Sermon Seeds: The Well of Living Water
Third Sunday in Lent Year A
Worship resources for the Third Sunday in Lent Year A are at Worship Ways
Additional sermon reflection on John 4:5-42 by Kathryn Matthews
Special Environmental Justice reflection on Exodus 17:1-7 by Robin Lewis
Additional reflection on Exodus 17:1-7 by Mark Suriano
The Well of Living Water
by Kathryn Matthews
Last week, we had the cool dark of night, full of shadows and questions, resistance and doubt. This week, the bright noonday sun tells the truth about who we are and where we’ve been in our lives, not just the beautiful, shining moments (remember that mountaintop two weeks ago?), but each little wrinkle and every large failure, our regrets, our wanderings, the losses we’ve known – the broken places in our hearts and lives. We can’t hide things so easily in the noonday sun.
Last week we eavesdropped as Jesus talked with Nicodemus, the “big shot” religious leader, a learned, respected figure in the community. Though Nicodemus could go anywhere he wanted any time he wanted (as long as he didn’t anger the Romans), he felt he had to sneak in to visit Jesus in the dark of night.
Maybe he sensed that this Jesus was trouble, so it was better not to be seen talking with him. In any case, Nicodemus, the learned and thoughtful one, just could not get his mind wrapped around what Jesus was saying with that exquisitely human, earthy image of being “born again” to describe our spiritual transformation. Nicodemus remained a “concrete” thinker.
A sermon on God’s love
This brief, night-time exchange was frustrating for the Pharisee, but, for John’s early Christian community, it was a sermon on God’s love and purposes, and the grace we need to respond openly to them. This week, we sit with Jesus in the bright heat of the noonday sun beating on our heads, and we realize that we are thirsty, profoundly thirsty.
In the first century, there are rules about how Jesus, a Jewish male and a teacher, too, should interact with people, especially Samaritan women. The Jews and the Samaritans are like feuding cousins. Like all feuds, there are probably many different, complicated reasons for it, but religion helps to make each group feel more justified in judging and avoiding and maybe even hating other groups of people.
What we need most
It’s ironic, and fitting, that this scene unfolds by a deep well that provides the thing most necessary for our physical survival: we can last longer without food than we can without water. But the hungry disciples have all gone into town for food, and Jesus, tired from his travels, sits there, with no bucket, needing some help to quench his very human thirst.
Just then, a woman walks up to the well, there at the noon hour when no one else is around, an unusual time of day to visit the well. The other women would have visited during the cooler hours of the day, and the men were busy in the marketplace, talking politics and religion. This woman had no companionship to ease the burden of her work.
Not what she expected
When Jesus asks her for a drink of water, she responds, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” Jews didn’t share things in common with Samaritans, things like water cups and conversation. And this woman is “other” in many senses of the word, as a Samaritan, yes, but also as a woman and one with a questionable past.
Her husbands have divorced her or died, and she has perhaps had to marry her husband’s brothers (it was a religious law) or, at least, she had to get remarried in order not to suffer the harsh fate of an unattached female in that society. You had to have a husband, a father, or a son to take care of you, or you could end up a beggar or a prostitute, or both.
(That’s why the Bible keeps telling us to look after the widows and the orphans: life has historically been hard for them.)
The elemental things of life
So Jesus asks this Samaritan woman for a cup of water. Jesus often speaks with words that we can understand, and relate to, in more than one way. He never uses words like “theological grounding” or “hermeneutical options” or “ecclesiological implications.” He uses the basic, elemental things of life, water and bread and the harvest, salt and light and being born again.
We remember that Jesus has been to the desert, the wilderness, and he knows what it feels like to struggle and wander and resist despair. He knows what pain and frustration feel like, and he knows what it feels like to be abandoned and betrayed. He has friends that turn away, so he knows rejection and loneliness, human suffering and human need.
