5th Sunday in Lent (C)
Stone, Bird, Water
Stone, Bird, Water
Dearsisters and brothers, have you ever played rock, paper, scissors? It’s a simple game usually played by two kids on a playground. Each person sticks out a hand in one of three possible shapes. A clenched fist is a rock. Two fingers represent a pair of scissors. And an open palm is paper. The rock crushes the scissors. The scissors cut the paper. And the paper wraps up the stone. Where I come from there’s also a slightly different version of this game. Over there, although the clenched fist represents a stone, the open palm is water. And bringing the tips of your fingers together, like this, represents a bird. The stone crushes the bird. The bird drinks the water. And the water sinks the stone.
Stone, bird and water. Sisters and brothers, if you had a choice, which of these would you like to be? I know this probably sounds like a strange and even silly question, right? Even if some of us may have played this game before, probably few if any of us here will have played it recently, at least not the grownups among us. This is, after all, a game for children. But isn’t it true that even if grownups may not play this game with their hands or at the playground anymore, we all still play it in different ways and in different places? Don’t we see, for example, this game being played in the scripture readings that we heard proclaimed just now?
In the first reading, the people of Israel have been exiled for long years in Babylon. Like a fragile little bird, they have been crushed under the powerful stone of their Babylonian oppressors. But in the midst of their misery and oppression, God speaks to them a word of hope. God makes them a promise of mercy. God reminds them of how, so many years ago, God had rescued their ancestors from the powerful stone of the Egyptian army. God reminds them, not only of how God had made the mighty Egyptians sink in the waters of the Red Sea, but also of how God had put water in the desert and rivers in the wasteland for God's chosen people to drink. Not only did the water of God sink the stone of the Egyptian army, but it also gave life to the poor oppressed bird that was the people of Israel. And God promises that all these things done in the past will be repeated in the present and in the future. See, God says, I am doing something new! The people will no longer have any reason to drink from other stagnant and contaminated sources of water, no reason to rely on pagan idols and foreign gods. The One True God who rescued their ancestors from Egypt promises to once again sink the stone of oppression and to provide living water for the poor defenseless bird to drink.
And, in the gospel, we see the ultimate fulfillment of this great promise in the person and ministry of Jesus. The stones are not too difficult to spot in this story. We find them in the hands of the scribes and the Pharisees, who threaten to stone the poor woman whom they had caught in the act of committing adultery. But even crueler and more dangerous than the stones in their hands are the ones in their chests, the hardness of their hearts. We see this hardness in their willingness to treat the woman as nothing more than a tool with which to trap Jesus. There is no attempt to consider her particular circumstances, to find possible reasons to show mercy. It takes more than one person to commit adultery, for example. Where, we may wonder, is the other party? We see this hardness also in the way they forget their own sinful condition in the sight of God, eagerly claiming for themselves the roles of judge, jury and executioner. Adultery is usually committed in secret. How, we may wonder, did they catch the woman in the act?
Before this horrifying hardness of heart, the sinful woman can only remain silent. Like a poor defenseless bird, she can do nothing to save herself. She knows her own guilt before the Law. There is little she can do except to lie in the dust and wait for the stones to crush her. And perhaps even before they fall, she has already experienced the crushing weight of her own conscience. Watching her, we can almost taste the sand in her mouth, and feel the despair in her heart.
Into this parched and pitiful scene, Jesus enters like a life-giving stream of sparkling clear water. Speaking first to the scribes and the Pharisees, Jesus sinks the stone of their cruel hearts in the powerful waters of God’s wisdom and love. Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her. Now it is the accusers' turn to be silenced. And after they have all quietly slunk away, Jesus speaks to the woman. There is no longer any need for her to search for corrupted sources of water. Jesus lets her drink from God’s mercy and compassion. Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more. As in the past, so too now in Christ, God is doing something new. Once again, the stone is sunk and the poor defenseless bird is rescued and given the water of life to drink.
Isn’t this why St. Paul can write as he does in the second reading? As you know, Paul too had been a proud Pharisee. He too had known and kept every detail of the Law. He too had persecuted those he considered to be sinners. And then, like the woman caught committing adultery, he had an experience of God’s mercy in the Crucified and Risen Christ. His stony heart sank in the love of God, even as he was given to drink from the waters of God’s mercy. And he now considers all the things that he formerly took pride in, the things that hardened his heart like a stone, as junk, as things to be thrown away. I consider them so much rubbish, he says, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having any righteousness of my own based on the law but that which comes through faith in Christ. Paul no longer wants to be a stone. He is no longer trying to save himself. He is quite happy to be a bird, to allow God to save him, to drink from the mercy of God in the water and blood that flows from the side of the Crucified and Risen Christ. And having drunk deeply of this life-giving stream, Paul spends the rest of his life flying from one place to another, leading others to Christ.
Sisters and brothers, isn’t this also what we have been trying to do especially in this great season of Lent. In undertaking our Lenten discipline of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, we have not been trying to become strong and hard. We have not been trying to save ourselves. Instead, we have been trying to remember that, in the sight of God, we are all weak and defenseless little birds. We have been humbling ourselves, so that God might lift us up. We have been turning away from contaminated sources of water, so that we might once again experience God giving us to drink from the cool clear waters of God’s love for us in Christ, and so that we can then lead others to drink from them as well. For it is in these same waters that we were all baptized as Christians. It is also these same waters that we will have sprinkled upon us at the Easter liturgy, when we will all recall and renew our baptismal promises. It is also in these same waters that God continues to do something new among us today, in our lives and in our world. It is in them that God continues to rescue the bird and to sink the stone.
Water, stone or bird. Sisters and brothers, in the game of life, which of these are we trying to be today?