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PreachFebruary 26, 2024
Pexels/Rodolfo Clix

Deacon Steve Kramer says that the best formation he has ever received were the four summers he spent as a taxi and limo driver. “It really prepared me for pastoral counseling,” he says. “They sit, they open their heart and pretty much they figure out that they’ll never see you again. So they open up in a different way.”

Steve now serves as the director of homiletics at Sacred Heart Seminary and School of Theology in Hales Corner, Wisc., where he is an associate professor and also the director of recruitment.

The crash-course in listening skills gained from shuttling people around was key to his development as a preacher. “​​The only way that you can really be a good preacher is you have to know what’s going on in the lives of your parishioners,” he says. “You can’t talk in generalities.”

The crash-course in listening skills gained from shuttling people around was key to his development as a preacher.

On “Preach,” Steve delivers a homily for the Third Sunday of Lent, initiating the Scrutinies for catechumens in the O.C.I.A. process. Departing from the usual Year C readings, Year A Scriptures are employed, better suited for those preparing for Baptism at the Easter Vigil. The Scrutinies prompt catechumens to confront their sinfulness and embrace God’s merciful love through reflection, repentance and exorcism. (And no, exorcism does not involve any head-spinning like the 1973 film; this is meant to drive out any evil spirits so catechumens can be fully open to the mystery of God’s love.)

Exploring the theme of sin evident in the Scrutinies and the Gospel narrative of the woman at the well, Ricardo offers a cautionary note regarding preaching about sin: “There is a danger that it’s completely magnified to the extent that we lose a sense of God’s mercy and God’s love.”

Steve agrees, though he underscores the necessity of including both aspects. “The Samaritan woman at the well is our story,” he says. “Brothers and sisters today, as we come to the altar this morning, to be fed and nourished by the body and blood of Jesus Christ,” he adds, “we are all called to repentance so that we may fully embrace God’s love.”

Scripture Readings for the Third Sunday of Lent , Year A (The First Scrutiny)

First Reading: Ex 17:3-7
Responsorial Psalm: Ps 95:1-2, 6-7, 8-9
Second Reading: Rm 5:1-2, 5-8
Gospel: Jn 4:5-42

You can find the full text of the readings here.

Homily for the First Scrutiny, Year A, by Deacon Steve Kramer

Over the past six months, you’ve probably noticed that at the 10 o’clock mass, there are two people who are called up to the front of the church, right after the homily and before the Creed. And you might have asked yourself, who are these people and why are they leaving mass this early? They’re even escaping before the collection. Bill and Sue are catechumens, those who are under instruction, people who are discerning entry into the Catholic Church.

When they’re dismissed from mass, they go downstairs to what we call the Saints’ Room. And together with their sponsor and some other people from a team, they, what we call, “break open the Word of God.” That is, they spend some time reading, rereading, analyzing, praying, pondering the scriptures that they just heard, and how it affects their lives, especially their life of faith in Christ.

Now, Bill and Sue are preparing to receive all of what we call the initiation sacraments at Easter. They will be baptized, they’ll receive confirmation and holy communion at the Easter Vigil, all three sacraments in one evening. And today, right after I finish this homily, we’re going to celebrate a very special rite with them called a scrutiny. Kind of a strange word, but a scrutiny is a rite that has the specific spiritual purpose of self-searching and repentance. And these prayers, and these words that we’re going to share with them are going to be reinforced by an exorcism. So don’t get too carried away. ‘Cause once we hear the word exorcism, our minds tend to go to the 1973 movie, The Exorcist with the little girl’s head spinning around, spewing out all kinds of things. But like I say, if you’d like to go to the magic Google, you’ll see that the definition of an exorcism is the expulsion or attempted expulsion of an evil spirit from a personal place.

The Scrutinies for catechumens have the specific spiritual purpose of self-searching and repentance.

And throughout the Scriptures, you’ll see that Jesus healed many people by touch, by word, or command, and by exorcism. So this scrutiny is meant to uncover and to drive out anything that’s sinful in their hearts. It will also strengthen everything that’s strong and good. And the scrutiny is celebrated so that they are delivered from the power of Satan and the power of sin and given strength through Jesus Christ. So it’s important that all of us get a handle on the power and importance of the scrutinies. Scrutinies, plural; there are three of them. Today, on the third Sunday of Lent, and there are two more: one on the fourth and one on the fifth Sunday of the Lenten season. And each one of these special rites has a very specific passage from the Gospel of John to accompany it.

