THIRD SUNDAY IN LENT
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Merciful God, the fountain of living water, you quench our thirst and wash away our sin. Give us this water always. Bring us to drink from the well that flows with the beauty of your truth through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
The journey began with excitement and high spirits. The people of Israel had been liberated from Egypt. Their years of slavery and oppression were behind them and the promise of freedom in a new land lay in front of them. Moses, their leader, was seen as a superstar. “Did you see how he stood up to old Pharaoh? Did you see how he led us right through the middle of the sea-just like he’d done it a thousand times! Good thing we have a guy like him at the helm!” But after a few days in the desert the euphoria wears off. The people are hungry, the people are thirsty, the people are tired and afraid. Moses doesn’t seem to know where he is going. Each day’s journey only brings them further into the wilderness. They begin to doubt Moses, question his leadership and wonder whether they should not turn back to Egypt.
Every leader knows how difficult it is to keep people committed to and engaged in long term projects. Americans are famously distractible, impatient and short on attention span. We want our presidents to solve the nation’s problems during the “first hundred days.” We want our Big Mack ready to go by the time we reach the pick-up window at the golden arches. We want results and we want them now. We get our news through sound bites and twitter feeds that fit neatly into a single elevator ride. The last thing we want to hear is that we must wait for answers, live without results or commit to a project we might never see finished. No wonder Moses was on the verge of being stoned to death!
The God we worship, however, wants to slow us down. God allowed the people of Israel to wait four hundred years for deliverance from Egyptian slavery. They had to spend another forty years wandering in the desert before entering into the promised land. Israel waited seventy long years in exile before God brought her home from Babylon. Disciples of Jesus have been waiting two millennia for the revealing of God’s kingdom in all its fullness. As impatient as we might get with all this waiting, God will not be rushed and God does not want us rushing either.
There is good reason for that. Rushing is dangerous. Accidents occur when we are driving frantically from one appointment to the next. Important details are overlooked when complex jobs are rushed in order to meet the all-important deadline. Relationships suffer when they consist only of rushed and abbreviated cell phone calls, texts and tweets. The most important things in life-love, friendship and faith-all require an investment of time. They need long and patient conversations like those Jesus has with the Samaritan woman in this week’s gospel and with Nicodemus last week.
The kingdom of God is also a long term project. It is not God’s will that anyone slip through the fishing net of that kingdom. For that reason, God works slowly, deliberately and persistently drawing each molecule of the universe toward its proper end. God so loved the world that he sent his Son. And through that Son God will continue loving the world until the world has no more rebellious energy left to resist. That might take a lot of time. But God is patient and has all eternity to work with.
God has liberated his people from slavery in Egypt, defeated the Egyptian army at the Red Sea and led Israel to freedom. But freedom brings with it new challenges. The brick making abilities Israel had learned in Egypt are of little use in the wilderness. A whole different skill set is needed for survival in the desert. In desperate need of water for themselves and their animals, the Israelites begin to complain to Moses. They criticize his leadership, question his motives and begin to wonder whether God is truly behind Moses. Have they been duped? Have they followed a mad man on a suicidal quest? The question is summed up in the final verse of our lesson: “Is the Lord with us or not?” Vs. 7.
Moses seems also to have his own doubts about this enterprise and his ability to carry it out. That is understandable. He left Egypt with Israel trusting in God’s promise to be with him. Now he finds himself in the midst of an angry mob of thirsty people asking questions he cannot answer and demanding results he cannot deliver. No wonder Moses is at his wits end. He cries out in all too human frustration, “What shall I do with this people?” Vs 4. Here God demonstrates remarkable patience, instructing Moses to take with him some of the elders of the people to the “rock of Horeb.” He is told to strike this rock with the staff he used to strike the Nile River turning it to blood. See Exodus 7:14-24. Moses does as God instructs and water comes forth from the rock for the people. Vs. 6.
As I have noted previously, the first five books of the Bible are believed by most Hebrew scriptural scholars to be the product of four distinct sources, these being the Jawhist source, the Elowist source, the Deuteronomic source and the Priestly source. For further elaboration, I invite you to revisit my post of March 9th and/or read the online article, Documentary Hypothesis. As it turns out, our lesson for today does not fit neatly into this hypothesis. Old Testament scholars disagree sharply over its source origin. Some have argued that the section is a conglomerate in which two or more sources are blended together, but there is no unanimity on which sources are implicated and where in the text their influence is to be found. Professor Brevard S. Childs is convinced that “th[is] question cannot be decided with any degree of certainty” and I tend to agree. Childs, Brevard S., The Book of Exodus, A Critical, Theological Commentary, The Old Testament Library, (c. 1974 Brevard S. Childs, pub. The Westminster Press) p. 306.
