Lectionary Commentaries for March 15, 2020
Third Sunday in Lent

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on John 4:5-42

Sherri Brown

In John 2-4, the Evangelist teaches the universal possibility of a journey of believing.

Two signs at Cana in Galilee form the literary frame of an instructional journey on faith through which Jesus brings himself as the Word of God to the world, first in a Jewish, then in a non-Jewish, aka “Gentile,” setting. John also begins to portray believing as dynamic and communicative. Indeed, often when folks think they “have it” and have “arrived,” Jesus challenges them further.

To do so, he draws people into dialogue by “wowing” them in order to “point to” the power of God, but the revelation of God in Jesus must be anchored in his word, not the fleeting “wow” of a miraculous experience. Jesus encounters people and challenges them to move beyond comfort and religious preconceptions into a new relationship with God the Father through openness to the Son. Each encounter also propels the plot as Jesus reveals himself and audiences venture toward his inevitable arrest, passion, and glorification.

Jesus’ journey continues in John 4 through a decision to go to Galilee by way of Samaria. Many Jews would have taken a longer, ostensibly safer, route across the Jordan through the more Gentile Decapolis to avoid Samaria with whose residents they have deep-seated animosity from the divided monarchy circa 920 BCE. That Jesus “had to go through Samaria” is, therefore, both a political expedience and a theological necessity (verse 4).

Good judgment dictated he move from Judea quickly, but it was also time he take on the wider world. Jesus and his disciples thus journey into Samaria and the village of Sychar. Like the mother of Jesus and the royal official, the Samaritan woman is never identified by name. Like Nicodemus, she does not appear in the other Gospels. So, what of this Samaritan woman in John’s version of the good news?

The encounter begins as Jesus comes to rest about midday by Jacob’s well (verses 5-6), associating it with the patriarchs in general and Jacob who becomes Israel in particular. Scholars also identify Sychar with Shechem, where the twelve tribes of Israel came together in a union of covenant renewal (Joshua 24). Since the time after the death of Solomon when Samaria became the capitol of the kingdom that seceded from Judah, the Jewish people considered their northern counterparts apostates from true faith.

By the first century CE, Samaritans held a Torah-centered faith focused on the patriarchs, centered worship on Mount Gerizim, and looked for a messiah who would be a prophet like Moses, while the Jewish people held a broader scriptural tradition that included the prophets, centered worship in Jerusalem, and looked for a messiah-king in the line of David. Although sharing the same founding history, they currently shared nothing else, including food, drink, or utensils. In this environment, Jesus takes a break alone as the disciples go for food and meets a Samaritan woman who comes to the well for her daily water-drawing chore (verses 7-8).

The scene is set for an encounter through which Jesus shatters social convention and incorporates a woman who is also Samaritan into his ministry. John likewise teaches that Jesus also fulfills Samaritan messianic expectations and reconciles this long-standing division.

Surprisingly, Jesus initiates dialogue: “Give me a drink” (verse 7). The imperative assumes an authoritative tone, even as he supplicates hospitality from one with whom his people deny kinship, thereby implicitly rejecting any divisions from the outset. The woman adopts a strong tone herself by questioning his actions based on the same long-standing divisions (verse 9). Standing before a pege, a spring-fed well of running water (verse 6), Jesus responds in his metaphorical way with God’s gift of living water. Depicting knowing “who it is” speaking in terms of knowing the gift of God, Jesus challenges his dialogue partner, a woman outside Judaism, to new relationship available through him and the coming revelation of himself as the “I AM” of God (verse 26).

The woman’s response could indicate naive misunderstanding, but seems to go further. She points out his lack of bucket and the well’s depth, and possibly mocks “living water,” but then asks how he compares to Jacob “our ancestor” and giver of the well. On a more symbolic level, her question could be quite serious: who is Jesus relative to their shared history? Jesus responds, as also becomes his practice, not by answering directly but challenging her to think theologically about his gift of living water that becomes a spring “gushing up to eternal life” (verses 13-14). Now it’s her turn to demand, “Sir, give me this water …” Is she accepting his challenge?  No, she isn’t quite there yet as she refocuses on the daily chore of drawing water (verse 15).  

Jesus therefore redirects the dialogue with a new command, “Go, call your husband …” (verse 16). So, we have a new start, but the language remains that of relationship. Jesus and the woman continue to explore covenant and the potentiality of relationship. She admits she has no husband and Jesus affirms her truth after describing a lengthy marital history that is doubtless unhappy (verses 17-18).

