although your faith may burn within you, having drunk deeply of the living water, you nevertheless continue to thirst. That is because you have not yet arrived at your final destination in which God will totally fill you with his love. Let this not disappoint you. That magnitude of divine love is not for this earthly life, for you have work to do, which is to lead others to Christ and his Church. Should God gift you now with the level of love you will experience then, you would not care to do any kind of work, nor would you need to. God allows you to thirst that you continue to seek to be filled. Jesus desires for you to thirst again and again that he may continue to satisfy you, and that you should continue to lead others to be satisfied in him.
Our spiritual journey here is, then, one of mountains and valleys, sweet meadows and rather empty places; it is one of thirst and thirst quenched; it is cyclical, with its moments of joy, perhaps rapture, as well as those of emptiness, even disappointment. We experience consolation and desolation, as did Jesus Christ who traveled by the way of love and the way of the cross. While we sail toward the horizon, one of definitive and endless love, the seas are not always calm because we have not yet arrived at the final shore of the heavenly, Beatific Vision of God.
Thus our Lenten journey through the desert can take a number of forms. We can journey with purpose, faithfully and joyfully, having drunk the living water yet still thirsting for Jesus. In this journey, we embrace the disciplines of Lent in order to prayerfully empty ourselves, build self-mastery, care for the poor, and thus be filled all the more with the divine life of God.
Another type of journey is that of the desert wanderer. This is a directionless, uncertain journey in which people become lost while gazing at the mundane stones at their feet. The lure of the world has clouded their vision; they do not look forward and upward but rather only back at the way they have come. They seek little more than filling their bellies. It is a pitiful, sad state.
In any case, Jesus waits at the well. He asks you for a drink. However, he wants nothing from you but your love for him.
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Photo Credit: Jesus and the Samaritan woman, wikimedia commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Veronese.Jesus_and_the_Samaritan_Woman01.jpg
Deacon Frederick Bartels is a member of the Catholic clergy who serves the Church in the diocese of Pueblo. He holds an MA in Theology and Educational Ministry and is a Catholic educator, public speaker, and evangelist who strives to infuse culture with the saving principles of the gospel. For more, visit YouTube, iTunes and Google Play.