Sinners at the well


Driving around a nearby city one day, I passed a non-denominational church called The Church of Recovery. It conjured up the image of the “Church as field hospital” that Pope Francis held up as the model of the New Evangelization. 

Not far away from this church is a Catholic parish that was once filled with an ethnic group that no longer lives in the city. The remnants of this community cling to the old ways and insist that the parish must not change, despite the few who attend on the weekend to worship in the native tongue of the old country. 

Low-income housing surrounds the church, but there is no outreach to the poor. The basement of the church is the gathering place for three different 12-step recovery programs; yet none of the recovering ventures upstairs to join the community. The upstairs community is locked in an imaginary church of grace-filled saints while the folks downstairs linger until they reach the worthy step. Both communities need to adjust their concept of Church.

Imagine how filled to capacity our churches would be if we truly believed that we are a field hospital for recovering sinners. Our greatest obstacle to achieving this goal is our misguided understanding of the necessity of sin, or as the Exultet sings,  “O happy fault; O necessary sin of Adam which gained for us so glorious a Redeemer.” 

The Christian faith is filled with paradox: die to self to gain eternal life; love your enemy. The greatest of these paradoxes is that the path to Salvation is gained by recognizing our sinfulness, not our goodness. This is the crux of the kerygma, the Good News that Jesus came to save us. We were made to be in union with God, but we broke our relationship with God because of our sin. Jesus came to be with us, show us the path back to God, gather up our sins and nail them to the cross.

The problem with our Salvation is that we aren’t always aware of the need for it. We can look upon the other and see their need, or we hear of the dramatic conversion of the notorious sinner and think, “How nice that Jesus finally rescued him.” 

We hear the account this weekend of the Samaritan woman at the well. Theologians and scholars have parsed this Scripture to pieces, finding symbolism and greater meaning beyond the obvious. They presume that the woman was alone at noontime because she was a sinful outcast, but Jesus’ call to this woman is not the warm, compassionate rescue of the sick, blind and marginalized. “Give me a drink” sounds challenging! The woman is bold and her response to Jesus is equally challenging. “How can you, a Jew, ask me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?” 

This is not a person who feels the need for Salvation, yet Jesus offers it to her anyway. He gives the woman insight into her life, and where to find her sinfulness. The result is as dramatic a conversion as any healed leper or blind man could have displayed.

Sin is not a laundry list of broken Commandments, or just some philosophical labels like original, venial, or mortal. Sin is always personal, and shapes who we are, and how we are saved. The further along we travel on our journey with God, the more complex sin becomes. We start seeing sin in all of its disguises, from societal to the personal; sins of commission and omission; sins that lock us into a revolving door of doubt and unworthiness. Sin is all of the worries and anxieties that stay deep within our psyche and eats away our hope. With this understanding of sin we can see more clearly how much we have in common with everyone around us. Our need for Salvation is shared with the people next to us and the people sitting in those basement groups. 

Ronald Rolheiser explains in “The Holy Longing” that “To go to church is to seek the therapy of a public life and to be part of that therapy for others. We go to church so that other people might help us carry what is unhealthy inside of us.” If we pay close attention to the words of our Liturgy each weekend, there is little doubt that we sinners are meant to be there. The Penitential Act reminds us that Jesus came to call sinners, and as we look around us we must recognize that this refers to us, not them. Whether we are the blind, the leper, the tax collector or the woman at the well, if we respond to the invitation for Salvation with full knowledge of our sinfulness, we will be empowered to be spreaders of the Good News.

Anchor columnist Claire McManus is the director of the Diocesan Office of Faith Formation. 

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