Imagine you’re going on a trip, say to Italy. You happen to be doing some spring cleaning in the attic, and find some old, old guidebooks that your grandparents used when traveling to Europe 75 years ago. You’d bring them down to study, since even though the hotels and prices change, the monuments, churches and history do not. Reading the three “scrutiny” Gospels from John are like that. They were used by our ancestors to prepare candidates for baptism. These three stories offered a “case study” in how we come to believe in Jesus.
That ancient custom has been revived in our time. On the third, fourth and fifth Sundays of Lent, there are three stories to accompany the first of the scrutinies, a ritual held at Sunday Mass for those to be baptized this Easter. After the homily, the ritual asks the candidates for baptism to look at themselves, to try and name the things in themselves they wish to turn away from, and to discover what is good, and find strength in Christ.
Like the people in ancient times, we’re asked to imagine ourselves as the main character in each story. In the Gospel heard in Catholic churches on the third Sunday of Lent, the central character is the Samaritan woman at the well.
In this story, Jesus, as a Jew, crosses a boundary and engages a Samaritan, historically an adversary—to come to the “living water” he offers. For Jesus to talk to a woman, let alone a Samaritan, was counter-cultural. In the process, he draws out the truth about her life and confronts her sinfulness. Despite resistance, as she throws up various excuses, cultural comebacks and even a little “Samaritan theology,” she ends up inviting her neighbors to hear Jesus.
It’s a story of conversion that mirrors the starts and stops in our own journey of faith. It’s a story of inclusion that invites a Christian audience into a new world, marked by astounding, even shocking, new relationships. For those already Christian, it takes conversion a step further, to help shape a new reality.
We live in the world, not yet fully transformed. A world that needs to be scrutinized. A world where all kinds of artificial boundaries exist between people, boundaries based on inequality, unjust treatment, religious intolerance. The story of the woman at the well invites us to scrutinize our personal faith, our parishes, our wider Church and our world, and to expose the harmful structures that wall out others and cause them to thirst for acceptance and new life.
Featured photo credit: Danilo Rizzuti