I am no biblical scholar. I am just a teacher over the past 33 years and, as they say, "been there ... done that." And as a teacher, I would be a little annoyed with the woman at the well, if she were my student. First, she tended to be impertinent ... somewhat. Second, she had different questions about most everything, and they were quite desultory ... jumping from one topic to the other, and they could be a little off tangent.
But as teacher who might have little patience with silly questions, I find myself in awe at the great teacher who had answers to each and every question she posed - and more!
But first, I would like to speak about the little surprises that lead me, of all people, to ask silly questions, too. First and foremost, why would anyone go out to the well at midday to fetch water? As one who grew up in the boonies, where one had to fetch water from some place for daily use (there was no indoor plumbing to speak of!), one does not go out at high noon to fetch water. One does that first thing at the break of day, when the sweltering sun has not yet fully lashed out its merciless and blinding rays. Presumably, a woman who was in-charge of all details of domestic economy ( from the Greek oikonomia, which means management of the household), would know better than to run out of precious, cool, satisfying water to quench her husband's thirst at high noon, when the midday repast is what everyone should be engaged in.
But I am being flippant - and quite off tangent!
We should give it to her that she was more than just busy. She was hard working. She was still as busy as can be, at high noon, when everyone ought to be done with the first half of the day's work.
What could have brought her out to Jacob's well in the first place?
In my non-biblical scholar's mind, it was simply this .... thirst .... thirst at high noon! As one who climbed more than 13 Philippine mountains in my prime (many suns and moons ago!), I think I know what being high and dry and dehydrated at midday means, when you are in the midst of a grueling, knee-punishing climb up any tropical mountain. You look for water. You reach out for your water bottle and slake your parched lips and dry throat. Or, as in the case of the woman with a thousand and one household tasks to keep up with her domestic "economy"duties, you reach out for the water jug and solve a real and concrete problem fortwith! You go to the well, with or without your philosophical - if, silly - questions and ponderings!
Thirst at high noon ... that was what brought her to the well ... her own presumably, and that of others in her household, including the man she lived with. As the story unfolded, it turned out that more than just her thirst was quenched, and definitely more than just material, physical thirst, her own, and those of others, too.
For all her desultory and impertinent questions, she had one stellar action that stood out. Starting out with a mundane and shallow request, for her to be given that water, so she would no longer thirst and keep on coming back to the well, she graduated into someone with a most important, but thought-provoking question: "Could he be the Christ?"
Thirst and household responsibilities notwithstanding, the woman did the unexpected. She surprises everyone, including us. She turned out to be someone who was focused on more than just fetching material water. She brought her thirst and that of others to the Lord. And she was straightforward about what she needed and wanted. In the end, she brought to others in return what turned out to be the promise of living water. From someone who just asked silly questions, she metamorphosed into somebody who made everybody consider the most important question of a lifetime: "Are we dealing here with the Messiah? Could he be the promised One who is to come?"
We could be at high noon ourselves at any given time in our lives. Those transitioning to midlife, are, in the words of Carl Jung, moving over into the noontime of their lives. Those of us who have lost the enthusiasm and optimism of yore, are said to be experience the "noontime devil," the lack of faith and hope in humanity, the lack of assurance deep within that whatever little we can do would really matter in the long run.
We are at high noon in many parts of the world. We find ourselves seared, not by the material heat of the tropical sun, but singed by the heat of so much hopelessness, perhaps brought about by so many natural and man-made tragedies that occur everywhere. At high noon, everything withers ... our enthusiasm falters ... our dreams waiver, and our strength alters. We tend to become cynical. We tend to throw in the towel and give up hoping for the best that humanity is capable of.
We are at high noon in many ways. And we are thirsty at high noon. Our souls are parched dry by the sight of peace and unity seemingly becoming even more unreachable ... in Libya, in Tunisia, in Yemen, in Bahrain ... and in our own country divided and polarized by the Reproductive Health Bill that is being pushed in the name of trying to solve the gnawing and undeniable problem of massive poverty in the country.
We are at high noon and we are thirsty. But if ever the Samaritan woman got anything right, apart from asking that question about the possibility that the man she spoke to was the Messiah, it is this ... she knew she would be thirsty again. She knew that high noons don't happen only once in a blue moon, and that high noons coupled with searing thirst are not a once-and-for-all experience of humans like us.