Hosea, prophet to the northern kingdom, used the imagery of broken marriage to illustrate the north’s relationship with God and its breach of that covenant. Thus, Jesus also implicates the current brokenness of the Samaritans’ relationship. The woman gets this and sees Jesus is a prophet. This, for a Samaritan, shifts the discussion to Christology.

Any mockery is gone as she opens to what Jesus has to give (verse 19-20), allowing Jesus to teach that all worship will reconcile in and through spirit and truth from the Jews by way of knowledge of the Father. In reply, she speaks specifically of the Messiah and Jesus responds with his first explicit acceptance of this title and self-identification with God the Father of both Jews and Samaritans.

The “I am” of verse 26 is the “I AM” of the sacred name of God revealed to Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3:14) and fulfills the promise of verse 10. Jesus presents himself as the fulfillment of covenant, worship, and messianic expectations of both Jews and Samaritans. Although she makes no verbal acceptance of Jesus’ revelatory challenge, she does, like many disciples before her, leave earthly responsibilities where they lay and run to share her experience. She also becomes an apostle to the village revealing the news of the one coming (verses 28-30).

Before this Samaritan encounter completes, Jesus has an interlude with his disciples. They pass the woman on her way and worry, but say nothing (verse 27). On the discourse level, some scholars take this as a voice of concern about the role of Samaritans, women, or both, in the Johannine community. Jesus addresses earthly concerns about his food as well their religious apprehension by giving an initial teaching about his mission and their ministry that ultimately results from it (verses 31-38). His food is to do the will of the one who sent him, and in this case, it is to incorporate the Samaritans into relationship through the apostleship of this woman. Their labor will come later as they embark upon their own ministries in his stead.

Jesus’ time in Samaria closes with villagers believing in Jesus first upon the woman’s witness, then because of Jesus’ own word. John’s purpose in this journey that instructs who Jesus is and the progression of individual witness to group believing is punctuated by the Samaritan villagers reflecting upon their experience and proclaiming, “we know that this is truly the Savior of the world” (verse 42). Jesus’ word is declared meaningful and effective, for both Judaism and the entire world. With this proclamation in the air, Jesus returns to Galilee (verses 43-44).


First Reading

Commentary on Exodus 17:1-7

Terence E. Fretheim

This section of the book of Exodus is set in a time of crisis being endured by the people of Israel.

They are beginning to make their way through the wilderness as they travel out of Egyptian slavery and move toward the promised land. But it is not a smooth journey. This is a community on a move of no little difficulty as they journey from participation in a past act of redemption (the Exodus) to a future act of participation in a promised goal. As the journey proceeds, these wilderness narratives are increasingly about a community that is “stuck” between promise and fulfillment. Wilderness is no longer simply a place, but it is, for Israel, a state of mind with an uncertain future.

The Pentateuch preserves two blocks of literarily composite materials that focus on these wilderness wanderings, both before Sinai (Exodus 15:22—18:27) and after Sinai (Numbers 10:11-36:13). The occasion for this Exodus 17 text is the third such crisis for Israel on its wilderness journey (see Exodus 15:22-27 and 16:1-36 for the first two such times). Once again, the people complain about their suffering; in this situation, there was no water for them to drink. A comparable time of suffering, also due to the lack of water to drink, is presented in Numbers 20:2-29.

In response to this crisis, God does not create water for the people out of thin air, nor is the natural order disrupted. Water does in fact course through rock formations and so it is a matter of finding the places of flowing water. The actions of both God and Moses enable their hidden potential to surface. God works in and through the natural world to provide water for the people. So, one might speak of divine providence in the world of God’s creation; God leads Moses to help that is available in the world of nature.

God has created the world in such a way that it has healing capacities in and through which God can work in positive ways on behalf of its creatures. They will be able to find the most elemental resource for life.

The people file a complaint against Moses for his ineffectiveness. He cannot produce drinking water. First question: “Why do you blame me?” Moses reprimands Israel.

God alone can resolve the issue, and that will occur in and through the work of Moses. One might think that the text would highlight God’s life-giving ability. Instead, the textual focus is on two verbs that concern the action of the people—test and quarrel. Israel exhibits a lack of faith; given what God has done up to this point, Israel should have known that God is to be trusted. Israel is, however, stubborn and arrogant. In the wilderness, life is precarious for the people of Israel.

