First reading Exodus 17:3-7
Responsorial Psalm Psalm 94(95):1-2,6-9
Second reading Romans 5:1-2,5-8
Gospel John 4:5-42
Freedom is uncomfortable. We all desire it, we all value it, indeed many are willing to fight and even to die for it. And all of this seems to come fairly naturally, yet it seems to me that it doesn’t come naturally to know how to live with it. Freedom. We see this dilemma played out by the people of Israel in our first reading today, after God liberated them from their slavery in Egypt. Their newfound freedom saw them enter the desert where they underwent the consequences of their freedom– hunger, thirst, the need for order and structure in their community, and all the difficulties of having to be responsible for themselves no longer under the yoke of Egyptian rule. Their freedom was so uncomfortable in fact that they began to regret it and desire to be slaves once again: “Why did you bring us out of Egypt? Was it so that I should die of thirst, my children too, and my cattle?” They were even at the point of murdering the one who had led them into freedom: Moses appeals to the Lord, “How am I to deal with this people? A little more and they will stone me!” Indeed, not only is this the story of a nation suddenly liberated from oppression, but this is also the story of the souls of each one of us who have been regenerated by Baptism and given the glorious freedom of the children of God. For just as the Israelites, escaped from Egyptian rule, had to learn to rule over themselves, body and soul, or be ruled by the impulses of their bodies and souls, so each of us has to struggle against the tendency to be ruled by our freedom of choice and the desires that govern our choice.
For having been freed from the outward constraint of Egyptian slavery, upon entering the desert the Israelites had to contend with their inner constraints, their desires, their minds, their wayward passions and deep-seated attitudes. There’s nothing like the desert to bring out the real self, to show us how free we truly are. Try sitting alone in silence in order to pray for a prolonged period and observe what pops up. You see, the world presents to us a very shallow idea of what it means to be free: The limitless and unrestricted option for individual choice. Of course, we ought to be able to make our own choices. But is this really freedom in its truest sense? If we are presented with the choice between something we know to be good and something we know to be fundamentally sinful, and we choose the thing that is sinful (perhaps because it promises some advantage), have we acted in freedom? You might say, yes, I freely chose the bad. And that is true, no one else made the choice for you or compelled you to choose it – you exercised “freedom” in a basic sense. But what is it that so constrained me to choose what I know to be wrong and therefore to be destructive to my soul? In this case, though I had the free choice for whichever, there is a certain slavery in choosing what is bad, a slavery which lies in the perceived advantage that choosing the bad promised me. What about the case of the person who chooses the Good at great personal cost – the one who chooses to do what they know to be morally good according to God’s law, despite the fact that it will have an adverse effect on them for having chosen it? Surely this person, in choosing the Good at great personal cost, acts with a far greater interior freedom than the one who chooses what is sinful to great advantage. They are not constrained by the threat of the personal cost. The question arises, then, are we really free if we choose to do what kills the soul? Are we really free if we habitually live in a state of alienation from God? Are we really free if we live only according to what is pleasurable, to what makes us feel good? The Israelites were so dominated by their bodily hunger and thirst that they wanted to go back into slavery, where at least they had ample food and water. This suggests they were still living according to the flesh and didn’t yet have the interior freedom to trust totally in the God whose wonders they had already seen with their own eyes. Outwardly, they were free– they could make choices. But inwardly, they were still slaves. They had not yet been transformed.
Brothers and sisters, if you’ve made a serious attempt to live the Lenten season, you’ll recognise what I’m saying. When we begin to mortify our senses and our will by depriving ourselves of certain things and pleasures, by fasting, almsgiving, or by taking on extra devotions and spiritual practices, we learn how interiorly free we really are. How quickly does it last before you pack it in? How often do we choose not to fast or abstain from meat because it seems too hard or superfluous? You see, the desert, and indeed Lent, reveals to us our attachments, whether they be things, behaviours, foods, attitudes or certain sins – attachments which can ultimately enslave us in deeper ways that prevent the inner transfiguration of our nature. But the Gospel today holds the key for us.
The Samaritan woman comes to draw water from the well but ultimately ends up asking Jesus for “Living Water”. After her unexpected encounter with Jesus, we see her run back to the town to tell others about him. But to cut to the chase, perhaps the most telling detail of all is that she left her water jar behind, abandoned. Her whole purpose in coming to the well was to draw water. She left without water, and what is more she left without the means of ever drawing water again. This gives us a clue, indicating that she indeed received her Living Water from Jesus, and that after tasting his presence, the well was established within her. No longer does she need a bucket because no longer does she live according to the flesh, from now on she lives according to the Spirit, worshipping in Spirit and Truth. Brothers and sisters, this is the goal of our Lenten season. To drink from the fountain of Living Water that is the Holy Spirit himself, who will well up within us and establish in us the very source of his divine life. To receive this Living Water, we must learn to deny ourselves, putting away our slavery to sin and to the flesh which bids us have to constantly return to draw more water. And denying ourselves, we may then have the interior freedom to come to Jesus Christ with all our heart, mind and strength, whose freedom will release us from ever having to draw water again. In learning to deny ourselves and choose Christ, we leave our water jar behind and drink from the interior well of grace which alone can quench the thirst of the human soul. During this season of grace, may we seek him while he is still to be found.