Today, we’re going to hear, or we just heard, really, the Samaritan woman at the well. Next week we’re going to hear the man born blind. And finally, on the fifth Sunday of Lent, we’ll hear the story of the raising of Lazarus. And each story allows Bill and Sue to examine their life with Christ, to see themselves in relation to the characters in the scripture, and to strengthen their resolve, to turn away from sin and to be baptized. Because to make that decision to be baptized, that’s a continuation of discernment: “Is this really where God is calling me?” So each week they resolve to be baptized, gets stronger and stronger. However, there’s more, sounds like one of those commercials on TV, right? Wait, there’s more.

And the more is that these stories touch each of our lives, each of our lives, the entire congregation. Because when we watch the two of them come forward and make this decision to move forward, to be baptized as adults, it makes us go into our own relationship with God. It makes us go deep to ask us to turn away from sin, to accept the gospel and the teachings of Christ. So we are challenged by these two people who have made such a clear-cut, conscious adult decision to follow Jesus.

We are challenged by these two people who have made such a clear-cut, conscious adult decision to follow Jesus.

Think back in your life: “Has there ever been a time where Jesus has made himself known to you specifically?” Maybe it was in the passage of scripture, sometimes you read something and it just, just kind of hit you. Maybe it was a homily. Perhaps Jesus revealed himself to the kind word of a friend or a family member, or sometimes even a perfect stranger. But the readings of the scrutinies do just this. Jesus engages people, opens their hearts, opens their minds, and allows them to see God’s active presence in the world, and therefore allow us to make changes to our lives.

When we listen to this passage about the Samaritan woman at the well, it brings to mind the image of a chance encounter. And I dare say that most of us have had this chance encounter sometime in our life. You meet somebody at the supermarket, standing online, and all of a sudden you engage in a conversation. Maybe it’s at the drugstore; you’re out taking your dog for a walk in the park and a conversation begins. Sometimes it’s just small talk. Other times, a complete stranger just opens up to us, or maybe we open up to them for some unknown reason. And it reminds me of the Hebrew word qara. Qara means to meet, to encounter, to happen. And today there’s an encounter.

There’s an encounter at Jacob’s Well, in Samaria. We’ve got Jesus, a Jew and an unnamed woman, a Samaritan, and they meet at noon. There are several obstacles to overcome for this meeting to occur.

There’s an encounter at Jacob’s Well, in Samaria, but there are several obstacles to overcome.

Number one, she’s a woman. Jesus is a man in our world today, at least in the Western world, that would never be a problem. But in first-century Palestine, the rabbis taught that a man was not to engage in conversation with a woman in the street, not in public, not even his own wife. Now, this is a meeting that takes place in a very public place—at a well where crowds of people gather.

Second obstacle, she’s a Samaritan. Jesus is a Jew. Jews and Samaritans are like oil and water. They just don’t mix well. Always separated. There’s a long history of tension, of hatred, of hostility between these two groups. For hundreds of years, both of their tribal histories, their cultures and their traditions, made it almost impossible to agree with anything that the other said or the other believed.

Number three, the encounter takes place at noon.This is the hottest part of the day. Jesus is exhausted from the trip. He’s thirsty, he’s hungry. His friends have gone into town for food and provisions, and they took all the equipment with them. He doesn’t even have a bucket to get any water. He’s stuck. He’s tired. He’s gotta wait for them to get back. Most likely, he’s not looking to engage in any major conversation with anybody, just looking to rest. The woman, she’s coming to the well, at the worst possible time of the day, high noon, it would be really difficult to draw water and carry it back home in the blazing heat. There’s a reason why she’s there at this point in time. Who would wanna be there at this point? Most likely she’s there because she doesn’t want to engage with others in the early morning or the early evening when it would be cooler. Perhaps she did not, or could not be part of those conversations with the fellow villagers.

Their tribal histories, cultures and traditions, made it almost impossible to agree with anything the other said or believed.

