3rd Sunday in Lent

February 24, 2008
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

Discussing the text
For this Sunday we have two classic stories of water placed side-by-side by the lectionary. Moses has the mysterious “rod” in hand, on an adventure in the desert with his people and with his God. We witness one episode after another of God providing a way out of no way. Learning, as the dull students they are, and as we are, to trust God. One situation after another is presented where there seems to be no solution: there is no food, they are lost, thirsty. There is only bareness, dryness, death, as far as the eye can see. “From whence does my help come?” The people grumble, complain, accusing Moses. He names the place Test and Contention. It would be one thing to be  TV’s “Survivorman” and to be able to trust your own resources and abilities to survive, depending upon no one. But it’s an entirely different matter to be so unprepared for a future that seems murky, dangerous, and uncontrollable. And then to be asked to trust a leader who has a quirky relationship with a God who is mysterious and dangerous. Why should we trust this God? Why should we follow you, Moses? How could this not be an episode of “Lost”?

And in the other story, there is Jesus, knowingly, mysteriously, promising ever-flowing water, the water of life. Who hasn’t heard the story of the woman at the well. We’ve been this way before: it is a wide, worn path through this story that feels familiar, leading into a dense forest. The reader is enfolded quickly by the taut dialogue and tangled in word play and the dangerous desire of what is not, but could be. Bob Dylan would love the provocative sharpness of the images. A woman, from the wrong neighborhood, dragging behind her a long train of ordinary sins, talking with a man, from the right neighborhood, tired, thirsty and a mystic. The song would focus tightly on the lyrics of misunderstanding, social disparity and despair. The depth of the mystery between them would be in the bass line, ever-present but not insistent, forming the water line, suggestive, illusive even. The drama of it! What does she want? What does he want? “Give me a drink.” “Why are you talking to me?” “If only you knew. There is living water.” “You have no bucket; how will you get this living water? Who are you?” “Drinking this water will not quench your thirst. But if you drink the water I give, you will never be thirsty again. That water will well up inside you, like the water in this well.” “Give me this water.” The reader is caught by the dialogue. We follow the logic. We understand the words, the grammar. The syntax makes sense. Yet, when she asks for this water, we ask, too, and find ourselves bogged down in the thicket of the language of this mystery. What is welling up inside us? How do we draw from this spring? Words can’t help us form the cup. The logic of it can lead us to the water, like a horse. But figuring out the act of drinking it becomes the problem. Like the thirst of the rich man in Hades (Luke 16) reaching from beyond, trembling for even one drop “for I am in anguish in the flame.” We reach. The spring must be somewhere in the vicinity of Abraham’s bosom, next to the Garden. Green pastures. Clear running water. No maps will direct us there; no logic or language will take us one step closer. In our reaching we realize our powerlessness to grasp.

If played out on a stage: We don’t see Jesus giving her this water. We don’t watch her drinking it. The dialogue continues. It turns out he sees into her life. “Call your husband” “I have no husband.” “I know; you’ve had five and the one you’re living with would make six.” Then the dialogue turns theological, logical, abstract, and seems to run into a ditch. We’re no longer interested. Their discussion ends with “I am he.” The disciples enter, stage left. “Why are you talking with her?” Our interest returns. We smell conflict. Jesus doesn’t answer. The question hangs in the air; the fog machine fills the stage with opaque light. We seem to see, but can’t penetrate. The stage goes dark. Curtain down. Curtain back up: she is gossiping in the village. Curtain down. Curtain up: Jesus with the disciples. Dialogue about food. “Rabbi, eat.” “I have food to eat of which you do not know.” “What?” Curtain down. House lights up.  The end. This is confusing. We want our money back. It was a nice story. I had sympathy for the woman, but the main character--just weird. Couldn’t relate. The critics turn to their keyboards. A strange deadline looms. Our minds want a point to it, a conclusion. That’s a wrap.

