Year A – 5th Sunday of Lent

A Modern-Day Lazarus

(Ezek.12-14; Rom.8:8-11; Jn.11:1-45)

‘No-one escapes being hurt,’ Henri Nouwen once wrote. ‘We are all wounded people, whether physically, emotionally, mentally or spiritually.[i]

Perhaps pain is the price we pay for being human.

Some years ago in Melbourne, I met a woman named Janine Shepherd. She had been an outstanding sportswoman, netballer and cross-country skier on the Australian Olympic team.

One afternoon in 1986, while bike-riding in the Blue Mountains, she was hit by a truck. She landed on the road so hard that her neck and back were broken, and the doctors didn’t think she’d survive.

But she did survive. In her book Defiant, Janine tells the story of how she survived this disaster, and how she put everything she had into healing her broken body and rebuilding her life. [ii]

For months she was wrapped in a plaster straitjacket and confined to bed. But she was determined to break free. Slowly, very slowly, she learned to walk again, and one day as she painfully shuffled around, she surprised everyone by saying she wanted to fly.

She wanted to get a pilot’s licence, despite the enormous challenges.

Janine’s situation reminds us of the Jewish people in our reading from Ezekiel today. Jerusalem and its Temple have been destroyed, and the people are totally miserable. But Ezekiel offers them hope. He tells them, ‘The Lord says this: I am now going to open your graves; I mean to open your graves, my people, and lead you back to the soil of Israel.’

Within a year, Janine did get her pilot’s licence. Six months after that, she became a flying instructor. But she didn’t stop there. She later became an aerobatics instructor, and then she got married.  

Since then, she’s had three children, she travels the world sharing her story, and she’s written several books. She even took up horse riding.

In her book Dare to Fly, Janine says that she might have gone to the Olympic Games to win medals, but what she’s doing now is far more important.

She knows her story has changed many people’s lives, and she says that every day she thanks God for this wonderful opportunity to give and for all the love she has reaped from it.

Janine Shepherd’s story is about death and new life. It wasn’t a physical death, but her old life was certainly dead. In her TEDx talk (viewed over 2 million times), she says that her disaster had set her free. [iii] 

In today’s Gospel, Lazarus is lying in his tomb, wrapped in bandages. It’s a scene very much like Janine’s, when she was confined to bed, wrapped in plaster and bandages.

Jesus says, ‘Untie him, let him go free,’ and Lazarus walks out, freed from death. Janine, too, was reborn. She cast off her bandages and plaster straitjacket and started a brand-new life.

Janine learnt an important lesson: that she was not her body. The real source of her strength came not from her body, but from her heart, her soul and her spirit. 

She learnt that her true strength never had anything to do with her body. True spiritual strength, she said, cannot be tied to anything that can be lost. Our strength comes from the intangible spirit that lives inside each of us. [iv]

In John 11:25, Jesus says to Martha, ‘I’m the resurrection and the life; whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.’ This is a remarkable offer to each one of us. Jesus is offering resurrection and new life to us all – not just in the next life, but right now. All we have to do is believe in him.  

If you look carefully, you’ll see that Jesus uses the word ‘believe’ six times in today’s Gospel. That’s what he wants from us. He wants us to seriously believe in him. And when we do that, we’ll begin to let go of all those things that bind and trap us, those things that stifle our spirit and hold us back.

Yes, as Henri Nouwen says, we have all been hurt in some way. But we don’t have to be imprisoned by our wounds. 

Just as Jesus says, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ so he says to you and me, ‘come out of your tomb; be freed from your bondage. Don’t live in the darkness, come into the light. Don’t be afraid, but believe in me.’

If we can believe in Jesus the way God wants us to, then we’ll all be like butterflies emerging from our cocoons, set free to begin again.

Just like Lazarus.

Just like Janine Shepherd.

And just like Jesus Christ himself.

[i] Nouwen, H. Bread for the Journey, London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1996, p.214. 

[ii] Janine Shepherd, Defiant.



Year A – 4th Sunday of Lent

Divine Spittle

(1Sam.16:1b,6-7,10-13a; Eph.5:8-14; Jn.9:1-41)

Jesus often heals people, but not always in the same way.

