[3rd Sunday of Lent (A) Ex 17:3-7; Ps 95:1-2.6-7abc.7d-9 (R. cf. 7d, 8a); Rom 5:1-2.5-8; Jn 4:5-42]
Jesus is clear and distinct. And he is insistent: “But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship him in spirit and truth” (Jn 4:23-24).
By the above words of today's Gospel, Jesus offers us the key to understanding the numerous warnings and reproofs of the prophets. The words of Isaiah are biting: “I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity ... even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood ... cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice” (Is 1: 13-17). Jeremiah is no less sparing: “Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house which is called by my name, and say, 'We are safe'” (Jer 7:9-10). And Amos' rebuke is as sharp: “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. ... Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Am 5:21-24). And it is because of the priority of ethical values over mere temple cult that Jesus instructs us: “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift” (Mt 5:23-24).
In today's first reading, at God's command, Moses struck the rock at Horeb and water flowed out for the people of Israel to drink (Ex 17:5-7). And in today's Gospel, Christ promises new water, the “spring of water welling up to eternal life” (Jn 4:14). And in the second reading, St Paul reminds us of “the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Rom 5:5). Yes, at baptism, we receive the new water that wells up to eternal life, the Holy Spirit that purifies us and satisfies our thirst for God. And we remember St. Paul's words that it is God's Spirit that “is at work in you enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil 2:13). As Christians, “When we cry, 'Abba! Father!' it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Rom 8:15-16).
Again, today's responsorial psalm is an invitation, a call to worship. The psalmist invites us to “bow and bend low”. He calls on us to “kneel before the God who made us” (Ps 95:6-7).
Now it is important to note that worship is not a human initiative. Nor is it totally a human achievement. Worship is human response to the prior stirring of our heart, our spirit by the Spirit of God. If we forget that worship is not a human initiative, if we think that it is a pure human engagement, we denature it. We reduce it to a mundane affair. So by telling the Samaritan woman that “the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father” (Jn 4:21), Jesus means that it is the Holy Spirit that makes worship possible. So what unites the worshipper to God are not places of worship (mountain, Jerusalem), nor material gifts and sacrifices. What unites the worshipper to God are spiritual values, spiritual gifts: contrite heart, love, obedience, and so on. That is, gifts ordered and adequate to the Holy Spirit that initiates and guides worship.
We cannot adore and worship God unless we open our heart, our spirit to the Holy Spirit. So if we bow to God and kneel before him while our heart, our spirit is closed to the Holy Spirit, our bowing and kneeling is no adoration, no worship of God. And if our heart, our spirit is closed to the Holy Spirit, it means we have no desire for God. And if we have no desire for God, we cannot seek communion with him. Worship is impossible if we do not desire to yield our heart, our spirit to the Spirit of God.
And now brothers and sisters, as we carry on with the discipline of Lent, as we fast and pray, is our heart, our spirit turned away from the Holy Spirit? You know that God wants our hearts more than our acts of penance. He wants our hearts more than our physical postures of bowing and kneeling. He wants our hearts more than our prayers, hymns and praises. Remember the words of Jesus, reiterating prophet Isaiah: “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” (Mt 15:8; [Is 29:13]). Yes, exterior worship is a sham, a make-believe, if there is no “clean heart” no “broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart” (Ps 51:10,17).
And can we really imagine the volume of words, hymns and praises that, day after day, night after night, become probably unacceptable to God? Words, hymns and praises devoid of spirit; words, hymns and praises from hardened hearts. Yes, if we open our hearts to the Holy Spirit, we will stand before God and acknowledge our sins, our unloving attitudes and deeds toward others. If our hearts are open to the Holy Spirit, worship becomes also an occasion for ongoing repentance, conversion and renewal. And the more we experience ongoing repentance, conversion and renewal, the more the door to deeper spiritual joy, the Easter joy is opened to us. And may the grace of this experience be ours, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Fr Gregory Okechukwu Nwachukwu
(Formator, Blessed Iwene Tansi Major Seminary, Onitsha.