March 19, 2017
The Third Sunday in Lent
Today’s Gospel passage is one of my favorite passages. Over the years I have caught myself often quoting it using it as is an example for our branch of Catholicism. But given the events over the past year in the Roman Catholic Church, and especially three of its cardinals who seem to be causing the controversy, the subjects on the matter of family, irregular families, irregular marriages, divorced and remarried members and the like, it has come to be a popular discussion topic in church circles.
As you may know, Amoris Laetitia [The Joy of Love] is a post-synodal apostolic exhortation by Pope Francis. It was released in early 2016, and it follows the Synods on the Family held in 2014and 2015 by a number of cardinals within the church. This document, in essence, gives priests the ability to hear confessions from those who have gone through divorce and thus which may lead to them being allowed to go to communion again. But, I shall get into more of that later.
Some of us are well aware that within the Roman Catholic Church, when someone gets a divorce and then remarries, so doing essentially is an automatic excommunication from the church. And thus they are no longer allowed the sacraments. Of course the largest sacrament that seems to make the news on this topic is in regard to being allowed to go to communion.
The premise being, of course as we all know, is that divorce is considered a mortal sin. It is deduced this by the fact that one of the Ten Commandments basically says that thou shall not commit adultery. Any time you divorce someone then remarry and have sexual relations with that new partner, you are committing a mortal sin. To be in a state of mortal sin and take communion is a horrible sacrilege.
Further the church uses Matthew 19:3-9 as its basis, “Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”
“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
“Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?”
Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.” This would certainly imply that Jesus is reinforcing this understanding of that particular commandment. No argument there.
Now let’s look at today’s reading of the Gospel of John (4:5-42).
Let’s put it in perspective a little bit. If you were to look at geographical locations of the major players within Judaism during the time of Jesus, you would discover that you have Galilee; Samaria is located south of Galilee; and Judea is south of Samaria.
Samaritans believe they are Israelite descendants of the Northern Israelite tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, who survived the destruction of Samaria by the Assyrians in 722 BCE. There appears to be some discrepancy between those who remain faithful Jews and those who were split up into a different land and became known as the Samaritans as to what the real cause was. However, the eventual result was that the new settlers worshiped both the God of the land and the gods from the countries from which they came, and for our purposes became known as the Samaritans.
Now, because of the separation, those who still refer to themselves as Jews, whenever they needed to get from Galilee to Judea, or Judea to Galilee, they would not travel through Samaria. They would not do so because it would be almost like desecrating themselves by coming in contact with these people and Samaria. One must keep in mind that the Jews adhered rather strenuously to the various holiness codes that are in the Hebrew Bible.
And so we read today that Jesus, instead of going around as most Jews would, chose to go through Samaria. This is significant for a couple of reasons. As we know Jesus was not afraid to be somewhat of a radical and thus would frequently speak and meet with those who were considered outcasts. And in his travel he comes across this well. And we are told it’s Jacob’s well. And the time is high noon. Almost sounds like a Western movie.
And we see that the disciples had gone into town to buy some food, which apparently had left Jesus on his own. And while he was at the well the Samaritan woman came to the well to draw water. And as Jesus is known for doing, he chooses a topic of conversation that would have some form of common denominator between He and the person he is speaking to. And so he starts up a conversation about needing a drink of water.She was coming to draw some water, and he must have been thirsty from his long trek.
And we immediately see the prejudice between the two peoples. The woman immediately asked how is it that a Jew will ask a Samaritan for a drink of water? It’s just not something that is done! It would almost be like Donald Trump asking Barack Obama for help!
And of course in Jesus’s usual way, he merely explains to the woman that if she knew who it was asking for this water that she would ask him for water that could come from the fountain of living water. She doesn’t appear to understand. She even becomes a little bit rude and mocks him by basically telling him that he doesn’t have a bucket, so what is he expecting to do, because surely he’s not going to share her bucket! Just where are you going to get this water?
But Jesus knows human carnal desires and tells her of the great experience one would have and get from the water that he would give. She still doesn’t quite get it but asks for some, thinking it would satisfy a normal thirst. It is quite apparent she has no clue what type of thirst Jesus is implying here.
So Jesus changes his approach. He says to her to go tell her husband. Now as we all know from reading this passage, we can tell that Jesus is very well aware of her situation, however he asks her to go tell her husband anyway knowing he would get a response that he needs. He knew her heart and everything about her. He was reminding her of her behavior and her life thus far, but in a delicate way. He approaches it much like a parent would when they’re trying to get their child to admit to doing something without actually telling the child that they already know what it is that they have done.
She responds she has no husband. This is just a scandal upon scandal. But Jesus doesn’t condemn her or belittle her; he continues in his delicate way and turns what she says into a truth. He doesn’t want her to be lying on top of the issue of how many husbands she has had, so he helps her out. And he tells her that she is spoken the truth and that she indeed has no husband, fore she has had five previous husbands, and is now living with a man who is not her husband.
