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home : bishop : columns

2/11/2016 9:00:00 AM
BISHOP'S COLUMN
Conversion at the water cooler
BY BISHOP EDWARD B. SCHARFENBERGER


The woman at the well is my favorite evangelization story. It is always proclaimed on the Third Sunday of Lent in Year "A," though this year you will only likely hear it if your parish is doing the scrutinies for those in the RCIA process.

But why wait? You can read the whole story right now in your Bible: John 4:5-46. I always think about this passage at the start of Lent, because it is a real account of a conversion, a life-changing experience. And isn't that what Lent is all about, or should be -- turning to the Lord and letting him change our lives?

The scene opens where many workday conversations start: around a water source, a well, the water cooler of its time. Usually, small talk does not lead us to a real encounter and even a change of life.

Why not? You might say, "The players matter." This woman is really down, and here she is being sought out by not just anyone, but Jesus Himself. That in itself should tell us something. This is the holiest person who ever walked the face of the earth -- God Incarnate -- and He is going out of His way to be with the worst sinner in town, as it turns out. Stay tuned.

So, we are at an ordinary meeting point. Now for the setup: This lady is an outcast. No one comes to get water at high noon. It's too hot. It's also very dangerous being a woman so alone at this hour. But no woman wants to be near this one. They know her sordid story. Everyone in town does.

But there is a message here for each of us, too. If you think God is so impressed by your sins, or that your bad thoughts or your bad acts are going to scare Jesus away so that He is not going to talk to you, you may be in for a big surprise. He is coming for you.

If you are worried about someone else who has really gone downhill and you fear for his or her soul, God has a plan to do something about it. You may be the only Jesus that this person will ever know, but Jesus may be sending you to the well as His ambassador.

This is always where the Gospel begins: an encounter at the well, the water cooler, the coffee counter, the shopping line, the highway, the bleachers -- wherever two persons can be with one another, if only for a few moments. And it all happens so quickly and so simply. What happens between Jesus and that woman does not seem to have taken more than five or 10 minutes.

It all starts out so simply, too. All Jesus does is ask the woman for a drink of water. What could be less intimidating? The woman is perturbed, however. A man does not talk to a woman alone like this and, if he does, he wants more than a drink of water.

Jesus quickly gets to the point that He has come here because He has another kind of thirst that He wants to satisfy. Given her history -- which she soon cannot help but reveal, as Jesus goes deeper -- she would quite likely suspect that, like herself, Jesus is seeking what she has been searching for so desperately in five consecutive relationships.

Little does she realize the kind of lover she is encountering or the real love that she is about to be offered. The story progresses. Jesus is passionately after this woman, not for what she might put out but because of what He can give to her to fill her desires with real love. His passion is for what He can do for her; His pain is that she might refuse.

Think of that. Imagine how the human heart of Jesus feels when we ignore, disregard or reject the love and mercy He dies for (literally) to pour into our hearts. Yet, this is what brings Him to the well. This is what draws Him to each of us. And the greater the pattern of twisted love -- or sin -- in our life, the more He yearns to heal us and make us whole with the transforming power of His love.

It does not take long for Jesus to draw out of the woman what is not right in her life. If Jesus sends you and me to bring to others the good news of His love and forgiveness (which is what evangelization means), then what kind of trust does He expect we will have? Where will we get the words? How will we find the courage?

The answer is right in the story. When Jesus promises the woman "living water" -- something that seems too good to be true, if not downright bizarre -- her curiosity gets the better of her. Something irresistible in Jesus is the power of His Word. He is so true to it, so in sync with the will of His Father, that to hear His promise is almost to receive it at once.

What if we had that confidence that the Spirit would accomplish through us what He did through Jesus -- even greater works -- just as He promised us He would (John 14:12-14)? Why be afraid of the power of His Word in us?

The promise, of course, is not fulfilled at once, but it need not take long. First, the woman has to face Jesus as truthfully and openly as He faces her. Jesus must first invite her to loosen her grip on the addictions to sinful ways in her life that have been ruling her. We do not know what led her to seek happiness in the wrong kind of relationships or how this particular pattern of subjugation began, but Jesus wants her free of it.

It is amazing to learn here that all it takes is a willingness on her part to admit the toxic pattern in her life: to name her sin. At once, she is released from its grip. She initially tries to avoid the whole truth. We all know what that sounds like: I was just "a little over-served," just "a little gossipy," just "a little fictitious," just "a little unfaithful, just "a little pregnant" and so on.

How likely is it that in a short encounter we are likely to elicit from someone a full confession of sin? This is not for us to worry about. It is up to God to lead someone to repentance. If you and I, however, believe in the healing power of God's merciful forgiveness, then why would we not want to be an occasion of grace through which God frees the heart of another from the grip of the evil one?

In a matter of minutes this woman, in the presence of Jesus, turns from being a creature of dependency and lust into a person of joy and trust - and courage! For no sooner does Jesus free her when she races back to a village where she was never quite at home to tell everyone of her encounter.

The town sinner becomes the evangelist! The one who encounters Jesus leads others, in turn, to Him. Therein lies the key to effective evangelization.

In order to bring the Gospel to others, each of us, you and I, must meet Jesus ourselves. We need to let Him look at us. He is thirsting for our soul. He wants to enter our hearts. He is ready to forgive us -- of everything -- and waits to fill us with a joy that we cannot keep to ourselves. This is what it means to be an evangelizer: to know that the Gospel is Jesus Himself, to be transformed by His love and take Him to the next person in line, on the bus -- or at the water cooler.

(Follow the Bishop at www.facebook.com/AlbanyBishopEd and on Twitter @AlbBishopEd.)





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