Lectionary Commentaries for March 23, 2014
Third Sunday in Lent

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on John 4:5-42

Robert Hoch

The lection assigned for the Third Sunday in Lent provides something of a study in contrasts with John 3:1-17.

If you suspect that these contrasts convey a unifying theme in the gospel of John, you would be right.

According to Lamar Williamson Jr., the Nicodemus story provides the backdrop for the happenings in chapters 4:1 through 12:50. These stories, according to Williamson, are designed to reach different kinds of readers who will, in turn, come to believe in Jesus as the Christ, the lamb who removes the sin of the world.1

Of course, the gospel is in the details and this text is no exception, especially with regard to the contrasts between the Nicodemus story and the story of the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. Among those contrasts: Nicodemus comes as a person in authority, as a man and a Pharisee. He plays the role of an insider, a person accustomed to being included in the loop, and one who represents a community’s best judgment.

By comparison, the woman comes to Jesus without even a name. Instead, her identity is obscured by markers of her exclusion. As a Samaritan woman, she lives her daily life in the shadows of her own marginality. She may live in the shadows of her marginality, but she speaks to Jesus under the sweltering heat of a midday sun.

Unlike Nicodemus, who “sneaks” through the streets of Jerusalem under cover of night, Jesus initiates this dialogue in broad daylight, raising eyebrows almost immediately: “How is it that you, a Jew, asks a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (verse 9a) and then later among the disciples who evidently found such a conversation potentially scandalous (verse 27).

Moreover, unlike Nicodemus, her condition in life seems depressingly routine: a job going nowhere, her relationships almost like her work. One relationship dissolves into the next, without much to show for it, rather like her work. Every day she goes to a well, beloved in some ways, but in other ways a painful reminder that her lot belongs in the exclusionary shadows of gender, ethnicity, and condition.

However, consistent with the emphasis of John’s testimony that light that has come into the world, this reality of darkness is again disturbed by Jesus. On the one hand, Jesus disturbs her resignation, her cynicism, which might register in her reaction to Jesus’ gentle rebuke: “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him and he would have given you living water” (verse 10).

Her reaction is both literalistic, as was Nicodemus’ and, perhaps, wearily sardonic: “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water” (verse 15). She doesn’t hear Jesus, not really, until he says to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back” (verse 16).

“The woman answered him, ‘I have no husband.’”

One can almost hear the thud of her response. Quiet. Defeated. Maybe ashamed. Now she looks at Jesus, studies him, listens to him. Almost believes him.

Jesus said, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.” Why does Jesus go to this issue and not some other? Is her sexuality the issue, a sense that she engages in serial relationships?

As I’ve heard this text interpreted in the past, her “problem” is the fact that she engages in serial relationships. But I sense this text is really about security and dignity. I hear a sense of crushing disappointment in life, in the drudge work assigned to her, of going to a well of promise (men who said they would take care of her) only to find that the well of covenantal manhood had run dry.

After all, Jesus does not say “Go and sin no more!” as he does to the woman accused of adultery (8:1-11). Instead Jesus speaks to her of worship in spirit and truth; not worship confined to an exclusionary zone based on gender, or ethnicity, or even geography and conventional morality, but worship including her: “God is Spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (4:24).

Perhaps the way of life for women on the streets is instructive. Many women who live on the streets have “husbands” — men to whom they “marry” themselves, providing sex in exchange for food and shelter. Popular culture romanticizes marriage, but on the streets being in a partnership often functions as a form of security for women who are acutely vulnerable to predators. These exchanges may offer a measure of security, but only a measure: these marriages often come with beatings.

Walking the streets of Kansas City with a group of Catholic Workers, we visited with a woman and her “husband” waiting at the bus stop. Her eye was blackened. Her husband was going to court for domestic abuse. One of the Catholic Workers said he remembered the day the beating occurred: “She came to us the morning it happened. She woke up with him choking her,” he said.

Now she joined her “husband” at the bus stop, supporting him as he went to court to face charges of domestic battery. “Marital bliss,” sighed one of the workers. Too often they saw this same story repeated: different faces, all-too-familiar bruises.

How many husbands did she have and was the husband she had now her husband? How many times had she gone to that well of so-called security only to find that the security she hoped for was flimsy and perhaps illusory?

Symbols are significant in this text. Jacob’s well and the assurance of God’s care for all God’s people; a well that doesn’t run dry. And yet, alongside that earthly well, we witness the curious inclusion of Jesus’ thirst, repeated again at 19:28b: “I am thirsty.” In the latter text, he was given no water, but sour wine.

Likewise in this text, Jesus receives no water. It appears as if the woman has forgotten all about Jesus’ thirst, and she even leaves her water jug behind (4:28). Afterwards, this woman who seemed world-wise and -weary, speaks in unapologetic outbursts: “Come and see! Could this one be the Messiah?”

