The Third Sunday in Lent, 16 March 2020

Exodus 117:1-7
Psalm 95
Romans 5:1-11
St. John 4:5-42


During this Lententide, I shall devote this segment of the blog to quotations that might give depth and a reflective quality for the readings for this day. The First Reading, the Gospel, and to some extent the psalm for today deal with water. In the first reading it becomes a cause for grumbling and complaining. In the Gospel it becomes a cause for wisdom and understanding. In our time water has become a problem, not only for third world nations but for all nations. As we pray for the health of the earth and its peoples, we need to be aware of the environmental problems that face us in our water supplies – needing to advocate for a more enlightened policy and a more responsive stance – think Flint, Michigan. This quote is from Quality Unknown – The Invisible Water Crisis.

“Water quality is a problem that is growing in complexity as prosperity expands and new contaminants emerge. The increasing range of pollutants varies by sector, geography, and development level. There are still deep uncertainties about safe levels and the size and type of impacts on humans and ecosystems. Not only is there no silver bullet solution to solve the water quality problem, but even coming up with a typology of appropriate responses is challenging. Measuring, understanding, and regulating water quality combines the ingredients of a “wicked problem,” a term coined by design theorists Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber to describe complex matters for which there are no optimal solutions. Faced with these wicked challenges, there are three approaches available to policy policy makers: a passive approach of inaction, a proactive approach of prevention, or a reactive approach that treats contaminants (figure ES.1). Policy inaction is common in low-income countries or where there is uncertainty about the effects of pollutants. Responses to perceived hazards are then left to individuals, who may, for instance, relocate to a safer area or circumvent the effects through private avoidance actions. Where regulatory capacities are higher, policy makers can be proactive and seek to prevent or reduce pollution at the source. Alternatively, they may be reactive and attempt to treat the toxic discharges, typically through investments in various types of water treatment facilities.

The way forward requires a mix of these approaches, tailored to reflect the specificities of the water quality challenges at hand. First, it requires obtaining more information about the scale and scope of the problem and making it available to affected parties in an open and transparent manner. Next, it requires better incentives to prevent pollution from entering the environment. As the adage goes, an ounce of prevention is often better than a pound of cure, and given the high uncertainty in regard to impacts, prevention is often the safest alternative. Finally, because it is cost prohibitive to prevent all pollution, smart investments must be made to effectively treat pollution.”[1]

First Reading: Exodus 17:1-7

From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”

This is one of three grumbling episodes in Exodus. Two of them concern the lack of water and one concerns the lack of food. The complaints are always accompanied by regrets about being freed from slavery in Egypt. If we look closely at text and incident we suddenly realize that we are in a courtroom witnessing a dispute, not with Moses, but with God. Such a dispute ( a riv in Hebrew) is a pattern that occurs frequently in the Hebrew Scriptures. This dispute has two aspects – that of a community, “Why did you brings us out of Egypt”, and later brought into sharp focus as the complaint of an individual, “to kill me (our translation uses a plural, but the Hebrew is singular) and my children.” Thus the author indicates the wide spectrum of dissatisfaction and dispute.

Rather than ignoring the events in Egypt, Moses is asked to take the staff with which he struck the Nile. That particular miracle rendered the waters of the Nile useless – and here that same gesture makes potable water available to Israel. God shields Moses from the wrath of the people, as Moses passes through them and strikes the rock in their presence. It is only at the end of the reading, after the designation of the place as Massah (testing) and Meribah (strife), that we hear the real issue and question, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?”

Breaking open Exodus:

1.        What disputes do you have with God?
2.        How do you deal with them?
3.        Has God provided an answer?

Psalm 95 Venite, exultemus

     Come, let us sing to the Lord; *
let us shout for joy to the Rock of our salvation.
     Let us come before his presence with thanksgiving *
and raise a loud shout to him with psalms.
     For the Lord is a great God, *
and a great King above all gods.
     In his hand are the caverns of the earth, *
and the heights of the hills are his also.
     The sea is his, for he made it, *
and his hands have molded the dry land.
     Come, let us bow down, and bend the knee, *
and kneel before the Lord our Maker.
     For he is our God,
and we are the people of his pasture and the sheep of his hand. *
Oh, that today you would hearken to his voice!
     Harden not your hearts,
as your forebears did in the wilderness, *
at Meribah, and on that day at Massah,
when they tempted me.
     They put me to the test, *
though they had seen my works.
10    Forty years long I detested that generation and said, *
"This people are wayward in their hearts;
they do not know my ways."
11    So I swore in my wrath, *
"They shall not enter into my rest."

