Sunday, February 27, 2005

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

Let us come before his presence with thanksgiving; Let us make a joyful noise unto him with psalms.

I grew up in beautiful Pennsylvania where the foothills of Appalachian Mountains are covered with trees that turn brilliant colors in the fall. Though these hills make for beautiful scenery, they provided some difficulty for developers who wanted to make it accessible to vehicles. It is impossible to build perfectly straight roads through this type of terrain because it would be too difficult for vehicles to climb the grades necessary to get over the hills. Many of the roads wind up one side of the mountain and down the other, adding miles on to journey.

When it was possible, the developers cut into and through the mountain to make room for the road. This may seem like the more expensive option, cutting through a mountain can’t be easy. But the reality is that they could carefully dynamite into the rock, leaving behind a gap with steep rocky cliffs on either side. In one case, a tunnel was built right through the middle of the mountain cutting at least ten miles from the path they would have to take around it.

These rock cliffs might sound like they are an ugly addition to the wonderful landscape in Pennsylvania, and yet somehow they have a rugged beauty. In some places you can see colorful layers of rock. The many wildflowers that have taken root in the cracks and crevices of the cliffs remind us how nature is able to bounce back. In some ways it was better to cut the gaps in the mountains than to destroy miles of forestland to build the roads. During the winter these cliffs are covered with icicles that look like frozen waterfalls.

Below the surface of these mountains are springs of fresh, clean water that eventually become mountain streams and then feed into the larger rivers in Pennsylvania. When the road builders cut into the mountains, they often let loose these springs, which now trickle down the cliffs like miniature water falls. The water is cool and refreshing and it is not unusual to see people by the side of these roads filling containers with this water.

The same water collects in puddles beside the road, but no one would ever consider collecting that water into containers to drink. Once it has settled, particularly in the heat of the day, the water becomes rancid and polluted. Bugs make it their home and the water is mixed with the dirt of the earth and of man making it undrinkable.

Spring water is far better than any other type of water. Since it is constantly moving, impurities are unable to contaminate it and the rocks through which it runs helps to remove any dirt that might change the flavor. It is cool, clean and delicious to drink. It is also much better for quenching one’s thirst.

Our Old Testament lesson for this week tells about the Exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt. There is no doubt that this must have been a difficult journey. They were sad to leave behind their old life, afraid of what was to come next. They did not know if they could find food, water, or safe haven from the elements. They did not know what enemies they would face. They were tired, hungry and thirsty – very real needs. All they had to move them forward were the promises of God.

In today’s lesson the Hebrews began complaining to Moses, “Give us water to drink.” There was no water at the place where they were to camp and the human body needs water to survive. They also had to care for the needs of their livestock. Moses, who could not have been feeling much more confident about things – he could not provide water for the people, he had to rely on God too – received the brunt of their complaints. He answered them, “Why strive ye with me? Wherefore do ye tempt Jehovah?” The wilderness experience was to help the Hebrews trust in the LORD their God; moments like this were designed to test their trust. How would they react to their thirst, would they seek God’s grace or would they complain? Not only did they complain, but they began blaming Moses for leading them to this difficulty. Eventually their complaints reach far beyond their immediate needs and they complain about the things they want and they would blame Moses for leading them to their death.

Moses went to the LORD in fear, “They want to stone me, what should I do?” The LORD led him to a place with water – not a lake or a well, but a spring flowing out of a rock. The place was called Massah and Meribah, “because of the striving of the children of Israel, and because they tempted Jehovah, saying, Is Jehovah among us, or not?” 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 life they left behind in Egypt was not better than what they faced in the wilderness, but they were comfortable with slavery because it was familiar to them. The wilderness offered nothing but death. They forgot the promise and distrusted the covenant. They saw only suffering and pain. They were willing to drink rancid water to avoid the journey which would deepen their relationship with God, the living water.

The Samaritan woman in today’s Gospel lesson was looking for water. We don’t know why she was at the well at noon; it was an unusual time for a woman to be on the edge of town. Some have suggested that her town must have had a well much closer, but for some reason she has gone out of her way to go to Jacob’s well. Perhaps she is an outcast; it is not unreasonable for us to think that something is unusual about a woman who’s had five husbands. Her first five husbands may have died. Wouldn’t we question the care giving abilities of a woman who’s buried five men? The previous husbands may have 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. She may have been the type of woman who made poor choices in relationships, always choosing the jerk.

At the very least, she was not married to the current man in her household. It is not surprising that the other women would set her apart and look down on her. Whatever the reason for her current lifestyle, she went to the well alone. She did not have the company of other women to share her fears, hopes and dreams. A trip to the well at the edge of a town could have been dangerous for a woman; she had no one to help her stay safe. 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. Yet, the well was a long way and she would have wasted so much time. Did she try to avoid his eyes? Did her body language speak to the walls that divided the two people who shared a common need? After all, the Jews and the Samaritans did not share anything. 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 don’t know from the words on the page the way she responded to Jesus. 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? There may have been a sense of 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.

Jesus answered, “If thou knewest the gift of God, and who it is that saith to thee, Give me to drink; thou wouldest have asked of him, and he would have given thee living water.“ Now, Jacob’s well was an ancient well, perhaps two thousand years old. It obviously still had water or else she would not have been there. Although well water is cool and relatively clean, there is nothing better than the flowing waters from a spring. When Jesus talked of living water, she probably thought he was referring to a spring. She wanted to know where He found such water. It had to be close, He had no bucket and he could not get into the well. She said, “Art thou greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well, and drank thereof himself, and his sons, and his cattle?”