Amazed but fascinated
Now, when thirsty Jesus asks this person, this “other,” for a drink of water, she’s amazed. But then Jesus says even more amazing things about “living water” – which must sound really good to someone who carries that heavy jar back to her home each day. We can hardly blame her for thinking in concrete terms when he offers such an incredible possibility.
The conversation we’re eavesdropping on this week is the longest one Jesus has with anyone in the Gospels – and we note that it’s with a woman, not a religious leader! He’s talking about a “water” that will satisfy the deepest longings of her soul, and she, understandably, is thinking about how heavy that clay jar is each day on her way home.
And yet, before long, much sooner than Nicodemus, she grasps that this person, this stranger, this “other” is bringing her something even more central to her well-being and more necessary for her very life than water itself: the living water of God’s grace and acceptance of her, just as she is.
Understanding our own need
And, unlike Nicodemus who keeps saying, “How can this be?” this woman, out of a keen understanding of her own need and a marvelous openness to Jesus and all that he offers, asks, “Sir, give me this water!” Then Jesus shows her, in an interesting way, just how powerful he is.
He doesn’t need an official position or an impressive outfit – he just tells her that he knows her, really knows all about her and her life. He doesn’t judge her or tell her that she’s welcome to the living water so that she can change her sinful ways.
An interfaith dialogue
As soon as the woman (we note that, while the name of Nicodemus is written down for us, this woman, like so many women in Scripture, remains nameless) – as soon as this woman grasps that Jesus is a prophet, for he knows “all that I have ever done,” she doesn’t worry about explaining or defending herself – instead, she engages him in a kind of “interfaith dialogue.” Jesus talks theology with a woman.
She asks him about the most pressing question that divides the Jews and Samaritans – the hot-button religious issue that divides and alienates them and even makes them fear one another: where is the proper place to worship God? (We of course have our own hot-button issues today; we might wonder what we would ask if we had the chance.)
The time is coming…
Here a different way of reading Jesus’ answer, from Eugene Peterson’s The Message, is helpful: “…the time is coming,” Jesus says, “it has, in fact, come – when what you’re called will not matter and where you go to worship will not matter. It’s who you are and the way you live that count before God. Your worship must engage your spirit in the pursuit of truth. That’s the kind of people God is out looking for: those who are simply and honestly themselves before God in their worship.”
Many of us in the United Church of Christ know profound gratitude and joy for the way God has accepted us and loved us and showered us with grace, no matter who we are or where we are on life’s journey. Knowing God’s grace, how many of us go out to the marketplace (remember where the men of the town are talking religion and politics?) and share the good news – Can it be? Is it too good to be true? Come and see!
Imperfect vessels of good news
Like the nameless woman at the well, maybe we’re the least likely to be called to spread the good news. Most of us are not only not perfect, we’re the wrong something, we’re “other” in some way or another that would seem to disqualify us from being believed by the rest of the folks in town.
But this encounter with God through the Body of Christ, this extravagant hospitality and profound acceptance that we’ve experienced in our congregations, transforms our lives. Meeting one another and worshipping God together, simply and honestly, as our true selves, transforms our lives just as surely as meeting Jesus transforms the life of that solitary but spirited woman by the well.
Salvation as healing
We can view salvation as healing, too (as in “salve”). What needed to be healed in the Samaritan woman, and in her people? What needed to be healed in the disciples, who came upon the scene?
What needs to be healed in your congregation, in your community, in the families of your church and community, in the spirits of those who come to hear this good news? How do barriers create a need for healing?
After reflecting on the differences between Nicodemus and this woman at the well, we might reflect on their similarities, too. Both, we might say, are seekers. What else do they share?
Coming to the well, thirsty
Many of us live apart from the wilderness and its deprivations, so water is plentiful and readily available to us. When was a time that you truly thirsted, for water, or for new life? Who are the people in your congregation who will recognize the rules and restrictions in this Gospel story more readily, and perhaps more painfully, than others will?
Who comes to “the community well” at a different, more uncomfortable time, than the rest of the community? Who experiences this isolation and loneliness? Who in your congregation truly thirsts for good news, for community, for salvation, for grace?
