3rd Sunday in Lent

February 25, 2005
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 Rick Marshall

Continuing in the mood of Lent and the metaphor of forty days, signifying a time of temptation, we have a group of texts that focuses more tightly on the object of trust, which is God. The symbol of the life-giving power of God is water welling to give life. It is an active symbol, dynamic. We have already talked about brokenness in the primary relationship between Creator and creatures. The texts for today focus on the positive, using the image of water to meditate on the true source of well-being.  

The Exodus text deals directly with the physical necessity of water for life. The people of Israel are freshly released into the wilderness, and it is beginning to dawn on them that their freedom comes at a high degree of risk. When they turn their eyes away from Egypt, which now represents their troubled but known past, and look into the unknown future that the wilderness represents, they feel fearful and vulnerable before what they experience as a gaping void awaiting them. A chill runs through the tribe and they are afraid, standing on the brink of an unknown, unpredictable future. At least they had flesh pots while in bondage! Wilderness is the direction of temptation; it is the place where trust is hammered out in the grittiness of survival.  Which emotion will they act on: fear or trust? The temptation is to act on fear to begin to secure their own future.  

The text for today comes right after the story of the divine offer of manna. It is a story of the provision and sustenance of life that is given by God. The need for water is pressing, and, in a similar way, the reader would expect the people of Israel to learn from the offer of manna and have faith that God will provide water and to simply receive what God will provide. That is always the question before them: will God provide? That is always the question before us: Will God provide? But God does not provide according to their schedule. They need water now! They become desperate. The people insist that Moses do something. He rightly sees this as a demand to take their own future into their own hands, trusting themselves instead of trusting God. This is a problem that leads us back to the main theme from last Sunday. Who are we going to trust, ourselves or God? The question posed in the story is “Why do you put the Lord to the test?” meaning “Can we trust the Lord to do what we want or not?” Or “Is the Lord trustworthy or not?” Their panic answer is No. The question should be “Can we entrust our lives into God’s hands no matter what happens?” The story is a cautionary tale about how to answer this primary question of trust.

The story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well  from the Gospel of John is a nice play on the Exodus story. Water crops up in John several times. Water turned into wine. Washing the disciple’s feet. Baptism. Jesus walking on the water. Jesus as the Living Water. The final post-resurrection appearance by the sea and the challenge to the disciples to cast their empty net in the water on the other side of the boat. It’s no surprise that Jesus would appeal to those who worked with or near the water. Some of the disciples were fisherman and understood the dangers and possibilities of water. Water was a symbol of chaos and yet also the source of food, a metaphor for life and death. Those who worked the water gained respect for the mystery of water. In the background of our memories is the story from Genesis of “the Spirit of God moving over the face of the waters.”  

When we look at the first story in the Gospel of John of Jesus turning the water into wine, we see a simple story, quietly told, almost low-key. But it is a crucial story; it sets the parameters and terms of creative transformation, which is the basic idea of divine involvement in the world shown throughout the Gospel of John. The scene is a wedding and the host runs out of wine. Jesus’ mother appeals to him to do something and he resists. Yet he goes on to instruct the servants to fill six jars with water and then to take a sample to the wine steward. The wine steward tastes and compliments the bridegroom on the quality of the wine. And the wedding goes on with few people knowing what just happened. Jesus knew, the servants knew, and the reader knows what happened. But what do we really know other than the water became wine. No hocus-pocus. No chemistry experiment. It was a simple, inexplicable, transformation that was witnessed. But that’s the whole point: we experience the creating, transforming power of God routinely, quietly moving through life, our life. That same, mysterious, power of transformation is featured in following stories, many of them more dramatic. Then we get to the final act of transformation with the story of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead and realize that the creative, transforming power of God is at the center of the stories and at the center of life. Water is a symbol of transformation.

Given this background to the Woman at the Well story, we see how playful Jesus is with the symbol of water. It is a metaphor of the welling up of the source of well-being. It simply comes without our control or manipulation. Who knows where it comes from. But we drink it and go on living our lives; the party goes on. That’s how the creative, transforming power of God is: Who knows where it comes from, but it sustains us and we go on living our lives. We are called to trust the “Living Water.”

Going back to the Exodus story, we now see more clearly how it is a meditation on not trusting that divine transforming, life-sustaining power, but trusting in one’s own ability to manage and control and secure one’s own future.

Psalm 95 is a poetic expression of life lived in trust of God. It articulates the right relationship between Creator and creation: God is our Maker “and we are the people of God’s pasture, and the sheep of God’s hand.”  This psalm could easily be used as a liturgy during a service on celebrating the balance of life lived in trust of God as the source of well-being.

Romans, though with a difference focus, looks at how trust in the grace of God leads to reconciliation, through all the hardships of life. Trust in God as the source of well-being and healing trumps all hardship. Paul will go on to talk about how grace is more powerful and overwhelming than is sin.

Preaching the texts:
Since the main theme for the first two texts is water, one way into a sermon on trusting the living water is to talk about sailors, fisherman, those who work on the water to make a living. They know things about water that most of us landlubbers don’t. They learn to respect the water, respect its power and mystery. I would talk about how the sea is a place of life and death, a place of power beyond our control. Fisherman know how to read the waters and the weather, to sense conditions and circumstances, to know their limits in the face of forces that are beyond them. For such people, seeing Jesus walking on the water is a very powerful image of God’s creative, transforming power as ultimate; it truly is the power that brings new life out of all the ways we experience death.

Or the preacher could talk about the woman, with unknown name, and undesirable origin. We don’t know who she is, but we can easily imagine her conditions. She is used to going to the well; it is an old well with a divine history. She understands that the water is always there; she probably takes it for granted, yet knows there is no control over the water rising to the surface of things. She knows she is dependent on the well and the water she draws regularly, as regularly as breathing.  Drawing water is part of the rhythm of her life. In the asking for a drink, Jesus is asking for more than water. He is asking her about the source of well-being. The drama between Jesus and the woman is so playful and multileveled that the preacher could have fun by just telling the story. The way the dialogue keeps going past each statement, yet takes the story to another level, ratcheting the story along, is itself an interesting storytelling device.

The preacher could do a meditation on wells and springs and fountains. The water just keeps coming, bubbling to the surface from depths. This line of thinking suggests the relationship between the unconscious mind and the conscious. The preacher could talk about dreams, especially if seen from a Jungian perspective. This line of thought suggests how we are all connected at deeper levels, connected to the depths of life. The power of God comes from below as well as from above.

Whatever story line the preacher uses, the sermon should be playful, imaginative and dynamic, the sermon itself being a wellspring of ideas and images. Have fun!

Rick Marshall is co-pastor of Brea Congregational United Church of Christ in Brea, California, a church he has served for more than 24 years. He has contributed many resources to the Process & Faith website, including A Process-Relational Guide to Grief, Death, and Funerals.