Sunday, February 24, 2008

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

But God commendeth his own love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, being now justified by his blood, shall we be saved from the wrath of God through him.

There is a statement many use, “Those who can’t do, teach.” It is a claim that those who become teachers, particularly of specific subjects, do so because they can’t make it in the ‘real world.’ In other words, they mean that a drama teacher could not make it on the stage or a business professor could not be successful in business. The statement questions the integrity of the teacher because it assumes that the teacher is less gifted or capable than a professional in the field.

People questioned Paul’s credibility, although for a different reason. Paul suffered. We do not know the source of all his sufferings. He had some illness that is not specifically defined that caused him pain. For the people in Paul’s day, any sort of suffering was considered a sign of that person’s unrighteousness. The righteous person, the person in a right relationship with God, would not be ill or suffering. Paul was also suffering under the hands of enemies. Surely God would protect him from that pain? Paul’s credibility was questioned because he did not appear to be a godly person. He did not appear to have God’s favor upon him.

Most of us do not want to think this way, but it is natural for us to attribute suffering to sinfulness. We think that omeone who is blessed by God would not, could not, experience the pain of illness or brokenness. If God’s hand is upon them, then surely He will protect them from all harm. There is a huge market for this type of theology in our world today. All too many so-called preachers proclaim a ‘gospel’ that says if you do what is right by God, then God will do what is right for you. “Right for you” is defined as health, wealth, success: a perfect life. 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.

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.

They grumbled. I understand. I get pretty testy under difficult circumstances. I know what it is like to wish I was back at a painful place because at least it is familiar. The unknown is scary. It is uncomfortable. It is worse than the worst places that we know. The people went to Moses and asked, “Wherefore hast thou brought us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our cattle with thirst?” When we are uncomfortable, the worst that can happen is what we believe will happen. We are thirsty so we must die.

God heard their cries, just as He heard their cries in Egypt. In this story we are reminded that in those times when it seems like God is nowhere near to us, He is very near. God seemed to be far away, but He knew 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 also 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 know—that even when we quarrel and test the LORD, He is still close by to meet our needs.

We don’t always understand our needs. Our gospel lesson is a story about another thirsty person, but she was actively providing for her own needs. She was at the well getting her water for the day. Her story is unusual in that she was at the well alone at an odd time of day. Perhaps she was an outcast. It is not unreasonable to think so, since she is a woman who’s had five husbands. We don’t know her story. Her first five husbands may have died. Even if that is the case, wouldn’t we question the care giving abilities of a woman who’s buried five men? Perhaps her previous husbands divorced her. It was lawful for a man to get rid of a woman for no good reason. If she did not please him in some way, he could send her away. The men may have had good reason to let her go, or she may have made poor choices in her relationships.

She was not married to the current man in her household, and so it is not surprising that the other women set her apart and look down on her. Whatever the reason for her current lifestyle, she did not have the company of other women to share her fears, hopes and dreams. She was alone.

I wonder how she felt when she neared the well and saw Jesus sitting there. I wonder if she thought about turning around. Did she try to avoid his eyes? Did her body language speak to the walls that divided these two people? The Jews and the Samaritans had nothing to do with one another. She was also a woman—it would have been improper for them to speak. He should not have asked anything of her or taken anything she might have offered.

She did not turn around; she went to the well to get her water. Even if she tried to avoid His eyes, Jesus spoke to her. “Give me a drink.” We can’t tell the tone of her response. She said, “How is it that you ask me for a drink?” Was she shocked or frightened? Were the words challenging or was her tone of voice submissive? She may have answered with compassion; after all they were two people who shared a common need—the need for water. Jesus’ request opened the door for conversation. He was waiting by the well because they had a divine appointment. He was there to share the kingdom of God with her but she needed to be invited into the conversation.

Water was the one thing that the woman could give to Jesus. She might have been able to supply food, but she did not have any with her. She had only a bucket and a well. Jesus may or may not have been thirsty, but the only thing she could give Him was water. The imagery in today’s Gospel lesson is reminiscent of some of the great love stories of the Old Testament. Moses met Zipporah by a well. Jacob met Rachel by a well. Abraham’s servant found Rebekkah, Isaac’s wife by a well. We see a similar love story building in this story.

Jesus invited the woman to dance. The dance was in words, but it was a dance all the same. She began hesitant. She was uncertain whether or not she wanted a relationship, so responded with a question. “Who are you that you would speak to me?” We might respond in a similar way to a stranger on the street. Jesus drew her in by offering her something greater than He was asking from her. Slowly, but surely, He developed a relationship with her that was based on far more than her ability to give Him anything. She was, after all, everything that He should have hated—a Samaritan, a woman and a sinner. He saw beyond the surface and met her deepest needs. By the time the dance was over, she was ready to go tell everyone about the man that she met at the well. She invited them into the dance. She invited them to meet the Messiah.