The dark of night and the brilliance of high noon. Bread and the harvest, water, salt, and light. Grace. Amen.
For further reflection:
Lemony Snicket (Daniel Handler), 20th century
“Someone feeling wronged is like someone feeling thirsty. Don’t tell them they aren’t. Sit with them and have a drink.”
Leonardo da Vinci, 15th century
“Water is the driving force in nature.”
Thomas Fuller, 17th century
“We never know the worth of water till the well is dry.”
Henry David Thoreau, 19th century
“Life in us is like the water in a river.”
Richard Rohr, 21st century
“Faith does not need to push the river because faith is able to trust that there is a river. The river is flowing. We are in it.”
Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha, 20th century
“They both listened silently to the water, which to them was not just water, but the voice of life, the voice of Being, the voice of perpetual Becoming.”
Rebecca Solnit, 21st century
“If gold has been prized because it is the most inert element, changeless and incorruptible, water is prized for the opposite reason – its fluidity, mobility, changeability that make it a necessity and a metaphor for life itself. To value gold over water is to value economy over ecology, that which can be locked up over that which connects all things.”
George MacDonald, 19th century
“The water itself, that dances, and sings, and slakes the wonderful thirst–symbol and picture of that draught for which the woman of Samaria made her prayer to Jesus–this lovely thing itself, whose very wetness is a delight to every inch of the human body in its embrace–this live thing which, if I might, I would have running through my room, yea, babbling along my table–this water is its own self its own truth, and is therein a truth of God.”
Marilynne Robinson, Gilead, 21st century
“Well, but you two are dancing around in your iridescent little downpour, whooping and stomping as sane people ought to do when they encounter a thing so miraculous as water.”
Additional sermon reflection on John 4:5-42:
by Kathryn Matthews
Not long ago, I listened to my very first TED talk and NOW I finally understand what all the fuss is about: it was amazing! I listened to the wonderful writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, talk about “The danger of the single story.” Somehow, she was graceful, funny, insightful and wise–all in twenty minutes of sharing experiences from her own life, as she learned about the power of stories, and about the many different stories that make us who we are.
Like her story about growing up in Nigeria, comfortable and middle-class on a university campus where her father was a professor: her family, like many others, had “domestic help” who came from a nearby village, a boy named Fide whose poverty moved Adichie to pity whenever her mother offered his family extra food and old clothes.
Adjusting our perspective
That was how Adichie thought of Fide: as “a poor boy.” So when she visited Fide’s home, she was shocked when his family showed her a beautiful patterned basket made by Fide’s brother. That didn’t fit into the “single story” she had in her head about Fide’s family: she didn’t think they could do anything but “be poor.”
And then, when she came to school in America, she was dismayed that her roommate asked her how she learned to speak English so well (English is Nigeria’s official language), and when her roommate asked her to play some of her “tribal” music, it was her turn to be dismayed when Adichie played a Mariah Carey CD.
Single stories are so much simpler
Adichie describes her roommate’s “default” position as “patronizing, well-meaning pity” because she had only one single story of Africa, the one our culture tells us about “beautiful landscapes, beautiful animals, and incomprehensible people fighting senseless wars, dying of poverty and AIDS, unable to speak for themselves and waiting to be saved by a kind, white foreigner.”
For her roommate, that single story was easy to understand, and she didn’t seem to know how to encounter and engage Adichie as an equal, as someone who was like her in many ways, as a complex person shaped by many different stories (http://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story).
Of course, life is so much simpler if everyone has a single story, as Adichie says, that shows them as one thing, as only one thing, and we tell that story over and over, and then they become that thing. This is about power, of course, when somebody else decides what your story is and, therefore, who you are because of it. That’s where stereotypes come from, and we all know how helpful stereotypes are.
Engaging all our stories
Adichie says that to engage a person properly we have to engage all the stories that have made that person who they are. So I was thinking about that when I read this story about Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well in today’s reading from John’s Gospel. I’ve read this story so many times; it’s one of my favorites, and the longest conversation Jesus has with anyone in the Bible.
