Part of the appeal of the Gospel of John are three lengthy, beautiful stories about people who encountered Jesus. These stories are so moving that they became part of the Church’s Lenten tradition very early on.
They were used, not only to teach catechumens who were preparing for Baptism, but to help everyone reaffirm their decision to live for Jesus. They are the story of the Samaritan woman (John 4:4-42), the story of the man born blind (John 9), and the story of the raising of Lazarus (John 11:1-44). They are also the Gospel readings we will hear on the third, fourth, and fifth Sundays of Lent this year.
There are so many lessons we can learn from these stories, so let’s narrow our focus to two important points: Jesus’ desire to reach out to us and the Holy Spirit’s ability to keep filling us with his grace.
A God Who Reaches Out. The story of the Samaritan woman and the story of the blind man are moving illustrations of the way that Jesus reaches out to people. He doesn’t always wait for people to come to him. He likes to take the initiative, especially when the timing is just right.
Everything in these stories points to them being chance encounters. Jesus just happened to be at that well when the woman came to draw water—at a time when most people would have already filled their water jars for the day. He was just taking a little rest when she came along. He could have said nothing to her. He could have just exchanged pleasantries. He could have walked away, since Jews and Samaritans had been enemies for years. But Jesus chose to evangelize her instead.
It appears that his encounter with the blind man was also by chance. Jesus was walking with his disciples along a route that must have been very familiar to them. He and his disciples were having a conversation, and when they passed the man, they asked him whether this fellow’s blindness was God’s punishment on himself or his parents. In response, Jesus reached out to the man and healed him. All this happened because of a question from the disciples, not because Jesus had planned to heal that man.
The third story, about the raising of Lazarus, was not really a chance encounter. It occurred because Martha and Mary, Lazarus’ sisters, sent a message asking Jesus to come and heal their ailing brother before he died. Still, it was up to Jesus whether he would change his plans and go visit them, and that’s exactly what he did. He chose to reach out to Martha, Mary, and Lazarus.
No One Is Excluded. These stories show us that Jesus reaches out to people who feel rejected and alone. No sin is so great that it turns him away. No one is a complete failure or a hopeless cause. There is always hope.
Anyone who feels embarrassed, ashamed, or defined by their sin needs to know that this is not how Jesus sees them. He sees all of us—including you—as beloved children of his Father. He sees you as a brother or sister whom he cherishes. No matter who you are or how you feel about yourself, Jesus is reaching out to you right now. He wants to share his love with you and tell you how much he values you.
Jesus also reaches out to people who, through no fault of their own, have been dealt a difficult hand in life and may feel rejected or marginalized because of it. Just as Jesus felt a special compassion for the blind man, he feels a special compassion for people who are in any kind of need. If you have a serious illness, Jesus is reaching out to you. If you are struggling with a disability, he is reaching out to you. If you are feeling alone and friendless, he is reaching out to you.
This is encouraging news! But we should be careful not to exclude anyone. The story of Lazarus shows that Jesus doesn’t reach out only to the guilt-ridden and the needy. He reaches out to everyone. Lazarus and his sisters were Jesus’ friends, not random strangers. They were already his disciples.
In one sense, they didn’t “need” Jesus’ help because they already believed. Martha knew that her brother would rise again. She had already begun to put her faith into action by trusting in God’s promise of a resurrection. If Jesus had not raised Lazarus, Martha would probably have adjusted in the same way that many of us adjust to the death of a loved one. After all, it’s a normal part of life. But Jesus wanted to help them anyway.
The same is true for you. Jesus feels for you just as he felt for Martha and Mary. He weeps with you when you suffer over the natural wounds of life. He rejoices with you over a job well done or a child’s success. He is always with you, ready to join in every aspect of your life. He loves to pour his grace on you, no matter how good or bad things are going. He just loves you.
The Wind in Our Sails. A second major theme in these stories focuses on Jesus’ desire to fill us with his blessings. It doesn’t matter if we are like the Samaritan woman or the blind man, neither of whom knew Jesus. Nor does it matter if we are like Lazarus, Martha, and Mary, who did believe. What does matter is that we believe that Jesus wants to give all of us a share in his grace, his love, and his power.
What does it mean to be filled? First and foremost, it is not a once-and-done experience. Jesus wants to fill us over and over again. At the beginning of his story, the blind man was “filled” with the gift of vision. But as the story continues, we see him being filled with increasing courage and faith. The Samaritan woman was also filled with more and more living water as she gradually came to believe in Jesus. And Martha was filled with deeper and deeper faith as she gradually came to believe that Jesus was the resurrection and the life.
Perhaps an analogy can help. When the Holy Sprit fills us, it’s like what happens when the wind fills the sails of a boat. The wind is always blowing. It’s always ready to move the boat closer to its destination. In a similar way, the wind of the Holy Spirit is always blowing. He is constantly pushing us toward God, toward making changes in the way we live, and toward loving the people around us. He doesn’t just fill us at our baptism and then leave us to figure things out on our own. No, he is always giving us his grace and his guidance.
Everyday Grace. One night, while watching a movie on television, Allan was touched by a scene that showed people rallying around one poor man who had just been robbed and beaten up. The care and concern shown for this fellow struck Allan’s heart, and he felt the Holy Spirit pushing him to join a group of parishioners who went into the poorer areas of his town and spent time with the people there. Today, ten years later, Allan still looks back on that movie with gratitude. He is convinced that the Holy Spirit used it to move him in a new direction.
Allan’s story shows how the Holy Spirit can use everyday events to fill us and direct us. Of course we believe that he works when we are in prayer, at Mass, or pondering Scripture. But the Spirit is not limited to those avenues of grace. Phone calls, conflicts at work, neighborly conversations, family sickness, and even a television show or a YouTube video can become sources of his blessing.
How can we tell if we are being filled with the Holy Spirit each day? By the fruit! Paraphrasing St. Paul we can say, “When the Holy Spirit’s wind is filling my sails, I will find myself becoming more loving, more peaceful, more patient, and more generous” (Galatians 5:22-25).
A Season of Grace. Take some time to ponder these stories this Lent. As you do, keep telling yourself that Jesus is always reaching out to you and to your whole family. If you have family members who have left the Church or neglected their faith, know that Jesus is reaching out to them and he wants to fill them.Whether you are feeling somewhat empty or things seem to be going well in your life, remember that the wind of the Spirit is constantly blowing. Ask him to show you how to adjust your sails. This is a season of grace, so don’t miss out!