Sometimes he prays over them (Jn.11:41-42) or utters other words (Mt.9:6-7). At other times he touches them (Mt.8:15) or heals them from afar (Mk.7:29). And on at least three occasions he uses his saliva.

He heals a man who can’t hear or speak by putting his fingers in his ears, and placing a drop of saliva on his tongue (Mk.7:31-33). He also heals a blind man from Bethsaida by spitting on his eyes and touching them (Mk.8:22-26).

And in today’s Gospel, Jesus smears a muddy paste of spit and clay on a blind beggar’s eyes. And after washing it off in the Pool of Siloam, the man’s sight is restored.

Why does Jesus do this? After all, spitting was considered insulting back then (Deut.25:9), and even Jesus was hurt when someone spat on him (Mt.27:30).

Some have suggested that Jesus didn’t actually spit on these people; rather, he spat on their disease. So, they say it was a blessing, not an insult.

Others have argued that Jewish folk-medicine in those days believed that human spittle remedied eye trouble and other ailments.[i] Indeed, the Roman author Pliny the Elder (23-79AD) once wrote that spittle can heal certain skin diseases.[ii] The Talmud, a Jewish text from the time of Jesus, also mentions the healing power of saliva. (Interestingly, modern medicine does recognise that saliva has some therapeutic benefits.) [iii]

And sometimes, Jesus uses physical actions to symbolize spiritual truth. In the 2nd Century, St Irenaeus noticed that by mixing his holy spittle with clay, Jesus is mirroring his Father’s actions when he created Adam out of dust (Gen.2:7).

John Bergsma writes about this in his book Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls. (The Dead Sea Scrolls were ancient Jewish manuscripts discovered in the caves of Qumran between 1947 and 1956.) Bergsma says it’s no coincidence that at least four times these Scrolls describe man as ‘a vessel of clay’ kneaded from ‘dust’ and ‘spittle.’

The Scrolls also contain many ‘Hymns of Praise’ where the composer often refers to himself as ‘a vessel of clay,’ or ‘dust, spit and clay.’ Bergsma says that these images of dust, spit and clay clearly refer to the story of the creation of Adam in the Book of Genesis.

He also says that it was Jewish traditional belief that God made the clay for Adam’s body by spitting on the dust, and this tradition is reflected in all the passages of the Scrolls that speak of man as ‘mere spit.’

So, by spitting on the ground to make clay, Jesus is repeating the acts of his Father when he formed the first man. He is recreating this man who was born in darkness, into a ‘son of the light.’

Bergsma also says it’s significant that this man washes in water from the Pool of Siloam, because this isn’t just any old water. The Pool of Siloam received its waters from the Gihon Spring, which originally flowed from Eden (Gen.2:13). This, too, reinforces the theme of a new creation.

But the story doesn’t end there, because these images of flowing water and new birth all point to the sacrament of Baptism, for we are all like this man born blind. Because of the failures of our first parents, Adam and Eve, we were all born into the darkness of ‘original sin.’

We bear no guilt for this original sin, because as Jesus says in today’s Gospel, ‘neither this man nor his parents sinned.’ However, we did inherit from Adam and Eve the absence of the Holy Spirit from our lives, and this is what baptism repairs. It restores the ‘light’ and ‘life’ of the Holy Spirit to us.

St Paul says that ‘if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation’ (2Cor.5:17). Baptism, therefore, is a new kind of creation, and this is what we see in John’s Gospel today. Jesus re-creates the man born blind through dust, clay and spittle, and washing in water, and he emerges ‘enlightened’ because Jesus is the ‘light of the world.’ [iv]

By using his divine spittle in his healing ministry, Jesus demonstrates that he is not the distant figure some people think he is. Indeed, he is never remote from our brokenness and pain, because he’s constantly seeking a close, personal relationship with each of us.

Jesus wants us to become whole again, and while helping us he’s even prepared to get his hands dirty.

For touch is a sign of love, and Jesus is the touch of God.




[iv] John Bergsma, Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls, Image Books, NY. 2019:61-64.