I just love that such a noteworthy conversation is with a woman. (And I’m particularly happy that we read this story about a woman in the Gospels–although, like many biblical women, she’s nameless–during Women’s History Month.)
This isn’t just a woman, but a Samaritan woman, one with many husbands–but let’s just boil it all down to the single story: she’s an unclean sinner. Jesus, as a Jewish male, is not supposed to be talking with her, let alone accepting water from anything she has touched. Those were the rules, and life is simpler when the rules are clear.
So much for the rules
So much for the rules: thirsty Jesus asks for water from this stranger who has come to the well alone in the heat of the day, long after the other women have left. She’s surprised because already this story isn’t going the way it’s supposed to, and then Jesus starts talking about living water and never being thirsty again, which must sound pretty good to someone who has to carry heavy clay jars every single day–in the noonday sun–back up the hill to her home. She says, “Sir, please, give me this water! That would be so great!”
But then Jesus changes the subject and asks her to go get her husband, which suggests to me that he knows she’s had a rough time in life; maybe her husbands have divorced her or died; maybe she had to marry her husband’s brothers as the law required, or she’s living with a man to avoid what happened to an unattached female in that society, with no male to protect or provide for her. Jesus seems to understand that this is a woman of many stories.
A woman unfazed by the request
My favorite part is when Jesus says that he knows she’s living with a man who’s not her husband, but the woman, she is unfazed. Maybe it’s because Jesus doesn’t judge her or tell her that she’s only welcome to this living water so that she can repent and change her sinful ways. No, he’s just sitting there with her, sharing a cool drink in the hot noonday sun, and listening to her, too.
Now that I’ve finally watched a TED talk, my next frontier is reading the popular Lemony Snicket book series by Daniel Handler. I decided that after I read this quote from one of the books: “Someone feeling wronged is like someone feeling thirsty. Don’t tell them they aren’t. Sit with them and have a drink.”
Obviously, the woman at the well doesn’t feel the need to explain or defend herself; instead, she’s so impressed by this prophet, she thinks that this is the perfect opportunity to ask a theological question that has been nagging at her for some time, the hot-button religious issue that divides and alienates the Jews and the Samaritans from one another: tell me, sir, where is the proper place to worship God, up on the mountain, or in the Temple in Jerusalem?
People with many rich stories
That might not be the first question I want to ask Jesus when I meet him face to face, but his answer, as Eugene Peterson renders it in The Message, says something really powerful about what it feels like to know ourselves and one another as people with many rich stories, complicated and beautiful and each, in its own way, full of grace: “the time is coming,” Jesus says, “it has, in fact, come–when what you’re called will not matter and where you go to worship will not matter. It’s who you are and the way you live that count before God. Your worship must engage your spirit in the pursuit of truth. That’s the kind of people God is out looking for: those who are simply and honestly themselves before God in their worship. God is sheer being itself–Spirit. Those who worship God must do it out of their very being, their spirits, their true selves, in adoration.”
Our true selves. Not the simple, one-dimensional story that someone else uses to describe us, or as Adichie says, that flattens our experience, because it makes things easier for them that way. Not the stereotype that sits so uncomfortably on our hearts and minds that sometimes we can hardly breathe.
No. We come before God, who knows our every thought and our every hope, our every gift and our every broken place, every single beautiful thing about us, every wonderful story and even the ones that aren’t so wonderful, we come before God, and God offers us a cool drink of water, and a place to rest, and listens to all those stories, and all our questions, once again. What a lovely way for persistent, wondrous grace to come into our lives!
The Reverend Kathryn M. Matthews retired in 2016 after serving as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.
You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below the post on our Facebook page.
A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.
For further reflection:
Barbara Pine, 20th century
“Sometimes being listened to is so much like being loved, it is impossible to tell the difference.”
Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, 20th century
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
Ernest Hemingway, 20th century
“When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.”
Henry David Thoreau, 19th century
“It takes two to speak the truth–one to speak and another to hear.”
