The Third Sunday in Lent, 23 March 2014

Exodus 17:1-7
Psalm 95
Romans 5:1-11
St. John 4:5-42

Background: The Samaritans

The Samaritans make an entrance in the Hebrew Scriptures and also in the New Testament in John (the Gospel for today) and in Luke with the story of the Good Samaritan.  Who were these people?  They exist at the nexus of several political events, and have their own history and narrative, which is at odds with what is reported in the Hebrew Scriptures and in contemporary Assyrian documents.  We must remember that David is first anointed King in Judea, with an heir of Saul claiming kingship in the northern tribes.  The heir of Saul, Ishboseth, is assassinated and soon the northern tribes ask David to serve as their king as well.  Thus, there exists a rift between the south and the north, between the tribe of Judah, and especially the tribes in the north associated with Joseph.

With the Assyrian defeat of the Northern Kingdom in 721 BCE, according to Assyrian imperial records, a great deal of the population was deported to places within Assyria proper, and peoples from Arabia were resettled in the northern part of Israel.  Samaritan histories differ, claiming that tribes still loyal to YHWH continued the Jewish cult, and in the sixth century BCE, following the fall of Jerusalem, built their own temple upon Mt. Gerizim, which is referred to in the Gospel reading for today.  Thus on the two sides, we have the northerners claiming descent from Joseph, and an on-going priesthood, and the southerners who claim that the people of the north are of a different blood and heritage. 

This impasse is complicated in the end of the sixth century when Cyrus the Mede who had conquered the Babylonians, releases the Jews who had been sent into exile in Babylon.  He directs them to return to their native lands, and to rebuild their temple in Jerusalem.  The northerners see these returnees as tainted by the religious practices of Mesopotamia, and brand themselves as true keepers of the Law.  It is this impetus that may have informed their decision to build their own temple, ignoring the rebuilt temple in Jerusalem.

The division is further heightened under the rule of the Seleucid kings (the heirs of Alexander’s general, Seleucus) who attempted the Hellenization of the lands under their control.  This plan seems to have been accepted by certain of the Samaritans who agree to rename the temple on Gerizim to honor Zeus Hellenos, according to Josephus, or who were unwillingly made to rename it to honor Zeus Xenios, according to the Maccabees.  Whichever is true, there is enough historic fodder here to feed a mill of distrust and enmity.  With this history in mind, John tells the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman.

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?"

Nicolas Poussin, Moses Strikes the Rock
Once again we meet a people who are led and commanded by God to go.  The phrase “the Lord commanded” has the sense that God speaks “by the Lord’s mouth” to set a direction for the people.  Quickly we are set up for the story, and an on-going pattern with a situation, “but there was no water for the people to drink.”  Thus in a situation of want, the people quarrel with Moses.  The Hebrew verb, however, has the flavor of a legal dispute, and indeed that word, “dispute”, will become an important point later on in the text.  For Moses this is not only a personal difficulty but also a theological one, “why do you quarrel with me, and why do you test YHWH?”  The dispute with Moses is paralleled with a testing of God’s intention.  The reply is also in a pattern that will be repeated.  The people recall the meager yet reliable resources of Egypt, and they wonder about Moses (or is it God’s) intents for them.  “Why did you bring us out of Egypt?”  It is as if a spokesperson announces the dispute – the concern that they – the individuals, their families, and their livestock – might thirst to death.  Thus all of the concerns, self, wealth, and future are rolled up into one voice. 

Moses, in a private prayer to YHWH, is concerned about the murderous intent of the people, and God makes him to “go ahead” or “pass in front of” all the people.  Thus Moses confronts his own demons and fears (not all that dissimilar to the fears of the people).  God has Moses take a great symbol, the staff with which he struck the Nile, rendering it unpotable as it turned to blood.  Now it becomes, like the serpent raised in the wilderness, a sign of salvation. Moses is directed to strike the rock “so that the people may drink.”  In an ending that appears to be an etiology[1], Moses names the place Massah (testing) and Meribah (dispute), a mnemonic device so that both people and reader might remember the testing and dispute that was judged there.  This is one of the first instances of what is called the riv (dispute) pattern in the Hebrew Scriptures, where both people and God are seen as in a courtroom, being judged by heaven and earth as to the peoples (and God’s) faithfulness to the covenant.  The reading, however as used here, is more slanted toward the necessity and symbol of water, as will be seen in today’s Gospel.

Breaking open Exodus:
  1. Have you ever had an argument with God?  Why?
  2. What do you when God is silent?
  3. Describe Moses’ relationship with God.

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.

Forty years long I detested that generation and said, *
"This people are wayward in their hearts;
they do not know my ways."

So I swore in my wrath, *
"They shall not enter into my rest."