Now, the Samaritan woman, being caught in her horrible sin, does what most anyone else would do when they have been caught - she changes the topic. She changes the topic by saying I see that you are a prophet. And because you are prophet I want to know if we should worship on our mountain or should we worship in your Jerusalem?
Jesus basically says neither. Worship of the Father isn’t about whether it’s on a mountain or in Jerusalem; it’s about our understanding of who God is. That God is spirit and that we should worship in spirit and truth. God is everywhere; whether it be in our little chapel here or in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. And she tells him that she is aware that the Messiah will come and will tell them everything they need to know at that time.
So imagine how she must’ve felt when Jesus said, “I am He!”Let’s face it, if you are down at the local Albertson’s buying some bottled water, and some man came up to you and had a similar conversation with you as Jesus had with the Samaritan woman and then proceeded to tell you that he was the Messiah,and he had given you enough information to make you believe it- you would probably faint. What a spectacle it would be!
This encounter of Jesus with the Samaritan woman is actually very significant. So significant, because over the years I have felt it shows the true mercy of Jesus. It shows Jesus’ willingness to go beyond cultural norm and prejudices. Jesus’ complete understanding of the human condition. Even when it comes to breaking the laws the He as God made for us to follow. Jesus wants us to cross cultures and prejudices and minister with mercy.
Jesus’ disciples come back and basically are completely taken back that Jesus is a) talking to a woman and b) that it’s a Samaritan woman! But there are a few other significant things about this situation. We know she went back into town to tell others of her encounter with Jesus. But who does she go back into town to tell? She doesn’t go back in town to tell the gossiping women. No, she goes back and tells all the men!
Now course this is significant for a number of things. Some we know and some we surmise. First, we know that usually men will not take the word of a woman in this particular time in history. It was not right to listen to women in this cultural time. Secondly, we surmise she goes back to tell the men because there probably many of them are secret boyfriends. Now,granted I’m being somewhat sarcastic, but based on what we know of this story to some degree this is probably true. Instead of now leading these men into evil by sleeping with them, she leads them to good by bringing them to the Lord!
Also, we later see that the men say to her that they now believe her after actually seeing him and listening to him, which is basically say they did not believe her at first. Why then did they follow her? Because she was the town harlot!
We also know that she would not tell the women. We have learned that she does not have a very appropriate life. She is a sinful woman. The other women in town do not want to associate with her because of this and because she is an outcast. And this would explain why she was at the well at high noon. It’s the hottest time of the day in a very hot country. In that culture in that time, they would go to well either early in the morning or later in the evening and most often it was the women and they would normally go in a group. So the Samaritan woman was being ostracized, and she knew this. So she went to the men.
Now, as I was saying, this encounter of Jesus with Samaritan woman is very significant. I mentioned earlier the struggle the Roman Catholic Church is going through - or rather a few bishops and cardinals - over the recent exhortation for Pope Francis in the dealing with divorced members of the church. I think it is great that the Pope is telling the church to minister with mercy. Jesus tried telling his Apostles this two millennia ago.
We all know the divorce is wrong, but we also know that no matter how wrong it may be, we know that as flawed humans, some of us are going to experience divorce. In some cases, divorce is very much warranted.
The church over the years has always taught that you need to be sure that you’re ready for marriage before you enter into it. In many Catholic parishes if you want to be married in that particular church you normally would have to go through a six month period of marriage encounters to help prepare you for your marriage and with the expectation of you and your future spouse not living together prior to the actual marriage.
Of course I’m not saying any of these things are necessarily wrong or bad because they have their value most certainly. We too have a program of something similar to a marriage encounter before a couple would normally be married by me. Marriage should be taken seriously.
However, the Roman Catholic Church is the largest Christian denomination in the world, and as such it feels it has an obligation to protect the sanctity of marriage. Very noble and I will not fault with them for that. All the while almost every other Christian denomination has come to a point where they have learned to accept divorce as something relatively common in society today, and yet find value in ministering to these people still without making them miss out on the sacraments.They do not trivialize marriage and divorce; not at all. They merely know that divorce will happen, and we have a responsibility to help those who go thru it, or leave them at the curb.
Divorce is a sad situation, yes. I don’t claim to have an answer to helping to decrease it, especially in the society we have today with the instant gratification of the internet. But I do feel that Pope Francis and most especially Jesus is trying to tell ussomething.
As I mentioned earlier Jesus did say the divorce was wrong. But we can see by his interaction with the Samaritan woman that Jesus is full of understanding and mercy. People are flawed. People are sinners. The church must do everything she can to help these people and hopefully steer them onto a life that will be less flawed and less sinful. Premarital encounters prior to marriage and counseling during are of great importance.
However, we also must keep in mind that that are various situations and circumstances within everyone’s life that are difficult to avoid and difficult to rectify. Divorces are going to happen. As such, the church needs to follow Jesus’s example and be there for them when that divorce does happen. Time in and time out, Jesus spoke of the laws, but also that we must minister to those who have not lived up to the ideal of those laws.
