Good evening. I’m Deacon Jeffrey Moore, and I am a recovering moralist. What that means is that I am constantly tempted, like so many Americans, to believe that the entire point of religion is to make me a good person; that the moral teachings of the Church are the most important teachings of the Church; that people exploring Catholicism need to work on their moral lives first.
I have probably been a moralist all my life, but it got really bad about halfway through high school, when I started reading apologetics books and realizing how few of us really lived up to the moral teachings of the Church. Even in College, when I discovered the term discipleship, I still though discipleship meant “living out the moral teachings of the Church”. I only entered recovery once I hit seminary.
But I’m still tempted. Sometimes, when someone comes to me with objections about birth control or abortion or same-sex marriage or whatever, I want to discuss the moral issues first, to debate until we are sick of each other. But I know that I should not! I know better! I know better than to be a moralist.
If any of you are recovering moralists, too, or if you deal with the trauma of having a recovering moralist in your life, I think it might be good for us to look at this beautiful, rich Gospel together. Let’s look at how Jesus himself approaches the faith.
By the end of the Gospel, the Samaritan woman is telling all of the townspeople about Jesus, and they are coming to speak with him, and they begin to believe in him, too. This is the point of faith: to become a disciple of Jesus, which means to love Jesus so much that you will choose him over anything; to love Jesus so much that you want other people to love him, too. That’s where we are headed. But how does Jesus get there?
Notice that he does not start with morals. He starts by showing up, in a place no one expected him to be. (Jews generally avoided Samaritan towns.) He starts by asking for a drink of water from a person he is not even supposed to talk to, and she’s a woman! This is the first stage of good Christian evangelization: going outside of yourself. Being with people who might feel unloved or abandoned. As I am sure you have heard before, no one goes to the wells at noon in Palestine, because that is the hottest part of the day. This woman was shunned by all her peers, and yet there Jesus is, a Jew, breaking a whole list of social expectations, just to speak with her. In her words
How can you, a Jew, ask me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?
Essentially, stage one was making her feel noticed, appreciated, even loved. Stage one was making her feel human, feel like she was part of society, for the first time in a long time.
Next, he capitalizes on her shock.
If you knew the gift of God and who is saying to you ‘Give me a drink’, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.
What?!? Okay, so Jesus uses her shock to say something really weird. But that is entirely on purpose. He is telling her that his love for her, the fact that he is speaking with her and making her feel human again, is not just because he is a nice guy. There is something deeper there that she needs to look for and be attentive to. This is the second stage of good Christian evangelization: pointing out that whatever holiness Christians display is not a fluke, or because we are super great people, but that it comes from a deeper source. If we go out of our way to make someone feel loved, at some point they are going to wonder why, and it is at that moment that we need to point them to something deeper than just ourselves. We need to point them to grace and Jesus Christ.
And how do people respond to this? The woman remains skeptical but interested. In her words,
Sir, you do not even have a bucket and the cistern is deep; where, then, can you get this living water?
That’s the skepticism. But she continues,
Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us this cistern and drank from it himself with his children and his flocks?
That’s the interest. Jesus is pointing her deeper, and she is wondering how deep it goes. How great is this Jesus?
Then Jesus doubles down, and tells her that, yes, he can provide living water and, yes, everyone who drinks of it will never thirst again. This is still the second stage, the pointing deeper. Jesus does not shy away from the strangeness of himself or his mission. He is fully committed to it, and his commitment overcomes her skepticism. We should do the same: Christianity is weird and difficult and beautiful and, if you will pardon the expression, we should never water it down. It is only attractive because it is strange. The woman responds by immediately asking for this living water.
And then Jesus asks about her husbands. Really, Jesus? I mean, dude, you were doing SO WELL. She was going to be a believer in no time flat, and BAM he drops the moral challenge. But, see, Jesus knows what he is doing. If he had led with the husbands, the woman would have walked away from him immediately. Instead, he first gives her a glimpse of himself, and how life-changing a relationship with him can be, so that when he does drop the moral challenge, she has a reason to think twice. She suddenly has a motivation to change, a motivation she did not have before. Notice, too, that Jesus does not avoid the moral question: he addresses it head-on. We think that maybe he could have made a disciple without touching the sticky, difficult moral issue, but clearly Jesus himself does not think that. He realizes that immoral actions are a barrier to true discipleship, and remember that the ultimately goal is discipleship. So when this woman was ready, and ONLY when this woman was ready, Jesus brings up the moral issue, because he knows that she will be able to love him far more completely, far more purely in the end if she reforms her life to be in accordance with God’s plan. This is the third stage of good Christian evangelization: reforming one’s life to and for Christ. Despite what every bone in my moralist body wants to tell me, the moral issues do not come first, and they do not come second. They can only be discussed and addressed after a person knows that Jesus loves them and that Jesus has something to offer them.
And notice that the woman does not run away at this point! How does she respond?
Sir, I can see that you are a prophet.
Remember, in the Bible a prophet is not one who sees the future. A prophet is one who calls people back to God. Deep in her heart, the woman knew she was not living as God would want her to live, and she was moved and thankful to be loved enough to be called to holiness. After Jesus frees her from the chains of sin, she is ready to accept him as the Messiah, and to spread his message to her entire town. This is the fourth stage of good Christian evangelization: discipleship. Giving your life entirely to Jesus, and it could only have happened because of the first three stages.
So what we have learned? Well, we have learned that most of us, and I am at the very top of this list, bring people to Jesus in all of the wrong ways, because we so often want to START with the moral questions, and this does not work! This is how we lose souls! Instead, Jesus shows us the way, in four stages, all of them loving: First: be with people, whoever they are, wherever they are at. Make them feel loved and welcomed. Second: point people deeper. Let them know that there is more to life, and that you can only make them feel loved because you yourself feel loved by Jesus Christ. Third (AND ONLY AFTER the first two have been completed): help people live a moral life, in accordance with God’s plan, so that they can full receive the graces of God. And finally, once all the other barriers have been removed: help people give their lives entirely to Jesus, who is the source of living water, and with whom we will never thirst again.