Meanwhile, back at home, we replay the play on our own stage in our minds. We are the main character in our production. Yet, we can relate only to the woman, not Jesus. So Jesus comes to us, asks us the question: Are you thirsty? Do you want my water? We form our own dialogue in our imagination. “Yes. I’m very thirsty. But where is it? How do I get it?” We want the play to go on, come to an end with the answer, but the lights keep going down. The curtain is poised. Wait, not yet. But the curtain comes down and the question rings in our ears: Are you thirsty? It haunts us and follows us home like a stray dog.

In both stories the issue is trust in the mysterious source of this water. But it’s not an easy trust. The object of trust—or is it the subject?—is illusive, intangible. It will not submit to our evaluation or direction.

Psalm 95 seems so confident and clear: “O come, let us sing to the Lord; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation.” A mighty fortress. But these are lyrics to a different play, a musical, perhaps, happy, joyful, and confident. This will get good reviews in the morning paper.

Simple trust or gnawing doubt. Holding these two points of view in tension might be where the power of the texts is. A life of trust and confidence in the care of God and the doubt and the shock of the unknowableness of this God. Moses approaching the rock in trust, rod in hand; Moses striking the rock. The openness of the woman’s questions with Jesus and the disciples’ closed questions. The preacher must go beyond. Trust in God is complicated.

Process Theology and the Text
TheInitial Aim of God is the possibility that God offers to each emerging moment for it to become its best. God continually feeds possibilities to every unfolding event. This inexhaustible supply of possibilities is like a well, a spring, ever flowing. It comes from within experience. It is the lure of these possibilities that leads us, step-by-step, into our future. We choose to act on these best possibilities, or we choose something else, lesser. Hence, we can miss the mark. The central metaphor of water welling up from the depths is an image of the power of God.

Preaching the Text
The preacher must be careful to navigate between the tourist’s visit with the stories on the one hand, and just being confusing instead of mysterious the other hand. It’s easy to wonder off the path and get lost.

I had a strange yet familiar experience with these texts. In preparation for writing about them, I read them and wondered out loud, what can be done with these classic texts? How many times have I preached on them? What’s new? I put them aside and slept on them. I awoke early the next morning with images from the texts moving through my imagination, flowing with connections and life and power. When first looking at the texts, I could have been like Moses, as he is later in his story, striking the rock impatiently, trying to force the flow of life-giving water. I’m tempted to strike hard. There is an indirect quality about these stories that must be respected; they can’t take a direct blow of the stick, forcing them to produce.

Here we have two great characters: Moses, standing at the rock with the promise of water, the woman at the well, expecting the daily issues of water, being promised a different kind of water. And there is Jesus standing next to Jacob’s well, speaking enigmatically of a life-giving well. These characters stand in our imaginations, holding these promises, asking questions about this flow of life giving water. This is not an issue of the mechanics of wells and H2O. It is more the question of where life comes from—its source.

There is something in the depths of life that can be trusted, some power of creativity, of life, of direction. The preacher could focus on the old wisdom of sleeping on a decision or problem. “I’ll sleep on it.” It is often just a way of putting someone off, procrastination. But, it can also be a way of actively engaging the sub-conscious, the soul or the spirit. The depths feed the problem and we wait, we sleep, we tend, we disengage our “monkey mind” that wants to distract us away from the problem, to forget about it and hope it will go away.

A sermon would best circle around the stories, like the dialogue between the woman and Jesus. The source of the life-giving water can’t be approached directly. Where do ideas come from? Art? Music? Whence inspiration? The word implies spirit, some infusion of power in life. There is a power in life that permeates everything without calling attention to itself. The best we can do is name that power and treat it with respect.

Children and the Text
Use water as the main image. Talk about it and its many qualities. What can you do with water? Freeze it, boil it. Use it in food. Use it to clean things. Take a bath or shower. Drink it. Water comes out of the sky in the form of rain. It can appear as fog. It can also damage things. Flooding, drowning, wearing down rocks and mountains. It fills the oceans the lakes the rivers and the sky. Our bodies are mostly water. Pour it on the floor and it moves and fills in all the small places. Can we live without water? Of course not.

Water is a symbol of chaos and confusion and danger and death in the Bible. It is also a symbol of life and creativity. Talk about how God’s spirit is like a spring of water, welling up inside of us. 

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.