Instead of laboring in the shadows of scut work, she becomes a forerunner of the proclamation of the gospel: “Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He told me everything I have ever done’” (verse 39).

According to John’s gospel, a Samaritan woman joins John the Baptist, each them pointing to the One who is truly the Savior of the world.

Yet still, she has no name; she, the beloved disciple. One wonders if this story is quite complete…


Notes:

Lamar Williamson Jr., Preaching the Gospel of John: Proclaiming the Living Word (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 46.


First Reading

Commentary on Exodus 17:1-7

Juliana Claassens

In the biblical traditions, the wilderness is a space of depravity where people’s most basic needs are lacking.

During the time of Lent, many people create a sense of want by withholding themselves from coffee, chocolate or some other pleasure. However, for some, Lent is an all too real reality in which they may feel trapped in a situation of serious deprivation, seeing no way out. On this Third Sunday of Lent, it is thus fitting to contemplate this experience of want in terms of thirst. The metaphor of lack of water in the wilderness that marks the Old Testament reading for today is a compelling means of making sense of this experience of want and particularly of God’s provision in the wilderness.

In Exodus 17:1-7, we see a vivid account of people’s response to being faced with limited resources. The people react in anger about the lack of water, quarrelling with Moses and with God — the place names Massah and Meribab serving as reminders of the people quarrelling (from the Hebrew word rib) and testing (from the Hebrew root nasa) the Lord. The names Massah and Meribah have entered the tradition in relation to what is known as the “murmuring motif.”

For instance, in Psalm 95:8-11, we read the following: “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.’” Moreover, this story also appears in Numbers 20:1-13 when Moses is punished for not speaking a word as God had commanded but rather striking the rock which consequently is viewed as the reason why Moses is said not to have entered the Promised Land.

On the one hand, the fact that the people complain to Moses and to God is a typical human reaction when faced with the experience of extreme need such as embodied in thirst in the midst of the wilderness. It furthermore leads to questions of theodicy, contemplating the relationship between God and suffering as evident in the people’s cry of despair in verse 7: “Is the Lord among us or not?” This question, “Where is God?” is a question that is echoed in the book of Job as well as in every situation in which the people of God are suffering. In the wilderness, people more often than not may be faced with an acute sense of God’s absence.

However, on the other hand, embedded in these people’s questioning of God and God’s representative Moses is the notion of amnesia. The people have forgotten God’s powerful intervention just in the chapter before this one when God in Exodus 16 miraculously provided food in the wilderness — a jar of manna serving as a mnemonic device reminding people of God’s ongoing provision (Exodus 16:33-34). The people, moreover, have forgotten God’s powerful intervention at the sea, saving the people from the charging Egyptian army (Exodus 14-15).

Still the story narrated in Exodus 17:1-7 is about water in the wilderness — God graciously providing water in order to satisfy the people’s most basic needs (cf. also God’s provision of food in Exodus 16). In verse 5, God commands Moses to use the staff with which he had struck the Nile (a reminder of God’s powerful action in the past) to strike the rock. God’s presence in verse 6 as divulged by “[God] standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb” will be responsible for the fact that water will come out of the rock so that people may drink and be satisfied.

It is significant to note that, as in the story of God’s provision of food in Exodus 16, the wilderness is still there. In Exodus 17, the people are experiencing God’s provision in the form of water gushing from the rock, even though the wilderness is still all around. With regard to liturgical time, one could say that we will still dwell a long time in Lent before Easter comes.

However, in the midst of Lent we may find that God is providing life-giving water, so quenching our thirst. Also in the Lenten periods of our lives when we are experiencing deprivation of some sort, we are ensured of God’s constant presence providing us with what we need.

In this regard, one should note that in the stories regarding food and water in the wilderness, God’s provision comes in unexpected ways. Water from a rock. Manna and quail. God’s provision of food is thus often surprising and even impossible in terms of human perception. The life-giving gift of water is symbolic of the ultimate goal that God’s children may not only survive but also flourish.

One of my favourite hymns which use the metaphors of God’s provision of food and water to speak about our journey through life is the familiar hymn by William Williams (pub 1745):

Guide me, O Thou great Redeemer
Pilgrim through this barren land;
I am weak, but Thou art mighty,
Hold me with Thy powerful hand.
Bread of heaven, Bread of heaven,
Feed me till I want no more;
Feed me till I want no more.

Open now the crystal fountain,
Whence the healing stream doth flow;
Let the fire and cloudy pillar
Lead me all my journey through.
Strong Deliverer, strong Deliverer,
Be Thou still my Strength and Shield;
Be Thou still my Strength and Shield.