God is the creator and has made the world of nature in such a way that it has positive capacities. Human beings need to be alert to the potential resources within creation for resolving creational issues.

In the midst of their troubles, the people voice their questions to Moses, and Moses responds with his own questions. Why do you quarrel with me? It is striking that this back-and-forth quarreling with Moses by the people is interpreted by Moses as a “testing of God.” What does it mean to test God? How can God be tested?

In Exodus 17:5, the “staff with which Moses struck the Nile” (see Numbers 20:8-11, where God commands Moses to order the rock to bring forth water) brings water for the people to drink rather than, unlike the effect of the plagues, making all the water in the Nile unfit to drink.

Such an act ought not be considered miraculous—as if the water were created out of nothing—a remarkably common angle of vision by interpreters. Rather, water is understood to flow naturally in and through rock formations (if not always evidently so) and this prophetic action would enable that reality to be discerned by actions relative to the rock formation.

Compare this divine move to God’s provision of manna (see Exodus 16:31-35); the wilderness itself is not a desolate place, but it is filled with gifts from God that need to be discovered. The wilderness does become a challenge for those who live in it, but there is water coursing through its rock formations. There are resources for life provided by God in the midst of desolate places in the wilderness. Again, these resources need to be discovered.

In response to life’s difficulties, the people voice their anger directly to Moses (as in Exodus 14:11-12). This expression of anger by the people to Moses is of such a nature that it can be called “testing God” (Exodus 17:2). This suggests a certain understanding of the relationship that prevails between God and Moses. The way in which the people treat Moses can be considered comparable to the way in which they treat God. At the same time, their talk is of such a nature that their talking to God can be open and questioning with respect to what God has done, even though it is sharply negative. Moses wonders what should be done with this people, not least because he feels threatened by their behaviors. They are almost ready to stone him! (Exodus 17:4).

God responds to Moses’ feeling threatened: Moses is to take some of the elders with him on a journey to the Nile and take along the staff with which he had struck the Nile (see Exodus 17:6). God will be there for them throughout this tumultuous time. Moses is to strike the standing rock and as a result that rock will “pour forth” water which the people may drink. And Moses did this in the presence of the community gathered around him.

In view of this quarreling experience, Moses called the place Massah and Meribah (see Numbers 20:13, 24) because the people quarreled with and tested the Lord, asking, “Is the LORD among us or not?” Moses questions God as to what should be done with this people, not least because of the threat to his own life that he feels.

The word used for the people’s talking to God in this way is “quarrel” (so also Numbers 20:3, 13). That is a remarkable image for this dimension of the God-people relationship. What is entailed in such a description of the relationship? God is not simply the one in control of what happens in the relationship. What people do and say counts with respect to the divine-human interaction.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 95

Rolf Jacobson

How odd it is to be hearing and singing Psalm 95 in the middle of Lent!1

The “preacher” who composed the book of Ecclesiastes wrote famously wrote that “for everything there is a season, a time for every matter under heaven” (Ecclesiastes 3:1). And just to be sure we understood, he added, “a time to weep, and a time to laugh, a time to mourn, and a time to dance” (3:4).

And this is Lent. The time when we literally silence the “alleluias” and suppress the calls to make a joyful noise.2

Psalm 95 is one of the so-called “enthronement psalms”—Psalms 47, 93, and 95-99. Unlike the so-called “royal psalms,” which focus on the work of the ancient Israelite kings, enthronement psalms celebrate the Lord’s cosmic reign. The feature that the enthronement psalms share is the exclamatory phrase, “The Lord is king!” (Hebrew, YHWH malak; see Pss 93:1, 96:10, 97:1, 99:1 and 47:8). Psalm 95 does not include that precise phrase, but does celebrate that “the Lord is a great God, and a great King above all gods” (95:3).

The term was coined by Sigmund Mowinckel in 1922.3 Mowinckel argued that Psalm 95 and the other enthronement psalms were composed for Israel’s major religious festival of the year: the autumn “harvest and new year festival.” Mowinckel argued that during this festival the “enthronement” of Yahweh was liturgically celebrated with the call, “Yahweh has become king” (his translation of YHWH malak), which he understood as being very similar to the Christian liturgical announcement at Easter, “Christ is risen!” “The situation envisaged in the poet’s imagination, is Yahweh’s ascent to the throne and the acclamation of Yahweh as king; the psalm is meant as the psalm of praise which is to meet Yahweh on his ‘epiphany’, his appearance as the new, victorious king. Hence the name: enthronement psalms.”4

Question: Why the brief history of interpretation?