This question would have brought to mind the reality that Jesus and the Samaritan woman shared a common ancestor and it would have changed the atmosphere at the well. Samaritans were half-breeds; they were Jews that had mixed with other nationalities. They were put down by the Jews, cast out of the religious fellowship that was their birthright. So, they had established a religious home of their own, founded upon the life of Jacob. Jesus was offering something better – living water. She must have been taken aback that He, who was out of His element, was insinuating that He was better than Jacob.

Then she heard about the water. “Every one that drinketh of this water shall thirst again: but whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall become in him a well of water springing up unto eternal life.” This is definitely better water, because it means that she will never have to return to the well or carry heavy buckets of water to her home. She says, “Sir, give me this water.”

The conversation began with Jesus stating His need for water from the woman who has the ability to give it to him, and then it is turned around to the woman stating her need for the water which Jesus has to give. She still thinks it is water that will satisfy her physical needs. However, Jesus had something different in mind.

To receive this living water, she must be honest about herself. Jesus says, “Bring your husband.” She doesn’t lie by saying that she has none, but she does not fully reveal herself to Jesus. He answers, “Thou saidst well, I have no husband: for thou hast had five husbands; and he whom thou now hast is not thy husband: this hast thou said truly.” Her perception of this man at the well is changed by Jesus’ comments. She no longer sees Him as a stranger or an enemy, but rather now she sees that He is a prophet.

They have a common ancestor, but they do not worship the same. “Our fathers worshipped in this mountain; and ye say, that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.” She wants to know what makes them so different. Why are there two places to worship God and two ways to do so? Why are they outcast – set aside and rejected from fellowship with other children of Abraham? Why would asking a Samaritan woman at a well make a Jew unclean? Why do the Jews think they are better than others?

Jesus tells her that worship is not about where or who you are, but rather it is about knowing the One whom you worship. The Samaritans had lost touch with the God of their Fathers. They only held to the Books of Moses. They only knew the Law; they did not know the prophets. They did not know about the salvation that was to come from God. He answers her questions with the promise that the day was coming when the walls that divide the people of God would be torn down because God would bring reconciliation to His people. “But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and truth: for such doth the Father seek to be his worshippers.”

According to this story, the woman seems to have some knowledge of the Messiah but it is unlikely she would have fully understood what this Messiah would mean to the world. However, they too – the Samaritans – are waiting for someone to teach them and help them to make sense of the things of God. Jesus answered, “I that speak unto thee am he.”

This is an incredible revelation and she is the first to hear it proclaimed. She is startled by the return of the disciples who quickly challenge her presence. “What is she doing here?” She left so quickly she forgot her water jar, and she went into the city unconcerned about what others might think. “I met a man who knew everything about me. Could He be the one we are waiting for?” Many in that town believed and they went out to meet Jesus. He stayed with them for two days and taught them about the Kingdom of God. In the end they said to the woman, “Now we believe, not because of thy speaking: for we have heard for ourselves, and know that this is indeed the Saviour of the world.”

Meanwhile the disciples came back and faced the same sort of questions about Jesus. Why was He interacting with the woman? Why wasn’t He hungry? Surely He had not eaten some food she might have given Him. Jesus continued to break down the walls between people, separating flesh from spirit. Worship, obedience to God, had nothing to do with the rules they had established for themselves. Rather it was about rejoicing and praising God together that the work of God was being accomplished in the lives of His people. There was something more important than meeting the physical needs of people happening in Jesus’ ministry.

The Hebrews 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 blessings 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.

Paul writes, “Being therefore justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ; through whom also we have had our access by faith into this grace wherein we stand; and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.” The Hebrews did not have peace with God because they were not living by faith. They tested God and quarreled with Moses rather than living in the hope of God’s promises. The Samaritan woman did not understand the hope she could have in Jesus, but when she heard His message she found peace in trusting His words. She was not justified by her works, but by her faith in Jesus.

Jesus came to the well and waited for the woman. He called out to her and relieved her fears, answered her questions and offered her something better than she had. God has done the same for us. “But God commendeth his own love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”

The Samaritans and Jews were enemies – they could not or would not fellowship with one another based on their differences. Yet, the difference between God and man was even greater. We have sinned against Him in our own testing and demands. We have not trusted in His Word or waited for His grace. We never deserved the grace He came to give, we deserved only death. Yet, Paul writes, “For if, while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, shall we be saved by his life; and not only so, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation.” The reconciliation we have is not only between God and man, but it is also between men. We no longer need to separate ourselves from others or fear the unknown. We need only walk in the faith we have been given through Jesus Christ our Lord. We can rejoice and praise God together because He has broken the walls we built to divide.

The psalmist tells us what happened to those who did not trust in the Lord. “Forty years long was I grieved with that generation, And said, It is a people that do err in their heart, And they have not known my ways: Wherefore I sware in my wrath, That they should not enter into my rest.” Those who did not trust in God did not know the peace He had to give. Yet, when we look to God as the rock of our salvation, we can join with others and reconciled to one another and to God by the love and mercy of Jesus Christ. We can live in the hope He gives through faith. We can partake of the living water which is so much better than the water that is left to stagnate and poison our souls. We can share that flowing water with others because Jesus has broken down the walls that have divided us for so long. “Let us come before his presence with thanksgiving; Let us make a joyful noise unto him with psalms.” Thanks be to God.

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