Third Sunday in Lent
March 23, 2014
John 4:5-42 (4:5-15, 27-38)
We all need living waters. We need spiritual and relational resources that refresh and transform our lives. God is willing to give us what we need for spiritual transformation in challenging times; we need to open the doors to God’s care, trusting that God will supply our greatest needs. There are no absolute guarantees of external success or a cure for every ailment, but there is refreshment for the pilgrimage of life. This deep relational refreshment enables us to respond with grace to what is beyond our power and summon the reserves for a second wind in facing difficult, but fixable, challenges.
The description of the Israelites’ impatience with Moses and God portrays the risks of moving forward, either internally or externally. In the midst of the wilderness, the Israelites experience a failure of nerve. When times get rough and they experience external challenges, they forget God’s mighty works and the providential care that brought them forth from slavery. They forget the resources hidden within the challenges they face. They once more look backward, longing for Egypt and captivity, and abandoning God’s and Moses’ wisdom and the lure of holy adventures. They look at their situation in terms of scarcity rather than divine abundance. They see what they don’t have, and the possibility embedded in their situation, including their own personal resources. Once more, God provides what they need, showering them with living waters despite their doubt and fearfulness.
Psalm 95 is a song of affirmation. God is faithful and has delivered us in the past and will deliver us in the future. God provides for our deepest needs, the Psalmist proclaims, even when we are unfaithful. God’s loving care is constant and universal. While the scope of that care is contingent on our openness to divine energy, God’s gentle providence is stronger than our infidelity, and can never ultimately be thwarted by human sin.
The words of Romans 5:1-11 invite us to stand in God’s grace, regardless of our prior failures. We can embrace our suffering, not because we enjoy pain, but because God is with us in every season of life. In spite of our waywardness and sin, God sacrifices, bearing the burden of our pain, for our healing and wholeness. While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us, Paul asserts. This is more than a literal version of the theory of substitutionary or vicarious atonement. Paul is expressing the depth of God’s love for us. Indeed, sacrifice is at the heart of life and love. God suffers with us. Out of our brokenness, God creates what the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead calls “tragic beauty.” God may have hoped for a world without brokenness and alienation; yet, God’s love brings healing balm and images of wholeness to our wayward world.
The words of Romans 5 describe God’s healing love and sacrificial presence, and this is an image most lovers can embrace. As a pastor as well as parent, grandparent, spouse, and son, I recognize that sacrifice is essential to every mature loving relationship: I see this in the nursing home with devoted spouses visiting daily relatives who no longer recognize them; I see this in parents tirelessly seeking the best resources for children with disabilities; I see it in the persistent quest for justice and environmental healing; I see it in a parent comforted a sleepless child. Surely God’s suffering and sacrificial love is more than we can imagine, but necessary for our own healing and transformation. Once more, this is not predestined and certainly beyond any literal understanding of vicarious atonement; it is relational and transformational atonement, at-one-ment that seeks to bind the wounds of persons and planets.
John’s Gospel describes the interaction between Jesus and a Samaritan woman. He offers a stranger a taste of God’s living water, crossing boundaries to enter into dialogue not only with a woman, but also a Samaritan, a people most Jews considered impure and spiritually inferior. The waters of life will never run dry; they come from God’s Spirit moving through our spirits. They can refresh us regardless of where we’ve been on life’s journey. The much-married Samaritan woman is capable of receiving the waters of life with the same freshness as religiously-scrupulous Jew.
Jesus is nurtured – and nurtures – through living waters and the bread of life. His food, bread, and energy come from following his vocation, and living in zone of God’s vision for his life. When we open the door to God’s vision, new and creative energies sustain us for the pilgrimage ahead and expand our own vision to include strangers and persons outside our spiritual, ethnic, and cultural circle.
We need revival: though, perhaps, not the old-fashioned, altar call, revivals of olden days, and hell-fire and brimstone preaching. We need another kind of revival, awakening us to God’s call to personal, congregational, and social transformation. We have been thirsty too long; we are parched and tempted to live by scarcity when God’s abundance is all around. We need to believe that we can be refreshed and that we have the tools to transform our lives and congregations through opening to God’s grace. Everlasting life and spiritual refreshment is in the here and now, awaiting our announcement, affirmation, and appropriation.