We will be thirsty again, for sure. We will "see such sights colder and know not why," as the little girl Margaret was told by the persona in Manley Hopkins' famous poem. We will be thirsty again ... we will long for peace and it seems to be squandered by war-thirsty leaders who think of themselves much more than they think of the welfare of their people.
We will be thirstly again ... We will look for answers to questions much more pressing than indoor plumbing to assure us of a constant supply of refreshing and gushing waters. And when we become thirsty, at high noon or at any other time, we need to ask the really important question: "should we not consider that man's offer as the real answer to so many of our problems?" "Should we not take resort to him who promised the ultimate living water of faith, hope, and love and salvation?
Thirsty at high noon? ... Our choice ought to be clear ... and no, it is not about Sprite. It is about him who now reminds us, as he did the Samaritan woman at the well ... "the water I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life."
Today's first reading waxes very hopeful. From a difficult command for Abram to "go forth" - thus, becoming the world's first migrant ever mentioned in any recorded account, a word of promise ensues from the mouth of God ... "I will bless you." On top of this was another promise ... "you will be a blessing."
Moving from one's land of birth, having to go far from familiar territory, and exchanging it for some uncertain place, sans all the familiar sights and smells, and sounds of home can never be less than traumatic for anyone. We feel it in the thousands of songs written, as much by those who were left behind longing for loved ones gone far, like the haunting and pleading "Ritorna a Sorrento," as those who have chosen to go some far and forlorn place, as in the longing and plaintive lines of "Arrivederci Roma!"
Leaving one's home is always a heart-breaking experience for anyone.
As I write, my heart quivers, jolted by a little vicarious pain, at the thought of so many hundreds of thousands displaced by the twin disasters that befell northeastern Japan just barely a week ago. Images of old men and women who lost everything and perhaps everyone they loved in a matter of a few minutes of surging gigantic waves continue to tug at my heart. And as the tragedy wears on, revealing a third emerging and bigger one posed by the crippled nuclear facilities in Fukushima, even more and more people are poised to becoming forced migrants within their own country, for fear of deadly radiation.
So where is the blessing here, you might ask? Where is the grace to be found in the case of hundreds of thousands of grieving and suffering people, forcibly ejected out of what they called home for decades? Where can one hope to find solace in the midst of so much misery, for a people grown accustomed to comfort and plenty after they rose from the ashes of the second world war?
The tears that occasionally and secretly fall down my cheeks as I see such images are begging for answers, even as the anger I experienced along with my grief at the sight of so many who died within hours of massive flooding that the twin typhoons Ondoy and Pepeng caused in the Philippines in late 2009, raised so many issues that not even a thousand "Ritorna a Sorrento-like" hymns could convincingly address.
But more than the gnawing grief, the human heart of people everywhere, is now barraged and besieged by a creeping fear, fed on by charlatans and self-declared spiritual gurus, who keep on talking about Maya predictions and the so-called "third secret of Fatima" that sow nothing else but panic and fear. Through subtle innuendoes and brilliantly juxtaposed images, cut-and-paste quotes from legitimate ecclesiastical writings, a lot of New Age internet postings produce paralyzing fear out of such pseudo-spiritual and pseudo-theological articles that keep on giving a mishmash of fear-mongering and false prophesies that eventually lessen faith and hope in a loving God who is in control of the universe.
My job as priest and preacher is to make sense of what appears to be senseless and utterly meaningless events that dot the landscape of our lives. My job as preacher and teacher is to echo down (catecheo, that is, to catechize) others who, like me, are in the throes of so much questioning and worrying - and, in many cases, frightening events that leave us all dumbfounded.
Abram was led by the Lord out of his homeland, Ur. The Lord promised to bless him. The Lord promised even more that he was going to be a blessing to others. This is the horizon of God, leading us to a higher level of awareness. This is God's point of view as told and retold by Scripture and Tradition. And what is the point? Simply this ... not all suffering and pain lead to death. Not all grief ends up in nothingness. And not all that appears meaningless and senseless is really utterly futile and pointless in the eyes of God.
