One of Scripture's most important messages is that we have a God who works with what God has.
We Catholics are accustomed to hearing tales of canonized saints: people whose relationships with God and those around them were impeccable. Many demonstrated signs of holiness from their early years. Most spent their whole lives in "the state of grace." Not too long ago one of the best-known persons involved in the canonization process was the Devil's Advocate: an individual whose one job was to surface "dirt" on the man or woman being considered for sainthood. There was always the possibility that the quest for someone's canonization could be torpedoed by just one newly uncovered sinful action.
Rarely do we find Devil's Advocate approved saints in our Scriptures, and even when we do, there's always the suspicion that our sacred authors might have bent the facts a little. For better or worse, the biblical God works through real, fallible - often sinful - people.
This is especially clear in the greatest event in the Hebrew Scriptures: the Exodus. My old professor often reminded us that the majority of those liberated Hebrew slaves would have preferred to stay in Egypt instead of spending years trekking through the Sinai wilderness. They're anything but happy campers.
Today's first reading provides a classic example of their disgust with Moses and Yahweh. "Why did you ever make us leave Egypt? Was it just to have us die here of thirst with our children and our livestock?" They go so far as to question the basic premise of the Exodus. "Is Yahweh in our midst or not?"
Yet for better or worse, these specific blasphemous sinners are Yahweh's people; and it's these people for whom Yahweh provides water and eventually leads to the Promised Land, without demanding they first go to confession before he works in their lives.
In a parallel way John's Jesus doesn't hesitate to work with an heretical Jewish woman, a Samaritan who's already gone through five husbands and is living in sin with a sixth man. It's to this public sinner that he entrusts his teaching about the "living water" he offers to his imitators. And it's this shady woman who becomes an apostle to her fellow-Samaritans. If Jesus' disciples were at first amazed to discover him talking to a woman, they eventually must have been doubly amazed on his insistence to stay two extra days in Sychar so he could teach these border-line Jews about Yahweh's presence in their lives.
Yet, as Paul reminds the Christian community in Rome, openness to "sinners" is simply an essential part of Jesus' personality. And we don't have to go further than ourselves to surface an example of it. "For Christ," the Apostles writes, "while we were still helpless, died at the appointed time for the ungodly .... God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us." Thankfully we didn't have to be exemplary Christians before Jesus began working in our lives.
Back in the early sixties, I and several of my North American College classmates were privileged to stand in San Giovanni Rotondo's sacristy and watch Padre Pio make his thanksgiving after celebrating a very early Mass. At one point, another monk approached his predieu and asked him for something. The eventual saint looked up angrily, glared at his fellow brother and yelled, "Let me alone!"
Years later I waited in vain for the Devil's Advocate to contact me during the venerable stigmatic's canonization process. But actually I'm glad no one told him about the dirt I had on the good Padre, since I really started liking him from that angry moment on. He's my (and Jesus') kind of saint.