Year A – 3rd Sunday of Lent

Our Hungry Hearts

(Ex.17:3-7; Rom.5:1-2,5-8; Jn.4:5-42)

In his popular song Hungry Heart, Bruce Springsteen sings:

Everybody needs a place to rest
Everybody wants to have a home
Don’t make no difference what nobody says
Ain’t nobody like to be alone. [i]

His message is that, deep down, we’re all hungering for something. Whether it’s for shelter or friendship or a sense of belonging, or even for some kind of change, our hearts are always hungry. There’s always something we want or need.

To some, this hunger might sound selfish, but the story of the Woman at the Well in John’s Gospel today tells us that God has designed us this way. He has deliberately placed hunger in our hearts for a purpose.

Jesus is at Jacob’s Well, in the Samaritan town of Sychar, 63 kilometres north of Jerusalem. There he meets a woman who the locals actively dislike because she’s had too many husbands. They think it’s scandalous.

However, she needs water, so she goes to the well at noon, at the hottest time of day when all is quiet. But Jesus is there, and he starts talking to her about water. He knows she’s struggling, and that she needs more than drinking water. ‘Whoever drinks of this water will get thirsty again,’ he says.

So, he offers her a new kind of water: the refreshing, life-giving water of the Holy Spirit. ‘Whoever drinks the water that I shall give, will never be thirsty again,’ he says.

What Jesus is saying is that this world can never satisfy what her (or our) heart desires. Indeed, we know this for ourselves: every time a desire is fulfilled – like our need for water, or a new outfit or a car – that sense of satisfaction never lasts. We’re always hungry for something else afterwards.

So, our hearts teach us that we have infinite needs that can only be satisfied by the infinite. When God created us, he gave us a natural hunger for himself, and that’s why we’re always seeking something more than whatever we have.

Ronald Rolheiser calls this hunger in our hearts a ‘holy longing’. It’s holy, because if we follow it, it will ultimately lead us to God.

This longing is a deep-seated desire to love God. And if we nurture that love, it will grow.

Just like artists practising their art, the more we practise loving, the better we’ll be at it. And the more we give ourselves to God, the more we’ll love him and the more we’ll feel at peace.

But Rolheiser says that before we can fill our hearts with this love, we need to create space for it by letting other things go. We’ll get nowhere if our hearts are already ‘full,’ he says. ‘It will be like trying to attach two inflated balloons to one another.’

In his song, Bruce Springsteen sings: Like a river that don’t know where it’s flowing, I took a wrong turn and I just kept going.

For many of us, this is how we live. We drift aimlessly through life, trying to satisfy one worldly hunger after another.

But in today’s story, the woman makes a decision: she accepts Jesus’ offer. ‘Give me some of that water,’ she says. Her physical thirst has helped her discover her spiritual emptiness, and it changes her life completely.

When she runs off to share the news, she leaves her water jug behind, just as the disciples left their nets behind to follow Jesus.

According to Eastern tradition, this woman was St Photina, the first evangelist in John’s Gospel. Her name means ‘the enlightened one.’ After meeting Jesus, she travelled far and wide, telling the story of how he saved her. [ii] She dedicated the rest of her life to encouraging others to drink Jesus’ living water.

In his commentary on this reading, St Augustine said that Jesus was thirsty for that woman’s faith. But he’s thirsting for our faith, too. So, this Lent, let’s ask Jesus for some of his refreshing, living water, which is always available to us in Baptism. And let’s really drink it in.

For as Joseph Krempa writes, ‘If we don’t take the call of Lent to heart, then we can be like someone who is thirsty and reads about water, listens to talks about water, sees beautiful banners about water, hangs pictures of water, collects books about water, sings songs about water, gathers with others to hear sermons about water, joins discussion groups about water, hears stories about those who have found water, until one day he or she dies of thirst.

What happened?

He or she never drank the water.’ [iii]

[i] Bruce Springsteen, Hungry Heart.


[iii] S Joseph Krempa, Captured Fire, St Pauls, New York, 2005:34.