Virginia Woolf, 20th century
“If you do not tell the truth about yourself you cannot tell it about other people.”
Hafiz, 14th century
“I wish I could show you, when you are lonely or in darkness, the astonishing Light of your own Being.”
Mother Teresa, 20th century
“If you judge people, you have no time to love them.”
William Langewiesche, 20th century
“You should not see the desert simply as some faraway place of little rain. There are many forms of thirst.”
“The fool is thirsty in the midst of water.”
Special Environmental Justice Reflection on Exodus 17:1-7: Journey Toward Hope
by Robin Lewis
As a Christian and an environmental justice activist, I am fighting to maintain my belief that hope is still alive and well in America. Keeping hope alive is challenging despite what we as believers know to be true, “For I, the LORD, love justice; I hate robbery and wrongdoing. In my faithfulness I will reward my people and make an everlasting covenant with them” (Isaiah 61:8).
When it comes to environmental justice, reasons for despair presently abound. As an article in the New York Times notes, over 95 environmental rules have been targeted for rollback under the current administration. Of the 95 rules, 25 were related to air pollution, relaxing tailpipe, methane, and many other toxic emissions produced by polluters.
Unfortunately, many of these environmental rollbacks impact marginalized communities — low income neighborhoods and communities of color — that are already suffering from environmental injustices. As a recent environmental justice report from the United Church of Christ on toxic air pollution makes clear, it is the children in these communities who especially suffer. Their small, developing bodies make them more vulnerable.
This is where God comes in, providing us with the hope that we need to go on and fight for what is right. In Exodus 17:1-7, God provided for the people despite their lack of faith and hope. In fact, when the people’s hope was gone, God came through with water as promised.
We as believers are God’s hand, just as Moses was used by God in Exodus. In this way, we can actualize and embody hope. Hope is not simply about wishing God will rescue those in need. Hope requires action, especially from those who can stand up for those who don’t know or can’t fight for the right to breathe air without pollutants. Children especially need us to stand up for them.
During this Lenten season, look beyond yourself. Even if these rollbacks do not impact you directly, let’s be instruments of God to provide hope to those unfortunate communities suffering from polluted air, water, and other issues that impact their health. Help to provide hope to those people who could easily feel hopeless during this environmental crisis that is facing our country today.
Robin Lewis is the Minister of Social Justice and Community Outreach at Beloved Community Church UCC in Accokeek, Maryland.
Additional reflection on Exodus 17:1-7
by Mark J. Suriano
Theme: Thirsty Voices
In the movie, The Shawshank Redemption, Brooks, an older inmate who had been imprisoned for much of his adult life, is finally, and surprisingly, paroled. In some of the most poignant scenes of the movie, we watch him try to adjust to life outside of prison: find a place to live, get a job, and make his own meals. His life had been so shaped by the routine of prison for so many years that he found the world outside those walls too much for him to handle.
Now, at an older age, he becomes lost and disoriented by the experience of freedom and finds the adjustment too difficult to make. In the end, unable to find any way to embrace his life of freedom, he takes his own life as the only relief from the profound disorientation arising from being disconnected from the people and routines that, for better or worse, gave his life shape and meaning.
A time of momentous change
The Book of Genesis ends with the death of Joseph, the patriarch whose story shapes the early life of the Hebrews in Egypt. Held in high esteem, Joseph holds great influence in Egypt and is loved by Pharaoh and people alike, his presence there being a blessing to both. At his death, we are told, he is embalmed and placed in a coffin in Egypt (Gen. 50:26) to take his place among the honored dead.
Then in the Book of Exodus, “a pharaoh who knew not Joseph” came to power (Ex. 1:8) and devoid of the knowledge of the great Joseph, only sees the numbers of the Hebrews as a threat to Egypt and to him, thus beginning the other story of the Hebrews as slaves at the hands of the taskmasters and builders of Pharaoh.
