In the early centuries of Christianity, Baptisms normally took place at Easter, and Lent was the time for the final preparation of the catechumens who were to be baptized that year. Gradually it came to serve as a season for the rest of the faithful to prepare spiritually for their celebration of Easter. Over time, as infant baptism became the most common way for people to enter the Church,the formal catechumenate as the process of preparation for baptism fell out of use. Following the Second Vatican Council, the catechumenate was restored as the means of preparing adults and older children for baptism, and the Mass readings for the third, fourth, and fifth Sundays of Lent in Year A in the revised liturgy were chosen for their connection to baptism.
On the 3rd Sunday water is a unifying theme in the first reading and the gospel. In the pre-Vatican II liturgy, these readings were assigned to the Friday of the third week of Lent.
The first reading — Exodus 17:3-7 — tells of Moses providing water from a rock in the desert for the thirsty Israelites. This physical water is understood as a type of the water which Jesus promises the Samaritan woman in the gospel — John 4:5-42. The water in the desert sustained physical life. The water Jesus provides sustains eternal life. Water is, in scripture and in at least some Jewish tradition, a symbol of the Holy Spirit. So Jesus is promising the Holy Spirit to those who believe in him. He told Nicodemus that entry into the kingdom of God required being born of water and the Holy Spirit (John 3:5), and at his own baptism the Holy Spirit descended on him in the form of a dove. The offer of the life-giving water to the Samaritan women, and subsequently to her fellow villagers, tells the catechumens and us that this grace of baptism is available to all, not just to the Jews.
The responsorial psalm — verses of Psalm 95 — includes a reference to the incident of the water in the desert.
In the second reading — Romans 5:1-2, 7-8 — we find a reference to the three “theological virtues:” faith, hope, and love. Paul reminds us that faith in Jesus has brought us justification and hope of glory because of God’s love for us, made effective in Jesus’ saving death. There is also an allusion to the other readings: Paul says that God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.
The 4th Sunday has images of light and vision. On the first reading — 1 Samuel 16:1b, 6-7, 10-13a — tells of Samuel’s anointing of David as king to replace Saul. Although Jesse’s son Eliab looks like a king to Samuel, God sees the heart, not just outward appearances and chooses David. The anointing of David brings the Holy Spirit powerfully upon him. We too, receive the Spirit at our baptism.
The responsorial psalm — Psalm 23 — attributed to David gives us the image of God as the good shepherd, with its allusion to David’s having been a shepherd.
The second reading — Ephesians 5:8-14 — exhorts us to live in the light. Formerly we were in darkness, but Christ has enlightened us. The final lines, “Awake, O sleeper … and Christ will give you light,” are thought to be from an extremely early baptismal hymn. The light of Christ comes to the catechumens and us through baptism.
The gospel — John 9:1-41 – formerly read on Wednesday of the fourth week of Lent, the day of an important examination of catechumens in early times, tells of Jesus’ cure of a man born blind. He comes into physical light, just as baptism brings spiritual light. We can think of Jesus’ making of clay with the earth and his saliva and putting it on the eyes of the blind man as a sort of “anointing.” The pool of Siloam, where the man washed, in a prefiguring of baptism, was the source of water for libations in the temple on the first seven days of the feast of Sukkot (Tabernacles, or Booths). The healing of the blind man was apparently on the eighth day of the feast, when the water was no longer brought from Siloam to the temple. Perhaps this timing has significance for understanding Jesus as “greater than the temple” (Matthew 12:6). Certainly, the fact that Jesus earlier on that day had promised “rivers of living water” that is the Spirit, flowing from within those who believe in him (John 7:38-39) establishes the baptismal meaning of the healing of the blind man, and recalls the promise to the Samaritan woman of living water.
The blind man has been given light, not just physically, but also spiritually, and he professes his faith in Jesus, whereas Jesus’ opponents among the Pharisees have blinded themselves to the truth about him.