In cathedral churches throughout the world on the First Sunday of Lent those seeking Baptism gathered for the Rite of Election. They were welcomed by their bishops and assured that we, as members of the parishes into which they are to be baptised, will accompany them on their journey to Baptism at the Easter Vigil.
The readings today, describing the water from the rock that sustained Moses and his people through the wilderness, followed by John’s account of Jesus with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, are intended as a reflection on the meaning of baptism.
The thirst of God’s people in an arid wilderness was hardly surprising. What was surprising, in the light of the love that had set them free, was their reaction to this thirst. “Tormented by thirst, the people complained against Moses. ‘Why did you bring us out of Egypt? Was it so that I should die of thirst, my children too, and my cattle?’ ”
Thirst, rather than bringing the people back to a renewed trust in God, initially led to rebellion. The people grumbled and complained to Moses. This was hardly the reaction of a trusting and grateful people. Only when Moses had interceded with their Lord and had struck the rock with its life-giving water did the people relent.
Future generations would learn from this thirst in the wilderness. It would be remembered both for the grace that had given a people water to drink, and as a warning for rebellious hearts that had rejected a gracious God. “O that today you would listen to his voice! Harden not your hearts as at Meribah, as on that day Massah in the desert, when your fathers put me to the test: when they tried me, though they saw my work.”
Throughout the scriptures physical thirst came to symbolise a deeper and universal thirst for life and its fullness. The psalmist beautifully described such a longing in a prayer of “longing for God as a deer longs for running streams”. It is a thirst that should bring us into the presence of God.
Lent is a kind of wilderness that bids us to consider both our neediness, and the manner in which we satisfy that need. Like the Israelites of old, we sometimes grumble and turn to every passing satisfaction, forgetting the God who gave himself as living water for his people in their wilderness.
The encounter of Jesus with the Samaritan woman at the well continues this reflection. As sinners, we, like the Samaritan woman, are in some sense outsiders. Despite past sin, Jesus engages us, as he engaged the woman, in a conversation about our deepest need. Jesus quickly moved on from a simple request for water: “Whoever drinks this water will get thirsty again; but anyone who drinks the water that I shall give will never be thirsty again: the water that I shall give will turn into a spring inside him, welling up to eternal life.”
At times we live restless lives, hardly knowing what will satisfy and quench our nameless longing. With the Samaritan woman, and many from her town, let us turn to Christ, who in Baptism became our living spring of life. “We have heard him ourselves and we know that he really is the Saviour of the world.”