One of the more overlooked mysteries of the faith, is probably the mystery of faith.
Faith is not encompassed in believing something to be true. Faith doesn’t come 100% from us, nor is it 100% from God. Faith is more than assent to a given truth, more than a gift from God, more than an act of the will. No, faith is the intersection of each of those components, and then some.
Faith is the vehicle in which discipleship travels and the motor that makes it go; it is the structure that protects us from trials, challenges and difficulties that seem to oppose our growing in Christ. Moreover, like the woman at the well, faith is the response of someone cornered by the reality not just that God is, but that God knows and loves us in spite of our faults, or the flawed story we weave in our own lives.
I will return to the phrase, “in spite of” later, but first, we’ll spend more time on this most fascinating conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman.
Note that Jesus, the first and greatest evangelist of God’s love, doesn’t open with “truth bombs.” Instead, he prepares her for faith, inviting her to know the acceptance of God by piquing her interest in a better life.
He may as well have been asking, “so how’s this ‘going to the well’ thing working out for you?” However, Jesus reassures her that life, like a never-drying spring, is possible — perhaps not what she came to the well to get, but she’s excited at the prospect. Only then does Jesus aim directly for the truth of her life: “Jesus said to her, ‘Go call your husband and come back.’ The woman answered and said to him, ‘I have no husband.’” (John 4:16-17a)
The Lord shows that his authority over matters of the heart is greater than his authority on aquifers and waterways, by telling her the deepest hurts of her own life. Thereafter, her tone is entirely different, and she walks step by step closer to a discipleship that inspires others to believe in Jesus, as she does — indeed just as she does — through experiencing him firsthand. (John 4:42)
Let us focus on this process of a life-changing faith, a faith that begins with grace moving to prepare us for some something better, to our choice to trust God personally and authentically, to the boundless grace that flows from the heart of God into the paths of our life.
It is certain that no two of us come to the same level of faith at the same time or in the same manner. God has written in every heart a curriculum by which our hearts are softened toward him, so as to realize just who He is and what that reality means. This first step, for many, could well take a lifetime.
The second step generally involves the realization of our sinful failings. And rather than responding with an inward-turning shame, we must respond with an appropriate shame that is self-emptying before the Lord. I won’t mince words. This is supremely difficult, for we are so very prideful and fancy ourselves quite sufficient. This process is continual and it does not end. I know I will never have finished putting aside my embarrassment at my manifold sins in favor of the all-consuming love of God.
This is where the reality of God’s love “in spite of” our sins becomes central. Not in the modern sense of merely overcoming an obstacle, God’s love is literally in spite of our sins. It is love that defiantly severs us from our sins, as though God held malice for these things that keep us apart from him (and in a manner of speaking, he does).
As we grow in living relationship with the Lord, his love shapes our acts, leading us willingly to forsake the vain pursuits that are but counterfeits of his abundance, finding new glories we would never have known, even in the mundane, apart from him.
I refer to my “conversion” (or “reversion” as it is sometimes called when a cradle Catholic really comes alive in the faith) as having hinged on one moment twenty years ago, the first moment in my life that I “met God.” I knew in that moment that I would not experience that comprehensive acceptance or fierceness of love anywhere else or from anyone else.
Since then, my own discipleship has given me a life I could not have fashioned for myself, and taken me places I would likely never have travelled (like Minnesota, perhaps) had the Lord not led the way. I am more excited than ever to echo the message of the Samaritan woman, “Come see (the One) who told me everything I have done,” — and rather than shrink from this reality, seek the grace that comes through forgiveness and leads the way everyday hence. This Lent, he is preparing our parish for living water such as we never knew we needed. I hope you’re as thirsty as I am.