The second and third Sundays in Lent juxtapose two characters unique to the Gospel of John.
Last week, we were introduced to Nicodemus who comes to Jesus by night and lasts all of nine verses in his conversation with Jesus before fading into the night from whence he came. This week narrates another character’s encounter with Jesus, the Samaritan woman at the well. The contrast between Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman is striking. Given the fact that they appear one right after the other in the Gospel, we are meant to notice this contrast in all of its detail. Nicodemus is a Pharisee, an insider, a leader of the Jews. He is a man, he has a name, but he comes to Jesus by night. The character to whom we are introduced in this week’s text is a Samaritan, a religious and political outsider. She is a woman, she has no name, but she meets Jesus at noon, in full daylight. And the contrast between their conversations with Jesus is even more extraordinary. Whereas Nicodemus is unable to move beyond the confines of his religious system, the Samaritan moves outside of her religious expectations and engages Jesus in theological debate (4:20). Whereas Nicodemus cannot hear that Jesus is sent by God (3:17), the woman at the well hears the actual name of God, “I AM” (4:26–“he” in the NRSV is not in the Greek text). While Nicodemus’s last questioning words to Jesus expose his disbelief, “How can this be?” the last words of the woman at the well, also posed as a question, “He cannot be the Christ, can he?” lead her to witness to her whole town.
The more salient disparity between Nicodemus and the woman at the well frequently directs our preaching of John 4:5-42 toward reducing Jesus’ meeting with the Samaritan woman to that which exemplifies Jesus for the outsiders. “See, Jesus did not come for the important people of the world, like Nicodemus, but for the no-names, the down-trodden,” and, as some older commentaries misinterpreted the Samaritan woman, “the five-time losers.” But then we have to wonder, could this meeting at the well really be about us, for us? If we are honest, do we truly think of ourselves as outsiders? Are we really the marginalized of society, those who are easily cast aside, those about whom others might say, “why is he talking to her?” (4:27) Perhaps the extraordinary aspect of this text is not simply that Jesus is for her, but that she becomes a witness for him.
The Samaritan woman at the well is not a passive recipient of Jesus’ offer. She immediately recognizes the societal barriers and boundaries that keep her in her place (4:9) but at the same time challenges Jesus’ authority over and against the ancestors of the faith (4:12). Like Nicodemus, she first interprets Jesus’ words on a literal level, but she is able to ask for what Jesus has to offer rather than question the possibility (4:15). She is not certain that Jesus is the Christ (4:29–the syntax of the Greek expects a negative answer), but she does not let that stop her from leaving behind her water jar, going into the city, and inviting the people to their own encounter with Jesus. She demonstrates what can happen when we actually engage in conversation and questions about our faith. The woman at the well shows us that faith is about dialogue, about growth and change. It is not about having all the answers. If we think we have all the answers, if we are content with our doctrinal constructs, if we believe more in our own convictions that the possibility of revelation, we will be left to ponder whether or not God will choose to be made known. We will have to wonder when and if we will finally feel confident enough, secure enough, and knowledgeable enough, to invite others to “come and see.” We will be forced to admit how many times we have overlooked opportunities for giving testimony about the Savior of the world, satisfied that “Jesus is for me.” The Samaritan woman at the well is an example for us, not as one who claims “Jesus is for me, too,” but as one whose labor helps bring in the harvest (4:34-38). She responds to Jesus in such a way that leads Jesus to reveal his true identity to her, and in doing so, her own identity evolves. We learn from the Samaritan woman that in our own encounter with Jesus, not only are we changed, but that which God will reveal to us will change as well.
This elegant story is, first and foremost, a dual commentary on human nature and divine character.
Yes, it is a story about Israel’s history, although in this case, the primary purpose is not to learn about the past. Rather, it is told so that we–who were, in the eyes of the ancient Israelites, a generation yet unborn and probably unimagined–could know the grace and glory of God. For this purpose, the story names an aspect of what it means that all humans are fallen and broken creatures. And then the story names what it means to have a gracious and faithful Lord.
