The Book of Exodus stands at the center of Israel’s faith tradition, primarily because so much of it is about the Exodus, itself. The Book of Exodus begins the work of Moses. The Book carries themes such as liberation, law, and covenant. As to the arrangement of the Book of Exodus itself, the first 15 or so chapters are essentially a narrative about liberation. (Essentially the deliverance of the Hebrews…the “Let My People Go” theme.). Then beginning mid-way through Chapter 15, the tone shifts to the question of “Is the Lord Among Us or Not?” Following that is the charter of the holy nation, the pattern of the tabernacle, and then sections on sin and restoration and Israel’s obedient work.
The passage that we read is set in this second section and is part of what is sort of a “wilderness journey”. Here, Israel’s life in the wilderness is very precarious. There is no water to drink, no resources for living, and (easily) they begin to doubt God’s existence. They think that God has deserted them. Here they had done exactly what God had said and now it seemed that they were being left to die in the desert. They complain to Moses, but Moses cannot make water. He does not want to be blamed. You know that Moses probably just wanted to run away, to get away from all of the complaining. He also reprimands the Israelites for criticizing him and for testing Yahweh. In essence, it seems that he, if only for a moment, equates his own leadership with that of God.
The second exchange includes God and produces a life-giving outcome that Moses could not produce alone. The problem was solved! In verse 7, the names given to this place mean “test” (Massah) and “quarrel” (Meribah). The narrator turns the problem back toward the people. In essence it becomes a story of “unfaith”. What got in the way was not God’s lack of response but, rather, the Israelites lack of trust of God. This story of “unfaith” sort of critiques that view of religion that judges God by whatever outcome the asking community received. God does not reward and punish people based on whether or not they deserve it.
Now, in Israel’s defense, this was true thirst. In this passage, I don’t think “thirst” implies a metaphorical spiritual thirst. They needed water. This story is set in the wilderness. It’s hard for us to imagine true wilderness—no resources, no direction, nothing to sustain us. And the desert must be the wilderness of all wildernesses. Without trees, there is no way to gauge where you are or how far you’ve come. Any shadow or dark spot is worthy of suspicion as something of which you must be aware. And rather than the path being hard to see or hard to tread, it is continually changed by the winds and sands. And yet, wilderness is over and over again the setting through which people find their faith.
Implicit in this story is an account of egos being tripped up—both for Moses and his followers. The Israelites thought they deserved something better. They thought that if they followed God and did what they were called to do, God would reward them. They didn’t have the faith to know that God was with them. They wanted it NOW. And for Moses, he fell into the trap of thinking that he was doing everything right, that the people should just shut up and listen to him. He forgot that he was instrument of God.
The image of thirsting is profoundly human. It is a deep human need. But when our needs become more important than the source from which we came, then fears and panic set in. Alexander Baillie says that “one needs to keep on thirsting because life grows and enlarges. It has no end; it goes on and on; it becomes more beautiful…One cannot be satisfied until one…ever thirsts for God.”
This is considered one of those “murmuring” stories of the Old Testament. We do the same thing. Perhaps our complaining and our murmuring gets in the way of our hearing God. Several years ago, I was sitting in a room at Lakewood UMC in North Houston listening to interviews of ministerial candidates. It was apparently a children’s choir room. There was a sign on the piano that said “Listen louder than you sing.” Now if you’ve ever sung in a choir, you know EXACTLY what this is saying. (Shhh! Listen, feel the energy that the choir holds, the music that we can only create together.) But I think it fits great with this passage. What would have been different if Moses had done that? What would have been different if the Israelites had done that? What would be different if we did that?
- a. What is your response to this passage?
- b. In what ways are the Israelites a mirror image of our own lives today?
- c. What is your image of the wilderness here?
- d. What is your image of the “path” down which God leads us?
- e. What does our thirst have to do with our faith and our relationship with God?
NEW TESTAMENT: Romans 5: 1-11
This section of Romans begins a section on what Paul called the “true humanity” of God’s people in Christ. There begins more of a focus on the connection that humanity has through Christ, rather than focusing on Jesus himself. Essentially it is about what follows once one is justified by faith. For Paul, this is the “new Exodus”.
The passage that we read focuses on a new relationship of love on both sides—both humans and God. So God’s justice has led to that perfect peace. (Keep in mind that this “perfect peace” is set in the midst of Rome, where Augustus Caesar had established the Roman Pax, which sought to move in on the entire world. It doesn’t mean the same for us, but Paul essentially takes the “motto of the day” and turns it toward belief in God’s coming peace.) Paul focuses on this as a different kind of peace, one that places its hope in glory, but one that will include suffering as part of that larger hope. Paul maintains that we should indeed celebrate this suffering. He claims that suffering produces patience, which produces character. Indeed, suffering deepens hope. Like the passage from Exodus, this thought denies that idea of God having some sort of reward and punishment system. Instead, God enters our suffering with us. And being in a “right relationship” with God means that we embrace all that is God—even the God who stays in the midst of suffering.