The mention of “the rock at Horeb” is odd. Horeb is another name for Sinai, the sacred mountain where Moses received the covenant. Israel will not reach that mountain until Exodus 19. It is possible that this is an allusion to God’s initial appearance to Moses on the mountain in the burning bush. It was there that Moses’ staff was first shown to be an instrument of God’s transformative power. Exodus 4:1-9. This narrative would dove tail naturally into the mention of the same staff later used by Moses to turn the Nile’s water into blood. Vs. 5.
This story is remarkably similar to one related in Numbers 20:1-13. Indeed, the commonality of geographic detail, etiology and plot have lead most Hebrew scriptural scholars to conclude that the two accounts are variations on a single story. In the Numbers narrative, matters do not go so well for Moses. Though instructed to speak to the rock and ask it for water, Moses proceeds to throw a tantrum in the presence of the people. He asks them, sarcastically no doubt, “shall we bring forth water for you from this rock?” Numbers 20:10. He then strikes the rock with his rod (contrary to God’s specific instruction), but water nevertheless flows forth for the people and their cattle. Moses and Aaron are denied the privilege of bringing Israel into the land of promise as a result of their disobedience. Numbers 20:12-13.
This story of Israel’s rebellion at Massah and Meribah is mentioned in the Psalms. See. Psalm 95:8; Psalm 106:32-33. Paul takes up the image of the water producing rock in this narrative (possibly with some latter rabbinic embellishment) recognizing it as a metaphor (or more?) for Christ’s sacramental presence in the church. I Corinthians 10:1-5. This and other stories from Israel’s time of wandering in the wilderness proved meaningful for the early church struggling to find its way in a world increasingly hostile to its presence. The same stories present a challenge, however, to modern churches that have settled into and become a part of the cultural landscape. Are our sedentary ways compatible with those of a people seeking, but who have not yet arrived at a homeland? See Hebrews 11:13-16.
This is one of about twenty psalms thought to be associated with an enthronement festival for Israel’s God held in the fall, during which time worshipers made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem celebrating God’s triumph over all powers hostile to his rule. Anderson, Bernard W., Out of the Depths-The Psalms Speak for Us Today, (c. 1983, Bernard W. Anderson, pub. The Westminster Press) p. 175. The festival may have been patterned after rites common among Israel’s neighbors, such as the feast of akitu where the Babylonian creation myth, Enuma elish, was recited and re-enacted. Ibid. 176. However that might be, there is a critical difference between typical near eastern mythology on the one hand which tended to reflect and legitimate the imperial infrastructure, and Israel’s salvation narrative on the other hand acclaiming Yahweh as Lord. The difference is borne out by the fact that Israel’s worship outlasted her dynastic existence whereas the Babylonian and Canaanite religions died along with their empires.
Whatever its origins, Psalm 95 in its present state is obviously composed for use in public worship. It opens with an invitation for all Israel to worship God, not merely as creator, but as the God who is its “rock of salvation.” Vss. 1-2. Verses 3-5 declare that the whole of creation belongs to the Lord who is “a great king above all gods.” This might well be an ancient worship formula from a period of time when Israel acknowledged the existence of other deities, though always subject to Yahweh, her Lord. Nevertheless, its use in later Judaism functioned as a denial of even the existence of such gods. Vss 7b to 11 refer back to the narrative from our Exodus lesson as a warning to Israel. The worshipers must learn from the faithless conduct of their ancestors and its dire consequences not to be rebellious, disobedient and unbelieving.
The psalm is an illustration of just how important the narratives of God’s salvation history with Israel were for her worship and piety. The ancient stories of the wilderness wanderings were not dead history for Israel. They were and continue to be paradigms of covenant life in which Israel is challenged each and every day with God’s invitation to trust his promises and with the temptation to unbelief and rebellion. So, too, as the church enters into Lent and Holy Week, the gospel narrative of Jesus’ obedient life, faithful suffering and sacrificial death inform the real life choices that are ever before us. We see ourselves in the tentative response of Nicodemus to Jesus; Peter’s failure to follow through on his promise to go with Jesus to suffering and death; Judas’ betrayal of Jesus; and the disciples’ abandonment of Jesus. More significantly, we recognize our own new beginning in the resurrected Christ who seeks out his failed disciples and calls them to a new beginning.
