Drinking in Life
Scripture: Exodus 17:1-7; John 4:5-42
Rev. Charles Svendsen, Mar 19, 2017
Today we arrive at the third Sunday in Lent, the 40 day period that the church sets aside to reflect on the sufferings and death of Jesus. We as well take this season to focus our spirits on our spiritual journeys as believers and followers in same Jesus the Christ. Both the Hebrew and Gospel lessons assigned for this day's worship remind us of the saving goodness of God and the need for women and men to trust in that goodness of God! In the Exodus and the John scriptures we hear anew affirmation of God's benevolent care of all who place their well-being in God's hands and in God's unyielding love.
In both the Exodus 17 and John 4 readings, we come across an important symbol of God's sustaining grace, and I wonder if you caught that common element? Yes, it's the element of water. Although water in the Bible is sometimes presented as a metaphor for evil or death, as in Jonah when Jonah went down to the water to flee from the presence of the Lord, here in Exodus 17 water is a life-sustaining substance needed by those Israelites wandering through an arid desert! And in John 4, after a circuitous conversation about water with Jesus, the Samaritan woman finally comes to the conclusion that the real topic is not about water at all, but about the messiahship of Jesus the "living water." So what do we find in the Exodus story? It's the children of Israel having been liberated by God miraculously from the Egyptian empire. At first there was joy and excitement in Israel, new found freedom, but withdrawal from the Egyptian imperial system meant that "life support guarantees" were also gone! Israel was plunged into crisis called a "wilderness." And the missing element was life-giving water. In Egypt, Israel had given up their dignity and freedom but they had a steady supply of food. Now in the "wilderness" Israel does what is predictable (as many of us do.) Israel in trouble blames "the management, Moses." The people cried out as they quarreled with Moses, "Give us water to drink." Yet Moses was not Israel's real leader, God was. Moses knows that! So it's Moses who questions and accuses God! Moses is kicking the complaint "upstairs." "What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me." Moses wants a new plan from God. Moses is in trouble, and God has not acted. So Moses and Israel are beginning to notice that the God of the exodus is not the great "sugar daddy" who supplies all the desires and yearnings of Israel.
Yahweh's response is abrupt and decisive in verses 5 and 6 - a command and a promise are issued. God commands Moses to do something that appears ludicrous. Along with the elders, Moses is to strike a rock! Moses is to seek water from the most unlikely place. God gives no explanation, no supportive argument. The command is terse and non-negotiable, "Strike the rock!" And then the promise of God's presiding presence, "I will be standing there in front of you." God will be present in the action of Moses. Water will come and Israel will drink. Moses obeys. The Lord delivers and the crisis is averted. The narrative tells all this in one brief sentence - no trimmings, no commentary, no explanation, no embarrassment. It's a lean story for all to hear. It's another day the Lord sustained life!
The writer Moses, or another, is however, not content with the bare telling, so an interpretation is offered in verse 7, "Moses called the place Massah, that is test, and Meribah, that is quarrel, because the Israelites quarreled and tested God saying 'Is the Lord among us or not?'" This was not one of Israel's better days. After threatening Moses, after Moses cries out to the Lord, after the command to strike the rock and the promise of God's presiding presence and after Israel's thirst is quenched, the people said with one voice, "Is the Lord with us or not?" That's a defiant question! It's really saying if God produces, God is among us. If God does not produce, God is absent. God, in this theology, becomes a means to an end. Yet this story and the story of the Bible is that God's people often believe God is absent particularly in difficult and dangerous times. Yet in the leaving of the guarantees of the empires of power, in the moving into the wilderness of our lives those days, perhaps years, that we think God is absent from us because a prayer is unanswered or a job is lost or a spouse dies or children turn away from us, this ancient Exodus text is given to us so we won't make Israel's idolatrous mistake by asking, "Is the Lord among us or not?" Rather, we say with Paul in Romans 8, "Who will separate us from the love of God? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? No. I am convinced that neither death nor life nor angels nor rulers nor things present nor things to come nor powers nor height nor depth nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." Lent reminds us that God is not absent but the ever present, ever loving, ever saving God is always there. The standing social empire, the Egypts of our day, offer us luring and tempting security - but with a price tag. God's way is lean and precarious... but always with God's presiding presence.
So our Gospel lesson for this third Sunday in Lent was unbelievably long! John 4:5-42, 35 verses with all kinds of looks, complications, details, and nuanced conversations, five different scenes in all, Is Charles going to preach on the whole thing, verse by verse? The answer is "no, I'm not." I mentioned that there are five scenes in this chapter: Jesus' journey to Samaria, his conversation with the Samaritan woman, the return of the disciples, and finally the Samaritans talking with the woman. But I only want to talk about scene 2, Jesus' conversation with the Samaritan woman. Two dimensions of the story stand out. First, notice the progression of the Samaritan woman's understanding and belief about Jesus. The woman came to draw water in the heat of the day. Jesus asked her for a drink, and the Samaritan woman responds to Jesus' counter cultural request, "How is it that you, a Jew, asks of me a drink, a woman of Samaria?" Samaritans were not just the district south of Galilee and north of Judea. Samaritans were a people who shared with the Jews a common father, Jacob, and this was Jacob's well, the woman rightly pointed out. Samaritans were a strict, Torah-observing party who maintained that they, not the Jews, were the bearers of the true faith as expounded by Moses. Samaritans understood themselves to be descendant of Joseph. They practiced their faith at Mt. Gerizhim, not at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. They looked upon the Jew as apostate, deviant, and unimportant. If the Samaritans didn't like Jews, the Jews thought of the Samaritans as even worse. Jews understood Samaritans as those who didn't endure the Babylonian captivity, so skipped the trials of true faith, stayed at home to marry Canaanites - so they were law breakers and immoral ones at that. So no love was lost between these two groups, and the Samaritan woman identifies Jesus as a Jew. We don't have to imagine her opinion of Jesus.