The Israelites in the desert were thirsty, but it was important for them to see beyond their physical need. Unfortunately, they had difficulty seeing beyond their need to the blessedness of trusting in God’s provision. They tested God, complained about Moses and expected things to be as they wanted them to be. The Samaritan woman began her conversation with Jesus in the same state of mind. She was physically thirsty and she had difficulty seeing that she had a deeper thirst that could not be satisfied with the well water. She needed to trust in Jesus. He gave her reason to trust and she took the living water He gave to her and gave it to others. She believed and found peace in her world.

Israel was God’s chosen people. Their grumbling did not stop Him from being faithful to His promises. Despite their failures—in the desert and throughout their history—He remained close to them. His hand was always near, even when it did not appear so. The woman by the well was imperfect. She questioned Jesus, doubted what He had to say, but He continued to lead her into an understanding that made her a witness to His grace. Their journeys were different, but their thirst the same. They needed God and God touched their deepest needs.

There are places where you can go to hunt for treasure. Crater of Diamonds State Park in Arkansas is one of those places. For a few dollars, everyone can go dig through a field that has been known to produce some of the most beautiful diamonds in the world. You get to keep whatever you find. It isn’t easy. We dug for hours and found little more than a few pretty rocks. However, we did not try very hard. We did not dig up buckets of dirt and take them to the sluice to wash the dirt away. Sometimes the rocks are hidden by dirt. It takes patience and water to find the gemstone underneath. We might have even had a diamond in our hands without knowing what it was. Nothing we saw looked like the diamonds we find in the jewelry store, but they are cleaned, cut and polished. A diamond in the rough might get tossed away because it does not look like we might expect.

We are diamonds in the rough. We are like the buried and worthless treasures that are dug up by our Lord Jesus Christ, who finds us and cleans us up and then takes us through the process of making us a beautiful jewel. It is hard sometimes. We are tested. We fail. We won’t be perfect in this world. But Jesus doesn’t throw us away. He keeps with it, polishing, cutting, forming—always moving forward. The process might be like the wilderness journey of the Israelites, with testing and suffering and doubt. It might be like the conversation with the woman at the well, with questions and a change in understanding. However our faith journey appears to the world, it is a faith journey because God travels with us.

Paul writes about peace. For some many of us, peace comes when everything is perfect. When we are safe, healthy and comfortable, then we will have peace. We see the blessed life as one filled with good things, just as they did in Paul’s day. All too many pastors preach that if you appear successful, then God’s hand must surely be on you. They see suffering as a sign that something is wrong between man and God. However, Paul gives us a different perspective. He says, “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.”

Suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; character, hope. (NIV) We don’t end with peace, or gain peace when everything is perfect. We begin with peace, knowing that God has justified us through grace which we have through Jesus Christ. Having that peace does not mean that nothing bad will ever happen to us. As a matter of fact, the suffering we face in Christ will actually strengthen us. As we persevere through our suffering, the world sees our character and our character gives them hope. People are amazed by those who still believe in the midst of great suffering. They see hope in the life of the faithful and they see God in that hope. Though some might question the integrity of a Christian in suffering, it is the very peace they experience in the midst of suffering that stands as a sign of their faith to the world.

What is most amazing about this is that we are really very small and inconsequential. While most of us are able to recognize that we are a just a tiny spot on the face of the earth, we also forget our insignificance. There are times when we think that the entire creation revolves around us. This is especially true when we are in the midst of some sort of suffering. The Israelites in the wilderness knew nothing but their thirst. They did not remember their suffering in slavery or God’s deliverance from Egypt. They knew only that they needed water. At Meribah and Massah they were reminded of God’s presence and His grace. In the midst of their suffering, God was there ready to meet their needs.

Though God made the heavens and the earth, though He created the vast oceans, the land and all that lives here, though He controls it all with His hands—He also knows my name. At my baptism He gave me that name, child of God, daughter of the Most High. The God of all creation has given me a share of His eternal kingdom through Jesus Christ. We are reminded that even though we are little more than a speck on the face of this earth, no matter what our circumstances that God is near and that He is ready to meet our needs. As we live in God’s promises, even when we fail to be faithful, we can rest in the knowledge that He will never fail. He is faithful even when we are not. There we find peace: in the waters of baptism and in the living water that continues to sanctify us as we journey through life in this world.

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