Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 95; Romans 5:1-11; John 4:5-42.
Lent is a time of trial and testing, when God provides water and a discipline for new life.
The readings for the third Sunday of Lent lead us into times of trial and testing, with special reference to water. (Translations are from The New Jerusalem Bible.)
The Torah reading is one of the sharpest and most incisive stories of the Israelite “trials” in the wilderness. The people who have been rescued from bondage have not yet reached the holy mountain, where the law and covenant will be given. They are still an unruly crowd without discipline and tested faith.
The wilderness is a place where the common good is threatened. The stories of Israel’s trials or tests in the wilderness deal with four kinds of threat to the common life. The people lack water, they lack food, they are attacked by enemies, and they rebel against their own mission and leadership.
Our story has two statements of the crisis that now impends (verse 2 and verse 3). First, lacking water, the people expect Moses to provide it. Moses says why are you blaming me, “why do you put Yahweh to the test?” (verse 2). Moses shifts the accusation away from himself and insists that an attack on him is in fact an attack on God.
The second statement of the crisis is even sharper. “Why did you bring us out of Egypt ... only to make us, our children and our livestock, die of thirst?” (verse 3). In their distress, the people call into question the whole enterprise that started with the exodus. None of this wandering in the wilderness is God’s doing. This is only a wicked scheme by Moses, who is really intent on destroying the people in this hostile and deadly environment. That is the charge for which Moses now stands on trial before the people. And he turns in desperation to God: “How am I to deal with this people?”
God instructs Moses to strike a certain rock at the holy mountain with the stick that worked wonders in Egypt. Water flows from it – and not only is Moses vindicated as really God’s man and not a charlatan on his own, but the exodus enterprise is sustained as truly the doing of God, even though it leads through many hardships and trials in the country that comes before the promised land.
And to be sure that the people remember the lesson here, the place is given names that are to ring down through Israelite tradition. Massah [accent on the last syllable] means (Place of) Testing, and Meribah [also stressed on the last syllable] means (Place of) Contention or Quarrel. Whatever the urgency about water and murmuring, the ultimate issue is clearly revealed in the final statement: “Is Yahweh with us, or not?” (verse 7).
In the world of semi-nomadic herdsmen, places with names like Massah and Meribah would have been oases where disputes were settled between tribes, places where tribal justice was dispensed when the clans were gathered in from the grazing lands. But in Israelite tradition, the greatest Testing, the greatest Contention, was whether Israel would trust the Lord enough to become a truly faithful servant.
The Psalm reading is, first, an enthusiastic call to worship, a call to worship God as “a king greater than all the gods,” and as the Lord of creation whose chosen ones are “the people of his sheepfold, the flock of his hand” (verse 7). The call to worship leads, however, to a direct recall of the Massah story of the people’s rebellion.
A liturgical leader cries out, “If only you would listen to him today!” Then the assembled leaders hear God’s own speech, summoning them to learn from the terrible lesson of the past.
Do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah,
as at the time of Massah in the desert,
when your ancestors challenged me,
put me to the test, and saw what I could do!
... Then in my anger I swore
they would never enter my place of rest.
(Verses 8-11; the NJB follows Greek more than Hebrew here.)
(The oracle in the psalm refers not only to the rebellion at the watering place, but to the rebellion that was punished by forty years wandering in the wilderness, narrated in Numbers 14.)
The psalm summons the people to discipline the unruly hearts that tend to rebel in times of stress.
The Epistle reading continues Paul’s exposition of righteousness as understood from Abraham’s example.
Paul’s view of Jesus’ saving work includes the understanding that everybody has been at Massah and Meribah. Everybody has rebelled – actually at God, even though they may think it is only Moses they reject. Thus, everybody is or has been in trouble and needs a fresh start. The chance for such a start has been given. “While we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of [God’s] Son” (verse 10, NRSV).
“Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (verse 1). Even having this peace, however, we are still in the wilderness – that is, we still face trials and tests. Paul speaks of anticipating God’s glory by boasting, that is, celebrating, speaking ecstatically about the good things we have to look forward to. We have a hope that instills the excitement and delight of common worship and celebration.
But Paul also says that we should “boast” because of our sufferings or hardships (verse 3). It is this line of thought that picks up the wilderness testing.
We exult in our sufferings because such discipline is good for us. It leads us forward into more excellent service of God and others, knowing that “hardship develops perseverance, and perseverance develops a tested character, something that gives us hope …” (“Tested character” translates dokimē, which precisely means proven, tested, esteemed character, just the right term to refer to those who survived Massah and Meribah.) This hope is a sign that “the love of God has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit” (verse 5). We rejoice – exult or boast – in our hardships or sufferings, in our trials endured without rebelliousness, because such sufferings cultivate in us the love of God, which may then flow all around us with hope.
The Gospel reading is a long passage continuing the Lenten selections from the Gospel According to John. This selection describes how a Samaritan woman was tested at the well of ancestor Jacob. (While the passage is long, it is worthwhile including the whole reading.)
The story, like the reading from the Torah, begins with thirst and a request for water. The Samaritan woman knows the religious rules that would not allow a Jew to drink from a foreigner’s water jug, and she asks Jesus what he is up to. As with Nicodemus in the previous story, Jesus’ reply seems to come from left field. He says, in effect, if you knew who I am you would ask me for water instead of me asking you. We are immediately clear that we are not talking about just a cool sip on a hot day.
As usual, Jesus’ dialogue partner can’t quite get up to speed. This well is deep, she says, and you don’t even have a bucket! In reply Jesus gives the first punch line of this dialogue.
No one who drinks the water that I shall give him will ever be thirsty again: the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water, welling up for eternal life.
(Verse 14, NJB.)
Then, in what seems a little friendly chatter, Jesus asks the woman to invite her husband to join them. This leads to some revelations from the all-knowing Jesus about the lady’s private life, and she perceives that he is a prophet.
She is sufficiently adroit to see an opportunity to escalate this encounter into some socially valuable religious talk. She asks about the great division between Samaritans and Jews concerning the proper place ofworship. The Jews have their temple at Jerusalem; the Samaritans have theirs at MountGerizim, near where they are talking. The two faith communities share the same Torah, though each has its own reading of the book of Deuteronomy (which requires a single place of worship), and the Samaritans have never accepted any of the books of the prophets, which are all oriented to Zion in Jerusalem.
Jesus responds to her question, as usual, with something she didn’t expect.
Believe me, woman, the hour is coming
when you will worship the Father
neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem....
But the hour is coming—indeed is already here—
when true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth:
that is the kind of worship
the Father seeks.
(Verses 21 and 23).
The woman realizes he is talking about the time when the Messiah comes, and Jesus is unusually candid when he replies, “That is who I am, I who speak to you” (verse 26).
The disciples now enter the picture and converse with Jesus about food, which they have been in town purchasing. Meanwhile, the woman goes into her town and tells the Samaritans about Jesus. They then come out to see for themselves, and subsequently say to the woman, “Now we believe no longer because of what you told us; we have heard him ourselves and we know that he is indeed the Saviour of the world” (verse 42). (The indigenous folk have made the gospel their own!)
As R.H. Lightfoot observed (St. John’s Gospel, Oxford 1956, p. 125), the significant thing here is that the Samaritan woman develops. She is inquisitive, even if not too swift. But unlike Nicodemus in the previous chapter, she makes progress. She moves on from the water lesson to the sanctuary lesson to the recognition of the Messiah. Then she goes into town and makes an effective witness.
The new reality that Jesus brings to people who are already burdened with religious traditions is a new birth and a new growth in the Son and in the Holy Spirit. The Samaritan woman has met the tests that came to her at the well, and is spreading the witness about the living water that God has provided.