On the third, fourth and fifth Sundays of Lent the church celebrates three scrutinies with catechumens who are preparing to receive the sacraments of initiation at Easter. The purpose of the scrutinies is to help the catechumens progress in their understanding of sin and desire for salvation. As we assist catechumens to do this, we also deepen our own understanding of sin and desire for salvation. The readings for the third Sunday of Lent emphasize that when we realize our need for salvation, God will save us.
This is clearest in the reading from the letter of St. Paul to the Romans. Paul emphasizes that Christ died for us while we were still powerless, not after we had become virtuous. This is what proves God's love for us: “that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” As a consequence of this we now have peace with God and “the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” We need the Holy Spirit to sustain us spiritually, just as we need water to sustain us physically. Through Jesus, God gave us the Spirit when we were dying of thirst.
The reading from the book of Exodus tells of an incident that occurred as the people of Israel were traveling through the desert. Under the leadership of Moses they had escaped from slavery in Egypt and were traveling toward the promised land. Despite what God had already done for them, when they became thirsty, the people grumbled against Moses and against God. They asked why Moses had made them leave Egypt and doubted that God was really in their midst. Nevertheless, God rescued them from their thirst. He directed Moses to strike a rock with his staff. When Moses did so, water flowed from the rock for the people to drink. God repeatedly rescues us from sin, even when we show ourselves ungrateful.
The reading from the gospel according to John tells the story of Jesus’ encounter with a Samaritan woman. Jesus was sitting at Jacob’s well when the Samaritan woman came to draw water. In the course of his conversation with her, Jesus said that if she knew who he was, she would ask him for a drink and he would give her living water. The woman asked Jesus how he could give her living water, thinking that he meant flowing water. Jesus explained that by living water he meant water that would become a spring within a person, “welling up to eternal life,” i.e., the Holy Spirit (see John 7:37-39).
The woman then asked Jesus to give her this water so that she would not need to draw water from the well every day. She was acutely aware of her need for water to sustain physical life, but not yet aware of her sinfulness and consequent need for the Holy Spirit to sustain spiritual life. So Jesus told her that she had had five husbands and that the man she was living with now was not her husband. With a deepened awareness of her need for living water, she asked Jesus about whether Jews or Samaritans were right about the proper place to worship God and then said, “I know that the Messiah is coming.” Jesus replied, “I am he, the one speaking with you.” The woman then went to tell the people of her town about Jesus. They asked Jesus to stay with them, and many believed that he was the savior of the world.
Before we can accept the offer of salvation through faith in Jesus, we must become aware of our need for that salvation. And when we accept salvation, we become aware of God’s love for us in offering it to us even though we do not deserve it in any way.