Lectionary Commentaries for March 12, 2023
Third Sunday in Lent

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on John 4:5-42

Jennifer Garcia Bashaw

In the story of the Samaritan woman at the well, we find the longest conversation Jesus has with anyone in the Gospels. Contemporary interpreters tend to miss much of the significance of this encounter because they make it into the tale of the sinful and ignorant foreigner whose life turns around because she meets Jesus—the bread and butter of a revival preacher’s repertoire. Certainly, this story is about conversion, but it is much more complex than that, as we will see.

Some historical background first. For centuries, Samaritans and Jews occupied neighboring lands and practiced similar religions while actively expressing feelings of animosity toward one another. The origin of the Samaritan people remains a mystery, but suffice it to say that ancient Jewish explanations of Samaritan origins were overwhelmingly negative.1 The Jewish-Samaritan enmity climaxed in 128 BCE when John Hyrcanus, high priest and ruler of the Jews, destroyed the capital city of Shechem and razed the Samaritan temple on Mount Gerazim to the ground. It is not surprising, then, that these groups remained bitter enemies at least until the first century CE.

It is surprising, however, that in this story Jesus initiates contact with a Samaritan woman, an outsider and inappropriate interlocutor. After her shocked reply, Jesus proceeds to speak about the living water he could give her. The woman’s reply, “Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well?” focuses on the common ground of the Israelite history they share. With this shared foundation, Jesus begins to reveal more about his messianic identity, something he has done very little thus far in John.

Jesus says, “The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (John 4:15). Water is an important symbol in the Gospel of John: frequent talk of baptism and John the baptizer (1:26, 31; 3:22-24; 4:1-2), Jesus turning water into the best wine (2:7-11), a discussion about being born of water and spirit (3:5), and now a conversation at a well about water gushing up to eternal life (John’s shorthand for a new quality of life, not heaven). The woman asks for this water (and the new life?) but then the story takes a sharp turn “Go, call your husband, and come back.” (4:16)

Why does Jesus seem to change the subject here? Well, it has to do with a well. In Genesis 29, Jacob meets his future wife, Rachel, at a well at midday. A generation before, Abraham’s servant had found Isaac’s wife, Rebekah, at a well (Genesis 24). The biblical scholar Robert Altar labels repeated settings like these “biblical type-scenes” and he calls the meeting-at-a-well trope a betrothal type-scene.2 The first Christians to experience John’s Gospel read aloud would have recognized this type-scene as soon as they heard that Jesus stopped at a well at noon.

And with Jesus’ mention of husbands, John finally gives the audience what they had been expecting—a reference to marriage. What they did not expect, though, was that the woman in the scene was not a blushing soon-to-be bride but a wedding-weary woman. Preachers love to play up the scandal of the woman’s multiple husbands, characterizing the Samaritan as a serial divorcée or an unfaithful tramp. But these interpretations stray from the actual story, injecting modern sensibilities (and sometimes misogynistic assumptions). Neither Jesus nor the Gospel writer make a value statement about the five husbands; it is likely that the woman’s past is not her fault. As a woman, she could not initiate divorce; she could have also been widowed and remarried multiple times.

So, if Jesus is not shaming the woman, why does he mention marriage? Many commentators interpret the woman’s husbands symbolically, representative of either the five political powers that had ruled Samaria or the five groups that were rumored to have comprised the early Samaritan people.3 In this view, Jesus is rehearsing Samaritan history. Perhaps this betrothal type-scene doesn’t anticipate the marriage of a couple but of the Samaritans and their God.4 Jesus tells the woman that soon all people will worship not divided but together in Spirit and truth. Jesus then gives the Samaritan woman insight into the mysterious nature of God—God is Spirit!—and invites her into the reality of this divine truth.

“I know that Messiah is coming,” she says, “when he comes, he will proclaim all things to us” (John 4:25). The Samaritans, like the Jews, anticipated the arrival of an eschatological messianic figure, called the Taheb. The Memar Marqah, a Samaritan document from the third century BCE, says, “The Taheb will come and reveal the truth.”5 It makes sense, then, that Jesus’ disclosure of the Samaritan’s truth prompted her hopeful comment about the Messiah.

Jesus confirms her hope: “I am (he) … the one speaking to you” (John 4:26). This is the first “I am” statement in John. The Johannine “I am” statements come in two forms: affirmations in which Jesus simply replies, “I am,” and statements like, “I am the bread of life.” Here, Jesus says only “I am,” but in the context, he means, “I am the Messiah.” This is the central truth of the Gospel of John (see 20:30-31) and it is the only time that Jesus reveals this truth to another person. That the person he trusts himself to is a Samaritan and a woman is deeply significant, not only to John’s first-century audience but also to anyone who seeks to understand the gospel. The gospel truth of Jesus’ life is that he brings a new way of life, a way that results in all people—women and men, Samaritans and Jews, outsiders and insiders—worshiping in Spirit and in truth. This gospel becomes life changing for the Samaritan woman’s neighbors when she tells them about the Messiah, and becomes the first and most effective evangelist of John’s Gospel.