I am blessed by the Japanese people, for one. In the midst of so much misery, they keep calm, composed, and disciplined. Forcibly taken away from their homes by earthquare, tsunami, and an impending nuclear disaster, they stoically face the inevitable and go about the business of living, even if there is very little now to live - and - even die with.
But the account of Genesis does not end with God blessing people in pain, and those very same people becoming blessings to others. No ... God makes another promise, and this time it is directed to those blessed by them ... "I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you."
We who are "blessed" and feel blessed in our comfortable circumstances right now, are then called to "pay it forward." We need to become blessings to others too. We need to give, too, rather than merely receiving. We need to do our part.
Let me tell you how St. Paul puts it today: "Bear your share of hardship for the gospel with the strength that comes from God."
St. Paul does not tell us to pity the suffering. He does not tell us to simply empathize with those in searing grief and pain. He does not tell us to merely shed tears like I often do while watching it all on TV or via the internet. He tells us to "bear our share of the hardship." He takes us to task. He calls us to action. He calls us to also, in our turn, become blessings to others, like Abraham eventually became ... like Christ, who did not just empathize, but who suffered and died for us, not on a virtual, but a real Calvary of pain and eventual excruciating death on the cross.
The two disciples, who initially probably thought they were up there on the mountain for an outing, at least for a while, seemed to have acted silly and irrelevant. They asked to be allowed to build three tents. They just saw a vision, and all they could think of was a housing project, even if it were presumably for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah!
But then reality hit them hard. This was no ordinary vision. This was not a mere fun climb atop Tabor. This was hard revelation, with real stark and startling truth ... "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased."
And they, like us, fell prostrate ... in fear! For us, it is not so much falling prostrate, as feeling paralyzed by fear.
We feel paralyzed by fear for so many reasons ... earthquakes everywhere, tsunamis, faults running all over Luzon, from Marikina to Tagaytay, and everywhere ... revolts and unrest everywhere ... Mayan predictions ... apocalyptic movies of every genre from everywhere ... legislators who continue to pass immoral laws for the sake of narrow-minded and short-sighted visions, as suffered by the initially clueless disciples, in some cases for the sake of mere sordid gain.
We feel hemmed in on all sides, frozen gelid by fear, brought down to our knees by a lack of hope and faith in the Lord.
Today, he shows Himself for what He truly is ... transfigured before our doubting and fright-filled eyes. And what do we hear Him say? Take heed ... Listen ... and do accordingly ... "Rise, and be not afraid..." "with the strength that comes from God!"
Everything happens for a purpose. Everything takes place for a reason. The Spirit, we are told today, “led Jesus to the desert to be tempted by the devil.” It was in the desert where Jesus was tempted, the very place where Jesus set out to do something good, the place where he fasted and prayed.
I guess this is what I want to emphasize today … behind every dark and menacing cloud lies a silver lining. Behind every temptation lies a potential triumph of grace, of freedom, and will power. The desert trap did not end up a pointless death trap, but the Lord trumped it and made it into a triumphant victory of grace and freedom.
Not one of my readers, least of all myself, can lay claim to not being, or not having been bothered by temptation. I know I am. Repeatedly. Daily. Constantly. I know this from personal experience. I know it, too, by vicarious experience. 29 years being a priest and 29 years being privy to the inner worlds of people have taught me, among many others one simple truth. We “all have fallen short of the glory of God.” We are all in this struggle together. We are all being led by God towards grace and salvation, but the way to it is fraught with a lot of traps, challenges, and obstacles. More than 2,000 years after John the Baptist came to fill up potholes and level mountains, the truth of our finite human condition still remains … We need to struggle. We need to work hard, and we need to do as Jesus did … battle with temptations big or small.
In my non-Biblical scholarly mind, I guess this is what it all means to us.
The Spirit “led” him to the desert to be tempted by the devil, for one simple purpose … to teach us the ropes, to show us the way, to make us learn that life is not in itself a bed of roses, and that the eternal life to which He calls us cannot be had for a trifle, but that it needs to be won through gallantry, courage, and a firm decision of the will.
The temptations we face are not quite like the “big ticket” items that Jesus faced. But the temptations we do face are not any less real, and any less deadly, spiritually speaking.