Bringing together images of God’s liberation that is embodied in God’s accompanying presence in the fire and the cloud as well as God’s gracious provision of food and water, believers throughout the centuries are professing their belief in a God who will be our travel partner in our life’s journey — a confession that is particularly meaningful in those times when we find ourselves in the wilderness.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 95

Rolf Jacobson

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

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.1

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 1922.2 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.”3

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. 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).
  2. 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.
  3. Ibid.

Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 5:1-11

L. Ann Jervis

In the previous four chapters, Paul has spent intense time trying to explain what he means by righteousness.

In essence, Paul has described righteousness as God’s character — he first uses the word in Romans by qualifying it with “of God” (Romans 1:17). God has revealed God’s character – “righteousness of God” — in the Gospel. And revealed it through faith for faith.

At the beginning of chapter 5, Paul starts with the word dikaiothentes — having been justified/made righteous. The word is a participle in the passive voice. Paul is talking about the circumstances of the lives of believers — they are those who have been justified, made righteous. (The word dikaosune, which is the word in the phrase “righteousness of God,” is one Greek word which has two English translations: righteousness and justice.

The same word is the root of the word dikaothentes in 5:1). And this has happened to them; they are the recipients of this.  

Paul makes plain that he wants the statement in 5:1 to be understood in the context of what has gone before. “Therefore,” Paul says, “having been made righteous.” Paul is saying, in light of what I have said to this point, I say that the state of affairs we share — you Roman Christians and I — that state of affairs is that we have been justified.

He qualifies what he means by claiming that they have been justified. Paul says we are justified by faith. This comes as no surprise. His whole point in the previous chapter has been to say that this is always the way that justification has happened to God’s people. Even Abraham is justified by faith (Romans 4:3).

Believers in Christ experience the same process of being justified as Abraham — we too are justified by faith. Our most fundamental defining shape is that we have been justified by faith. That being said, that is not all there is to say. One of the things Paul does not let us forget is that the Christian life is a challenging life — it is much more than simply receiving salvation. The Christian life is about growth and transformation. This is what Paul will begin to describe in Chapter 5.

But he has wanted to make sure his hearers (and us) know the starting point for growth and transformation. It is not that we Christians devote ourselves to growing in Christ on the basis simply of personal decision or willpower, or because we recognize that this is valuable and important. Rather, we devote ourselves to growing in Christ on the basis that we have been justified by faith.

This means that we are empowered to grow; empowered not by our own strength of character or personal discipline (although these will come into play), but empowered by God. We have been given a new shape from which to begin the process of transformation. We have been given the shape of the character of God — righteousness.

Our starting point for growth assures our endpoint. We start as righteous and so we will end up righteous. It is similar to being someone who knows how to swim and jumps into the pool at one end and knows — absolutely knows — that she is going to make it to the other end. Why? Because she knows that she is a swimmer.

When the person who does not know how to swim jumps in the pool, she does not know whether or not she will make it very far. She can try and try and perhaps even make it part of the way; but she will do so with fear and expending a lot of her own energy and effort. She has to be a swimmer in order to swim.

Likewise, Paul says that we are justified, we are righteous, and so we will be righteous. In saying this, Paul is not discounting that there is a long way for each of us to travel in becoming righteous — but we are those who know how to become righteous because we have been made fit for righteousness. And we have been made fit for righteousness through faith, and nothing else.

And what does this state of having been made righteous through faith accord to us? First, it gives us peace with God. The fundamental gift of having been made righteous is that we are no longer God’s enemies, we are at peace with God. Paul will go on to speak about how before we were justified, we were God’s enemies (5:10). Now Paul speaks about how we who are justified have peace with God. The enmity, the conflict between humanity and God is over once humans are made righteous.

Why? Because when we are made righteous we are made like God. When we were not righteous, we were sinners (5:8); people whose orientation was to reject God, to abuse God. For Paul, sin is more than transgressing the law; it is more than doing something wrong. Sin is a power that is at war with God. And so humans who are sinners — which is the opposite of humans who are righteous — are under the command of sin. They are soldiers in sin’s army. They are participants in the ongoing battle that the power of sin wages against God.

Once we are made righteous, however, we are on God’s side. We are not enemies of God, we have peace with God.

And how do we have this peace? Through our Lord Jesus Christ. We have this peace not because we bravely decided to change sides in this cosmic conflict between God and sin.

We have this peace because someone made it for us; someone fought the battle on our behalf and freed us from the power of sin and helped us cross to the camp of God. We get to be in God’s camp, in God’s army, if you will, because Christ has brought us there.

Christ is the one who allowed us access to the state of grace we are in. We are recipients of a remarkable gift. We are no longer under the power of sin, we are in God’s home. We have access to God.

Paul is saying that we have gained entrance to the most wonderful place possible — we have gained entrance to God’s domain. And we have done this not because we are worthy of it, not because we have forced our way in, but because Jesus Christ has made it possible for us. To use a Johannine metaphor — Jesus is the door through which we enter. And what we enter is a place of grace.