I love the bit in the Gospel today (John 4:5-42) when Jesus offers the woman at the well “living water”, and she replies, rather sharply, that he has no bucket and the well is deep! Such a practical down to earth lady who, like many other people who meet Jesus, has to be taught to look deeper into the things he says and does.
Sometimes, we priests face a similar uphill task when we meet people coming to a Baptism for example, who see it as no more than a pretty ceremony of blessing and have no idea of the immense power that is being made present. It’s the same when we come to the great Easter Vigil. We come to that great moment when, holding our lighted candles, we renew our Baptismal Vows, and then the priest sprinkles us all with the newly blessed Holy Water. Well, I mustn’t be unfair, I suppose we do have more of an idea than visitors for a baby’s Baptism, but not as much of an idea as we should.
Jesus says that “the water that I shall give will turn into a spring … welling up to eternal life.” Yet how often do we take the Holy Water as we come into Church without realizing the full implications of what we are receiving. I’m watching the TV on “The Wonders of the Universe” at the moment, and it’s made me think that all this is like us looking up at the moon and the stars and thinking how pretty they look without giving a thought to the amazing and infinite complexity of what is out there. And even if we do think about that, there is no way we can really understand or appreciate what we are looking at.
Now if this is what the created Universe is like, think what God the Creator, the power underlying the Universe must be like. Or rather think how impossible it is really to think about this at all! Yet, as St Paul says in our 2nd reading (Romans 5:1-8) this God, who is way beyond our understanding, has chosen to pour his love, his very presence into us by the Holy Spirit. And the words “pour his love” are significant here, because it links with the idea that we’ve just met, that God is living water. Then, as we remember that when we drink ordinary water, it enters into us and becomes part of us ; we can begin to realize why Jesus, and his Church, use water not just a sign of God, but as one of the ways in which God is actually made present for us and within us.
It is, of course, the same for all the great ceremonies that we experience in Church – not just the waters of Baptism. This is why we call these great outward signs Sacraments, because they are not just signs but the actual way in which God comes to us. But we mustn’t limit this just to the 7 Sacraments, because God also comes to us through the Bible, and also through the words we use at all these great ceremonies.
Ordinary words, just like ordinary water, enter deep within us, which is why we can be so moved and also so upset by what people say to us. The words at Mass however have an even deeper significance. Here too, we sometimes fail to realize the depth of what we are saying, or what is being said on our behalf by the priest. We can help ourselves here first by trying to remember to whom we are saying the words – what we call “praying the Mass”, and secondly by recognizing that all words are deeper than their surface meaning, and for words said to God or about God this is infinitely more the case.
This September all of us who go to Mass in English are going to have an opportunity to do something about this. This is because we’re all going to have to start using a revised translation of the Mass. Those of you who are used to Mass in another language may have noticed that the English texts often stray quite far from the words you say in French or Italian for example. The new English translation will put this right, but it will be a big challenge for all of us who attend Mass in English, most of all for us priests, as we find that familiar words, that we could say almost without thinking, have been changed. If you want to know more about this, a Booklet is available.
This will be hard, but the point I am making, is that we must use it positively to enhance our awareness of the depth of the words we are saying rather than getting irritated by little changes on the surface. The words, like the living water, are much deeper than they seem, for in and through them we are meeting with the immense eternity that is God. Remember the people of Israel complaining and grumbling in the desert? Moses almost gave up on them! But then, guided by God, he struck the rock and water flowed. May we always look for God’s presence in the challenges of life, rather than moaning when things get hard.