Monday, March 7, 2011

Third Sunday in Lent Year A

Third Sunday in Lent A

Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 95; Romans 5:1-4; John 4:5-42

(Revised common Lectionary)

The memory of God's miraculous deliverance from slavery in Egypt has evaporated in the heat and desolation of the desert.  At "Rephidim," God's people demand water.  Moses takes it as an affront to his leadership and a "test" for the Lord.  But their "murmuring" grew louder.  Their case is direct:  Why did you/You bring us our of Egypt only to die in the desert?  Moses implores the Lord: "what shall I do with this people?"  He fears for his life.  The Lord instructs Moses to go directly before the crowd, accompanied by some of the "elders," carrying the same (shepherd's) "staff" with which he struck the Nile and it parted so God's people could escape safely.  The Lord  also tells only Moses that the Lord will go ahead to "the rock in Horeb," which Moses should strike.  When he does, "water will come out from it and the people will drink."  Moses complies and names the place all this took place "Massah and Meribah, Testing and Dispute."  When the people have plenty of water to drink, Moses tweaks the people" Now what do you say?  "Is the Lord in our midst or not?"

The psalmist summons God's people to praise "the Lord our maker," who "tends" us like a flock," before bringing up the unpleasant memory of "Meribah and Massah."  And, a reminder of the Lord's sour promise to that faithless generation that they would "not come to My resting place."

The one factor that alters every human vicissitude, Paul writes, is our experience of God's "love," which "has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit that has been given to us."  Furthermore, "God proves his love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us."  

The schism between the Jews of the North (Samaria) and South (Jerusalem) was bitter and had been exacerbated by the conquering Greeks and then the Romans, who played each group a=against the other.  The shock of the Samaritan woman when Jesus asked her for some water to drink at the town well of "Sychar" has verisimilitude.  The Jesus in John's narrative ignores her concerns with a cryptic response: if you "knew the gift of God" and who it is who is asking you for water you would have yourself asked from him for the "living water."  She first challenges Jesus: you have no bucket to get any water out of the well.  And, as for something you call "living water," this well was given to us by the patriarch, Jacob; are you implying "you are greater than he?"  This water satisfies only until you will be thirsty again, but "the water that I will give" will make all whoever partakes to never "thirst' again.  "The water that I will give will become in time a spring gushing up to eternal life."  Still not grasping what Jesus is saying, the woman asks for some of "this water," so she never has to come back to the well again.  Now the story becomes deeply personal and direct.  When Jesus tells the woman to go home and bring back her husband, she replies she does not have a husband.  Jesus replies that she is technically correct, because she has had five husbands, and the man she is living with now is not her husband.  She acknowledges Jesus as a "prophet," and assumes he wants her to also acknowledge  Jerusalem as the rightful place for God's true worship.  But Jesus says that soon none of these ancient rivalries will matter, for "the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth...."  She raises the question close to the heart of every Jew, North or South-- the coming of the Messiah.  Jesus reveals to her "'I am he, the one who is speaking to you."   Just then, the disciples return and wonder why Jesus is speaking to "a woman," but they dare not ask him.  Meanwhile, the woman leaves her water jug at the well, rushes back to town with her own amazing testimony: "come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!"  Can he be the Messiah, she asks?  The disciple ask Jesus if he is hungry.  But, once again, Jesus ignores the question.  Instead he says, in just "four months," "then comes the harvest."  Doing his Father's work urgently "feeds" him and right now he is looking for some who will "sow" and others who will "reap" when the "harvest" is ready.  The woman returns to the well, bringing many from the town with her.  They hear and see Jesus for themselves for "two days."  Now they believe, not just based on her testimony, but because of their own personal experience.

Surrounded by the great deserts of Africa and Asia, humankind's earliest great civilizations flourished in the "fertile crescent" where water was literally the difference between life and death.  No surprise that water is used as a power symbol and metaphor in all the earliest religions that originated there.  (For a rich description of the history of the use of water as symbol and metaphor, see The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols, pp 1081-1088)

When the Lord's people at "Rephidim" ask if they were brought out of slavery in Egypt (where at least they had water) to die in the desert, the Lord instructs Moses to use the same staff with which he struck the Nile and they passed through on dry land to strike a rock, from which water will gush and the people drink as much as they want.  Jesus initiates a conversation at the town well with a Samaritan woman, with a scandalous reputation, (crossing several heavily fortified religious, gender, legal, ethnic, and moral barriers!), as part of John's narrative to present Jesus as the source of  that "living water,"  which itself becomes a "spring gushing up to eternal life" in those who accept it.  It is Paul who names explicitly (and, therefore,  reminds us) of that to which this powerful symbol and metaphor alludes-- God's LOVE.  This LOVE has been "poured" into our hearts by the Holy Spirit and "proven" to us in that "while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.

Reflecting on Paul's text, Jean-Luc Marion finds both love and judgment.  In his Prolegomena to Charity Marion writes: "the 'God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,' who reveals himself in Jesus Christ as love, love alone is suitable for reaching him.  Perhaps this is so because like knows like, but above all it is true because 'the love of God has been poured into our heats by the Holy Spirit which is given to us,' (Romans 5:5): in knowing God by the loving act of the will, man  imitates God in his highest name... and becomes, by the grace of love, himself of God.  God is approached only because he [or she] who jettisons all that does not befit love; God, who gives himself as Love only through love, can be reached only as long as one gives himself to him.  Surrendering oneself to love, not surrendering oneself to evidence." (p.61)  Marion's comments, although reflecting Paul's text, also encapsulate the transaction between the Samaritan woman and Jesus just as well.   But such Love as the love of God mediated through Jesus also creates a "crisis," Marion continues: "Christ does not judge, he provokes the completed and unsurpassable crisis in which each man must decide about God for himself  [herself], and thus decide himself [or herself] about facing God." "The crisis is not brought about because a strange judge appears before powerless man, but because, in meeting the ultimate word, each man [woman] enters into his [her] own crisis-- and must, on his [her] own decide himself [herself] for or against 'the word of God...." (pp118-119)  The Samaritan woman in John's story-- for whom the harsh judgment of others had likely become part of the way she saw herself as well-- was pointedly not judged by Jesus.  The ease with which the Messiah talked with her convinced her he was the Anointed One of God and she  makes up her heart and becomes a witness; she brings others to Jesus who accept him  for themselves.  The kind of Love that does not judge, that "died for us while we were still yet sinners,"  creates its own unique need for a decision about this message and the Messenger.