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Third Sunday in Lent: February 27, 2005.

Exodus 17:1-7

Psalm 95

Romans 5:1-11

John 4:5-42

First Reading

The miracle of water from the rock is also reported in Numbers 20:1-13, although the location in that text is in the region of Kadesh. Rephidim, the site in Exodus, is the last stopping place of the Israelites before they come to Mt. Sinai. It is also the location of the defeat of the Amalekites, even though this opposing tribe was thought to live much farther to the northeast in the Negev near Mt. Seir, and the place where Jethro, Moses' father-in-law and the priest of Midian, comes to offer his advice on the administration of the people.

The precise location of Rephidim is a problem related to the location of Mt. Sinai itself, an issue that is exacerbated by details in the text. If Israel engages the Amalekites in the wilderness, some argue for a more northerly location for Mt. Sinai, perhaps at Mt. Seir or another location closer to Kadesh Barnea and consequently a more northerly location for Rephidim. If Israel is close enough to receive Jethro from Midian, it has been suggested that Sinai should be located across the Gulf of Aqaba in a region of northwestern Arabia known to have experienced volcanic activity in historic times (thus providing a reasonable explanation for the smoke and fire of the great theophany in Exodus 19ff.). Nonetheless, the traditional location for Sinai at the Jebel Musa near the southern tip of the peninsula continues to be accepted as the most likely site given what is known about ancient trade routes through these wilderness areas. That being the case, Rephidim is supposed to have been either at Wadi Feiran or more likely Wadi Refayid.

The miracle itself comes in response to the incessant complaining of the Israelites about the lack of available water. Moses takes their concerns and the fear for his own life to Yahweh, who instructs him to strike the rock. When Moses does so, water comes forth, and the people's thirst is quenched. In recognition of the incident, Moses renames the place Massah ("testing") or Meribah ("contention"). Israel is later reminded of what happened at that place (Deut 6:16; 9:22; 33:8) and warned not to likewise test Yahweh. Rabbinic tradition insists that the rock followed Israel throughout its wanderings, based on an interpretation of 17:6 in which Yahweh promises to stand before Moses on the rock at Horeb (Sinai). Paul later picks up this image in 1 Cor 10:4 as evidence of the preexistent Christ already active in Israel's history.

Psalm 95 is most familiar to us as an invitatory. It is, in fact, more than an entrance hymn, also containing a word of God to the assembly. Beyond the summons to praise in verses 1-2, two theological claims are made. First (vv. 3-5), Yahweh is a great king above all gods, not an allusion to non-monotheistic Judaism but recognition that the world in which this hymn was composed was rife with many deities in many cultures. Second (vv. 6-7a), Israel recognizes that it owes its very existence as a people to this God who is not only Creator and King over all but reigns over them as leader, sustainer, and provider.

Verses 7b-11 are Yahweh's words to the assembled congregation and draw directly upon our Old Testament reading for their force. It is a warning that what happened at Massah-Meribah must not happen again, lest this current generation also find itself condemned to wilderness wandering and unable to enter the promised rest of God; this concept is later explicated in Heb 3:7-4:13. James Mays (Interpretation: Psalms, John Knox Press) suggests that liturgical use of this psalm may well have included a reading of the First Commandment following so that, indeed, the assembly might hear today and heed Yahweh's call and claim to primacy over them.

Having elaborated his case for grace through the example of Abraham (Romans 4), Paul turns to the life of the present believer and argues for the results of justification in contemporary experience. Romans 4:23-25 provides the outline; 5:1-11, our text, builds on that outline.

Paul argues that we share Abraham's righteousness because we come to God in precisely the same way--through faith. The outcome of this righteousness is peace with God and a hope grounded in the love of God poured out through the Holy Spirit, a hope so strong and resilient that even those things that assail us in this life can do no more than strengthen it. The proof and seal of that love is the death of Christ. Like God's justification of Abraham before he was circumcised or tested, so also Christ's death precedes the actions of any person toward righteousness. It is, rather, God's action in love that claims us before we were even lovable.

Therefore, our salvation is certain. Since Christ died that we might be reconciled to God, Paul argues that, through Christ's resurrection, we will be made whole and delivered into life; we need not fear further judgment. This act of love on God's part in Christ Jesus forms the foundation for our confidence in God.

