Remembering Fr. John Baran

Once when Winston Churchill was told that journalists were declaring that by the year 2100, women would be ruling the world, his reply was quick. With a twinkle in his eye, he simply asked, “Still?”

Humor aside, it is a woman – a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well – who serves as our teacher par excellence this Sunday…and it all begins with Jesus’ request, “Give me a drink.”

It is hard to exaggerate how unexpected, how scandalous, that request was. He, a Jew; she, a Samaritan. Bitter enemies for generations. Samaritans wouldn’t even go to Jerusalem to worship! Jews would never drink from a vessel that a Samaritan touched! On top of that, it was unheard of for a man and a woman – particularly strangers – to hold a conversation in public. This probably shocked his disciples even more than the fact that she was a Samaritan. And underneath it all, he was becoming known as a rabbi, a teacher, a wise and holy man; she was a woman with a reputation, an admitted sinner.

So what was it about him? What was it about the way he spoke that stopped her from shutting him down and writing him off as just another holier-than-thou Jewish man? Why didn’t she just give him the drink of water and walk away? What intrigued her?

That’s just it: to this day she will be remembered by the church as the one who allowed her entire life…all her dark little secrets, even her shame…to be a venue through which the Lord would teach…teach about the necessity for repentance…teach about mercy….teach about compassion and gentleness. While others might have turned away, she let him in.

With Jesus, she looked at her life and let him point out the places in her heart that needed Living Water…that needed the Presence of God…the places in her heart that needed to be filled, places where most of us would allow no one to look, where we probably don’t even want to go ourselves. And for her daring, for her humility, she was graced. In that, she rules as our teacher and Lenten Guide. With her, we are asked to admit that in some way, shape or form, we are just as thirsty as she was. With her, we are called to welcome the Lord into those “seamy” places in our heart where he alone can make a difference…so that with her, we might allow ourselves to be changed from within, to be a more authentic witness to the presence of God in our lives, in our world.

This Gospel seems appropriate to hear and learn from today, on the anniversary of Fr. John’s death. For one thing, it was one of his favorites, perhaps because it provides such a rich array of preachable opportunities to remind us of God’s great love and mercy for us; perhaps because it sparks our imaginations to widen the lens through which we view life and other people; or perhaps because he recognized that he was the woman at the well, in need of Living Water, as we all are at some point in our lives.

We remember Fr. John today with gratitude for the gift that he was and continues to be to this parish. We remember his compassion, his outstanding homilies, his wry sense of humor, his outrageous laugh. We remember him in other ways as well…as a living example of courage as he navigated his muscular dystrophy, making accommodation after accommodation in order to remain doing what he loved best…being a parish priest. We held our breath each Holy Thursday when after washing parishioners’ feet, he pulled himself from the floor. As we watched his suffering, we suffered with him, and when he was diagnosed with melanoma, we prayed and waited for the good news of his recovery, news that never came. We greeted him after Mass, on his stool on the porch or in his wheelchair, never thinking that this time might be the last time. And we cried in disbelief and sorrow when he was taken from us. The timing of his death, on the heels of Holy Week, enfleshed the services of the Triduum with new resonance…he had become an icon of the suffering Christ, the personification of the Paschal Mystery. He made it real for us in such a way that no Holy Week, no Triduum, will ever be the same.

Back to Living Water…you, my friends, need to know that as much as Fr. John gave Living Water to us, you parishioners became Living Water for him. You gave him purpose, you gave him hope, you made him party to your hopes and dreams, joys and sorrows, to your families. You fed him as he fed all of us.

So, where do we go from here? What do we do with this memory, this love, that still hurts? Perhaps we can take our cue from the unnamed woman at the well. When she received Living Water, she ran to tell others about it…she shared the Good News. Perhaps that is how we keep the legacy of Fr. John alive, by continuing to be the community that he nurtured, and by moving forward together into the future, fueled by the memory, grounded in the Gospel, and sharing the joys and meeting the challenges that will surely come our way. Let us try to become more authentic witnesses to the presence of God in our lives and in the world, as Fr. John taught us.

By: Dr. Eleanor Sauers