After some conversation about buckets and wells, about water and living water, about one husband to five husbands to no husband, the woman moves from seeing Jesus as a Jew to calling Jesus a prophet, a person who serves as a channel of communication between the human and the divine worlds. Prophets were great preachers, moral philosophers, raving mystics, political analysts and keepers of Israel's traditions. Jesus according to this Samaritan woman may be just that : a prophet. "Sir, I see that you are a prophet."
So then the Samaritan woman and Jesus have a theological, political conversation (a dispute) about where to worship. The Samaritan Mt. Gerizhim or the Jewish Mt. Zion in Jerusalem. And Jesus gives her a pretty good answer, "God is spirit and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth." The woman goes from Jesus the Jew to Jesus the prophet and now Jesus the Messiah, "the anointed one." An announced agent of God, culminating in the Great Kind David's reign and by Jesus' day the anticipation of another king like that of David. One whom Daniel called the "Son of Man" and other titles, "Son of the Most High," "Son of God," "One is coming who will be the Messiah who will proclaim all things to us," declared the Samaritan woman. Jesus said, "I am he."
When the Samaritan returned to her home, she gathered her neighbors to come to meet Jesus and many believed. Believed what? Believed what she had told them that Jesus was Jew, Prophet, Messiah and now Savior of the World!
Last week we heard Jesus saying to Nicodemus that God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through him. Saved from what? "From the world, the flesh, and the devil," quipped C.S. Lewis. Paul wrote to Titus that God has appeared bring salvation to all. So this Samaritan woman went on quite a spiritual odyssey, didn't she? And so do we. James Forbes, former long standing pastor of the Riverside Church in New York City, told in an interview once that he had preached over his career 45 Easter sermons and God must have a sense of humor as Forbes has danced among Jesus as Jew (human), Jesus as prophet (sent from God), Jesus as Messiah (anointed one), and Jesus as Savior of the the world.
Where are you on your journey of faith? The good news is that this church welcomes you wherever you may be. Yesterday we met with new members who are all on different journeys of Christian faith.
This church also welcomes whomever you are, which brings us to the second dimension of this story and my last observation - hooray. (At First Presbyterian Church, Portland, we had a circular balcony and the high school kids could see the last page of my sermon and there was much rejoicing.) So this second dimension of the woman at the well story in John 4 is the inclusiveness of the narrative! The incident occurs in Samaria and is elaborately developed in the first six verses, "Jesus left Judea in the South and started back to Galilee in the North." Interesting stand alone verse in verse four, "But he had to go through Samaria." We, he didn't! The far more common road for pious Jews was on the east side of the Jordan River to avoid contamination with the Samaritans. But Jesus "had to go through Samaria" as if compelled by the Spirit to take that route. Note also that Jesus initiates the conversation with the woman by asking her for a drink, and she expresses her surprise that a Jewish male would make such a request of a Samaritan female.
The author, John, even comments that "Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans," suggesting that Jesus expected to share a common water dipper with a person of the opposite sex and one racially and religiously ostracized by his culture. Moreover, this woman is drawing water alone at noon, the heat of the day. Women drew water at Sychar in the cool of the morning. Later on in the story, we learn that she fails the "family values" test. No wonder she draws water alone! So Jesus and the new age, the reign and coming realm of Jesus breaks down barriers - Jews and Samaritans, males and females, accepted and questionable ethics. Even Jesus reminds the Samaritan woman that salvation is of the Jews, for he too was a child of his culture but new converts from Samaria stretch that theology to confess that Jesus is the "Savior of the world." Worship itself is no longer centered in places like the Jerusalem temple or Mount Gerizhim.
So the church needs to be reminded on this third Sunday in Lent that the people of Christ are to welcome, include and work along side in ministry and mission with women and men, boys and girls of differing and divergent culture, race, political party, country of origin. Said the Apostle Paul to the Galatians, "There is no longer Jew or Greek. There is no longer slave or free. There is no longer male or female for all of you are one in Christ Jesus."
God commanded Moses to strike the rock, and not only water would flow but "I," said the Lord, "I will be standing there in front of you." At Lent we are reminded by John's gospel that Jesus was struck by the high priest's police and the prison guards during his interrogation while blind folded with the mocking words, "Prophesy then! Who struck you?" At Lent we are reminded that from Jesus' spear-pierced side on the cross flowed blood and water. God's word to Moses was never more true than at Calvary, "I will be standing there!" At Lent we are reminded that a Samaritan woman's eyes were opened to Jesus' full humanity, and full divinity. Indeed he was her, and our, "Savior of the world." And at Lent we are reminded that the church is wildly inclusive.
So we at Westminster this Easter hold out our hands and hearts of welcome to all! Blessed Lent to you!
For the grass withers and the flower fades but the promises of God abide forever.
Westminster Presbyterian Church