The Third Sunday in Lent, 19 March 2017

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

Background: The Samaritans

The role of the Samaritans in the Gospels can be understood to a greater extent if we have a better understanding of their history and background. Some of that history is rooted in the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, both tribes based in northern Israel. Their partnership with Judah, and the kingdom of Judea was problematic at best. Further complicating the picture was the seizure of the so-called Northern Kingdom by the Assyrian Empire around 720 BCE. The Assyrian policy of deportation and resettlement led to a suspicion of the bloodlines that remained in the north – and speculation about whether or not the peoples living there were really Jews or not. With the return of the southern exiles under the reign of Cyrus the Great, there was an equal suspicion of the religious practices that were brought back to the Levant from the experiences of living in Mesopotamian cities. The results of this schism can be seen in the establishment of the Temple at Mt. Gerazim, and by the development of practices unique to the Samaritans. The final straw was the Samaritan disassociation from the Jews during the reign of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the Seleucid king who ruled from 175-163 BCE. His policies of a mandated Hellenization, spelled peril for Jews, and thus the Samaritan reticence from identifying with them.

The 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?”

How does one follow? How does one serve a master? These are the real issues that are hiding under the rather human issues of hunger and thirst. The situation related here looks at the roles that the principal characters play, YHWH as master, Moses as leader (whose leadership is closely linked to the leadership of God), and finally the people, one of the partners in the covenant with God. The language that surrounds this incident is redolent of the courtroom. It is, after all, a riv, a dispute between the people and Moses, and the people and God (with Moses serving as the mediator). The primary question is quoted in the final verse of the reading, “Is the Lord among us or not?” There is real fear and doubt in this reading. The people wonder if God can really provide for them in their hunger and their thirst. It is a fear for survival in the midst of testing. But Moses is fearful as well. In his plea to God he notes that the people are ready to kill him – again fear and survival.

Perhaps the reality of spiritual hunger and thirst becomes a motivating theme as we observe Lent. How will God take care of us in the midst of our own offering of alms, prayer, and fasting? Can we survive the self-testing that is so much a part of our Lenten observance? So in the midst of our journey, we become Israel, as we resonate with her needs and her fears.

Breaking open Exodus:
1.          For what do you hunger or thirst?
2.          What religious hungers do you have?
3.         How will you fulfill that thirst?

Psalm 95: Venite, exultemus

     Come, let us sing to the Lord; *
let us shout for joy to the Rock of our salvation.
2      Let us come before his presence with thanksgiving *
and raise a loud shout to him with psalms.
3      For the Lord is a great God, *
and a great King above all gods.
4      In his hand are the caverns of the earth, *
and the heights of the hills are his also.
5      The sea is his, for he made it, *
and his hands have molded the dry land.
6      Come, let us bow down, and bend the knee, *
and kneel before the Lord our Maker.
7      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!
8      Harden not your hearts,
as your forebears did in the wilderness, *
at Meribah, and on that day at Massah,
when they tempted me.
9      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."

The testing and disputes of the previous reading make their way into the psalm for this day. “Harden not your hearts, as at Meribah, and Massah.” In the midst of a request to praise God, the psalmist has the people wrestle with their actual attitude for God, an attitude that is not bound to their own time, but to their fore parent’s time as well. The psalmist rehearses for us God’s great acts in creation, and explores with the reader all the places, which owe their existence and continuation to the God of Israel. At verse 7b, the mood changes to one of exhortation, “Oh, that today you would hearken to his voice.” Now the recollection is not the creation story, but the remembrance of Israel’s wanderings in the wilderness, and the testing that went on there. The testing was not only God’s proving of Israel, but Israel testing its relationship with God as well. The final thoughts are sobering, “they do not know my ways.”

Breaking open the Psalm 95:
1.         What two themes do you see in this psalm?
2.         Where do you see God in creation?
3.        Where do you see God in your confession?

The 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.