Answer: To emphasize the celebratory, festival, Easter, epiphany nature of the psalm—and therefore the oddness of the psalm in Lent.

A little more background:

This psalm, along with Psalms 50 and 81, has also been classified by psalms scholars as of the great “festival psalms.” Meaning that these three psalms were likely composed for and used in the worship at one or more of the three main annual Israelite pilgrimage festivals: Passover, Weeks (Pentecost), and Booths (Sukkot, the fall harvest festival).

A Time for Reproof?

Following the opening call to worship and praise (verses 1-7c), the psalm switches to reproving, castigating language at verse 7d:

            O that today you would listen to his voice!
            Do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah,
                        as on the day at Massah in the wilderness,
            when your ancestors tested me,
                        and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work.
            For forty years I loathed that generation
                        and said, “They are a people whose hearts go astray,
                        and they do not regard my ways.”
            Therefore in my anger I swore,
                        “They shall not enter my rest.”

In ancient Israel, the festival worship included moments that were both celebratory or joyous and castigating or penitential. In the modern, Christian liturgical year, we have separated these two moods into different seasons.

During Advent, we prepare for Christmas with a preparatory, hopeful focus. At Christmas, we celebrate the incarnation of God in human flesh.

During Lent, we prepare for Easter with a penitential, introspective tone. At Easter, we celebrate the resurrection of Christ.

We have separated that which is penitential and reproving from that which is joyful and celebratory. But in ancient Israel, these theological moves were united in the festival worship. This seems odd to us. Can you imagine Christmas Eve or Easter morning worship with a penitential, reproving sermon? Neither can I. A Christian pastor may want to reflect a bit on why our culture has separated theological moves that were once united.

Be that as it may, and given the Lenten season, a sermon on Psalm 95 should focus on the latter half of the psalm.

This part of the psalm pleads with the congregation to “listen” to God’s voice. The verb translated as “listen”—shamah—carries the sense of “obey.” This is not merely a hearing, but a hearing-and-obeying-without-arguing-back quality. Like when my parents would say, “LISTEN TO ME!” (They never said this to me. I was a perfect child. They only had to say this to my sisters and brother.)

Then the psalm appeals to history, reminding the Israelites of times in their history when they tested or disobeyed the Lord. These events are brought up as negative examples—don’t be like our disobedient ancestors! That generation—the Exodus generation, no less—had witnessed the great signs of the plagues, the delivery at the Sea, and the establishment of the covenant at Sinai. And still the grumbled against the Lord and tested him! For that reason, the Exodus generation was not allowed to enter into the land. They wandered in the wilderness for forty years (a full generation) and only their children were allowed into the land.

The psalm ends with the quotation of God’s judgment against the Exodus generation.

God did not abandon the people. But God did exercise discipline of the people—disciplining them, punishing their transgressions—but not abrogating the covenant extinguishing the relationship with the people.

The message here, in the Lenten season, is that God’s law in its first use remains in effect. Even as God re-commits to the covenantal relationship, even as God remains committed to God’s people, God nevertheless calls the people to obedience. God is holy and God calls the chosen people to holiness in response to God’s grace.

For everything there is a season. Lent is the time for this message of joy and reproof.


 Notes:

  1. Commentary first published on this site on March 23, 2014.
  2. For the Lutherans in the audience, it is fun to point out that Luther was against the custom of silencing the alleluias: “In church we do not want to quench the spirit of the faithful with tedium. Nor is it proper to distinguish Lent, Holy Week, or Good Friday from other days, lest we seem to mock and ridicule Christ with half of a mass and the one part of the sacrament. For the Alleluia is the perpetual voice of the church, just as the memorial of His passion and victory is perpetual” (LW 53:24).
  3. As with all things scholarly, there is some disagreement about exactly which psalms should be classified as enthronement psalms. Some exclude Psalm 95 and others exclude Psalm 98. But Mowinckel, the scholar who coined the term, included both—as I will do here. See The Psalms in Israel’s Worship, trans. D. R. Ap-Thomas (2 vols; New York: Abingdon, 1962), I:106.
  4. Ibid.

Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 5:1-11

Israel Kamudzandu

“Therefore,” the opening word in Romans 5:1, signals a turning point in Paul’s message of God’s plan for reconciling humanity with God’s self and with one another.

