Friday, February 22, 2008

3 Lent, Year A, Notes

3rd Lent, Year A,
(first thoughts, notes and marginal scribblings...)
[Exodus 17:1-7, Psalm 95, Romans 5:1-11, John 4:5-42]


[Exodus 17:1-17]

Themes & motifs:
water and thirst
physical needs

vs. 17:2, the people "quarreled" with Moses;
vs. 17:3, Moses says, "Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the LORD?"

(testing & quarreling linked together, or conflated.)

Massah = heb. "test"
Meribah = heb. "quarrel"

The Israelites are complaining about a quite pressing physical need-- water to drink and to water their animals. This is no petty matter; it is literally an issue of life or death. They have been travelling through hot, dusty lands; and travelling is thirsty work. Especially in the wilderness, water is life. If they don't get water soon, they will begin dropping like proverbial flies.

However, they seem quite certain that Moses/God cannot provide the water they need. Moses' initial response hints at this connotation of their complaint; Their next words make it explicit: "Why did you bring us out of Egypt... to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?" They seem sure that their needs won't be met; in effect, they are doubting God's ability to watch over them, questioning God as source and sustainer of life.

(Their doubt and testing is made explicit in vs. 7, when the narrator adds that the people asked, "Is the LORD amongst us or not?")

Also, the mood in the crowd is angry and accusatory. The narrative goes on to makes clear what mere text of their complaint cannot: tone of voice. The people are furiously angry. Moses says to God: "They are almost ready to stone me!" They're on the verge of becoming a mob, not a "congregation" -- the threat of violence looms.

Perhaps if they'd come to Moses with the same issue and a different tone, this wouldn't have been interpreted as sinful, or as "testing" or "quarelling."

The LORD has Moses take the same rod he struck the Nile with to a Rock, with elders to witness. The same LORD who has watched out for the people before will continue to; the same rod will be used.

God has power over water
an element of life & death, power to destroy or sustain
- power to part the Red Sea for escape (life)
- power to close the waters on the pursuing army (death)
- power to make water well up from the rock (life)

Thirst is a metaphor for one's longing for God in various places in the OT.
Psalm 42, "as the deer pants for the waterbrooks, so my soul thirsts for you..."
Psalm 63:1,
"O God, you are my God, eagerly I seek you;
my soul thirsts for you, flesh faints for you,
as in a barren and dry land where there is no water."
This is true of this story as well, as the people were doubting and testing God's presence and power.

If God has power over water, God holds the power of life & death.
If the test was "Is God with us," the answer is "Yes."
If the test was also implicitly "Is God able to help us?," the answer is also, "Yes."


[Psalm 95]

- God's creative/sustaining power
- God's pre-eminence
- God's care for us
- Our rightful response of praise and worship
- Trust vs. testing

Found in the Daily Offices in Morning Prayer as one of the introductory Psalms, the Venite... but noticably lacking vss. 8-11, which deal with the Israelites' testing of God at Meribah/Massah.

I love how, during Lent, the whole Psalm may be used as an Introductory Psalm, not just the "easy" verses.

The first half of the Psalm, vss. 1-7, do not at first seem directly related to the incident at Meribah.

vss. 1-7 joyfully proclaim God's creative and saving power.
- All creation is in God's hands; created by God.
- The rightful response to this is thanks and praise (vvs. 1-2;6-7)

They are related, however, to the Israelite's "complaint" in the wilderness of Zin: "Is God with us, or not?," (and implicitly, "can God save us?") Vss. 1-7 state, of course God is with us-- All the ends of the earth are always in God's hands-- and we are the "people of his pasture and the sheep of his hand" (vs. 7)

The second half of the Psalm is about the testing at Meribah/Massah. The generation in the desert who "put me to the test, though they had seen my works" (vs. 9) are used as a negative example for the faithful. Implicitly, if we want to "enter into [God's] rest," we'd better not follow their example, but remember the joyful affirmations of God's creative/redemptive power in the first half of the Psalm, and respond accordingly.


[Romans 5:1-11]

- hardship & its fruits (if endured with faith)
- boasting (in sufferings, in God)
- interceding/dying for another
- reconciliation

The surface-level gist of vs. 3-5 have entered our general vocabulary in the common idiom said of anything hard or unpleasant, "It builds character."

This sort of affirmation that suffering builds character is present in the passage, perhaps, but less simple than one leading directly to the other. We are able to rightly boast of our sufferings only when sufferings are endured in faith.

That is, it's not a churchy form of two old people trying to out-complain each other about who's health, joints, aches, and pains are the worst, as if suffering were so me sort of contest, or some sort of good in itself. (Paul warns us not to boast "in ourselves" as if our pain were praiseworthy in itself; but to boast "in God through our Lord Jesus Christ.") No, it is endurance in the face of suffering that makes hardship a possibly positive experience for the believer.

This endurance is a virtue-- thus, as that virtue is exercised and strengthened, one's character is "built." So, hardship can help us grow-- in faith, in character, in Godliness. It could just as easily help us grow apart from God-- in bitterness, in doubt, in jaded resignation, in raw sorrow.

Thank God for the grace we have through Jesus Christ and "the Holy Spirit that has been given to us" that allows us to endure suffering faithfully.

