Sunday, March 27, 2010

Third Sunday in Lent
Exodus 17:1-7
Psalm 95
Romans 5:1-11
John 4:5-42

For Jehovah is a great God, And a great King above all gods.

Liquefaction is a process that occurs in the earth, especially in sandy or dense soils. I donít understand how it occurs, exactly, but it is apparently a phenomenon that can happen during an earthquake. Before the shaking, the soil particles touch one another, holding firm and stable. During an earthquake, the shaking separates the particles, allowing water in between, making each particle like an island. The effect of this liquefaction is like quicksand. As pressure is applied to the soil, the water has to go somewhere, and it is usually forced upward, spouting out of the ground like a geyser. The water seems to come out of nowhere.

A few years ago, when we were in a period of extreme weather, constant rain and flooding, those who lived near the aquifer found their yards spotted with springs. The aquifer could not hold all the water that was collecting from the rain, so it sprung through the surface. This makes sense, because the water is coming from a place where it might be expected under the circumstances. But the liquefaction doesnít make sense because it comes from a place not generally expected to have water. There is always water in the ground, even when we are very dry, but we would never expect a geyser to explode out of the ground right now. It just might if we had an earthquake, due to this phenomenon called liquefaction.

We have it easy. All we have to do to get water is to turn on a faucet. Some of us even have water that comes out cold right from our refrigerator. It wasnít so easy in the ancient times. They didnít have water flowing into their homes. Towns were built around a single source of water, usually a well, that provided all their needs. The water was not purified. It was not really cold, and it didnít stay cool after it was drawn. Sometimes the water in the well got mucky, especially after all the women had drawn their water for the day. The wells were deep, and required a bucket that was lowered on a rope.

A woman approached the only source of water for her town, a well that was built in the days of Jacob. She arrived late in the day, long after the other women had collected their water. She was unwelcome, a sinner who was living with a man (her sixth), so she visited the well after the other women returned to their homes. By then the sun was hot and the water was tepid. But at least she could go without hearing the scorn in the other womenís voices. She wanted to avoid others, to live her lonely life without witnesses or adversaries.

Much to her surprise, a man was sitting at the well. He had no reason to be there. He was alone, without transportation, or bags, or even a pack with supplies. She could not know why he was there, and he might even have caused her fear. She was alone. With no witnesses, he could do anything to her. She could be raped or killed. She could disappear, and no one would know the difference or worse: no one would even care. At the very least, he could easily assume she was trouble because she was at the well at such an odd hour. Would he be the one to persecute her?

She didnít know this was a divine appointment, one designed by God to spread His good word to a village outside the borders of expectation. She was chosen, out of all the women, to be the one to take the Good News of Godís Kingdom to her people. Thatís the way God works, bringing water out of the dry places, creating geysers where there is no water.

We see how God provides life-giving water to His people in the Old Testament story from Exodus. The people have been wandering for awhile; they are getting tired and hungry and thirsty. Theyíve seen the hand of God, experienced His mercy and grace, and yet constantly find reasons to complain. In todayís story, despite God proving that He will provide clean, fresh water (15:27), they complained to Moses about the lack of water. They tested God, demanding more proof that He will take care of them. The wanderers had no hope, they could see no solution to their problem, they did not trust God or ask Him to supply their needs, they complained to Moses. ďWherefore hast thou brought us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our cattle with thirst?Ē They were ready to kill Moses.

The Israelites were on a difficult journey. They had cried out for the salvation of the LORD in Egypt, hoping that He would deliver them from the life of slavery into a better world. Once they were on that journey, however, they began to think that the life they had in Egypt was better than the uncertainty of where they would get their next drink. They were thirsty, and their thirst was all they could think about. Imagine what it must have been like having a million people camping in the desert with no source for water.

God heard their cries, and despite the demanding and untrusting tone, God responded. He didnít offer them water to prove Himself, but to remind His people that He was there with them. They saw only their suffering and did not trust that God would do something about it. They did not ask Godís help, they demanded evidence of Godís control.

In those times when it seems like God is far away, He is actually very near and He knows the needs of His people. They needed water, but they also needed to learn how to trust in Him. They were being led from one life to a very different life. The wilderness journey was not only meant to get them from one place to another, but to help them transform into the people God was calling them to be. He was teaching them about faith, about hope and about relying on the One who would provide for their every need. They quarreled and tested, but God still provided. This is good for us to knowóthat even when we quarrel and test the LORD, He is still close by to meet our needs.

In their very real need, the Hebrews wondered if God was really with them. If He were, then why would He allow them to be thirsty? The LORD led Moses to a place with water, although it didnít seem like a place where water could flow. It was a rock. The people wanted to stone Moses, but God stoned themówith water from a rock. He stood on the rock and commanded Moses to strike it. When he did so, using the rod that he used in Egypt, the water began to flow.

The people tested God, but in reality it was the people who were being tested. Would they be faithful? Would they trust God? Would they learn how to live as His people in the place where they were being led? We think that suffering is a sign of Godís abandonment; they certainly did in the days of the desert wandering. Health, wealth, success are the signs of a perfect life, at least we tend to think so. The reality is so different. Faith and faithfulness does not guarantee a lack of suffering. Faith and faithfulness helps us to get through everything we have to face in this life.