  1. The prevailing Jewish explanation of Jesus’ time associates the Samaritans with the Cutheans, descendants of the colonists referred to 2 Kings 17:24-41. According to this tradition, when the northern tribes of Israel were led into captivity by the Assyrians, settlers were sent from Cutha (near Babylon) to populate Samaria. These peoples then adapted Israelite religion into their own practices and formed a faith that eventually revolved around the Torah and a temple that rivaled the one in Jerusalem. Other Jewish sources suggest that the Samaritan people originated with priests and other Israelites who either fled or were exiled from their people when they refused to send their foreign wives away during the resettlement of Jerusalem post-exile. For a concise treatment of the relationship between the Samaritans and Jews as background to John 4, see Jonathan Bourgel, “John 4:4-42: Defining a Modus Vivendi between the Jews and the Samaritans,” The Journal of Theological Studies, Vol. 69 (April 2018 ): 39-65.
  2. Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (New York: Basic books, 1981), 51-52.
  3. Craig Koester puts forth the theory that the husbands are the empires that ruled Samaria (“The Savior of the World: John 4:42,” JBL 109 [1990]: 665—80, 676. Oscar Cullmann (The Early Church [London: SCM Press, 1956]: 187—8) was an early proponent of the idea that the husbands represented the mixed heritage of the early Samaritans.
  4. Mark W. G. Stibbe argues that John 4 is “an ironic betrothal scene in which infidelity is false worship and marriage true worship.” John as Storyteller: Narrative Criticism and the Fourth Gospel, Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 48.
  5. Jonathan Bourgel, “John 4:4-42,” 56.

First Reading

Commentary on Exodus 17:1-7

Anathea Portier-Young

“Is the Lord among us or not?” (Exodus 17:7).1 What proof and signs can persuade a thirsting, frightened people that God is with them and leads them in the wilderness?

If God is the God who saves, who gives and sustains life, then God in their midst and in their inmost parts must provide, at the very least, that which is necessary for survival.

One hundred hours. That’s the oft-cited statistic for how long a human body can typically survive at “average” temperatures without access to water. Today’s Sinai Peninsula averages 82° Fahrenheit in May and 91°F in June. For those same months, average high temperatures are 95°F and 104°F respectively.2 In such extreme heat and with exposure to sun, the timeline for survival shortens considerably. Claude Piantadosi writes: “At 90°F survival time with limited activity easily can be decreased by a factor of two.”3

Now we’re down to fifty hours. Exertion—such as walking long distances in the day time, carrying one’s belongings, tents, and small children, and wrangling livestock along the way (compare Exodus 17:3)—shortens the timeline further. Piantadosi offers this sobering calculation: “under extremely hot desert conditions of at least 49°C (120°F) … during forced marching … sustained high sweat rates can reduce estimated survival time without drinking water to as little as seven hours, or approximately the time it takes to walk twenty miles.”4 One long, day’s march on an unusually, but not impossibly, hot, June day was all it would take to finish God’s people. Because they had no water.

So if God is with them, in the midst of their inmost parts, the very organs, blood stream, and cells that require water for nutrition, metabolism, temperature regulation, waste removal, shock absorption and more—why is there no water?

This same question occupied many in the United States as they learned about the unfolding water crisis in Flint, Michigan. Would not God’s presence among us mean that providing for this most basic human need is our own first priority? I think the people of Israel were right to complain to, contend with, and test their leaders and their God. We would be, too.

Moses, the leader who bears the brunt of the people’s contention, fears the people will stone him, because the landscape has no edible plant life and no visible water, but it does have lots of rocks. Moses has exhausted the avenues that are familiar to him, and has no ideas for moving forward. In response to his desperate query, “What shall I do?” (Exodus 17:4), God instructs Moses to look to the very landscape that has engendered the people’s despair and his own mortal fear and tap the resources it does have to engineer a creative solution (Exodus 17:5).

Moses must be willing to put himself out in front: “go on ahead of the people” (Exodus 17:5). The Hebrew verb is ‘br, “to cross over”, followed by the preposition liphnê, literally “to or before the face of.” That is, Moses must cross in front of the people, and in so doing become vulnerable to their anger, fear, and insistence. In so doing he will also see the need that is written upon their bodies and in their faces, and he will have to confront and respond to the magnitude of their thirst.

Moses is not the solution himself, however. Lest he imagine himself as the sole agent of the people’s salvation, he is to take with him a group of people, elders from among the Israelites (Exodus 17:5-6). The elders carry with them their testimony to the past. They carry the trust and the hurt and the hopes of the people. In this new moment they will witness God’s presence and saving action in the present. They will participate through their own ministry of courageous presence.