The story begins, as do so many Old Testament narratives, with a brief historical frame: “From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded” (v. 1). For most readers, these introductory framing verses do not register. But they should! What happened at the wilderness of Sin? The people had arrived there immediately following their deliverance by God at the sea (Exodus 14), and because they had no bread, they “complained to Moses and Aaron” because they had no bread (16:2-3). And God responded to their complaints by raining down manna on them (16:13-21). Thus, the introductory verses frame the events of 17:1-7 in the context of “been there, done that.” The action that unfolds in the first verses of Exodus 17 mirrors what has already happened to a breathtaking degree.
The people, as they had at Sin, quarrel with Moses, this time demanding, “Give us water to drink” (v. 2). One detail of the story that is worth noting is that the people do not complain directly against the Lord, but only against Moses. But Moses interprets the complaint against himself as a complaint against God. He says, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” v. 2). The text provides the obvious answer: they were dying of thirst. A human body can survive a surprisingly long time without food. But in a correspondingly short time, without water a human body will die. The basis for their complaint is therefore perfectly valid. It is their lack of faith and the way that they turn on Moses–who has just been the “means of grace” through which God had delivered them from slavery and fed them with manna and quails–that is the problem. This lack of faith–or perhaps we could name it hard-heartedness, or stiff-neckedness, or ingratitude, or fear–is the aspect of the human condition that the story names.
Moses responds to the complaint of the people with a complaint of his own, this one directed to God: “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me” (v. 4). On Moses’ behalf, we can add a few more words, “What shall I do with this people that you gave me–and just remember, I was happy leading sheep rather than these people” (v. 5). The interpreter might do well to notice that several key elements of the psalms of lament are present in this story. First, both the people and Moses are in desperate situations of crisis. Both face life-and-death situations; the people think they may die of hunger, while Moses thinks he may die at the hands of the people. Second, there is the traditional “you-complaint” of the psalms–Moses complains to God and we are told in v. 7 that the people said, “IS the Lord among us or not?” Third, there is the traditional “they-complaint” of the prayers of lament–Moses complains about the people; notice here especially that situations of crisis tend to break down community, or cause community “neighbors” to turn on one another. Fourth, there is the request; the people demand water. And finally, there is God’s response. God graciously and faithfully responds not to the people’s characteristic lack of faith, but to their characteristic human needs. Because God is faithful, God responds out of grace and love.
Moreover, God does so in a manner that provides not simply for the physical need, but in a way that restores the community! Previously, working through Moses, God had caused bread (which normally grows out of the ground) to rain down from heaven. Here, working through Moses, God causes water, which often rains down from heaven) to spring forth from the earth. By working through Moses, the community is restored even as the people’s bodily needs are met.
When one reads this little story against the backdrop of the psalms of lament and also against the bigger picture of human nature, one sees that the story does not simply rehearse an episode from Israel’s past, but bears witness to the characteristic nature of life and of relationship with God. It is not the people of Israel who were stiff necked, hard hearted, and characteristically lacking in faith. It is all of us. It is not just the people of Israel whose community was threatened by their characteristic infidelity. It is true of our communities, too. It is not merely the ancient Israelites who complained against God. We do so also–and, in fact, the psalms of lament not only give us permission to take such complaining prayers on our lips, they even go so far as to authorize such complaining prayers as a proper dimension of faith. To borrow a phrase from Psalm 51, this story, along with the psalms of lament, “open our lips that our mouths may complain to God.”
Above all, this story bears witness to the faithfulness and graciousness of God. The entire Book of Exodus is about the faithfulness of God. This is the message of Exodus, from the report in 2:23-25, that God heard the people’s groaning in Egypt and remembered the covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to the creedal hymn that is sung in Exod 34:6: “The Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.”
Paul had a preacher’s style that comes through in his writing.
Often, as here, he tells ’em what he’s going to tell ’em. Then he elaborates what he’s told ’em, and finally he tells ’em what he’s just told ’em. It should be simple to follow, right? But Paul writes densely, so a little unpacking of these verses may provide a way to address them powerfully for congregants who seldom get a chance to hear Paul’s rich language of the love of God.