Paul writes, ďAnd not only so, but we also rejoice in our tribulations: knowing that tribulation worketh stedfastness; and stedfastness, approvedness; and approvedness, hope: and hope putteth not to shame; because the love of God hath been shed abroad in our hearts through the Holy Spirit which was given unto us.Ē God did not abandon His people, He allowed circumstances that would make them turn to Him. Unfortunately, when we face those circumstances, we often harden our hearts instead of seek Godís grace.

Listen to the tone of the womanís answers to Jesus. She is very distant, uninterested, perhaps even afraid. She is surprised that He would have anything to do with her. When He offers her a drink, she is offended and becomes defensive, wondering how He could offer her anything better than her forefather, Jacob. She becomes interested when she hears that the water will make her life better. She wonít suffer thirst and is willing to believe that He can provide it. She humbly admits her failing when He asks her to bring her husband, and she is amazed when He can provide details that she does not give. Her fear of a strange man turns into respect for a prophet in just a few sentences. Then He spoke the promise of God into her life and revealed Himself as the One for whom they had been waiting. In this encounter, Jesus moved her from fear to hope to faith. Whatever her failings, she experienced the presence of God. She was a rock, hard of heart, but Jesus touched her and the living water flowed out of her into the lives of others.

Now, when the disciples returned to see Him speaking with the woman, they were confused and perhaps even upset. They wanted to know why she was talking to Him, and why He was talking to her. Iím sure they wanted to protect Him from women like her. They took care of Jesusí physical needs, while He took care of their spiritual needs. Just as He gave the woman water to drink when she was the only one who had a bucket, He gave the disciples food to eat even though they were the ones to go into the village for food.

As Iím rambling through these texts, I can see an emerging pattern. We think we do for God, or to God, when Heís actually doing for, and to, us. We test God, He tests us. We share our physical resources, He gives us everything we need. We want to stone those who do not meet our expectations, and He stones us with His love and mercy and grace. Perhaps that sounds a little odd, since stoning is definitely not a positive action. It is a violent, awful practice. Yet, donít we sometimes feel like weíve been stoned by something we do not understand? Donít we sometimes feel like we have been pushed down into the earth, left bleeding and dying? The Israelites certainly felt that way.

We can respond to those moments two ways. First, we can harden our hearts, let the experience of suffering and pain make us angry, bitter and resentful. We can blame others, like the Israelites did to Moses. We can even blame God. We can complain and provoke Him, demand justice and expect that He will do our will. Do you know anyone like that? I know a man who is able to find fault with everything and everybody that doesnít meet his very specific demands. The slightest problems are due to the failings of others, even if it is proven that the trouble is from his own failure. He is angry and negative. He is unwilling to look at the problem from any other point of view, and if it is called to his attention that perhaps some fault lies in his corner, he gets even angrier and more negative. He attacks with nasty and spiteful responses, calls people names and refuses to see anything positive in his opponents. And everyone is an opponent. His heart is hard. He has no faith or hope or peace.

The other response is that of the woman at the well. We might start out angry or afraid, but with a willing heart we can see Godís grace in our circumstance. Suffering has a positive effect on our lives, because it helps us turn to God and seek His help. Paul tells us that suffering produces perseverance, which produces character, which produces hope. And hope doesnít disappoint because hope is based on Godís promises. He said Heíd be near. He didnít say our life would be perfect, but He promised Heíd be with us. When it seems like He is far away, He is always much closer than we expect. He is listening, waiting, preparing to do whatever we need. If we harden our hearts, we do not see the grace He gives. If we trust in Godís faithfulness, weíll be at peace even in those times of trouble. God does not act in response to our righteousness, but to fulfill His promises.

The Israelites asked, ďIs Jehovah among us, or not?Ē Perhaps we ask the same question, especially when we are in the midst of trouble. Thankfully God does not wait for us to repent, or even to seek His help. He provides what we need whether we deserve it or not. He doesnít give us what we want; He gives us what we need. There is a difference. We may think we need to win the multimillion dollar lottery, but we need to rely on Him. We may think we need that fancy house, but we need to be in a place where we can share Godís grace with others. We may think we need a charmed life, but we need a life that reflects Godís grace. When we were weak, God sent Jesus to die for us. When we are strong, we miss the good things God can do. If we do not trust God, weíll never experience His rest.

The psalmist recalls the experience of the Israelites in the first lesson, reminding us not to harden our hearts. Instead, we are invited to sing to God and praise His name. He is able to make springs of water flow out of rocks, to give living water without a bucket. He is with us, ready to offer us the entire Kingdom and all of creation to meet all our needs. He has even given His Son for our sake. ďFor Jehovah is a great God, And a great King above all gods.Ē We might get shaken, as the earth is shaken by an earthquake, as we realize our unworthiness and humble ourselves before Him, But as we hear His word with our hearts, Heíll make geysers explode or springs of living water flow from our lives, so that we can tell others about the Messiah who is near and invite them to ďCome and see.Ē

A WORD FOR TODAY
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