As we were saying on Ash Wednesday, Lent, besides being for all the faithful a time of preparation for Easter, is also the last stage of the catechumens’ preparation for Baptism: for them, it is a “period of purification and enlightenment.” In the three central Sundays of Lent the so-called “scrutinies,” with their respective exorcisms, are celebrated. These scrutinies are accompanied by a catechesis on Baptism, done through the reading of three passages from the gospel of John. By means of these selections, Baptism is progressively presented as a kind of purification (today), and as an instrument of enlightenment and rebirth (on next Sundays).
In today’s liturgy, the most important element is water. We encounter it, directly, in the first reading and the gospel; indirectly, in the responsorial psalm (which makes reference to the incident of Massah and Meribah) and in the second reading (where the image of “pouring” is applied to the Holy Spirit who has been given to us).
Well, water can be used for two purposes: to wash and to drink; to clean dirt and to quench thirst. Water is the matter of Baptism. The reason is clear: Baptism (which literally means “immersion,” “washing”) serves to cleanse us from sin. It was not Jesus to discover the symbolism of water: before him, John the Baptist had already baptized at the Jordan “for the forgiveness of sins.” On the other hand, purification rites through immersion into water can be easily found in many other religions.
But it is not this the feature highlighted by today’s liturgy. The readings we have just heard do not speak of dirt to be removed, but of thirst to be quenched. The book of Exodus tells us of the thirst of the Israelites in the desert. On that occasion, God slaked their thirst giving them water from the rock. In the gospel, it is Jesus himself to be thirsty. It is no wonder that Jesus experiences thirst: he was a man, “like us in all things but sin.” But, of course, the evangelist’s concern is not to inform us about Jesus’ human needs. In him even thirst can become an opportunity for salvation. When the Samaritan woman expresses her surprise for the request, Jesus replies: “If you knew the gift of God and who is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink’ (Da mihi bibere), you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” Maybe this is the most important verse in today’s long gospel. Let us linger for a while on these words. Jesus invites the woman to discover his real identity, which will happen little by little: thanks to her talk with Jesus, in the end she will recognize in him the Messiah, and, through her, the Samaritans will acknowledge him as the Savior of the world.
Faith—that is, the recognition of Jesus as the Messiah—is the condition for finding in him the only one who can quench our thirst for “living water.” The gospel plays on the ambiguity of this phrase: for the ancients, it was essential the distinction between “dead water” (like that stagnant in a cistern) and “living water” (like that gushing forth from a spring or that flowing in a river). But Jesus is speaking of another kind of living water: “Whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst; the water I shall give will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” In the gospel of John, whenever Jesus speaks of water, he is referring to the Holy Spirit. On the last day of the feast of Tabernacles, Jesus stood up and exclaimed: “Let anyone who thirst come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture says: ‘Rivers of living water will flow from within him.’” And the evangelist annotates: “He said this in reference to the Spirit that those who came to believe in him were to receive” (Jn 7:37-39).
That is why Saint Paul, in the second reading, tells us that “the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” According to Paul, the rock from which water had flowed out in the desert was Christ (1Cor 10:4). And John, in his gospel, tells us that, when Jesus died on the cross, “handed over the Spirit” (Jn 19:30) and, after his death, one of the soldiers “thrust his lance into his side, and immediately blood and water flowed out” (Jn 19:34).
It is exactly what happens in Baptism: immersed into the death of Christ, we can drink from his side the living water of the Holy Spirit.