From Joseph to Moses
Even as Joseph is the principal character of the last thirteen chapters of Genesis, the stories relating to Moses occupy not only the entire Book of Exodus but the next three books as well, until the record of his death in the Book of Deuteronomy 34:5. Much of Moses’ presence in these pages centers on freeing the Hebrews from the grip of Pharaoh, leading them on the forty-year journey of the Exodus, and presenting them to their new homeland, all under God’s guidance, cajoling, encouragement, anger, and instruction.
Along the way, Moses — under God’s guidance — finds himself often in the position of dealing with a sometimes combative and testy following, former slaves who sometimes miss the fleshpots of Egypt when they are hungry and the waters of the Nile when they are thirsty, and who are habituated to being fearful in their newly provided freedom.
Weighing the risks of freedom
Frederick Niedner reminds us that “the people are weighing their oppressed but viable lives as slaves against the unknown dangers of the wilderness, which may mean death by thirst” (Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2). Freed from the constraints of their former lives, they are not yet free to know themselves as God’s people and so must travel on across distances of space and of generations until the group that faces the Promised Land across the Jordan those forty years later has no personal ties to the former slavery of their ancestors.
The reading from Exodus in this Sunday’s lectionary is one of the pericopes, or self-contained stories, that give us a clue into the difficulty that the former slaves and their reticent leader faced in the wilderness between the Nile and the Jordan. In fact, our reading is the last of three complaints the Hebrews issue.
Hunger and thirst and fear
Even as the sounds of Miriam and Aaron’s joyful song still hang in the air (Ex. 15:20ff), the first complaint is uttered for water (Ex. 15:24), then six weeks later they complain about the lack of food (Ex. 16:2ff) and, finally, still sated for food (Ex. 16:35), they complain again for water.
This time Moses complains to God about his own mistreatment at the hands of this stubborn people; he is afraid for his own life as he goes to God with the request, but God simply urges him to “go on ahead” with some of the elders to the place where God will be and the water would flow. Moses names these places, and the names, Susan Marie Smith observes, “reflect the people’s complaint and lack of trust in God.” The names Massah, meaning “test,” and Meribah, meaning “quarrel,” reflect the mood of the people as they cross the desert.
Testing and trusting
In the end it is a question of trust in God who provides, but while the Hebrews remember the food and water of Egypt, they are wont to forget the hardship of that place and the God who freed them with great deeds from its grip after having bent to hear their cries (Ex. 3:7). If anything the interaction between Moses and the people can serve as an encouragement to recognize and remember what God has done (anamnesis).
In what ways do our complaints and those of our people and our congregations usher forth from a place of fear or complacency, a place devoid of the memory of what God has done? In many ways, writes Smith, “Sunday worship recounts the story of God’s faithful and salvific action…(which) the people are impelled to tell and live…day by day in words and in witness” (New Proclamation, Year A, 2011).
How do we celebrate and remember these things when we gather for worship and how does that memory encourage us to joy and witness, instead of testing and complaining?
Remembering what God has done
The passage itself urges the reader, and the original hearers, to recall the deeds of God in the past on their behalf. As Carol Newsom suggests, “the staff that Moses had instructed Aaron to use to turn the Nile and other waters of Egypt undrinkable is now used to bring drinkable water from dry rock” (Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2).
The God who released them and protected them on their escape is the same God who provides water in the desert. The same staff that turned the plenteous waters of Egypt bitter will make the arid desert gush with water that is sweet to taste.
God is reminding them (and not for the last time, either) that unlike the Pharaohs of Egypt who gave them only what they needed so that they could survive to toil another day, the God of Exodus will provide water enough for the day so that they may come to know themselves as a Chosen People.
Our failure to trust
On the other hand, how many of us and how many in our churches are unable to trust because of their own experience of slavery and oppression? From the perspective of the Hebrew people, we might have some understanding of their inability to simply be passive to a new overlord.
If “slaves – victims – those coerced, beaten, or belittled – learn wariness and anxiety as a way of life,” as Susan Marie Smith claims (New Proclamation, Year A 2011), how can those among us who have been battered, abused, or victimized by war, conflict, or homelessness, come to find safety and nourishment in the God of the Exodus?