The opening line of this pericope describes where we have been in Paul’s development of the theme, and now where we are about to go: justification by faith, and then peace with God. The lesson that he goes on to teach is that we need to both learn and then live, namely how to dwell in God’s peace. The means to this kind of living takes a common human behavior and makes something new of it. “Let us also boast.” Here the boasting takes two different directions, one that is based on God’s glory and will, and the other boasts that come from our afflictions. I’d like to quote Jewett’s translation of verses 3 and 4 here. We are so familiar with these verses, that a fresh translation might awaken something new in us.

“Let us also boast in hope of the glory of God: not only that, but let us also boast in our afflictions, knowing that this affliction produces fortitude, and this fortitude approbation, and this approbation hope, and this hope does not cause shame.”[1]

If there is a thread in the readings it is one of testing and approbation. So Paul’s progress of boasting fits into the general tenor of what we can learn from a restless Israel and an irritated Moses, as well as from a wondering Samaritan woman along with the disciples. So Paul takes two human frailties and invests in them the possibility of having peace with God.

Breaking open Romans
  1. What are your accomplishments in life?
  2. Of what do you have to boast in your religious life?
  3. What role does suffering or trouble play in your religious life?

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.”

There is what seems to be a minor elision from the pericope, namely verse 4. It is brief but it prepares us for what is to follow, “He had to pass through Samaria.” This was not a geographical necessity. Shorter routes were available to Jesus. The necessity indicated by the “had to” comes not from the route but from the intent of the journey. Here Jesus has a teaching moment not only with a “gentile” woman (see the Background material above), but with the disciples as well. Raymond Brown divides this pericope into two separate scenes and a conclusion: 1) The conversation with the Samaritan woman (verses 6b-26, 2) A conversation with the disciples (verses 27-38, and 3) the concluding material (verses 39-42). The first scene revolves around the notion of thirst, and the second scene uses the theme of hunger – an interesting relationship with the first reading.

Before we can even get to the meat of these scenes we must wrestle with the role of Samaritans in the gospels. In Matthew, Jesus tells the disciples that they must not enter a Samaritan city. Luke has several incidents with Samaritans: the Good Samaritan, and the Leper who returned to give thanks. The hostility of the culture shows through even in Luke, where the Samaritans are put off by Jesus seeing the necessity of going to Jerusalem. But it is here that John reveals to us a Jesus that is intent on bringing the Kingdom to all the nations.

The hunger and thirst of this pericope play well with the hunger and thirst of Israel. Two of the themes that Jesus uses about himself were also motifs used in Judaism to describe the Torah. In verse 10 Jesus implies that he is “God’s gift.” And later in the same verse Jesus mentions his ability to give her “living water.” Both of these terms look back at the Torah, and look forward to Jesus’ ministry flowing out of that revelation. Jesus reveals himself in other ways to the woman. In the arguments about water, worship, and marriage Jesus hopes the woman will see the approach of the Kingdom. “Yet an hour is coming and is now where when the real worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and trust.” Jerusalem and Mt. Gerazim are no longer important – but the spiritual tenor of the individual is important.

In the second scene it is not the woman who misunderstands, but the disciples. Jesus appears as a prophet in both scenes in that he underscores the spiritual nature of what he is offering in his teaching and presence. John’s use of bread and harvest images in this conversation with the disciples has a Eucharistic feel to it. Oddly enough it is not the disciples who are seen as bringing the food – the good news – to those who hunger for it, but rather the woman. Her revelation, “He told me everything that I have ever done,” becomes an invitation to the people of her village to come to Jesus as well. John contrasts the mind of the disciples with the understanding of this woman, and tempts us to even compare her understanding with Nicodemus’ lack of understanding.

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.     What does Jesus mean when he refers to “Living Water”?
2.     In what ways are you like the woman?
3.    How does the woman become that which Jesus promises?

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.

Questions and comments copyright © 2017, Michael T. Hiller

[1]  Jewett, R. (2007) Romans – A Commentary, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, page 344.


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