Episcopalians and Lutherans will be familiar with this psalm as it occupies a significant place in the office of Morning Prayer or Matins.  The “Venite” (Come!) invites us to celebrate God and what God has done.  The first voice mentions “the Rock of our Salvation”.  Robert Alter uses the word “rescue”, and we are quickly reminded here and in verse 8 of this psalm’s reference to the incident related in the first reading.  Here we also see God in the context of a much fuller pantheon of gods, where YHWH is the “king over all the gods.”  Any ambivalence is quickly dispensed with, however, when the author names YHWH as the creator of depths, heights, sea, and dry land.  Thus the whole of creation is celebrated.  Jewish practice used this psalm as an introduction to the Sabbath.  The Christian usage welcomes the new day, and both usages see it (the new day, and the Sabbath) as celebrations of Creation. 

The metaphor quickly changes with the words; “we are the people of (God’s) pasture and the sheep of (God’s) hand.”  Now God is the shepherd, and we the sheep, “hearken to (God’s) voice.” 

The direction changes once more as the author recalls the situation at Meribah (see the first reading, above).  It aligns itself not only with the “riv pattern” mentioned above, but also with a general pattern of “murmuring”, of discontent with their situation.  It would be useful to read through the account of a rebellion in Numbers 14, where the testing of God results in a painful decision.  God would make the people wander for forty years before coming into the Promised Land.  This is almost the reverse of the coin forged in the initial verses, where God is a rock and protection.  In these verses God is judge, and the people have a complaint.  Judgment will be rendered by God on a whole generation. The final verse is not all that happy.

Breaking open Psalm 95:
  1. What is the central argument of this psalm?
  2. How do you deal with the negative aspects of the final verse?
  3. How does God deal with your complaints?

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.

Salvador Dalí, The Crucifixion
Last Sunday there was an implicit theme of hope, note only in the reading about Abraham, but also in the story of Nicodemus.  Now in Romans, after the initial chapters, which devoted themselves to the ideas of faith and belief, Paul turns his attention to hope.  Paul starts with a present condition, “Since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,” and then moves on to look into a future that is centered in hope.  In a remarkable list of dependencies, Paul arrives at hope, but only after acknowledging the difficulties that lead to hope: suffering, endurance, character, and then hope.  This hope is infused within us by the Holy Spirit, or as Paul states it, it is “poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.” 

Paul then moves on to focus on Christ’s death for us.  He does so in such a way as to underscore the outrageous nature of the Christian Gospel.  Stated simply, the truth is that “Christ died for the ungodly.”  This is a statement that flies in the face of what passes for moral behavior in our society.  The “ungodly”, those who seem to go against established societal and religious rules, are not the object of derision or hate, but rather the beneficiaries of Christ’s death.  Paul paints a clear picture of Christ’s mediation for us – standing in the center and obviating our enmity with God.  There is a new relationship here, regardless of our status.  There is a new status as a result of what Jesus has done.  We are not only justified in God’s sight, but we are reconciled to God.

Breaking open Romans:
  1. In what ways do you represent the ungodly?
  2. In what ways do you represent the righteous?
  3. How does Jesus “stand in for you” in life’s difficulties? 
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."

Sadao Watanabe, Woman at the Well
We are in the midst of John’s signs at Cana.  The first is the sign at the wedding at Cana, then the cleansing of the temple, the meeting with Nicodemus, and now the Samaritan woman.  This will be followed by the second sign at Cana, the healing of the official’s son.  Here like the conversation with Nicodemus, important questions about life will be entertained.  Nicodemus comes at night, but this woman comes in the midst of the day.  The woman comes lacking some credentials for this discussion.  First she is a woman, yet Jesus insists on speaking with her, although such behaviors were seen as lacking social grace.  Secondly, she is a Samaritan, as good as a gentile as far as Judaism was concerned.  None-the-less, Jesus again is moved to speak with her.  Like Israel, Jesus is thirsty, but unlike Israel, his thirst will point back to God.  He asks her to supply him with water.  The implication here is that Jesus actual thirst mirrors or supplies meaning to the woman’s spiritual thirst.  Like Nicodemus the woman is thinking in terms of practical realities.  Jesus, however will be speaking of things “from above”.  Jesus promises her the water of life – and to her that is an absurdity.  She sees that Jesus has none of the tools necessary for offering such.

Here Jesus, sitting at the well of Jacob, becomes the superlative provider of water and of knowledge.  In the course of the conversation other attributes will be assigned to Jesus.  She perceives that Jesus is “a prophet.”  There is however an obstacle, the human distinctions that divide Jesus’ people from her people.  There is one aspect that connects the two, however, and that is hope – messianic hope.  She sees in Jesus the hope of the messiah, and Jesus admits, “I am he.”

As usual, the disciples completely misunderstand the scene.  It is the woman who not only understands, but also spreads the message.  Jesus attempts to grant meaning to the disciples’ perception of what has happened by teaching them about the ripe harvest.  Again, however, it is the Samaritans who approaches Jesus, and full of anticipation and hope, ask Jesus to sojourn with them for two days.  Their admission that Jesus is “the Savior of the world,” underscores the faith that is in them, and Jesus’ intentions toward gentiles.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. In what ways are you like the Samaritans?
  2. What does Jesus know about you that others do not?
  3. How are you made alive in Christ?

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 © 2014, Michael T. Hiller 

[1]   A story that explains a natural phenomenon, a place, or a place name.


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