Sunday, March 23, 2014

How's Your Prayer Life?

Readings for Sunday, March 23/ Third Sunday of Lent:
Exodus 17:3-7
Psalm 95:1-2, 6-9
Romans 5:1-2, 5-8
John 4:5-42

A couple of weeks ago a friend sent me a book. I opened it up and started looking through the first few pages and found a fill-in the blank self-test with questions such as: Who is the first person you turn to for advice when you’re having problems with a spouse or significant other? Who is the first person you turn to for advice when you have tough financial decisions to make? Who is the first person you turn to when you’re not feeling well? At the conclusion of the little test there was an answer key of sorts and what it basically said was ‘If your answer to each of those questions was not ‘Jesus Christ’ then you have some work to do. Keep reading the book.’

As a priest I often have people come to me to discuss things that are going on in their life where they are looking for answers. Things such as those above, as well as major life decisions, struggles in faith, problems with sin, and a whole host of other things. And one of the questions that I often ask in response is simply, “How’s your prayer life?” The normal response is, “Well, it’s pretty good. But, Father, this what's really bothering me is…” and they revert back to their point. To which I respond again, “I know. But how is your prayer life really? What is the Lord doing in your life right now?” My question about prayer is not just a nice little thing that the priest is supposed to ask. It’s actually at the core of everything. If we believe Jesus is who He claims to be, if He is the one who created us, loves us, forgives us, and wants to heal, restore, and sustain us, then our life must necessarily revolve around Him. And we meet Him in prayer. Prayer is everything.

The story we just heard from St. John’s gospel is actually a synopsis of the Christian life of prayer. It starts with Jesus coming to the well to find rest and then a Samaritan woman comes to draw water. This simple intro would be raising red flags all over the place of any Jewish listener. First, the event happening at a well evokes marital imagery, as every time a well is found in the Old Testament it is in connection with a man seeking a spouse. Except the Lord comes to wait not for an earthly bride, but for one to bring with Him to the heavenly marriage feast of Heaven. He’s looking to save her soul, thirsting for it. And so he says, “Give me a drink.” The fact that Jesus was there was bad enough, but for Him to speak, that it too much! Think about it for a second. Who here goes out and cuts their yard at noon? Nobody. Why? It’s hot! Nobody in their right mind is going to go out to labor at midday unless there’s some specific reason. And we know her reason – she was sinner. She was an outcast; someone that the other ladies of the village wouldn’t have associated with, someone the others would have whispered about and treated cruelly. So to save herself the trouble, she goes at noon when nobody else is there because that what she thinks she deserves. She can’t live a normal life anymore. And there’s Jesus at the well. She thinks, ‘Oh, well He’s a Jew so it won’t matter.’ But then He speaks and with that she is in shock. First, she is a woman and he is a man. The two weren’t supposed to interact in public. Secondly, Jews and Samaritans don’t mingle or even use the same buckets. And yet He comes and asks for a drink. He tears down every wall that could be between the two of them, and many of us have more than just two. We separate ourselves from God because we’re ashamed of our past, we're afraid of our future, we’re not convinced we can do what He calls us to do today and so we set up walls. And Jesus comes over and again to tear them down to meet us. Rather than flee, she decides to stay. There’s something about this Jesus that settles her despite all of the social rules she’s breaking right in public. She is open to the encounter of prayer.