Anyone who has ever sung or said the Office at Matins, or Morning Prayer will remember the bulk of this particular psalm. It is a hymn of praise and celebration of God, and here in this collection of readings seems to answer the question that is posed at the end of the first reading. The phrase, “the Rock of our salvation” is interesting as well given the role of the Rock in the first reading. In the third verse we have an ancient vision of the heavenly courts – the gathering of the gods – over which YHWH presides as “a great King above all gods.” 

The psalm celebrates not only the majesty and rule of YHWH, but also the creation that is the gift of his word. The psalm surveys the extent of creation from the caverns of the earth to the heights of the hills. We’re included in that vision as “the people of (God’s) pasture and the sheep of (God’s) hand.” The real connection with the first reading is in verse eight where the dispute at Meribah and Massah is remembered. The attitude of the ancient fathers and mothers is described in the poem so that it might be avoided in the present age. There is a bit of wonderment about the whole situation, “They put me to the test, though they had seen my works.” The testimony of creation itself seems to answer the question posed in the first reading.

Breaking open Psalm 95:
  1. What does Creation say to you about God?
  2. How do you honor creation?
  3. How does your church honor creation?

Second Reading: Romans 5:1-11

Since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person-- though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

Paul leaves behind his comments on faith and belief and launches into a new discussion on hope, life, death, and the Spirit. For what is it that Paul sees the people hoping? It is something that should be our boast, he says. “and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.” What follows that is a list causalities, and results: hope, sufferings, endurance, character, and the Spirit. 

Paul rejoiced in his own weakness, and asks us to realize that were weak as well. Christ dies for us while we were sinners, and what follows are consequences that give us hope and salvation. Our boasting should be found in our devotion to God and in our recognition of the gift given us in Christ Jesus. The final result is reconciliation.

Breaking open Romans:
  1. What does the word “hope” mean to you?
  2. For what do you hope?
  3. Is hope realistic?

The Gospel: St. John 4:5-42

Jesus came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.

A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”

Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”

Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” They left the city and were on their way to him.
Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?” Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”

Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”

What is necessary for life in this world is water, and it is a need that is not peculiar to the Jews or to people of faith, but to all people – all nations. Here John sees Jesus in his encounter with non Jews, and the first instance takes place a well, where people come to get water and life. The scene is heightened by the fact that the woman is a Samaritan, a people despised by the Jews. Nevertheless, Jesus sits with her and talks with her. Jesus chooses to pass through Samaria. If you look at verse that precedes the beginning of our pericope, you learn that Jesus “had to” pass through Samaria. So the intentionality of his visit is made clear, and we ask ourselves what constrained Jesus to do so – the mission? The father’s will? We meet a Jesus who is tired yet ready to engage this Samaritan woman.

Wells are a familiar place of encounter in the Bible, Rebekah is met at a well, Jacob meets Rachel at a well, Moses protects the daughters of the priest of Midian at a well. The time is also significant. It is not at night such as the conversation with Nicodemus, but it is at noon. Why is the woman drawing water at noon rather than the usual times of morning or evening? Is she avoiding contact with others? Jesus too breaks tradition by asking for a drink from her, not honoring the tradition of not speaking to women unrelated to you. There is an ignorance of dietary laws as well. 

Jesus breaks apart all the social and theological conventions in order to show himself to the woman. This begins the discussion about the nature of water and of “living water.” She will understand the interaction and request in earthly terms and Jesus will move to help her understand the spiritual nature of the event. She challenges him with the enmity that Jews had toward Samaritans. Jesus speaks of the water as a “spring of water welling up to eternal life.” There is more, however.

Jesus exposes her situation in life – the fact that she has had five husbands. This provides an opening for understanding – the authority that Jesus has to speak. What follows is a discussion on worship and relationship with God. The final showing is Jesus as the Anointed One.

The woman’s growth in understanding, moving from earthly things to heavenly things is reflected in the disciples who suddenly appear and who are startled by the social situation. The matter of Jesus’ supposed hunger allows him to teach the disciples about the spiritual nature of things much in the same way as he taught the woman. But it is the disciples whom he is training in the future mission to the Gentiles. “Look up and see the fields ripe for the harvest.” The remaining part of the pericope is the evidence that the Samaritans themselves bring, “we know that this is truly the savior of the world.”

Breaking open Gospel:
1.        Where do you find living water?
2.        How is Jesus Messiah for you?
3.        How do you witness to your faith?

General Idea:              Tests and Witness

First:                             The test of the wilderness, Israel, Moses and God (First Reading)

Second:                        The witness of Creation (Psalm)

Third:                           The Test of hope, endurance, and character (Second Reading)

Fourth:                         The witness of the woman (Gospel

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday: 

Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

All questions and commentary copyright © 2020, Michael T. Hiller

[1]     Damania, R. (2019) Quality Unknown – The Invisible Water Crisis, World Bank Publications, Washington DC, Kindle Edition, Location 313f.


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