Early in The City of God, Augustine talks of the possible spiritual benefits of the suffering many Christians have endured as the power of Rome wanes and barbarians have sacked the city. He notes that through suffering, many may realize their own weakness and dependence on God. Or God might use their hardships to show them their inordinate love of worldly comforts, to the exclusion of prayer or worship. Or that suffering turns the believer from worldliness to thoughts of heaven in general. He may go a tad further than I would in assigning some agency to God for the barbarians' acts (in order to 'discipline' those who suffer), but he does helpfully note how such suffering can build the believer's character.


[John 4:5-42]

A Johannine "conversation" (as opposed to a "contraversy.) In the Conversations, a potential believer engages Jesus in a genuine dialogue, and shares their puzzlement, questions, objections, or confessions of faith. In a Contraversy, Jesus is confronted by his opponents on some point, and then gives an uninterrupted response that amounts to a monologue.

- thirst, physical & spiritual
- water (drinking, baptism, "living water")
- social categories; social stigma
- ethnic/gender/religious barriers
- confession of Jesus as Messiah
- Sowing/harvesting/reaping (evangelizing)


Nicodemus (John 3) provides an interesting foil for the woman at the well:

Nicodemus came to Jesus in the middle of the night;
The Woman at the Well meets Jesus in the middle fo the day.

Nicodemus has high social standing, a respected rabbi;
The Woman at the Weel is a known adulteress in her community.

Nicodemus comes to Jesus as night, perhaps to avoid being seen;
Jesus meets the Woman at midday: perhaps she has come to the well during the hottest part of the day (the customary time to draw water being morning or evening) to avoid being seen by the other women of her town because she is a social outcast for her many "husbands."

Nicodemus does not publically affirm Christ after his encounter,
perhaps fearing for his reputation;
The Woman makes a public announcement of Christ after her encounter,
even though before she was avoiding people because of her reputation.


I love that Jesus first asks the woman for a drink of water. The real physical thirst of travel on the long, dusty road between Judea and Galilee has made him thirsty. This story acknowledges the reality of thirst for water, as well as wielding this thirst as a metaphor for our thirst for God, and thirst for recognition by others as worthy of their time and respect. As a pariah living on the fringes of her town's society, coming to the well at hottest part of day to avoid having to face another confrontation by the town's other women, the Woman is thirsty for dignity. Her fervent expectation of the Messiah and excited questions when she realizes that Jesus is "a prophet" display her thirst for God.

--> (there is an echo here of the many OT meetings at wells-- Abraham's servant and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel, etc... especially the latter, since this is "Jacob's Well." Like the story of Jacob coming to the well and then meeting Rachel there, Jesus is coming to a well in another land, but offering water to the one who is local to that area.)

Her reaction to Jesus' offer of "living water" (also "running water," like a stream or river) is at first overly literal:
- Where are you going to get this water? You don't even have a bucket.
- "Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming her to draw water."


The woman - Samaritan
- Remnant of the 10 northern Israelite tribes left after the Assyrians sacked Israel, intermingled with other peoples
- Followed the Torah
- Differences in worship customs
- Not acknowledged by the Jews as rightfully following God

Jews typically had as little to do with Samaritans as possible, considering them unclean, flawed in their religion, and having betrayed their heritage by intermarrying.

There are all sorts of social barriers in this story...

Men did not typically speak to women who were not their family in public
Jews did not typically speak to Samaritans
(both ethnic and religious barriers, "cleanliness" issues)
A known adulteress in her community / a known holy man

Jesus and the woman are both aware of these conventional social barriers. Jesus approaches the woman anyway, but the Woman is shocked, ans asks him, "How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?"
- She is ready to let social stigma and social mores prevent an enounter with Jesus.
- "Your people don't talk to my people"

The disciples are equally astonished that Jesus is talking to a Samaritan woman, alone no less. But they don't say anything about it.

Stigma / fear / outcast-status
acceptance / boldness / public announcements

When the Woman returns to her village, she is emboldened and suddenly overcomes her shyness. No longer slinking around like an untouchable, she publically announces Jesus to her whole village, saying, "Come and see this man! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?" This is worlds away from the women we encountered at the beginning of the story, who journeyed to the well at the hottest part of the day to avoid contact with villagers who probably disapproved of her; now she seems to have forgotten her shame and is loudly proclaiming Jesus and inviting others to come and see him.


"I know" that Messiah is coming

As with Nicodemus, the Woman is close to letting what she thinks she knows get in the way of hearing what Jesus has to say. She knows that Jews don't talk to Samaritans, and that men don't talk to unaccompanied women in public. She knows that Jesus doesn't have a bucket, so his offer of living water doesn't make sense. She knows that Jesus is a prophet once he discloses knowledge of her romantic biography-- thus lessening her likelihood of recognizing him as more than a prophet. She knows the differences between Jewish Temple observance and Samaritan worship on Mount Gerizim. She knows that Messiah is coming-- which rather ignores what Jesus has just said about the proper place (or mindset/way) to worship God; and that she knows Messiah is coming reduces her likelihood of recognizing that the Messiah has already come, and is standing right in front of her.

She is eager to talk politics & religion with this man who has unexpectedly deigned to speak to her in public, especially once it becomes evident that he is a holy man of some sort. Her eagerness shows a real spiritual thirst, and a very human social thirst for dignity and recognition. But in her eagerness and thirst for these things, she almost misses them by being blinded by preconceived notions. For example, Jesus does not legitimize either the Jewish or Samaritan place of worship, but says that now all worshippers will worship God wherever they are, "in spirit and in truth." The woman barely seems to hear him on this point, but seems to change the subject.


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