Those who come to our churches from many and various backgrounds may find themselves on more of an Exodus journey than we might imagine; how do we attend to their fears and still “go ahead” of them in order to show a God that can be trusted?
A test for everyone
It can also be noted that everyone in this passage is being tested, including the Israelites who are doing the complaining. While they complain through Moses (who fears for his life) to God (who is being tested for trustworthy character), it is the people who through the Exodus journey are being tested the most. Gary A. Anderson writes: “God will provide food, drink, and guidance in the wilderness. Israel, for her part, must learn to trust” (The Lectionary Commentary: Old Testament and Acts).
In the scriptures, wilderness areas are mostly places where persons and peoples are tested — they are wild and dangerous areas full of potentially deadly realities. Unlike our contemporary idealization of natural settings as being “pastoral,” the biblical world outside the protection of the cities and towns were often dangerous places.
A quick scan of the Bible demonstrates this fact, and even in the Gospels we find Jesus’ temptations happening out in the wilderness, where he is tempted to surrender his own trust in God.
Bread for the day
In fact, Gary Anderson continues, “for good reason numerous early Christian writers understood the appeal for ‘our daily bread’ in the Lord’s Prayer to be an allusion to the wilderness. The force was this: one prayed only for bread sufficient for a day’s work. In this way one would learn to trust in the Lord for each day’s provisions” (The Lectionary Commentary: Old Testament and Acts).
It may be no mistake that on the First Sunday in Lent we read the Gospel lesson dealing with the temptations of Jesus in the desert and now hear part of the story of Israel as the community is tested in their ability to trust God for the needs of the day. In our forty-day Exodus (surely an apt metaphor for our own Lenten journey), we are immersed in the constant struggle between our experience of life with its enslavements, and the experience of life shaped by trust in God who provides what we need.
Whose memory is long?
In an era of instant gratification, a long memory might seem an impossible goal. Those of us who fill churches today do not often have the collective memory of mighty deeds that help us to renew our trust in God as our first love, around which all other loves gather.
Many of us in our individual lives may have struggled with oppression, violence, and the many “slaveries” that come from being human these days, but as many of us may attribute our liberation from such things as more an act of good counseling, or strength of will, than we would to God’s power at work to provide the food and water we need as we are led to freedom.
The challenge of the text
To preach this text, or to hear it for that matter, presents a certain difficulty if it is to be preached or heard as more than a distant story about an ancient people. And yet, if our worship is to “recount the story of God’s faithful and salvific action” (see above) and if it does that in a compelling way, we will be enticed and invited to also see such things in light of God, who acts so often as one who frees people from chains and leads them into a wilderness of trust in order to become Chosen People.
How can the experience of worship today lead you and your congregation to the dawning notion that God has been at work, is at work still, and has gone ahead to meet us? How can the story illustrate the fact that even though we can attribute deliverance to many things, it is also true that God has invited us to move from the things that enslave us to the freedom of daughters and sons of a journeying God?
Taking the journey
Toward the end of The Shawshank Redemption, Red (another inmate and friend of the main character, Andy, who has since escaped and begun his life in Mexico) is finally paroled. He finds himself struggling with his newfound freedom even as Brooks had earlier in the film. Red goes through the same motions, often in the same places, and as he sits one day in his apartment contemplating his own despair, he looks up and notices something etched into the beam on the ceiling of his apartment.
He gathers a chair and steps on to it, and you can see his eyes widen then tear up as he reads what is written there; the camera moves to see what he sees as the words “Brooks was here” are shown carved in the wood. At that moment he knows that he will choose a different fate and he remembers that his friend, Andy, left clues to find him in the freedom of Mexico. Red takes the journey, follows the clues, trusts that Andy is true to his word, and in the end we see them reunited there by the waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
As we are led on our own journey from the comfortable, but restrictive, environment of whatever enslaves us into the uncomfortable but liberating freedom of being God’s children, we face the choice of returning to the comfort food of our affliction, or trusting in the God who provides what we need and invites us to trust.