The temptations we face may not get anywhere near the 700 million pesos that certain former military men in the Philippines made easy money of, but they are not any less sinful when succumbed to, and not any less life disabling when fallen into.
The temptations we face are “small ticket” items, so to say, but collectively, they lead to the same far-ranging consequences. They lead to death. They lead to dysfunctionality. They lead to the collective disease that eventually kill our nation’s soul slowly, but surely.
I speak about “small ticket items” like cursing, using the name of the Lord God in vain. They don’t cause a stir anymore. They don’t scandalize anyone anymore. But they are, albeit remotely, connected to the same temptation faced by the Lord, to exchange the real God for the fake one, and worship the devil and prostrate before him.
I speak about small ticket items like saying “I don’t care anymore what happens!” “I have no control over anything in the world.” “Just let the bad guys do what they want.” “Just let corruption go unabated.” “Just allow the politicians to destroy this country… What do I care?” But this is nothing different from the Lord being tempted to just throw himself down from the parapet of the temple, to give up self-responsibility and allow things to take their own course.
I speak about seemingly insignificant items like stuffing oneself sick each and every single day … eating unhealthy food on a consistent basis … throwing all caution to the winds saying “after all, there are medicines to counteract everything later,” and so on. But all this is not any different from the Lord being tempted to “turn stones into bread.”
Let us face it. We lust for greed, as much as do for sex. But we also salivate for power, for attention, for our five minutes of fame – if not – notoriety. And since we do, we are willing to do a thousand and one little “small ticket items” in order to get what we want. We fib here and there and everywhere. We lie and deny to death, much like the people being investigated on national TV, who open their mouth when things go to their advantage, but who clam up like the proverbial giant clams, when things are getting to be disadvantageous to them.
We do a million and a half little things to get ahead, to get noticed, and get promoted. And we can even step on other people’s toes just to save our own skin, or gossip about others, to make us feel better about ourselves. By subtle innuendoes, by our well-timed silences, and through double-entendres, we can destroy other people’s reputation in one fell swoop, like big media networks do when they want to destroy their enemies, by subjecting them to trial by publicity!
No … we don’t see anyone trying to convince us to turn stones into bread very literally. But last thing I heard is, we can turn into very successful businessmen, after a few years of service in the military or the government – or, why not? – service to the Church? We see very ordinary folks from very ordinary and simple families, who end up having ten houses in the United States, after being comptroller for four short, but fruitful years!
No …we don’t see anyone trying to make us jump from the Stock Exchange building. But we do see people jumping to conclusions on the basis of the latest gossip they heard. We see ourselves falling for what the TV ads tell us are the best products … for ultimately, we lust for youth. We lust for lasting beauty and youthful form. How else explain the fact that a great percentage of the trash we see clogging our waterways are from “skin whitening products” and wrappers of fast-food products?
Little things, they seem to be … but little things that lead to the same death of the collective soul, of a people gradually being dehumanized by sin, one seemingly insignificant step at a time … one TV show at a time … one small ticket item at a time.
The Lord was led by the Spirit to the desert for a purpose. The Lord leads us today to a similar desert experience for a purpose. And that is not to gorge ourselves on stones turned to bread, nor to throw ourselves with utter abandon to irresponsibility, and least of all to worship fake and ersatz gods in His stead, and run around sewing fig leaves for utter shame at what we did. He leads us to life. And this, we can do, ironically, by following the examples of the Lord who stood his ground, and came out victorious through fasting and prayer!
We live in a world fraught with necessary choices. On a daily basis, we are meant to make choices, whether we like it or not. We choose to get up promptly each morning and choose to get to work or get to school. On such occasions, we know we do have the freedom not to choose accordingly, but we also do know that if we make said choices, we actually increase, not diminish, our freedom. The choices that we make, albeit necessary ones, spell our future well-being and success, and increase our capacity to make further, more important, choices.
We have an example of one such major, important, and far-ranging choice that reverberates far into the future of each and everyone of us. Moses confronts us with it. He impresses upon us its value and importance when he counsels us to “take his words into our heart and soul,” and to “bind them at our wrist as a sign,” or hang it like a “pendant on our foreheads.”
In short, he advises us to “remember” and never to forget.
