3rd Sunday in Lent

March 3, 2002
See Also: 

Lenten Candle Liturgy
John Cobb on redemption
Biblical Preaching on the Death of Jesus (Cobb)

Reading 1: 
Exodus 17:1-7
Reading 2: 
Psalm 95
Reading 3: 
Romans 5:1-11
Reading 4: 
John 4:5-42
By Keith McPaul

Who is testing who? Little by little the Children of Israel are being dragged 'screaming and kicking' towards the 'truth'. They have made it out of the "wilderness of Sin" to a point where they recognize that the Lord is directing their journey, but then they find that their trust in God's ability to look after them fails. Of course they need water! But if God had brought them this far surely they should trust that their physical needs would be met. Moses asks why they "test the Lord". The 'journey in the wilderness' is both a physical journey to the Promised Land and a journey of learning about God. But is the journey also a time when the Lord is testing the Israelites? What sort of people are they, will they learn to trust God enough to carry out their role as the 'chosen people'? Of course God provides for their physical needs, but the real lesson comes from Moses' final question, "Is the Lord among you or not?" How is it possible for God to test (or tempt) anyone? In a meditation on the Lord's Prayer, Swami Prabhavananda, a Vedanta Hindu, asks whether the "whole universe is not one gigantic temptation?" God has "conjured up the magic of creation, preservation, and destruction" of the universe. We can become so fascinated with seeing God in the universe that we forget that God dwells within our hearts. We see the universe and want to enjoy its objects and attractions. "We then become slaves to the temptation of God's universe and live in bondage to ignorance and the cravings of our ego." It is only when we 'see God' in ourselves that we can experience God everywhere, within every creature and object, and we recognize that "the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours now and forever." When we ask in the Lord's Prayer that we are not put to the time of trial; are we saying that we can be trusted, that we have faith that the "Lord is among" us, and guiding us, and that we are prepared to listen?

Romans 5:1-11
For Paul the 'cross' brings into focus the past, the present, and the future. He can say that, "while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly." "Therefore", "we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ", and a new life now begins. In that new life we are all justified by faith and can all boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. In this short passage Paul brings together so many important ideas. John Proctor of Westminster College, Cambridge likens it to a railway junction. "It is the transition stage in the long connected argument of Romans." Paul is amazed that God did not wait for people to clean up their act and become 'deserving' before acting in Christ to deliver them, but acted "while we were still weak." Was the 'period of testing' over? Did God have sufficient evidence to show that the 'chosen people' were now ready, had they 'suffered' and 'endured' enough to develop sufficient character to 'hope'? Or was this part of a new plan? God acts with the world as it is, and Paul thinks that the time of testing is over and that with Jesus the time was right for the whole world to be reconciled to God. The time was right for 'justification', for all to be claimed as God's people, welcome in a secure relationship with God. This would not be just a legal relationship, but one nourished by God's grace.

Confident hope also has a solid foundation in God's love; God took the initiative "while we were still sinners." Moreover, "while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son." Paul says that this proves God's love for us. If Christ's death demonstrates God's love for sinners, his resurrection life assures us our future deliverance from any fear of condemnation. The future tense of verses 9 and 10 points to a confidence that physical death is not the end of the story. Because Jesus lives, we shall live. Justification ensures a life to come. Quoting from Marjorie Suchocki's book, God-Christ Church, "The revelation of God that takes place through Jesus' life, crucifixion, and resurrection is one that takes us to increasing depths of the divine nature." In the life of Jesus we see a manifestation of God's love, and the love of God is such that God desires our well-being. The transforming process whereby the world is integrated into God is a judgment against that which separates us from well-being and a transformation into the depths of God's love. "The result of this transforming judgment is the final reconciliation of all things in the depths of God."

John 4: 5-42
God wanted reconciliation with all people, but the Jewish Religion excluded those who were not of the 'chosen people'; the Jews had corrupted God's intention. There are so many issues in this story, human need, water, and human frailty. Jesus also breaks down accepted taboos in talking to not just a woman but also a hated Samaritan, and a woman of 'very suspect morals' to boot. There are the important metaphors of 'living water' and 'food' and the 'gift of God' that can be elaborated upon. However, to me, the message that seems to best fit the pattern of today's readings is the role of Jesus in extending the Kingdom of God. There are parallels between Jesus' conversation with the Samaritan woman and his earlier words with Nicodemus. The metaphor may be different, but the intention is the same: to encourage another marginal group into the fullness of Christian faith and life. It is interesting that encouragement needs to be given both to the 'outsiders' to come on board and to the 'insiders' to accept them. So often the Disciples did not see this need, and we can see evidence of it still in our own Churches! Among those who believe in the "Savior of the world", there is no room for the prejudice that despises race or gender.

The Samaritans worshiped God in a Temple on Mount Gerizim, and the Jews did not accept the legitimacy of this worship. Historically the Jews have regarded the Temple at Jerusalem as the abode of God, and that is where people must worship the 'one true God'. Although the Samaritan woman seems to respect the primacy of the those that "worship in Jerusalem," Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza says that she makes a "theological argument against limiting the inclusive messianic table community of Jesus to Israel alone." Jesus agrees with her, much to the consternation of the Disciples; he says, "The hour is coming, and is now here, when true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him." God is not to be restricted to time and place, the 'great I AM' can only be worshiped in "spirit and truth."

It is interesting to follow the Samaritan woman's development of understanding and faith. She first sees Jesus as a Jewish man; he then becomes a prophet, then the prophet, the Messiah and finally the "Saviour of the world'. The woman still remains a Samaritan, but is an evangelist who brings others to see and know Jesus as the Messiah. Schussler says that she is no doubt a sign of the historical leadership role that women had in opening up Jesus' movement and community to "gentile 'sinners'." During Jesus' journey to Jerusalem we find that the Disciples and many others are also on a 'journey of faith.'

Psalm 95
When we read this wonderful Psalm we have to think that the Israelites got it right at least some of the time. The Rule of St. Benedict, written in the early sixth century, speaks of his monks getting out of bed while it is still dark and going to the oratory for matins, and urges the wider-awake ones to encourage the sleepy ones with a stirring rendition of "Come, let us sing to the Lord." The morning begins with praise of the Creator God, and reminds us to listen to the Lord throughout the rest of the day. The Lord will be here, if we do not hear, it is because we have hardened our hearts in the same way that the Israelites hardened their hearts in the wilderness.