Year A – 2nd Sunday in Lent

The Number Three

(Gen.12:1-4a; 2Tim.1:8b-10; Mt.17:1-9)

Some people love numbers; they’re fascinated by the patterns they find in them. So, today I’d like to talk about the number 3.

In ancient Greece, the philosopher Pythagoras (c.570 – 495 BC) taught that numbers have meaning and that 3 is the perfect number because it represents harmony, wisdom and understanding.

In the Hebrew language, numbers also have meaning, and this is reflected in the Bible which is full of numbers. Indeed, numbers are never used randomly in Scripture; they always mean something.

In Hebrew, the number 3 (shelosh [f.], sheloshah [m.]) represents harmony, completeness and new life, [i] and it appears in the Bible almost 500 times. When it does, this number typically represents something that’s solid, real and substantial, and it points to something important, such as God’s plan for our salvation. [ii]

Consider these examples from the Old Testament. On the third day of Creation, God made the dry land and it began producing fruit. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were the three fathers of Israel. Noah had three sons. Three strangers visited Abraham, and Jonah was freed after three days inside the belly of a whale.

The three strangers in Rublev’s Trinity, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

In the New Testament, the Holy Family has three members. The Wise Men bring three gifts. Mary stays with Elizabeth for three months. Jesus is lost for three days at the age of twelve. He is tempted three times in the desert. His public ministry lasts for three years. Peter denies Jesus three times. Saul is blinded for three days. Jesus prays three times in the Garden of Gethsemane. And at the age of 33, Jesus also dies at 3.00pm, and rises from the dead on the third day.

But this triune pattern isn’t confined to Scripture; you can find it all around us. Every atom, for example, has three constituent parts: protons, neutrons and electrons. There are three basic stages of existence: birth, life and death; water has three states: solid, liquid and gas; we all have three abilities: thought, word and deed; and time has the past, present and future. There are three primary colours: red, green, and blue. Humans can perceive three spatial dimensions: height, length, and width.

The earth also has three layers: core, mantle and crust; there are three main types of rock: igneous, metamorphic and sedimentary; there are three types of earthquake waves, and three types of volcanoes.[iii] And all living organisms on earth use the same three-letter DNA code. [iv]

Clearly there’s a pattern here, and it all seems to point to our Creator God who is himself the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

St Augustine had a great interest in numbers, and said that ‘mathematics is music for the mind, and music is mathematics for the soul.’ He believed that patterns in music and number reveal something about God and his creation. [v] St Jerome and St Gregory 1 also wrote about the significance of numbers in God’s plan of salvation.

It certainly seems that God has embedded evidence of his triune nature into the basic design of his Creation. But why? I’d like to suggest three reasons:

Firstly, this three-fold pattern reminds us of where we’ve come from. Indeed, we have all been made in the image and likeness of our Trinitarian God (Gen.1:26-28).

Secondly, it reminds us of who we are today. Through our Baptism, we have become disciples of Jesus, warmly welcomed into God’s Trinitarian union.

And thirdly, it reminds us that we’ve all been designed for community. We are not meant to be alone. Rather, we’ve been created to use our three-fold blessings of head, heart and hands to develop relationships and live and work in loving communion with others.

And just as three-ply yarn is stronger than single-ply yarn, so we all benefit from our close interconnections with others.

In today’s Gospel, three disciples – Peter, James and John – witness three heavenly beings talking together atop Mount Tabor. These disciples are amazed to see Jesus’ face shining gloriously as he speaks with the prophets Moses and Elijah. And they hear a voice say, ‘This is my beloved son, listen to him!’

Peter wants this incredible experience to continue, and suggests that they erect three tents. But this mystical moment isn’t meant to last. It’s only meant to encourage the disciples in their journey of faith.

So, Jesus leads them back down the mountain, where they witness him saving a boy’s life (Lk.9:37-44).

This Lent, as we prepare our hearts for Easter through the traditional trio of almsgiving, sacrifice and prayer, let’s remember that these three Lenten practices are very much part of God’s design for us.

Just like the rest of his Creation.

[i] Hebrew Numbers 1-10,

[ii] The Significance of Numbers in Scripture


[iv] Three is the Magic Number

[v] Augustine on Number, Music and Faith