In just two verses Paul covers all time, past, present, and future. We have been justified, set in right relationship with God (or, as will be said in 5:10-11, reconciled). It has happened through our Lord Jesus Christ (note how Paul uses this full naming of Jesus at both the beginning and ending of Romans 5: its all about God’s faithfulness through Jesus and how our lives are different under Jesus’ lordship.). We look forward to a future with God, as the word “hope” implies. Meanwhile we stand in God’s grace. It’s as if we have entered a room filled with it, or perhaps entered the cloud of God’s glorious presence as did Moses and Jesus before us. But truly, the death and resurrection of Jesus make the cosmos God’s house filled with God’s presence. To live in confidence that God fills all the world’s time, past, present and future, is to experience the peace that Paul speaks of in verse 1. It does not matter enormously whether Paul summons us to be at peace with God or indicates that we already have such peace. What matters is that it is peace, shalom arise when we live in confidence that our lives and our world are in the hands on one who loves it and us.
Why, if our justification is already accomplished, do we find peace so oddly absent from God’s beloved creatures, not least ourselves? Perhaps because we confuse God’s love for us with the absence of suffering. Such a confusion beset Israel, safely delivered from Egypt but wandering in the wilderness, not yet at home. Such confusion threatens Paul’s congregations not only here, but also in Corinth (cf. I Corinthians 10:1-12). Paul puts the realities front and center. Yes, we stand in such love that we boast confidently in our hope of God’s glory. And, yes, we boast also in the very difficulties we experience. Paul does not let his hearers imagine that difficulties are a contrary witness to God’s promises. Rather we survive them by growing in our hope, appreciating difficulties for the real, but penultimate occurrences that they are. Even our troubles, rightly lived through, lead us around again to hope. Hope itself, says Paul, in a verse glowing with intimacy, is founded on God’s gift of love already poured into us by the presence of God, Holy Spirit, in and among us.
Now Paul did not see the world with rose-colored glasses. He was not an idealistic fool who only liked to think the best of people. Had he been like this, he would have been set up for radical disappointment and we would do well to ignore his words. But, Paul based his confidence on God’s love poured into our midst on the death and resurrection of Jesus.
The extent of God’s love is shown by Jesus’ bizarre behavior, humanly speaking. He died for us sinners, for folks who could not appreciate his death, for folks whose gratitude would be measured and compromised time after time. What kind of love could or would do this? Our beloved Lenten hymn, “What wondrous love is this” asks the same question with the same sense of awe that one hears in Paul.
Paul does not get stuck in admiration or awe. Rather briskly he moves on to remind us that our hope of God’s glory is exactly our hope of reconciliation with God such that we will be saved. If this sounds a little like 5:21 to you, you’re right. Paul’s re-cap in 12-21 of his earlier teaching ends with the promise of eternal life with God. All this will be celebrated yet again in 8:32-33-39 where Paul almost sings that nothing will be able to separate us from the one who loved us, that is, from the love of God.
The meaning of justification, Paul’s very first word in Romans 5, is that we are brought into the reconciled family of God. This love of God has triumphed over not only our human failings, but also over God’s own characteristic passion for justice. God’s own grief at the gap between humans and Godself has also been reconciled.
Our having been saved “in” the life of God’s son is an important part of this section. While en with the dative case can suggest incorporation or means, either interpretation reminds us that it is Jesus’ life that gives us life. This will be a major emphasis in Romans 6 where Paul states that baptism is the way we are caught up in the life of Jesus or by it, such that we live his life. The sheer effrontery of that claim is shocking. We “boast” Paul says, in the God who so loved us, even as we boast in our sufferings and boast in our hope of experiencing the glory of God. This boasting is not about simply bragging. About what would we have to brag? That has already been disallowed in Romans. But boasting here is the opposite of shame, as it is used in v. 5. Our hope will NOT shame us, disappoint us, show us to be fools. Instead, difficulties or not, we live trusting in God’s love, God’s outreach, God’s determination to have us at great cost, now and in the future. How then do we live joyfully confident of reconciliation now and in the future?