This is a pivotal passage in Paul’s argument that we have been following for the last two weeks (in spite of the lectionary’s best efforts to scramble it). Having established that righteousness is measured not in terms of what is achieved by human effort but by trust in what God promises, Paul now sums up the consequences. Trusting in the forgiveness of sin and the promise of sanctification accomplished in Jesus, believers find the peace that always eluded them when they sought righteousness on their own terms. Paul points out that Jesus reconciled us to God while we were yet sinners. This is difficult to grasp because we usually think of reconciliation as a two way process by which two hostile parties somehow resolve their differences and manage to live peaceably going forward. But when it comes to the reconciling work of Christ, reconciliation is a one way street. We are reconciled to God whether we like it or not. The cross is God’s act of unilateral disarmament.
In the face of this bold proclamation, we often hear the inevitable objection: “If Christ has done everything to reconcile us and we cannot add anything to it by way of response, doesn’t that render us mere passive objects? What incentive do we have to be moral if salvation is simply given to us without any preconditions or expectations? Does anything we do make a difference? The answer is both “no” and “yes.” If the question is whether anything can be done to win God’s favor or improve your standing before God, the answer is clearly “no.” On the other hand, if the question is whether reconciliation transforms your life in any way, the answer is a resounding “yes.” Recall that righteousness is defined as faith which, in Paul’s understanding, translates as trust in God’s covenant promises. This faith is not merely intellectual ascent to a doctrinal assertion, i.e., “I believe that Jesus’ death paid the penalty for my sin; therefore, I am saved from the wrath of God.” Faith is confidence in God’s faithfulness to his promise to love and forgive us without limit. True obedience, then, flows not from compliance with legal obligations, but out of thankfulness and praise for all that God has accomplished for us in Christ.
For reasons probably far beyond the grasp of my simple mind, the makers of the lectionary have omitted the first four verses of our reading so that we have no idea how Jesus came to be in the vicinity of the Samaritan town of Sychar. That is unfortunate because these verses indicate to us that Jesus was on his way to Galilee from Judea and that he “had to pass through Samaria.” Vs. 4. Geographically speaking, this is not true. Though the main route from Judea to Galilee appears to have been through Samaria, Jesus could have avoided Samaria altogether if he had wanted by going up the Jordan Valley and into Galilee. The necessity, therefore, is rooted in the plan of God for Jesus’ mission and ministry.
There is no evidence of any town by the name of “Sychar” anywhere near the well that is known to be associated with Jacob. The most probable explanation is that “Sychar” is a corrupted spelling of “Shechem” which was only a short distance from the well. See, Brown, Raymond E., The Gospel According to John I-X11, The Anchor Bible, (c. 1966 by Doubleday) p. 169. The well was about one hundred feet deep covered with a stone. Without a bucket and a rope, the well could offer no relief to thirsty travelers like Jesus.
In order to get the full impact of this story, we need to understand a little bit about Samaritans. Samaritans were a Semitic people situated in central Galilee during the first century. They claimed to be descended from the ten tribes of Israel that broke away from the Davidic monarchy in Jerusalem shortly after the death of David’s son, Solomon around 922 B.C.E. After that time, there were two Israelite nations: the kingdom of Judah in the south under the reign of David’s descendants and the kingdom of Israel in the north ruled by several dynasties throughout its existence. Israel eventually established its capital in the city of Samaria under its powerful King Omri in about 880 B.C.E.; hence, the name “Samaritan.” The peoples of this northern kingdom had their own place of worship on Mt. Garizim in Samaria. After the Assyrian conquest of Israel in 722 B.C.E., many people of the land were deported, but many also remained. The Assyrians transplanted populations from other parts of their empire onto Israelite soil and there was evidently some intermarriage between the Israelites and the newcomers. The Samaritans naturally asserted that their worship was the true religion of ancient Israel existing prior to the Babylonian conquest of Judah in 587 in which the upper classes of Judah (Jews) were carried off into exile. The Samaritans maintained that the religion of the Jews practiced in the temple of Jerusalem, rebuilt after the Babylonian Exile, constituted a perversion of Israel’s true faith. Please note that the Samaritans are not extinct. According to the latest census, there are about 750 of them living in the area of Tel Aviv. To this day they maintain their cultural identity and practice their ancient faith.
