Lent 3 Year A 2023 St John’s Upper Norwood
The scripture readings this Sunday have a very personal, but also communal message for us. God’s saving help arrives in hopeless and unlikely places, and to what appear to be messy individuals and communities, but arriving to restore and refresh.
In the Old Testament reading we discover the people of Israel at the outset of their journey from slavery to freedom. Their wayward, argumentative trek across the desert from Egypt to the ‘Promised Land’ has come to a halt. The people are desperate for water and rest, and tempted to retrace their steps even if it means bondage once more. They set on Moses and Aaron. Things are so challenging Moses give the place a nickname- “Grumbling!” Moses is directed by God to strike a rock and water gushes out to provide for his people’s survival. And this image of God as the abiding Rock of refreshment inspired many of the Psalms and stories in Israel’s later history, as people struggled to hold onto their faith. Psalm 78, describes the ups and downs of the faith-journey, but one refrain looks back to this miracle of water in hard times. The people of God might waver, but then “They remembered that God was their Rock, and the Most High was their redeemer.” God shares the journey with us.
One rabbinical story speaks of the Rock, that sign of` God’s presence, as travelling along with them. So that former Rabbi Paul seizes on the story to explain how God has always been present with his people from the dawn of time, but now, he realises it was God is Christ who had been with them. “That Rock was Christ,” he says “They drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them: and that Rock was Christ” (I Corinthians 10:4). In his letter to the Romans Paul takes a long look looks at the wasteland humanity has made out of God’s Eden, but announces the arrival of Jesus, that Rock of healing, to heal all creation. It is easy to think of Paul’s letters as full of words and theories, but his energy and insight flows out from that first encounter with the risen Christ on the Damascus Road at his conversion. Now he realises that this man whose message of forgiveness and reconciliation he had despised has always been alongside humanity on the road. He speaks words of encouragement from his own experience of being accepted and forgiven, enemy though he was. He has discovered an inner peace that survives all that is thrown at it. God has arrived in another unpromising and rebellious place. And by taking in the love of God through the Spirit Paul becomes the messenger of hope and reconciliation.
Finally in the Gospel Jesus arrives in yet another alien territory, Samaria, and speaks to someone regarded by the Jewish community as untouchable ; and, we discover, someone whose personal life is all at sea. At first things don’t look hopeful! There was bad blood between the 2 communities. Most Jews loathed Samaritans. They regarded them as racially impure; refusing to socialise with them, or eat with them. Historically the Samaritan community had returned from the deportation to Babylon bringing with them families from other cultures and creeds to resettle the area. They had re-established their own cult and Temple on Mount Gerizim, near which Jesus was now resting. Worse- the Samaritans has put every obstacle they could in the way of their cousins as they attempted to restore their own ruined Temple in Jerusalem. In the previous century they had supported Syria in its war against Israel, and in retaliation the Jewish High Priest had ordered the destruction of the Temple on Gerizim. Samaritan faith rested firmly on the five books of the Law, but was dismissed by Israel as heretical. And- she was a woman!!!! Even in his own community Jesus should not even have acknowledged her or spoken to her unless she had a male chaperone. But once more the Gospel reveals Jesus’ profound respect for women, not openly from his own community, but for foreigners, as well.
John tells us that the Samaritan woman is slow to realise the full meaning of what Jesus is offering her, lasting refreshment, the water of eternal life, and the opening out of her own immense potential. But she does have the courage to stand her ground. She is prepared to take the risks of this relationship, even when it begins to lay bare her own vulnerability and mess. Why? Because somehow she begins to sense that despite her anxiety something in this meeting speaks to her very depths.
Jesus engages with her very openly. He asks for her help, asks for a drink. Archbishop William Temple, commenting on the significance of Jesus’ request, tells the story of a social worker who moved into a flat on his work patch on a tough East London estate. On his first evening there he had to ask a neighbour for a hammer so that he could hang up his pictures. “At once,” says Temple, “the relationship was different.” No longer a potential client this neighbour became a friend. Christ humbly acknowledges his own needs, he stands on level ground with her. And so he brokers a reciprocal relationship with her, affirming her gifts and worth. And like other characters in his Gospel, ( Including the disciples, Pilate and Nicodemus), John depicts the woman as slow on the uptake. John’s style is to draw us into the story; tease out the deeper spiritual meaning of Jesus’ words and actions. The woman wonders who this stranger is. “Does this man think he is greater than the patriarch Jacob whose well we are sitting at?” Well- of course he is says John. And we know that too- now !! But John wants to catch us up in the exploration of how faith comes to birth; and, more importantly, wants us to think about our own response to this Man who arrives in our midst.
Jesus offers her the waters of eternal life, but the woman has her mind on more mundane affairs. She is quite keen to be given this fresh water because it must be more refreshing than the still, humid water in the cistern of the well, and she doesn’t need to work hard to get it, she thinks. But gradually she starts to think there is more to this man than meets the eye. Yes, he has begun to lay bare the muddled realities of her personal life, but bravely she remains there, ready to hear what he will say. By offering her the water of eternal life Jesus longs to open out her possibilities, and our own immense potential. She is prepared to take on the risks of this relationship, stick with it, even when it lays bare her own vulnerability and mess. She calls him Kyrie, Lord or Master, and blurts out that he must be a prophet, perhaps like the one Moses foretold. The Jews looked for a Royal Messiah, a descendant of King David for deliverance, but the Samaritans held that hope too, but for the promised Prophet, the ‘Taheb,’. “The One who returns- The One who comes to restore all things.”
Jesus now reveals his true identity- and the fact that the new messianic age of liberation and restoration is already here. The time has come for the ingathering all peoples, the harvest of souls begins. Jesus is that Prophet,. “I AM HE.” He uses a phrase from Isaiah (52:6)– the name of God himself.
“My people will know my name, They will know when that day comes that it is I saying. “Here I am.”
The disciples return from their shopping, and their disapproval and condemnation are clear. They dismiss the encounter and the woman. But she has already set her face forwards, to share her good news with her neighbours. She is emboldened by her meeting with the Lord. One American NT scholar, Susan Hylen ( in Imperfect Believers) comments:
“There is a great reversal here, .. not the usual one of the excluded sinner graciously offered forgiveness. It is the story of a woman who is spiritually more astute than the great Pharisee Nicodemus. It is the story of a Samaritan woman whose witness to Jesus brings her whole village to the true worship of God.”
What appeared to be hostile, barren territory, and fragile meetings turns out to be the place of new birth. This changed woman leaves her water jar and goes off to speak good news. And her words to the villagers will echo that first invitation of Jesus to the disciples- “Come and see!!!” and come they do to make up their own minds about this ‘Prophet’. We know that God’s planting, and this woman’s mission bears fruit. Samaria became one of the first places to come to faith after the resurrection. Philip the Apostle travelled there to preach, and Peter and John arrived to lay hands on and confirm the faith of new converts.
We are to take heart that however unpromising the places and times we are in appear to be, and however fractured and partial are lives are- God comes to meet us, restore and refresh us. Here at this Altar we drink in the wellsprings of life and “We remember that God is our Rock, and the Most High is our redeemer.”