Ps 95 R/. O that today you would listen to the voice of the Lord. Do not harden your hearts!
Rom 5:1-2, 5-8
The story of the Samaritan woman at the well is a fascinating encounter; it’s rich in theology and deep in meaning. In fact, we could easily spend hours talking about this story, line by line, verse by verse, drinking the Truth and Life that gushes forth from it. But, even though it is Lent, I’m going to spare you that penance today and focus on only one dimension of the text.
Christ and the Samaritan Woman at the Well, by Pietro Negri (1679)
Notice that when Jesus confronts the woman at the well with her sins, He does just that: He confronts her. There’s no judgement on His part, there’s no condemnation; Jesus merely calls her attention to her sins (and the fact that He knows them), and He challenges her to repentance and conversion: If you knew the gift of God…(Jn 4:10) And if we really did know the gift of God, how could we ever choose to sin?
My brothers and sister, Jesus continues to challenge us to conversion today, and He does this explicitly through His Church. When the Church speaks out on issues of morality — abortion, euthanasia, Marriage, homosexual activity, contraception, premarital sex, poverty, gambling, and so on —, she does so not out of condemnation, but out of her prophetic duty to proclaim the Word of God and to call people to conversion. The sense of guilt someone might feel when hearing the Church’s message of truth doesn’t come from a ‘condemnation by the Church’; imitating her Lord, she merely calls attention to sin and challenges the sinner to repent.
Guilt? Well, guilt comes from within! We experience guilt when we’re judged, not by others, but by our own conscience. And our conscience is capable of judging us like this because we’re created in the image and likeness of God (Gen 1:27), and His law is written on our hearts: I will place my law within them, and write it upon their hearts, prophesied Jeremiah (Jer 31:33). This is confirmed by St. Paul when he writes about the pagans in his letter to the Romans: …what the Law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them (Rom 2:15).
As any criminal psychologist will tell you, it’s not the court that makes a criminal feel remorse or guilt. Feelings of guilt and remorse must come from within a person; they can’t be imposed from without. It’s the same with sin. When we commit sin, it’s our conscience and our heart that condemn us. And when the final judgement comes, God won’t so much condemn us as ratify the judgement our conscience has made against us. If we’ve failed to listen to our conscience, if we’ve failed to properly educate and strengthen it, then we’ll be liable to the judgement of our conscience, which will speak out against us for not having listened, for not having obeyed, for not having formed it according to the truth. In short, if we’re condemned, it’ll be because we condemned ourselves.
But as the Psalm today says: O that today you would listen to the voice of the Lord. Do not harden your hearts! My brothers and sisters, may we not harden our hearts when God calls attention to our sins; may we not harden our hearts when the Church calls attention to our sins; may we not harden our hearts when our conscience calls attention to our sins. Instead, may we turn back to God, asking Him for forgiveness, for healing, for the grace of repentance and conversion.
You see, this is the beauty of our God, that He takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live (Ez 33:11). God wants us to turn back to Him: in His love for us, He is merciful and wants to save us, but we must repent of our sins and change our ways for conversion to take root. This is the invitation Jesus makes to the Samaritan woman in our Gospel today. And notice how when He named her sins, Jesus didn’t do it to condemn her, but to call her to repentance, …and that’s precisely what she did! Confronted with her sins, laid bare in front of her by this stranger, she chose to seek forgiveness. That’s because before talking to her about her sins, Jesus loved her; and made her thirsty for His love (cf. Jn 4:10-15). Filled with the joy and excitement of having encountered Christ and His forgiveness, she immediately begins to evangelise, sharing this message of hope, this Good News about the love and mercy of God: Come and see…! (Jn 4:29)
Confronted with her sins, the Samaritan woman, instead of getting angry and trying to silence the voice calling her to repentance, chose to listen and drink of the water being offered her, so as to benefit from the eternal life that gushes forth from it. She listened to the voice of God calling her back, and because of that, she came to [know] the Gift of God, and grew in faith and in holiness.
My brothers and sisters, Jesus’ mission is to call sinners back to the Father, and this is made most visible on the Cross, as St. Paul says in the second reading: God proves his love for us that while we were still sinners Christ died for us. Again, God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live (Ez 33:11). God and the Church call attention to our sins not to condemn us, but to educate us so that we might repent, turn back to God, and live.
And so, when the Church’s teachings confront us with our own sins or errors and we feel guilty, it’s important for us to remember that the Church isn’t condemning us, and that she isn’t the source of our guilt. Rather, we need to follow the example of the woman at the well, and recognise God’s call to conversion and accept the life-giving water that He’s offering. O that today [we] would listen to the voice of the Lord. [Let us] not harden [our] hearts (Ps 95:7c-8a), but rather embrace God’s mercy and forgiveness, confessing our sins and turning back to Him with all our hearts, because only in Christ can we ever be at peace with God (cf. Rom 5:1); only in Christ ca we ever be at peace with ourselves. Amen.