Sunday, March 23, 2014

Third Sunday in Lent
Exodus 17:1-7
Psalm 95
Romans 5:1-11
John 4:5-26 [27-30, 39-42]

Jesus answered and said unto her, 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.

Have you ever really thought about how quickly Jesus went in and out of people’s lives? Their experience was often a very brief encounter but the effects were long lasting. He healed their dis-ease and cast out their demons. He taught them about the Kingdom of God and forgave their sins. Their lives were changed but just a few minutes of conversation and interaction.

The text from John is one of the longer readings we find in our lectionary, and it is an extremely long story about one particular woman, and yet as we read it we realize that the conversation between Jesus and the woman must have lasted just a few minutes. Her life was completely changed by the encounter, as she saw the realization of God’s promise’s Messiah in the man Jesus. Her faith, built on just a few questions and answers, was shared with many in her village and then spread among the people of Samaria. When the disciples dispersed into the world to continue Jesus’ ministry, they found that Samaria already believed because faith in Jesus was established during this brief encounter.

Jesus had that kind of impact on people because He spoke words that were powerful and true. Jesus told the woman at the well that He could give her living water. This was significant to the woman, whose noontime trip to the well would produce stale and muddy water. See, she was outcast from the rest of the village, perhaps because of her living arrangement. We learn during her conversation that she’s been the wife of five husbands and she’s currently living with a man who is not her husband. Whatever the reason, she waits until the heat of the day to go to the well. The best time to draw water is in the early morning; during the night the silt which is stirred by the buckets has had time to settle, and the water is a little cooler after the night.

The trip to the well was more than a chore for the women, though. It was a time to socialize, to gather gossip, perhaps trade recipes. It was a time for the women to bond, to complain about their husbands, to share their hopes. Not only did the woman at the well have to deal with dirty water, she missed the companionship of the other women. Did she go later in the day because she was unwelcome? Or was she embarrassed by her circumstances and chose to avoid the women. Either way, I doubt she was interested in meeting a man at the well, especially a man like Jesus.

On this day, though, she was given a gift. She met Jesus and He changed her life. The living water of Jesus would not quench her thirst, but it would quench her need for relationship, first with Him and then with others in her community. She could not have been completely discarded by her neighbors because they believed her story that she had met a man who might be the Messiah for whom they were waiting. They believed enough to go out to the well and meet Him, too.

Her faith did not come easily. She was hesitant at the beginning. He reached her by asking her for the one thing she could give, water from the well. She was probably not given many opportunities to help her neighbors. There is such joy and fulfillment in doing something for others, and because of her history or her present, she has been left out. In this encounter, though, she seemed uncertain about whether or not she wanted a relationship. She responded with a question. “Who are you that you would speak to me?” She was defensive, perhaps embarrassed because her life was in shambles and afraid that He might treat her poorly.

Jesus drew her into the relationship by offering her something greater than He was asking from her. Slowly, but surely, He developed a connection with her that was based on far more than her ability to serve Him. She was everything that He should have hated—a Samaritan, a woman and a sinner—but He saw beyond the surface and met her deepest needs.

The Israelites were on a difficult journey. A million or more people were being led by a God they had forgotten through a harsh and thorny land. Today’s Old Testament lesson was early in the journey. They had not yet even made it to Mount Sinai. They were still being tested; they were still learning to trust in God. According to some estimation, they were probably only traveling about forty days when they arrived at Rephidim. Though they had cried out for the salvation of the LORD in Egypt, they already looked back on the life they led in slavery as better than the uncertainty of where they would get their next drink.

Water is one of the most basic needs of the human body. It is no wonder that they were thirsty. There was no water in the desert, and they had been traveling long enough that their resources were quickly diminishing. If our kids can’t stand a two hour car ride to Grandma’s house, how can we think that the Israelites would be patient during a forty day journey on foot?

But at this point they’ve seen some pretty miraculous things. They saw the miracles in Egypt. They saw the column of fire at night and cloud during the day which led them on their way. They saw the Red Sea part so they could safely pass and then eat Pharaoh’s army. They saw the bitter water of Marah and Elim miraculously become sweet. They saw the manna and quails fall from heaven, to feed them with satisfying food. I never realized how many of these miracles happened in such a short period of time. How could they become so discontented so quickly? I thought that was a modern problem! Even after God had provided safety, escape, clean water, bread and meat, they were still afraid that they would die.

They began to grumble. I understand. I get pretty testy when I’m uncomfortable. 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. They 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. The Israelites were so thirsty that they were sure they must die.

God tells Moses to go ahead of the people with his staff. “Behold, I will stand before thee there upon the rock in Horeb; and thou shalt smite the rock, and there shall come water out of it, that the people may drink.” This was not stale, murky water; it was clean fresh flowing water, good to drink. It was also a foreshadowing of the Living Water that Christ would give to the woman at the well. In that place, which Moses called Massah and Meribah because the Israelites quarreled and tested God, God stood on a rock, but in later days, Jesus would be the Rock from which the water flowed.

God heard their cries, and despite the demanding and untrusting tone, God responded. He didn’t 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 God’s help, they demanded evidence of God’s 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 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 know—that even when we quarrel and test the LORD, He is still close by to meet our needs.

The woman at the well quarreled and tested Jesus, but in the end she received a gift; she received faith in the Messiah, the One who would give her Living Water that would quench her thirst for lasting relationship with God. That Living Water didn’t stay pent up in the deep of her soul, though; she ran to the village to share the Good News. “Come, see a man, who told me all things that ever I did: can this be the Christ?” She learned in the encounter that God did not reject her because of her past or her present, and that He would still provide for her needs despite her quarreling and testing.

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 God’s 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, “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.

Paul also writes about peace. We often think that peace will only come when life is perfect. We believe that 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 hard times that stands as a sign of their faith to the world.

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.”

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