Saturday, September 6, 2008
Third in Lent, 2008
Painting: Duccio di Buoninsegna, c 1300.
February 24, 2008 Third Sunday in Lent (RCL Year A) Exodus 17: 1-7; John 4: 5-42
“There’s a wideness in God’s mercy.” Again the hymn as an offering of a pastoral theme for this Lent. “A wideness in God’s mercy, like the wideness of the sea . . . a kindness in his justice, which is more than liberty. There is welcome for the sinner, and more graces for the good; there is mercy with the Savior; there is healing in his blood.” And certainly in the world we live in, day by day in the morning newspaper and in the life of our church and in our work and in our families, to pray this blessing, that it would rain down in a gentle abundance in the midst of so much hurt and estrangement: wideness and mercy, kindness, welcome, graces, the healing that flows from the Cross, his best and perfect gift for us.
When I was young the season of Lent always seemed to me to have something of a harsh edge, which maybe had to do with the haphazard way our family would deal with the concept of fasting and discipline—mostly giving up the things my sister and I liked but that my parents didn’t care all that much about. But we are invited to look a little deeper into the well this morning, to see this time as the fount and source of a tender spirit, kindness, reconciliation, putting back together that which has fallen apart. That there would be a blessing in this Lent for us, and in the creation of some quiet and reflective space, a time to find joy and peace, and most importantly a time to be found by him.
We almost don’t have to say much more for what happens at the village well of Sychar in Samaria. Jesus and the Woman. You can take this conversation and encounter moment by moment and line by line, almost breath by breath in its incredible richness—this incredible conversation that in some way lines out in dialogue the course of every Christian life, a kind of poetic map of our journey in faith. Waking up over a pool of water, honest encounter, a turning point, and a life transformed, a life renewed. We have lived and we will live every sentence, every word of this story. Her story is our story, as it always has been and always will be. I know I’ve always thought that if we only could know one story about Jesus in the long reach from Bethlehem to Golgotha, this would be it. It would be all we would need.
And fascinating to have the story this morning, the Woman at the Well, alongside and framed by this other famous story about what it is to be thirsty, in the desert, the grumbling of the people and their near rebellion at Massah and Meribah, a moment in that story of salvation history when, as the saying goes, the people put the LORD to the test. A story that would echo for generations and centuries through the Psalms, as we’ve also heard this morning in Psalm 95, and in the works of many of the Prophets.
Something a little different in this moment from the story in John. Instead of the conversation of openness and exploration, of honesty and vulnerability, there is simply the rigid force of demand. Gimmee, gimmee, gimmee. And there is this profound failure of relationship. God comes through in the end, but it’s anything but a happy ending. There is this bitterness about it, because the water flows from the rock not fresh, not living water, not water of transformation and renewal, but in the midst of mistrust, broken faith, doubt, anger, a kind of spiritual violence.
I would just reference by title for those who were at last week’s midweek Lenten Service my friend Jim Simons’s very meaningful reflection on what happens to us spiritually when we are consumed by the need to be right, the need to win. In First Corinthians St. Paul talks about how in the gathering of the assembly for the Supper of the Lord there are some who because they are not reconciled in their hearts and living in faith will eat and drink to their own damnation, and that’s the story of what’s happening in this moment in the desert. There is even this pun that moves from Hebrew to English in the first sentence of this morning’s reading. The casual abbreviation of the desert landscape of the Sinai, as here: “from the Wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed.” And of course we know that terrain pretty well too. The Wilderness of Sin. Part of the texture of our lives and certainly of the unfolding of this Lent.
The two stories are then so fascinating to reflect back and forth on each other. It’s a story about what we do with our expectations, our sense of self-righteousness, our sense of pushing to get what we think we deserve. To make things happen the way we think they’re supposed to happen. While the Woman at the Well strikes home because somehow in the mystery of that encounter she is lifted up into something she could never have planned for, something she could never have imagined. This opening. This moment where she lets go, becomes the doorway to new birth and resurrection.
Jesus told Nicodemus in the reading last week, “you must be born again.” And so, this moment. She went to the well every day of her life, but now here in this old familiar place there is an intersection with eternity.
From Exodus to John, from a story about hardness of heart, to a story of a self-emptying transformation, a tenderness and a vulnerability that will make new life possible, that will allow real life to begin. And here we see how that happens. For her and for us in his presence, in the shadow of his cross and his resurrection, the deep well of his love: a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea. Graces, kindness, mercy, healing. What the story is about, what this Lent is about, and why we are here this morning. “The woman said to him, ‘I know that Messiah is coming. When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.’ And Jesus says to her, ‘I am he.’” Why we’re here this morning. For him.
May this season continue to be an invitation to come more deeply into this conversation at Jacob’s Well, this Lenten space of honesty and reconciliation, a space of healing and forgiveness, renewal and blessing.
Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.