Water and meetings at wells are not a new device invented by John. Abraham's slave meets Rebekah at the well (Gen 24:14), and likewise Jacob meets Rachel (Genesis 29). Moses, exhausted by his escape from Egypt, pauses to rest by a well and there assists Reuel's daughters with the watering of their flocks. In an arid region of the world water plays a significant role, often symbolizing the life that God gives. Later interpretations will expand this meaning to include the life given by God's wisdom and by the Torah. And in the New Testament, water becomes a symbol of the new life poured out by the presence and power of God's Holy Spirit. To attend to the source of this living water and to submit oneself to its refreshment is at least part of what it means to be engaged in proper worship. That is certainly true in the appointed passage.

There may be some contextual value in supposing the morality of the woman who comes to the well and finds an exhausted Jesus. That she is there at midday; that she is a Samaritan; that she is many times married and now living outside those blessed bonds; that, simply, she is a "she," makes for an interesting argument that the primary purpose of the passage is to show Jesus' willingness to cross any boundary to seek and save the lost. But suppose we allow the woman, in all her brokenness and femininity, to represent the Samaritans as a group, much as we would allow Nicodemus to speak for all those observant Jewish leaders who are puzzled by Jesus. If we do that, this dialogue becomes a reasonably seamless discussion about the thing that most decisively separates the Jews and the Samaritans: worship of the one true God. The woman, like Nicodemus, comes as a seeker, as one who thirsts deeply. She desires never to thirst again but has thus far found no adequate quenching at the well of her ancestors. The husbands that Jesus summons forth from her may well be a reference to the fivefold origins of the Samaritans (2 Kings 17:24ff.) and their syncretistic worship practices.

Jesus invites her to consider that true worship is not bound by place, be it Gerazim or Zion, but is found in the activity of the Spirit within the human heart, a spirit that flows like living water. Jesus reveals himself to the woman as the one who can indeed speak and act as the anointed one of God, who is able to answer for the division between Jew and Samaritan. She no longer needs her water jug in order to be satisfied; that comes in allowing the living water of Jesus' words to flow through her to her neighbors to such extent that Jesus is acclaimed again as Savior of the whole world.

Pastoral Reflection

As I speak on a day-to-day basis with the folks here at Grace, as I come to know their needs and their fears, I am able to understand a little more each day the struggles and the uncertainties they face. When they show up on Sunday morning or in weekly Bible studies or at youth events, it is because they are thirsty. It may not be a conscious thought. We may not be able to name the nagging at the back of our throats, but it is there nonetheless. There is the need to find a deeper meaning in life, a reason to go on living, or some purpose for just getting out of bed in the morning. We scour the landscape of our needs and our feelings and trudge to church with our jars and buckets, hoping to get filled up with at least enough to get us through the week ahead.

The trouble begins when we realize that in our yearnings we human beings are liable to latch on to something that is merely what we think we need. Dangerous. Often our needs and our desires deceive us. Often we are the last ones to know what is truly salutary.

For all its strangeness, our human thirst and feeble attempts to quench it make this encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman a most hopeful story. She is simply minding her own business, trudging out to get the water, the sustenance, she needs at the well. And who is waiting there? Remember, she didn't ask for him--at least not directly. She wasn't looking for a definition of living water. And yet Jesus speaks to her of things she could not know until she met him. Jesus tells her of the availability of a treasure she didn't even know she was looking for.

That's the way Jesus often comes to us--not as a projection of our needs but as the one who addresses us at a level even deeper than the needs we knew we had. Jesus seeks us out before we ever go to the trouble of looking for him. That is grace.

But more: Jesus invites us to lay down the burden of all our endeavors to find refreshment. Christ knows our infidelities and the foolishness of our pursuits, and it doesn't matter. All these old burdens can be set aside so that what we are left to bear is the joy of finding the One who is for us. DLN
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Title Annotation:Preaching Helps
Publication:Currents in Theology and Mission
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2004
Previous Article:Second Sunday in Lent: February 20, 2005.
Next Article:Fourth Sunday in Lent: March 6, 2005.

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