You may have heard about the teenager who, excited about getting his driver's license, asked his father whether he could use the family car. The father replied, “let's talk about it after you bring your grades up, do your chores and start getting haircuts.” Three months later the teenager reported his grades were up and his weekly house chores were done well. The father said, “yes, but you haven't got a haircut.” The teenager replied, “Moses had long hair. Samson had long hair. Jesus had long hair. So what's the big deal?” The father responded, “you're right. They also walked wherever they went and so why not forget the car and walk.” The teen got a haircut.
We are in the middle of the Lenten season: a six week journey into the paschal mystery: the mystery of dying/rising, his and ours; the mystery of life in and through death. Each Sunday in Lent reflects on life as in a prism: First Sunday: a hungry Jesus tells the tempter what makes for life: not bread alone but every word from God. Last Sunday: the Transfiguration. God reveals the divine in the human Jesus, our life. Next Sunday: light and darkness. The man born blind sees life. The fifth Sunday: Lazarus is called from death to life. And Passion/Palm Sunday: life leaps out of death. Yes, life-the gift of God's life, initially ours in baptism-weaves in and out of the Lenten season. And today Jesus is life-giving water for the thirsty woman at the well.
The word of God carries us back in our imaginations to a central moment in the life of the Hebrews, their exodus or freedom or deliverance from their oppressors. Here they are wandering in the wilderness and complaining! Where is God now, they wonder, as they face hunger and thirst. Moses cries out to God for help, and God demonstrates his presence among them. Water suddenly flows from a rock and quenches their thirst.
The life-giving waters allude to the waters of our baptism and the promises made to God in baptism. Baptism is a rite of initiation into a global Catholic community. And what is the significance of this rite? Early Christian candidates for baptism were often literally immersed in water. Water can be life-giving or it also can be death-threatening (e. g. a hurricane). And when the candidate stepped into the pool of water and came up out of the pool, he/she in that gesture professed a dying to a self-centered life and a rising to an other-centered, God-centered life.
The author may be asking us whether we live a God-centered life.
Paul in his letter to the Christian Community at Rome speaks about the saving, healing work of Jesus Christ. Through his horrendous death and glorious resurrection, we have access to God, friendship with God. God's love and life has been poured out upon and into us in the waters of baptism so that we can reflect the glory or presence of God in our daily lives.
Paul may wonder whether our attitudes and behaviors do precisely that.
In the Gospel according to John, Jesus asks for water from a woman of questionable character (she had five husbands) and from a despised people (the Samaritans), only to engage her in a conversation about thirst. Jesus reveals who he is. He is a prophet, the messiah, the source who gifts us with eternal life, living water who can satisfy our quest for meaning in life. In faith, this woman discovers new purpose through her encounter with Jesus and heralds the good news of Jesus to her townsfolk.
We all thirst like Jesus and the woman at the well, don't we. But what are we thirsty for? What turns us on? Some simply thirst for a decent livelihood. Others thirst for health, wealth, pleasure, power and fame. Still others, like the Samaritan woman, thirst for purpose in life.
Today I would like to reflect on a modern icon who thirsted for God: Therese of Lisieux. She asked God to transform her into his image and that's precisely what God did.
Therese lived and died in the late 19th century in the obscurity of a Carmelite cloister in Normandy, France. We know about her through her remarkable autobiography, “The Story of a Soul,” which documents her own search for God and which made her a guru in Catholic Spirituality.
Therese's life was quite ordinary. A happy childhood suddenly changed to struggles with depression at the death of her mother when she was only four. At 15, she had the moxie to ask Pope Leo XIII to let her enter the cloister. With persistence, she did and for the next nine years she pursued a spiritual pathway that she came to call the “little way.” She died at 24, still struggling with doubts about God and yet holding onto a crucifix as she spoke her dying words, “My God, I love You.”
The words of Thomas the Apostle could have been hers, and perhaps ours sometimes: I believe; help my unbelief.
So what is this “little way” that anyone supposedly can follow? For me, it's made up of three ingredients. First, Therese realized her own insignificance. Think about it. There are about seven billion people on this planet; perhaps billions before; and perhaps billions after. And some say there are at least ten trillion planets in our galaxy alone; and at least 200 billion galaxies out there. Wow! We really are insignificant. And yet God gave us significance. God who is love created us out of love from nothingness so that God could be one with us. Therese personified humility. Her response was always gratitude to God that she even existed.
Second, Therese recognized that God loved her unconditionally. That's why she had a childlike trust and lived a childlike life, completely dependent on the love of her Father in heaven and always receptive to whatever gifts God bestowed upon her.
Finally, because God loved her unconditionally, Therese loved God unconditionally, even though throughout her life she often wondered where God was. She believed despite her unbelief. Therese did small things extraordinarily well out of love for God. She accepted the will of God as expressed in the daily routine of cloistered life. In every situation, she willed the good of the other, no matter how annoying or mean-spirited they were.
Therese of Lisieux was not simply content with a safe place in heaven. She wanted to spend heaven doing good on earth. And that is why so many people honor her today. Her “little way” quenched her thirst for God as Jesus quenched the thirst of the Samaritan at the well.
Therese's “little way” can be a spiritual guide for us: Gratitude to God; a childlike trust in a God who loves us unconditionally; and doing ordinary things extraordinarily well out of love for God.
During these Lenten days I invite all of us to renew ourselves spiritually and rededicate ourselves in regular prayer to God and in generous service to one another, so that when we renew our baptismal promises at Easter, we will re-experience more deeply the presence of God.