And what unfolds is this wonderful interchange whereby there’s this deepening intimacy between them. As Jesus talks, he brings to light who he truly is, the Christ, the Messiah. And as the woman speaks, there’s a movement to where she accepts who she is. Her life has been, well, let’s say colorful, to say the least. And while we don’t have all the exact details, her life has deeply affected the woman and all those in her village. But Jesus allows the woman to come to the realization that her life could be so much more. He takes her to a place in life that she never dreamed possible. A place of love and forgiveness and healing and compassion.

And this is part of the encounter that Bill and Sue have had during the year. They have sat with Jesus in prayer. They’ve listened to his Word. They’ve been open to change and repentance. And to be honest, I have been honored and privileged to have been part of this R.C.I.A. process for about 40 years now. I could share with you a lot of encounter stories. But there’s one of them that stands out for me, and that’s my friend Bob. This is quite a number of years ago, Bob came into my life. We met after a church function. I can’t tell you off the top of my head if it was a baptism or a wedding. We started chatting.

Bob was just a great guy. I kind of knew him peripherally through our business dealings. And he was a member of a small local church, but he was really intrigued with Catholic ritual traditions, and our understanding of scripture. Our conversation lasted probably for two years, just back and forth. Every time we’d meet for different things. And one day he said, you know, I really think I’d like to enter the Catholic church. Tell me more about this, this RCIA process. And he entered the church, and it was wonderful. The man, I’m telling you, he was like a living sponge. He soaked up everything he possibly could. And as he soaked up everything he possibly could, his life changed dramatically; his relationship with his wife, with his children, with his coworkers. This guy was on fire for the Lord, let me tell you.

This guy was on fire for the Lord, let me tell you.

And at his baptism that Easter, the man, he was just literally beaming when he was baptized. It was incredible. The following year, he became a sponsor, and then he walked the journey to the font with another man. I was just so impressed with how God had grasped Bob and really turned him into an ambassador for Christ, just like the woman at the well. What did she do when she found out who Jesus was? She didn’t just keep it to herself. She ran. She ran back. She had to tell everybody what was going on. And that’s how Bob was.

My hope and my dream was that in a couple of years, I was hoping that we could get him to come into the seminary for the diaconate, I thought he would be awesome. He was engaging people all the time and just bringing God’s light to others. One of these people, you’d meet somebody like this once in your life, but one day, his company asked him to accept a promotion. It was a really good thing for his career. And, he had to move down south to Virginia. And although he really didn’t wanna leave his community of faith, it was important for his career and, and for his family really to take this position. So we had a going away gathering for him. And then he moved.

And it wasn’t a year later that Bob fell ill, and his wife called and said that Bob had developed cancer. And it was very aggressive. Bob and I chatted several times as his illness progressed. He was always positive, but he wondered why at 38-years-old, his life would be cut short, especially now that he had found his new relationship with God. I traveled down to celebrate Bob’s life after his passing. And the local priest was just… what a super, super person he was warm and accommodating me too, had felt the love of God. And Bob, I preached and presided at the wake service. I preached at the funeral mass. And after each service, the Wake service and the funeral mass, at least 50 people at each place came to me. They stopped to talk, to tell me how, even though they had only known Bob for a short time, he had helped them change their lives.

He was always positive, but he wondered why at 38-years-old, his life would be cut short.

Bob was instrumental in helping people come to Jesus to return to Jesus or to get right with the Lord. This man was the king of encounter. He was unbelievable. God’s grace just flowed right out of him. It was incredible. Whomever he met, he connected to Christ. And ultimately, Bob’s story is our story; Bill and Sue’s story is our story; the Samaritan woman at the well is our story.

Brothers and sisters today, as we come to the altar this morning, to be fed and nourished by the body and blood of Jesus Christ. We recall the encounter at the well. And with patience and encouragement, the Samaritan woman was able to have this intimate conversation with Jesus and exchanged her life.

Allow yourselves to have that intimate conversation with Jesus. Let God change your life. He wants to do that. He’s open to that. He’s waiting for you to have that encounter. This Lent allow ourselves to be open to engage Jesus Christ. And sometimes it’s through others, but whatever it might be, we never know the plans that God has in store for us. Enjoy Lent and be open to the ride.

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