The Reverend Mark J. Suriano serves as Senior Pastor of First Congregational United Church of Christ in Park Ridge, New Jersey.
For further reflection:
Frederick Buechner, A Room Called Remember: Uncollected Pieces, 20th century
“To be commanded to love God at all, let alone in the wilderness, is like being commanded to be well when we are sick, to sing for joy when we are dying of thirst, to run when our legs are broken. But this is the first and great commandment nonetheless. Even in the wilderness – especially in the wilderness – you shall love him.”
Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There, 20th century
“To those devoid of imagination a blank place on the map is a useless waste; to others, the most valuable part.”
Nancy Newhall, 20th century
“The Wilderness holds answers to more questions than we have yet learned to ask.”
Loren Eiseley, 20th century
“It is a commonplace of all religious thought, even the most primitive, that the man seeking visions and insight must go apart from his fellows and love for a time in the wilderness.”
Martin Luther, 16th century
“Pray, and let God worry.”
Donald Miller, Blue Like Jazz: Non-Religious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality, 21st century
“I just think it would be easier to trust God if I had extra money to trust him with.”
Edith Hamilton, Mythology, 20th century
“Love cannot live where there is no trust.”
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 quarrelled 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 quarrelled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
let us sing to God;
let us make a joyful noise
to the rock of our salvation!
Let us come into God’s presence
let us make a joyful noise
to God with songs of praise!
For God is a great God,
and a great Ruler above all gods.
In God’s hand are the depths
of the earth;
the heights of the mountains
are also God’s.
The sea is God’s,
for God made it,
and the dry land,
which God’s hands have formed.
O come, let us worship
and bow down,
let us kneel before God,
For God is our God,
and we are the people
of God’s pasture,
and the sheep of God’s hand.
O that today you would listen
to God’s voice!
Do not harden your hearts,
as at Meribah,
as on the day at Massah
in the wilderness,
when your ancestors tested me,
and put me to the proof,
though they had seen my work.
For forty years I loathed that generation
“They are a people
whose hearts go astray,
and they do not regard my ways.”
Therefore in my anger I swore,
“They shall not enter my rest.”
Therefore, 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.
So he 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 worshipped 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 worshippers 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 for 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.”
Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
by the Rev. Susan Blain, Curator for Worship and Liturgical Arts (mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org)
Faith Formation Ministry, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ
(Essay based on an article by Laurence Hull Stookey: “Putting Liturgical Colors in their Place” in Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church ©1996 Abingdon Press.)
The use of colors to differentiate liturgical seasons is a custom in use among some Western churches for hundreds of years. Although the custom of using colors is an ancient one, there has not always been agreement on what the colors should be. The Council of Trent in 1570, a Roman Catholic response to the Reformation, codified the colors for the Roman Catholic Church. When we talk about “traditional” colors today, we usually are referring to that codification. There were four basic colors in that codification: purple (penitence), red (Spirit or Martyrs memorials), green (long season after Pentecost) and white (festivals). Other colors, or no color at all, were acceptable variants in some regions.
The Reformation of course was a watershed for Christian ritual practice. Anglican and Lutheran churches often used some form of liturgical colors; however, the Reformed tradition of churches, where the UCC falls, for the most part did away with the custom of using colors, opting for much more simplicity. During the ecumenical liturgical movement of the mid-20th Century, Protestant churches began to look back at some of the ritual and colorful practices of the past with an eye toward reclaiming them to help give expression to feeling, tone, and imagery underlying the lectionary stories.
Before the Reformation’s iconoclasm, and Trent’s code, practices varied from place to place, often depending on what was available. Indeed, in some places the custom was to organize vestments into practical categories of “best,” “second best,” and “everyday” — not depending on the color at all. For Christmas and Easter the “best” vestments were used, no matter the color! Other, less prominent feasts or Sundays got “second best” or “everyday.”