A Catholic Monthly Magazine

John’s Challenging Stories of Faith

Joseph McHugh

by Joseph McHugh


In the time before the second Vatican Council, Lent was a time of prayer and fasting and alms giving.

Missing in those days was what for centuries had been a primary focus of Lent – the initiation of new members of the Church and a deepening of the grace of baptism in those already baptized. Simply put, Lent was about baptism. For the past forty years, baptism at Easter has regained its prominence thanks to the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA).

The RCIA is a process marked by the movement of the inquirer within the Church community through stages of deepening faith. The main purpose is formation into discipleship. The candidate encounters Christ in the community at prayer and in the Liturgy of the Word. The Church ‘rescued’ three Gospel readings from John which had been relegated to Lenten weekdays and restored them to the Third, Fourth and Fifth Sundays of Lent in Cycle A. But the Church encourages their use in all three years of the Lectionary cycle, so that there may never be a Lent in which these stories are not proclaimed.

Toward the end of his Gospel, John (20:31) tells us why he has included the stories about Jesus that we find in his Gospel: “But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” The characters in these three stories (a Samaritan woman, a man born blind, and Lazarus) are Everyman and Everywoman. John narrates their encounters with Christ so that we may recognize ourselves in them and learn from our own encounters with the Lord. Whether we are preparing for baptism or have been baptized for many years, every Lent offers us an opportunity to relate John’s stories of faith to our own lives.

In each story, Jesus is leading someone from thinking about an earthly reality to understanding a heavenly reality. As we will see, Jesus tries to get these persons to go beyond a concern for earthly water to appreciate the water that springs up to eternal life, beyond physical sight to sight into heavenly realities, beyond physical death to a life where death will be no more. Water, sight and new life are baptismal symbols which continually invite us to reflect on our baptismal faith.

The Samaritan Woman (John 4:4-42)

Jesus met a Samaritan woman at a well. The opening verse tells us Jesus had to go through Samaria. This is not a geographical note. Samaria was between Galilee and Judea, but Jews usually skirted Samaria by crossing to the eastern side of the Jordan River above Samaria and then re-crossing the river below Samaria. So what does John mean by saying that Jesus had to go through Samaria? The meaning is theological: Jesus had to meet the Samaritan woman and he couldn’t do that without entering Samaria.

Jesus crossed many boundaries in dealing with the Samaritan woman. Jesus crossed the boundary of gender (male/female) – it was not customary for men to speak to women in public. Later, the disciples, returning from shopping, “were astonished that he was speaking with a woman.” (The disciples were not as ready to cross boundaries as was Jesus.) Jesus also crossed the boundary of nationality (Judea/Samaria) and race (Jew/Samaritan). Jews considered Samaritan women ritually impure and they were forbidden to touch any vessel a Samaritan woman had handled. Yet Jesus asks the Samaritan woman for a drink. Lastly, Jesus crosses a religious boundary. The Samaritans had their own temple on Mount Gerizim, while Jews believed God was to be worshipped in Jerusalem. Jesus says that both sites will be replaced by the true worship of the Father in spirit and truth.

The Samaritan woman has many obstacles in her path toward faith. Her coming to the well in the heat of noontime implies that she is a social outcast. Most women would have been to the well much earlier. After first thinking Jesus a fool because he has no bucket and the well is deep, the woman becomes interested in what Jesus calls “living water.” The woman thinks of the water as flowing, bubbling water as from a stream, rather than the water of the well. Jesus is talking instead of the water that gushes up to eternal life.

Jesus surprises the woman by telling her to call her husband – she has had five plus her current live-in. (We should not think too harshly about this woman. Remember in those days, divorce was exclusively the right of the male. The woman would have no say in the ending of the five marriages.) But Jesus invites her to faith as she is. He doesn’t expect her to straighten out her life and then finally come to him.

The woman eventually has the awareness that Jesus might be the Messiah. Jesus affirms this by saying I AM. In Greek this is ego eimi, and a more literal translation of verse 26 would be “I AM, the one speaking to you.” I AM is God’s proper name (Exodus 3:14). In all three of these stories, Jesus claims his divinity as he says of himself, “I AM…” The woman brings her townsfolk to meet Jesus and by hearing him themselves they too come to faith in Jesus.

The Sabbath Healing of a Man Born Blind (John 9:1-41)

If the Samaritan Woman had obstacles to faith, those faced by the Man Born Blind were even greater. Both Jesus’ disciples and the Pharisees consider this man to have been born in sin. Suddenly, the man encounters the one who says “I AM the light of the world.” Jesus kneads clay, smears it on the man’s eyes and sends him to wash in the pool of Siloam. This causes the Pharisees to claim that Jesus violated the Sabbath by kneading clay. During their slavery in Egypt the Israelites were forced to make bricks from mud, and working with mud was thought of as servile (of a slave) labour. But the law certainly did not have in mind using a small amount of mud to open a blind man’s eyes.

Jesus appears in this story only at the beginning and end. The centre of the story concerns the testing of the incipient faith of the formerly blind man. Again and again the Pharisees challenge him about his cure. In the process, the man’s faith is deepened. At first he can only say he was healed by “the man called Jesus”; later he calls Jesus a prophet, then a man come from God, and finally Lord. The constant interrogation by the Pharisees had led this man more deeply into faith in Jesus.
This story overlays a situation in the last years of the first century onto a miracle of Jesus. Around the year 85, Christian Jews were being thrown out of the synagogue. Notice that the parents in the story refuse to risk being thrown out of the synagogue. But their son boldly proclaims his faith in Jesus, despite its consequences.

The Raising of Lazarus from the Dead (John 11:1-44)
Lazarus’ sister Martha already believed that Jesus is the Messiah and the Son of God. She was convinced that Lazarus would share in the general resurrection on the last day. Yet her faith was incomplete. First she challenged Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Martha struggled to get beyond the obvious fact – death is death. She wished that her brother had never died. Mary later repeated Martha’s statement. When Jesus ordered the tomb be opened, Martha feared embarrassment, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.”

Jesus proclaims, “I AM the resurrection and the life.” Even though Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, he is calling the sisters to look beyond physical death to a life that will never end. When Lazarus comes forth from the tomb he is still wrapped in his burial cloths. Lazarus will suffer physical death again. But when Jesus the resurrection and life, rose from the dead, his burial cloths were left behind (John 20:6-7). Jesus will never die again.

The Samaritan woman struggled with initial faith; the man born blind is an example of faith deepened by testing. But Martha and Mary face the ultimate test of faith. Staring death in the face, they struggle to place ultimate faith in Jesus. Whether it be the death of a loved one or our own death, facing death is a unique challenge to faith. Confronted with death, we know that we are powerless, we realize that all depends on God.

Faith is a lifelong journey. Jesus continually calls us to deepen our faith and grow in a loving relationship with him. The Lenten readings from John’s Gospel ask us to hear and believe (Samaritan woman), see and believe (the man born blind) and ultimately believe without proof as we face death (Martha).

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