Lent 3 – What Refreshes?
In our OT lesson Moses has once more to contend with the discontent of the Israelites. Their gratitude for liberation from slavery in Egypt has fizzled out, and the long sojourn in the wilderness is wearing thin. They are short of water, for themselves and their livestock, and in their minds the authenticity of Moses as their leader is someone who can fix this. God tells Moses to go in front of the people and lead them, reminiscent of the way shepherds in middle east led their flocks, by voice and trust, and sure enough God grants Moses a satisfying and dramatic solution where he strikes a rock, and from it flows water. The stick itself was the very one used by Moses to part the waters which enabled them to flee captivity, whether this irony was lost on them we shall never know.
Our Gospel takes up this theme by telling the story of Jesus at the well with the Samaritan woman. In these days when water is literally on tap for the developed world, it is hard to imagine just how much time and effort goes into ensuring you have enough clean water. It is heavy laborious work, and in Jesus’s time, as for so many in the world still, it takes up a considerable amount of each day, and would have been a never-ending necessity. It would have provided as well moments of encountering others, and if as Jesus was here you were not in your home village or town, you would have met people that perhaps you would never have done in any other way. The woman is a Samaritan, and as we know the Jews were not on good terms with them. The Samaritans were also Jews, the descendants of those returning exiles who were away in Babylon for 60 or so years and settled mostly in the north of the country Samaria away from the Temple in Jerusalem, what had been Israel when it was divided into Israel and Judah. The returners were not welcomed home with open arms, but with suspicion, had they gone native in their long absence? Had being so far away from the Temple and the mainstream of the Jewish faith meant they had picked up unreliable religious ideas and practices. As they had become used by necessity not to need synagogues or the Temple, they felt no need to change, and the suspicion grew, so did the separation which became a hostility and wariness, truly sad when you think of their shared heritage and faith and all that the Samaritans had endured. Jesus famously speaks with Samaritans, His parable of the Good Samaritan arguably one of the most famous in scripture. Here The need for water on both parts, and her kindness in helping Jesus who had no bucket leads to a conversation about faith. Water is essential for life, without is we can barely last a few days, and Jesus takes this fact as a metaphor for what is truly needed. Moses both knew struck the rock and water flowed, and it satisfied the immediate thirst of the people, just as the water they are drawing will for them. But what truly sustains life, sustains the individual, brings permanent nourishment, it cannot be simply food and drink, as our need of them is constant. Jesus reveals His identity to the woman by explaining how the sustenance/water He brings, is eternal, a permanent solution to the need, freeing the thirsty once and for all. Later in the Gospel this is expanded of course as a metaphor for the Eucharist, where the faithful feed on the body and blood of the Risen Jesus, that Holy meal, that sustenance which lasts into eternal life. By Jesus knowing of the personal circumstances of the woman’s life, he reveals himself to be a prophet and it all fits together for the woman, who connects the temporary nature of Moses’s solution to need, with the permanent salvation that the sustenance that Jesus brings.
And Paul in Romans is in fact addressing the same issue, what truly sustains and endures in the life of the faithful believer? This passage is among many used by thinkers in the Reformation and later who wrestled with the idea of what feeds the faithful? In the middle ages the faithful believed in doing, acts of piety such as pilgrimage, venerating saints relics and visiting their shrines, visible acts of faith which they felt in some added up over the course of their life to their credit. This sustained the faithful for many hundreds of years, but by the 16th century the unscrupulous and the simply careless had allowed this to become transactional, in short it became for many a numbers game, and the Reformers opposed this mechanistic understanding. Drawing on Paul’s understanding of what is truly sustaining the Reformers concluded that ultimately we are sustained/ justified by faith. Simply trusting the revelation of God in Christ is enough. We are saved not because we earned it, were good at the routines of religious life, or anything else, we are redeemed through grace alone, unmerited, irresistible and eternal. I simplify, but starting with this important acceptance of God’s unconditional love, His offer of forgiveness and salvation through sending His son to save and not condemn the world, are the building blocks from which hall else should grow. It was a re-ordering of priorities not a sweeping away of everything else. The bible, the traditions of the church, liturgy, and acts of charity and piety remain important in sustaining the Christian life, but without the transforming acceptance of our worth and God’s grace, they can never sustain the journey of life or faith.
And Lent is a time of questioning what sustains our lives and our faith, and importantly what fails to do so. It is why we spend time thinking on the true value of things that are important to us, and ask ourselves about the value of things we have little of in our lives, like quiet, or rest, or time for ourselves and others. Few of us is going to look into our lives and think there is little that needs a dust, most of us will conclude that far more is wrong than in truth really is. But looking for things that sustain not just in the moment for provide lasting sustenance is a good thought. And perhaps one of the hardest things to grasp and to truly believe is that we, individually and uniquely, despite ourselves are loved unconditionally, and that love’s active concern is our well-being and ultimately our salvation. And from that strength all else becomes possible.