What follows is a dialogue that includes many things we’ve likely experienced personally. The opening point is that it is a dialogue. All of us are guilty, I’m sure, of giving monologues to God where we tell Him everything and then politely dismiss ourselves before God can get a word in edgewise. We’re called to speak and to listen. The first thing that the woman experiences after deciding to stay in this encounter of prayer is misunderstanding and confusion. She’s at a well and Jesus is talking about living water and she wants it but has no clue how He’s gonna get it because He doesn’t even have a bucket (maybe the heat got to His head?). And she asks for the living water He gives thinking that she’ll never thirst again and won’t have to come to the physical well anymore, but she is missing the whole point. Jesus is speaking and she can’t make sense of it. How many of us have decided in good faith to pick up the Bible and we do so only to find that we can’t understand a single thing happening? So we get frustrated because now we need to go find another book to explain the first book. Or how many times have we gone to pray about something – we need to know which choice to make in a tough decision, or we are looking for some guidance, peace or consolation from God – and we go pray only to realize that nothing is any clearer when we walk away? Misunderstanding. Confusion. If you’ve ever been in that place, it’s okay. But don’t let it be the reason you quit prayer. The woman, too, decides to continue the conversation despite not knowing really what is happening and so she comes to a new experience. Jesus says to her, “Go get your husband and bring him back with you.” She quietly replies, “I don’t have a husband.” You can imagine the knowing-look as he says, ‘I know’ and proceeds to tell her about her whole life. Here Christ comes to the deepest place of shame and sin in her heart and wants to address that. And what does she do? What do all of us do? Change the topic. He comes close to that painful place and she becomes a great theologian and starts debating Jesus on which religion is the true and other such things. We too like to change course to some other aspect that’s easier to discuss, to some theological idea or something we’ve heard before that we want to reflect on further. But Jesus wants to heal that place where we need Him most. The woman again perseveres in prayer and the Lord continues to guide her on the path. Finally, she starts to come down again and speaks of this messiah that is to come and will tell everything. Here her life changes as the Lord looks her in the eyes and says, “I Am He.” I Am He. The Messiah, the one to reveal everything, the one who created you, will save you, and wants to fill you with peace. I Am He.

We arrive at this most powerful moment of the whole passage and what happens next? We now interrupt your program for this commercial break! This scene cuts away to Jesus talking about reaping the harvest, speaking of the souls to be won for eternal life. Meanwhile we’re on the edge of our seat waiting to hear the conclusion of things. And we return to the story to find that the woman has gone to the town, told everyone about the Messiah and brought a slew of people back with her. They came trusting in her word and then came to believe on their own because the Lord stayed two days talking with them. Jesus, the Jesus man, spends two whole days talking, eating, and praying with these people He isn’t even supposed to go near.

Brothers and sisters, Jesus is at the well in this very moment waiting for us to go to Him and to encounter Him again. There’s absolutely nothing that can keep us from Jesus Christ. It doesn’t matter where we’ve been, where we are right now, or where we’re going in the future - He’s already there waiting for us. Waiting to have the chance to ask us for a drink, to ask us to give Him our whole life to Him for eternity.

All of us start Lent with our penances and we have great aspirations of what is going to happen and hopes to have a good Lent. I doubt that I’m the only one who has given myself a free pass from time to time on these things. When Fr. Ed brought home a bunch of sweet the other day I reasoned myself into it. I mean, after all, it really was an act of charity since he had two whole cakes that I eat part of both of them so He wouldn’t have to have it go to waste. And a couple of the cookies too. And the brownies. And the fudge… So there I stood licking my fingers of the last few crumbs, frustrated that Lent wasn’t going as well as I had hoped. If you’re in a similar place, the good news is that we’re not even halfway through the season. We still have four full weeks before Easter comes and that is more than enough time for God to do incredible things in our lives.

So, I want to make a challenge to everyone in the Church today to encounter Jesus in these next four weeks and to do so in a specific way. Hopefully you all know about the Eucharistic Adoration Chapel at the Lutcher Chapel. In that chapel 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, every day of the year except the three days before Easter, the Lord Jesus is present in the Eucharist, exposed so that you can look upon His Body and Blood and in a sense speak to Him face to face about whatever is happening in your life. He is truly waiting for you to go visit. So that’s my challenge: for each of you here to spend at least 30 minutes in Adoration twice a week for the next four weeks. That’s only four hours out of a month. But here is a promise I can make: there is not a single person here today that can go and spend 30 minutes twice a week in Adoration and really seek the Lord in prayer who would be able to look me in the eye on Easter Sunday and say that nothing has changed in their life. If we spend time with Christ in prayer, we’ll be confused sometimes, we’ll be challenged to repent of sins, we’ll sidestep the Lord here and there, but in the end we will encounter the God who was waiting for us the whole time. So I ask you, How’s your prayer life?

Photo by Jeff Geerling