Year A: Exodus 17: 1-7, John 4: 5-42
Again good morning, as we continue our way now at the Third Sunday of Lent. It’s often noted that the English word “Lent” comes from the same early English root as our words “long” or “lengthen,” and refer specifically to the season of the lengthening of the day, spring. In these weeks before Holy Week and Easter a time of reflection, penitence, preparation—but also in the midst of that, to see and experience transformation and renewal, as the blanket of snow and ice and cold as we have lived through the long winter now gives way to the first signs of bright and warm new life beginning to emerge. Maybe it doesn’t quite feel like it this chilly morning, but it is on its way!
A meaningful and poetic analogy of image for the encounter we have in the great cycle of the church year with the pattern of our response to the gift of God, his grace and love in Christ Jesus, recognizing our sin and in repentance and in the commitment to an amendment of life to know and experience the spiritual renewal in his promise. The awareness of sin, we might say, as the first and perhaps the most certain sign of the gift of God’s grace and power. Even that awareness comes only by his generous action.
That moment in the story of the Prodigal Son when the Wastrel has spent his inheritance and is plunged into the depths of ruin. And in Luke 15: 17 as Jesus is telling the story, “and when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare . . . . I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you . . . .” Again, “when he came to himself.” The literal meaning of "repent," the imperative “metanoite:” “get a different consciousness.” Get your head on straight. Wake up and turn around. What can be and probably should be an incredibly painful moment. But also again, pure gift. The first moment of God’s gracious hand reaching into our lives. As he acts first, while we are still deep in our sleep, deep in our denial. Quoting again the words of John 3:16 as we heard them in the readings appointed last Sunday, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
Now, in the study of new languages we always need to be alert for what my 7th grade French teacher called “des faux amis.” False friends. Words that look to be so similar to, even exactly like, words of our own language that we mistakenly assume a common definition. It can get you into trouble. So here this morning from the first words of our Old Testament reading simply to say that the Hebrew word translated here as the “wilderness of Sin” has nothing to do with the spiritual condition of the Israelites and the rebellion against God that we heard about in Genesis last Sunday.
It’s pure and simple a geographical marker of a region of the Sinai peninsula. We know “Mount Sinai.” From that same word. And if we were reading the Bible in a German translation this morning we wouldn’t pause. But you can’t help noticing. Because we are reading in English, and this is of course what the story is about. The sin that goes all the way down in us. Through and through.
The great multitude liberated from slavery in Egypt by God’s mighty arm, passing through the Red Sea with the waters parted like great walls of either side. Coming to the Holy Mountain of smoke and flame to receive the great commands of God and the foundation of Torah, the Law, that will define and constitute their identity and purpose. But then day after day, in the desert heat, under the open sky, hunger and thirst, the weakest struggling to keep up. Weeks turn into months, months into years. Conflicts arise within, there are battles with Bedouin tribes, conflicts with those through whose lands they are passing. Even the essentials of life at risk. “At least in Egypt we had food to eat, water to drink.” Who is this Moses, anyway? Can we trust him? We’ve followed, we’ve heard him speak of how God called him, of how God spoke to him on the mountain. The God of Moses. We trusted for a while, but now we need to see some results. He says “have faith, the Lord will provide.” But that’s not enough, not any more. Give us something to drink!
And at the Lord’s command, in the midst of all this grumbling and rebellion, in the heart of the “wilderness of sin,” Moses strikes the rock, and pure water flows.
Or as St. Paul puts it in Romans 5, the theological framework for the waking up of the Prodigal Son, “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” While we were still wandering in that wilderness, before we even knew how lost we were.
What the faithless people of Israel deserved, after all that God had done for them, was nothing. “Go ahead, then, all right, go on back to Egypt. See how you like it.” But what they got was more than they deserved. In the wilderness of Sin, the water of life, a renewal of hope, an expression of love.
And so the Samaritan Woman at Jacob’s Well. So lost in the “Wilderness of sin” of her life that she won’t even dare to show her face at the well in the early morning, when the women of the village would normally go to supply their homes and families.
She comes in the noonday heat, when the neighbors are having their siesta and no one will see. And she dances around in this repartee with Jesus. Hiding her brokenness she thinks, avoids the subject of her true condition.
And yet Jesus stays with her, and in a word reveals and shares with her such an abundance of grace and affection, his very self, that she is at once convicted and absolved, exposed and freed. Dying to an old life, and rising in a miraculous transformation to be not simply renewed herself but to be the catalyst for others. Those who wouldn’t speak to her, those to whom she wouldn’t dare to show her face—they are now suddenly lifted up with her to a new life. This amazing converted village of Samaritans. Inviting Jesus to come and stay with them, receiving him as guest and knowing and proclaiming him as their Savior.
The Israelites don’t manage their successful crossing of the wilderness of Sin because of their Boy Scout Camping skills, and they certainly don’t get to the Promised Land because they have shown themselves worthy. The Samaritan Woman and her village neighbors don’t receive the blessings of new life in Jesus because they worshipped in the right words and ceremonies or because of their moral purity.
It all comes to them as a gift, free. More than they deserve. An abundance beyond measure, when they really deserved nothing at all.
If we could know this to be our story in Lent. What that long reading of Psalm 51 on Ash Wednesday is all about. “I have sinned O Lord, I have sinned, and I know my wickedness only too well.” The long look into the mirror in the morning.
The awareness of where we are, in the "wilderness of sin," we might say, as the most certain sign there is of the gift of God’s grace and power. Why Lent is such a blessing. I had no idea how hungry I was, until he fed me. I had no idea how thirsty I was, until from the Rock there flowed a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.
Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.