The Jews, by contrast, maintained that the true faith was preserved through the institution of temple worship in Jerusalem from which the ten tribes broke away. If you have ever wondered why the books of I & II Chronicles; Ezra and Nehemiah are loaded with mind numbing genealogies documenting exactly who was carried away from Judah into Babylon, their descendants born during the exile and who returned from exile, it all has to do with establishing the pedigree of the second temple in Jerusalem erected upon the Jew’s return from Babylonian captivity. The authors wished to establish beyond doubt that worship in this new temple was connected by an unbroken line of priests, singers and artists to the original temple built by Solomon.
According to the book of II Kings, the Northern Kingdom of Israel was completely depopulated when the Assyrians conquered Samaria in about 722 B.C.E. The Assyrians brought in foreigners to settle the land, but when these new comers experienced repeated attacks by lions, the Assyrian Emperor concluded that this must be the result of their failure to worship the gods of the land. To remedy the situation, he brought back from exile some of the priests of the Northern Kingdom of Israel to renew worship at its shrine in Bethel. The authors of II Kings assert that this priesthood began to include foreigners who introduced pagan practices, thereby perverting the true worship of Israel’s God-which had been less than adequate among the northerners to begin with since the break with Judah. II Kings 17:21-34. Obviously, this account is given from the perspective of the Jews.
As you can see, the rivalry between Jews and Samaritans was both ancient and intense. The degree of animosity between them can be seen in the book of Nehemiah where the Samaritans, along with other inhabitants of Palestine, fiercely opposed the rebuilding of Jerusalem and its temple. The Samaritans also supported the Syrian rulers in their wars against the Jews during which the second temple in Jerusalem was desecrated. The Jews returned this favor in 128 B.C.E. when the high priest in Jerusalem set on fire the Samaritan temple on Mr. Gerizim. This conflict and the memory of its bloody history was very much alive in the first century.
This is important to know because it makes clear just how important the issue of proper worship raised by the Samaritan woman really was. Some witless commentators have focused on the Samaritan woman’s five husbands and the fact that she was living with one who was not her husband as the most significant issue in this encounter. That is wrongheaded for two reasons. First, recall that women in first century Semitic societies were largely considered property. Any woman of standing belonged to somebody. If she was married, a woman belonged to her husband. If unmarried, to her father. Based on what we read in the gospels, divorce (an action available solely to men) was easily obtained for the slightest of reasons. Thus, this woman might have been infertile and so undesirable as a wife to each of the five men who divorced her. The man to whom she now belongs could well be her father, a brother or some other relative willing to take her into the household in exchange for providing domestic services-such as drawing water. Based on what little we know of this woman’s circumstances, we cannot fairly draw the conclusion that she was immoral or promiscuous. In any case, Jesus shows absolutely no interest in discussing sexual morality with this woman.
In the second place, the woman’s question is not polite cocktail party jabber typically used to draw the conversation away from unpleasant disputes over “sensitive” issues. The question about the proper place of worship as between Jews and Samaritans was about as explosive as any you could think to ask. This woman is cutting right to the chase and insisting that Jesus declare himself. Jesus’ response is to strike a blow to the wall of animosity between the two warring peoples. “The hour is coming when neither on this mountain [Gerizim] nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father…But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him.” Vss. 21-25. The true temple, according to Jesus, is “the temple of his Body.” John 2:21.
The significance of this encounter unfolds when the woman returns to her town and brings her people out to meet Jesus. “The fields are white for harvest.” Vs. 35. The last word in this reading comes to us from the lips of the new Samaritan believers: “for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.” The operative words here are “Savior of the world” echoing John 3:16. Just as Jesus drew into his orbit Nicodemus, a member of the hostile Sanhedrin, so now he draws in people of the hostile Samaritan population. In the end, the worldwide scope of the good news is fully revealed when some Greeks seek to see Jesus. John 12:20-26.
Once again, John is playing on words here. “Living water” can be translated as “running water” as opposed to standing water that might be collected from rain in a cistern. Jacob’s well was fed by a deep underground aquifer and so would be considered running water. Hence, the woman’s question: “Sir, you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep; where do you get that living water?” Vs. 11. She does not yet understand that Jesus is speaking of the Spirit through which true worshipers must worship God. Water and the Spirit run through this story as they did in Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus and will continue throughout John’s gospel. Water, of course, is a crucial element essential to life. In an arid region where potable water is scarce and precious, Jesus’ use of this image in speaking of the Spirit was particularly compelling. One who drinks of this living water not only quenches his own thirst, but becomes a fountain of living water welling up for eternal life. Vs. 14.