One of my favourite preachers is a Catholic lay person from the Philippines. He’s popularly known as Brother Bo Sanchez or just ‘Bo’. I just liked his practical and simple ways of spreading the gospel or his ways of evangelizing and touching people’s hearts and souls. In one of his articles Bo shared his experience of an encounter with an atheist. He wrote: “One day, I was talking to an atheist. This young man told me, ‘Bo, I don’t believe in God.’ ‘That’s okay,’ I told him. ‘God still believes in you.’” (cf: http://bosanchez.ph/god-believes-in-you/).
I’m just struck by the optimism of Brother Bo to say: ‘That’s okay, God still believes in you.’ It struck me because this rings true to our readings on this 3rd Sunday of Lent especially in our gospel today.
In the first reading (Exodus 17:3-7), we heard of the Israelites complaining to Moses and in effect to God about the situation they’re in- thirsty and caught up in the desert. We know them as God’s chosen people, formed by God himself for himself, guided by him, provided by him, freed by him from the slavery in Egypt, and led by him through the desert. Yet, they still complained to God about their fate. They even wished they’d remained in Egypt. They even put God to the test.
If God thinks like me, he would have been put off by their ingratitude and murmurings. But NO, instead he still believed in them. No matter how much complaining they have done, God still believed in them by providing them with water from the rock (cf Ex 17:5).
In our second reading today, the same God who believes in us human beings has shown himself to St Paul. We know how Paul persecuted the Christian church, thus in effect persecuted Jesus himself. Paul preached against Jesus by condoning even the terrible act of persecution of Stephen, one of the early Christian converts (Acts 7:57-59). To show that He still believed in Paul’s goodness and capability and still loved him unconditionally, God initiated an encounter with Paul on the road to Damascus (cf Acts 9:1-ff). That encounter changed Paul forever. He underwent a complete turn in his life, from being a strong opponent of Christ to an extraordinary preacher and witness for Christ. We heard of the effect and the power of his personal encounter with Christ and this amazing love of God for him in his letter to the Romans, our second reading (Romans 5:1-2,5-8) today when he wrote: ‘[W]hat proves that God loves us is that Christ died for us while we were still sinners’ (cf Rom 5:8).
And Jesus in our gospel today (John 4:5-42) Jesus has emphasized this amazing face of our God who believes in us still no matter how sinful we are, how weak we are, and even if we don’t acknowledge him. ‘It is interesting how many times in the life of Jesus’ says Fr Patrick O’Sullivan SJ, ‘his meeting a woman- and quite often a rather shady one!- is the occasion for him to declare his message and reveal the face of a loving and compassionate God.’ (P. O’ Sullivan, SJ, Prayer and Relationships: Staying Connected- An Ignatian Perspective, p.64). And we can clearly see this in Jesus’ encounter with a Samaritan woman, an encounter which has broken two social rules and regulations. Jesus, a Jew, was talking to a Samaritan when Jews and Samaritans had some sort of unholy revulsions or repugnance against one another. The other rule Jesus broke was that He was talking to a woman in a public place. Yet, God in Jesus is willing to break all social barriers we put up just to create an opportunity of encounter with him (Incarnation).
It is an amazing thing to know that despite our shady life, our weak and sinful humanity, God still believes in us, takes the first move or the initiative to reach out to, creates opportunities for our renewal and even breaks or overcomes any human barrier just to touch our lives in a more real, personal and unique way. The more amazing thing about this is that this encounter with God does NOT only happen in the gospel or in the distant past. It’s actually happening and continually so, everyday around us.
The other day, at the multi-faith forum I went to, I had the privilege to listen to a person, an ex-atheist he proudly called himself, sharing with me his experience as atheist. He said he decided to be atheist for 20 years, during which he did many things he shouldn’t be doing. I asked him how did it feel like having no God. He said nothing much and it left me in a mess. I asked him how come he now believed there is God. He said: ‘I started meditation, and reflecting on my life. I realized God has always been there, sorting out the mess I have done, and keeping me alive.’ It’s just a beautiful example of how God still believes in us, works in us, and walks with us, even if we don’t believe his existence even.
However, for us who believe in God, we must not take our faith for granted. We must not be content by saying: ‘If God believes in me, then I can do everything I want (good or evil) because God still loves me anyway.’ No, this must not be the case for us, because God wants us all to be saved. He wants us all to enjoy eternal life. But if we deliberately choose death, then we’ll end up there if we don’t repent and come back to God. So instead, we need to direct our hearts to respond to God’s invitation for an encounter with him in our lives. In this way, we would know better which way is leading to salvation and life and which way leads to damnation and death. So we need to meet God halfway if we want to enjoy life with him forever. St Augustine puts this rather wisely when he said: “God who created you without you, will not save you without you.”
Perhaps we can learn from the Samaritan woman in the gospel. She responded to the encounter with God by listening to Jesus (sitting down with him- prayer), by opening herself to him (being true to herself or being honest to Jesus), by telling others of her encounter with the messiah (evangelization) and by bringing others to Jesus (come and see).
In this 3rd Sunday of Lent, we are reminded that God always creates opportunities for an encounter with him. It might be through personal issues we have to face, or people needing our help or assistance, someone needing a listening ear, or a quiet and peaceful moment alone. How are we responding to those opportunities? We have to remember always: God believes in us. And so are we to God.