On the basis of God’s acts through the death and resurrection of Jesus, the human predicament is only on the grounds of faith (verse 1), and not human initiatives. The theology of reconciliation covers the entire Pauline message and the 21st-century church is called to proclaim the benefits of the cross and resurrection. The proclamation of the gospel as God’s story of offering salvation to all humanity seems to be the clarion call of Paul in Romans 5:1-11. In a world hungry for peace, justice, love, and reconciliation, the apostle Paul radically removes human initiatives as the prerogative of salvation and instead, faith becomes the only avenue through which human beings can have a relationship with God and with one another.

While salvation is many things to many people, nationalities, ethnicities, and tribes, Paul calls all people to rejoice over what God accomplished through the cross and resurrection. Simply, what God achieved is a reversal of humanity’s separation from the Creator. Having been reconciled to God, all humanity is free from the bondage of sin and now freed to be participants in God’s creative movement.

As God established and seeks peace with all humanity, the church and its practitioners are called to manifest, share, and spread peace in the world. However, the question of “peace with God,” in verses 1-2, is still a far-fetched dream for most people in the global world. With HIV/AIDS, hunger, wars, immigration, oppression, suffering, and many other human-created ills, it is impossible to speak of peace.

The world is indeed under the grip of sin and sin is not just falling short on God’s mandates but in terms of failing to love as God loves. Holistic love is still a dream in the lives of the human family and Romans 5 invites humanity to crossroads, where clergy leaders and lay people must pause, look around the world, and ask tough questions in relation to the nature, purpose, role, and function of Christianity.

In Paul’s commentary and perspective, Christianity, unlike any other religion, is one in which love of humanity outmaneuvers all cultural ideals and if that is the case, the Jesus whom Paul encountered on the Damascus road is the relationship-oriented Messiah. Therefore, the grounds on which humanity stands with God and each other is on the basis of relationships.

Romans as a whole is about Paul’s appeal to new relationships, of which human beings fail to extend to others outside of their cultural circles. While theologies and church doctrines have shaped and guided churches, Paul’s letter to Romans, especially Romans 5:1-11, seems to confront theological and doctrinal perspectives.

On the other hand, Paul shapes our humanity under the gracious and outpouring love of God, through which we are all saved. In a world of technology and affluence, most Christians tend to have their faith in the material world and then call upon God when materialism fails. A reorientation of Christian and spiritual priorities is called for in Romans 5, and to welcome human suffering and trust in the outpouring of God’s love on the cross as the center of human life.

From a suffering point of view, verses 3-5 stands out as unique in that the believer is assured of God’s presence in suffering. The key to all that we do as Christians lies in our capability to believe and through belief, life is guaranteed even when one goes through any form of suffering (Romans 5:3-4). Thus, the love of God and the promise of the Holy Spirit are two guarantees to sustain us in seasons of persecution (Romans 5:5).

Even if the belief and teaching of the Holy Spirit seems to be a lost legacy in most churches, Paul is reminding believers that without the power of the Holy Spirit, Christians cannot make it through challenges. Decline in church attendance may be a sign that believers are not reminded of the presence of the Holy Spirit in their lives, especially when suffering comes.

The question in any suffering situation is summed up in the following question: How does God assure me of being present with me? If, as Paul says, believers are taught to believe and be aware of the ever presence of the Holy Spirit, then suffering becomes an easier thing to go through. With experience comes practical knowledge and the apostle Paul was no stranger to suffering, and as he writes Romans 5, it is possible that his experiences are part of his faith and belief in God.

While we as humans have always been aware of each other’s anger, Paul calls believers to a new form of understanding “God’s wrath,” and we all have been saved by God’s first step of love and reconciliation (Romans 5:6-11). In other words, Jesus’ death and resurrection made it possible for humanity to have a new start on life and now the obligation is on all believing humanity to extend love even to their enemies, or else they will fall short in terms of embodying the gospel.

As God’s love is not theoretical, so a believer’s or the church’s love must be authentic as God demonstrated in and through Jesus Christ, and as Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 13:1-13. In and of ourselves as human beings, we cannot rescue ourselves from the clutches of sin, but at our point of desperation, God is able to manifest the highest form of love.

In the midst of our suffering and human alienation, the church at every age is called upon to count on God’s love, the love that was shown before we’re even forgiven of our sins, and now we have come to experience that love. The call to ministry has been emphasized, but the call to love has suffered and is urgently needed in the 21st century. The question in this chapter is: In what ways can the church and its members be an embodiment of God’s love as Paul articulates it in Romans 5:6-11?