Walter Brueggemann claims that “suffering produces hope”. He points out that the Jewish community has memories of the exile, of deep and profound suffering and that Christians have the memory of the cross. It means that we engage so deeply in the suffering of the past and the suffering of the present, that we imagine something new. Thomas Merton says that “the Christian must not only accept suffering: [the Christian] must make it holy.” That is probably strange to most of us. Suffering is bad; suffering is unwarranted; suffering is something that we all try to avoid. And yet, suffering happens. I don’t think it’s helpful to dismiss it as the “will of God”, as if God is somehow sitting off somewhere calculating who to inflict next. God is not like that. We all have needs. We will all suffer. And where is God? There…the place God is…is in the midst of all of the suffering. God walks with us through it, loving us and holding us, and gives us a glimpse of what is to come. God, remember, was there, even on the cross. If nothing else, the suffering in the world reveals the heart of God, reveals all this is holy. Paul said it better: suffering produces endurance and endurance produces character and character produces hope…God’s love poured into our hearts. He was right. It is a celebration. Because, you see, when we suffer, when we hurt, when the comforts of our lives are even momentarily stripped away, we are capable of seeing hope. We are capable of imagining something new. From the darkness, we are finally capable of seeing and knowing the Light. Suffering changes our perspectives and reframes what comes next in our lives. It once again reminds us what God has done and what God will do. And it gives us the ability, finally, to see things differently.
God is continually giving newness. God is continually reframing every moment of our life until all of Creation has been brought about right. God is continually giving us the opportunity to glimpse what lies ahead, to see beauty even before it exists. Even in this season of Lent, when we are surrounded by reminders of suffering, we are given holy glimpses of what is ahead. If you count the 40 days of Lent, they do not include Sundays. The Sundays of Lent are known as “little Easters”, opportunities to glimpse and celebrate the Resurrection even in the midst of the darkness. That is the cause for celebration about which Paul wrote.
- a. What is your response to this passage?
- b. What does that “perfect peace” look like for you?
- c. What is your image of suffering and how it relates to hope?
- d. What meaning does that hold for us during this Lenten season?
GOSPEL: John 4: 5-26 (42)
In this passage, Jesus’ ministry enters a new stage. He leaves the confines of traditional Judaism and turns to outsiders, those who his Jewish contemporaries would have rejected. First on the list are the Samaritans. The less than civil relationship between the Jews and the Samaritans dated back at least 1,000 years before the birth of Christ. Both believed in God. Both had a monotheistic understanding of the one true God, the YHWH of their shared tradition of belief. But where the temple of YHWH for the Jews existed on MountZion in Jerusalem, the Samaritans instead worshipped God on MountGerizim near the ancient city of Shechem. And with that, a new line of religious understanding was formed. The Samaritans believed that their line of priests was the legitimate one, rather than the line in Jerusalem and they accepted only the Law of Moses as divinely inspired, without recognizing the writings of the prophets or the books of wisdom. What started as a simple religious division, a different understanding of how God relates to us and we relate to God, eventually grew into a cultural and political conflict that would not go away. The tension escalated and the hatred for the other was handed down for centuries from parent to child over and over again.
So, here is Jesus breaking all of the boundaries of traditional Judaism. He, unescorted, speaks to a woman. He speaks to a woman of questionable repute. And he speaks to the enemy. The truth is, there is nothing about this woman that is wrong or sinful or anything else that we try to tack on her reputation. This woman was just different. Her life had been difficult. She lived in darkness. And the most astonishing thing is that this seemingly low-class woman who is a Samaritan becomes the witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Once again, the Gospel is found not in Jerusalem and notMt. Gerizim but in our shared existence as part of this “new humanity”.
Now, the woman does miss Jesus’ point. She looks upon Jesus as some sort of miracle worker, rather than seeing that he offers a new way of being. Even this story deals with suffering—the woman surely suffered. Good grief, she was there by herself—couldn’t even face the crowd. And Jesus—well Jesus was just thirsty. We all have needs; we all have fears—that is the nature of our true humanity. And maybe the story teaches us that from our need we will realize who God is. This woman’s new life begins when she recognizes Jesus’ true identity. Maybe that’s our problem. We are still looking for the Jesus that will make our lives easier rather than the one who will give us new life.
- a. What is your response to this passage?
- b. Where do you find yourself in this story?
- c. Where is Jesus once again today placed behind those boundaries of respectable and ordered faith?
- d. What Lenten message does this bring about for us?
Some Quotes for Further Reflection:
Thou hast made us for Thyself, and we cannot find rest until we find it in Thee. (St. Augustine of Hippo)
Too many of us panic in the dark. We don’t understand that it’s a holy dark and that the idea is to surrender to it and journey through to real light. (Sue Monk Kidd)
The spiritual life does not come cheap. It is not a stroll down a Mary Poppins path with a candy-store God who gives sweets and miracles. It is a walk into the dark with the God who is the light that leads us through darkness. (Joan Chittister, Called to Question: A Spiritual Memoir, p. 91)
O come, let us sing to the Most High, Creator of the Cosmos; let us make a joyful song to the Beloved! Let us come to the Radiant One with thanksgiving, with gratitude let us offer our psalms of praise! For the Beloved is Infinite, the Breathing Life of all. The depths of the earth belong to Love; the height of the mountains, as well. The sea and all that is in it, the dry land and air above were created by Love.
O come, let us bow down and give thanks, let us be humble before the Blessed One! For the Beloved is Supreme, and we, blessed to be invited to friendship as companion along the Way! O that today we would harken to the Beloved’s voice! Harden not your hearts, as in days of old, that you be not separated from Love. Be not like those who hear the Word and heed it not, thinking to be above the Most High. For life is but a breath in the Eternal Dance, a gift to be revered with trust, an opportunity to grow in spirit and truth, That in passing into new Life, you enter into the Heavenly City. Amen. (“Psalm 95”, in Psalms for Praying: An Invitation to Wholeness: An Invitation to Wholeness, Nan C. Merrill, p. 197-198)