These days, I forget so many things. Back in the day, multi-tasking was never a problem for me. Rector and President of a college and seminary at 38, I was busy with a daily slew of activities and duties, from running a community, to giving talks, to counseling, to fund-raising, to teaching, to engaging in countless planning meetings, to doing my doctorate, and even planting trees, and taking care of five big dogs. I hardly used my daily planner then, and the old “Sidekick” DOS-based program that approximated the manual Daily Planner remained unused in my computer that, for the most part, remained as a glorified typewriter and word processor.
But of course, I know better than to think that the type of remembering that Moses speaks of, actually goes beyond mere material recall of my seemingly endless “to-do lists” then.
I do remember, of course, what I think and feel were my achievements … new buildings built from scratch, new programs for the school, a new formation program for seminarians, and a host of other things.
But today, the Lord reminds me and, reminds me to remind you, my readers, that all this is not the object of the remembrance that Moses speaks of, that the Lord expects. He counsels us all to remember above everything else to do the one choice that really matters, a choice that spells either a blessing or a curse, the choice between obeying the Lord’s commandments or rejecting them.
It all boils down to this … there are choices and there are choices … choices that lead to action, and choices that lead to inertia and inaction; choices that lead to life, and choices that lead to death; choices that are life-enabling, and choices that are life-disabling; choices that produce far-ranging results and choices that hit a dead-end.
I can choose to pay lip service to a God who worked for our “justification through the redemption in Christ Jesus.” But, as the Lord himself reminds us, “not all those who call on me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven.”
I can choose to go through the motions of my avowed ministry as priest (or as catechist or pastoral minister in the parish), and do things mechanically, but the Lord reminds us that it is only “everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them” will be called “wise.”
I can choose to simply focus on the tasks that make me greater in the sight of men, go through a thousand and one activities in the course of a day, and yet miss out on what really matters, and that is to become meaningfully and deeply related to the Lord who is my “rock of safety.”
I can choose to remain on the level of constructing buildings and focusing on earthly achievements, and in the end, really be building on sand, and not rock.
After 29 years in ministry as a priest, I should know. I have been there, done that … And there were so many choices I made over those years that paid off handsomely, and choices that did not. And those choices that did pay off were not necessarily those that could be quantified, photographed, measured, and documented.
The real choices that paid off, in the long run, were those that required COURAGE, and by this, I don’t mean things I did while unmindful of my personal safety. The choices that really mattered were those that I did with a lot of heart, for the word courage really comes from the Latin cor, which stands for heart. The real choices that paid off handsomely were those I did that caused the “rending of my heart” for, that is what Coeur-age, in French, ultimately means – the rending of the heart.
The real choices that really mattered were those actions that I did “taking the words of God into my heart and soul,” the things I did while “binding them at my wrist as a sign,” like a “pendant on my forehead,” that reminded me of what really counts as important.
In my 29 years as priest and 33 years as teacher, those former students who come back to me, with gratitude, defined as the “remembrance of the heart,” are not those who admired me for constructing buildings and achieving what people often take pride in, but those whose hearts I touched in some way; those whose hearts I broke for a worthy reason, and those who “rended my heart” and made me suffer out of genuine love and concern for them. Some of those former students who are now closest to me, were those whose hearts I rended, those who I “kicked out” from school, those who I sent out of class for being truant, those who I spent quality presence and time for, and who I inspired to be working and building on rock and not on sand.
Unfortunately, those who were treated only with kid gloves and given only “sugar and spice, and everything nice,” have nothing to be grateful for, and nothing in their heart worth remembering.
Many years ago, when I was young, I needed a “curettage” in my gums to render them healthy. If I did not submit to that painful curettage, I would have lost all my teeth. Many years ago, I had a teacher who had the Coeur-age to mold me, a father to teach me right from wrong, and a grandmother who did not spare the rod. They rended my heart by subjecting me, not to a curettage but to a Coeur-age!
These were those who made me really remember, to make the right choices, and not just to listen, but to live out those choices. They were those who taught me, ultimately, to build on rock, and not on sand.
I am a pilgrim. I am a learner. I journey with others in faith and life. In all I do, in my preaching, teaching, counseling, and writing, "all I want is to know Christ, and to experience the power of his resurrection" (Phil 3:10). By so doing, I humbly hope to make a difference in people's lives.