The Sacraments were not created by the church or Jesus to be used as some sort of disciplinary tool to make sure everyone toes the line of every rule that may be out there. As we can see by Jesus’s treatment of this woman at the well, as well as, the woman caught in adultery earlier in Jesus’s ministry when the townspeople were chasing this adulterous woman to Jesus and basically asked Jesus if she is to be stoned as in accordance tothe law. And Jesus basically tells them, “You without any sin throw the first stone.” And they all walk away. Jesus asks the woman if there is no one to condemn her, and when she says,“no one sir.” Jesus says, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.”
Jesus and his interaction with these two women isn’t to say that he agrees with divorce or that what they’ve done is right, but by helping them acknowledge their sin, he basically is saying that in and of itself their humiliation is enough and the lesson has been learned.
Now, within our branch of Catholicism, we have never excommunicated anyone over divorce. I have always allowed and will continue to allow anyone who is divorced and even remarried to approach the Sacraments of the church. If they have a serious sin on their soul, of course I have an obligation to counsel them in the right direction first, but they will not be denied the hope and help that can only come from the Sacraments of the Church.
As an example, if a couple came to me to be married and one of them was previously divorced, I would sit down with that individual to be sure that they’re in the right frame of mind to be married once again and that this marriage will be one that will last. I would not be doing my job as a pastor if I didn’t.
I am not about to tell someone that they cannot have confessionand absolution because to their having been divorced and been remarried. The Sacrament of Reconciliation was made for such as this. Christ made it clear to his Apostles, “Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 18:18) “If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained.” (John 20:23)
Is not a divorce sin? And as such isn’t it one that should be confessed? And once confessed shouldn’t it be forgiven? The premise behind the Sacrament of Absolution for the church is that once one comes to you and confesses a sin - and they are truly sorry for committing a sin - as a priest I’m obligated to give them their absolution. And as such it should not be held. Now if the person were someone like Elizabeth Taylor and probably had been married a dozen times or something, that might be a different situation. But the average everyday individual who is going to walk into this chapel is not going to have that situation and they are not going to be like the Samaritan woman. Even if so, who am I to judge, as Pope Francis once said? It is for God to judge, not a priest, bishop or otherwise. We should counsel and correct, yes. But, never judge.That is the Universal Catholic Church. That is St. Francis. Ministering in the imitation of Christ.
And so this church will always minister with mercy. This church will always understand the human condition. This church will always welcome with open arms those people who are living in certain situations that might seem wrong or odd to other people. Jesus made it emphatically clear that we should not judge one another. That we should help one another. Medical science and psychiatric science have validated that there are certain life situations that are nearly unavoidable. And as such the churches need to learn to get with the times.
I don’t mean to say that the church should base its teachings on how society lives, but that the church should emphasize its teachings in a manner that is in understanding with that which is very hard to change. If a woman divorced her husband because she was beaten every day of her life, I am hardly going to insist that she needed to stay in that marriage and that she somehow is now a sinful woman because she got a divorce from this obviously abusive man. And medical and psychiatric science would agree with me.
I know this is a difficult topic for many and seems to be in contrast to what the Church has taught for a millennia, but Pope Francis feels otherwise, and frankly so do I. I am not advocating divorce, merely offering mercy to those who come to divorce because it became the only recourse they have in a troubled life. Absolutely no one should be happy in divorce, but neither should they be forced to wallow in self-hate and be in disgrace when one goes to the Church seeking help.
Let us follow Jesus’ example today, and remember that it is the Father’s job to judge; it is our job to treat everyone with mercy, love and respect following Jesus’ example. As Jesus said, “With God, all things are possible.”
Let us pray.
Father God, You gave the laws to Moses for which we are to abide by in our living. The laws are broken down to how we treat each other and how we are revere You as our Holy God.
In the span of our human lives, we in our flawed way of livingoften break those laws. Sometimes intentionally, but most often unintentionally. In living our lives, we often do not want to commit the sins that we commit. Yet, our impulses take over and our gratification of the moment rules the day. We look back, with despair, seeing the wreckage we have left behind wishing we could undo the wrong. You, however, offer Your open arms like that of the father of the prodigal son.
Your Holy Church, using the words of Your Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ, has instituted divine Sacraments for the betterment of Your people. One of these Sacraments, that of Reconciliation, is an instrument in which You bring us to You, through Your priests, to confess our sins and flaws and seek guidance in life.You showed the Israelites that they must make atonement for their sins, so You have done for us today.
Father, we ask that You bless all marriages. Fill them with love, respect and endurance to navigate the challenges that sometimes enter marriages. Empower Your priests to have words needed to help support marriages when challenges arise. And when marriages fail, as some do, give them Your peace and mercy that they so need when these marriages end. Help us all to be reconciled with You and Your Church, but most of all, let us reconcile our hearts after such a tragic event. We ask all this, through Your Son, our Lord. Amen.
God Love You +++
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church