Moses must also take with him his staff. It is the same staff God found in his hand when the two first met (Exodus 4:2). It’s an ordinary object: the support Moses used to keep his footing sure and his body upright, the weapon he could use to defend sheep—or himself—against attackers. God turned it into an object of power through which Moses would work wonders in Egypt and part the sea to lead God’s people to freedom (Exodus 14:16). With this staff a landscape could be transformed. The staff set in motion thunder, hail, fire, and wind (Exodus 9:23, Exodus 10:13). And on the day of Israel’s salvation it reconfigured the relation of water and dry land (Exodus 14:16). It could do the same once more.

The provision of water from the rock follows from the assurance that God is indeed present with this people: “I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb” (Exodus 17:6). This place where God delivered Israel from their thirst is the same place where God first called Moses (Exodus 3:1, 4), appearing in flaming fire “from the midst” of a bush (Exodus 3:2). The people have thus returned to the sacred ground where Moses learned of the presence and power of God. God’s stance upon the rock (Exodus 17:6) is continuous with that first theophany to Moses that set in motion the people’s journey to freedom from slavery. God continues to ensure that this people will have what they need to live.

Who are those in your midst who thirst for water, who lack what they need to survive? What surprising resources will your landscape yield to meet their needs? On what rock is God standing in their midst?


  1. Commentary first published on this site on Oct. 1, 2017.
  2. This would be the time of year roughly corresponding to the narrative time-line in Exodus, which locates the arrival in Sin in the middle of the “second month” (16:1) and the arrival at Rephidim sometime thereafter, on a journey requiring multiple stops (17:1). Source for temperatures is Holiday Weather.com, “Sinai Peninsula: Annual Weather Averages,” http://www.holiday-weather.com/sinai_peninsula/averages/, accessed July 13, 2017.
  3. Claude Piantadosi, The Biology of Human Survival: Life and Death in Extreme Environments (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 52.
  4. Piantadosi, 53.


Commentary on Psalm 95

James Howell

“O come, let us sing.” So Psalm 95 begins.1

Where else are people invited to sing together? During the national anthem or the alma mater at a ballgame? Not in the workplace, not often at home, not at the Rotary Club. Singing is our closest approximation to what our life in heaven will be like. Voices joined in praise. Harmonies are lovely, if they happen. Did the Israelites harmonize as they sang Psalm 95? Different voices, different pitches, but complementary, richer than the solo might be.

The preacher could explore the singing/choral image at length, and profitably—or even just sing a few hymns in preparation for the sermon! Martin Luther got perturbed by those not caught up in song:

Music is a fair and lovely gift of God which has often wakened and moved me to the joy of preaching … I have no use for cranks who despise music, because it is a gift of God. Music drives away the devil and makes people gay; they forget thereby all wrath, unchastity, arrogance and the like. Next after theology I give to music the highest place and the greatest honor … This precious gift has been bestowed on men alone to remind them that they are created to praise and magnify the Lord. But when natural music is sharpened and polished by art, then one begins to see with amazement the great and perfect wisdom of God in his wonderful work of music, where one voice takes a simple part and around it sing three, four, or five other voices, leaping, springing round about, marvelously gracing the simple part, like a square dance in heaven with friendly bows, embracing, and hearty swinging of the partners. He who does not find this an inexpressible miracle of the Lord is truly a clod.2

If we dare to sing praises to God, we’d best be careful about how we as praising people actually live. There is an implicit moral demand tucked inside praise: if God is God, if God is magnificent, and worthy of all adulation, then we are on the hook to live in God-like ways, to be holy, faithful, as obedient as possible. Psalm 95 underlines this aspect of praise in an unusual way. God is praised for seven verses—and then, fittingly, right after the words “we are his sheep,” we bang on knees up against a stern warning: “O that today you would listen to his voice!” Stop praising for a moment, and listen, just as sheep need to hear the shepherd’s voice.

Or realize when you weren’t listening. The sorry incident of Exodus 17, when the people ignored God’s voice through Moses and bucked in rebellion is recalled. Meribah was a place in the wilderness, and the word appropriately means “contention.” There they tested God! They put God on trial, as if they were in any position to pass judgment on God! You may have heard people joke about the fact that in every church there is your obligatory “Back to Egypt!” committee.

The wayward hearts grew stubborn, and they nearly lost everything. Their question was a fair one: “Is the Lord among us or not?” This testing God does not mind; Jesus after all was subjected to severe testing in the wilderness at the opening of the Synoptic Gospels. But is there a readiness to listen, to be patient, to be healed? If God’s people are still, and listen for God’s voice, there may be silence—which doesn’t mean God isn’t there. Archbishop Oscar Romero, during days of severe trial for the church in El Salvador, was preaching shortly before his assassination; reflecting on the ordeal of Good Friday, he said, “God is not failing us when we don’t feel his presence. Let’s not say: God doesn’t do what I pray for so much, and therefore I don’t pray any more. God exists, and he exists even more, the farther you feel from him. God is closer to you when you think he is farther away and doesn’t hear you. When you feel the anguished desire for God to come near because you don’t feel him present, then God is very close to your anguish.”

Jesus cried out from the cross, and there were no words from heaven. Elijah endured thunder and earthquake on Mt. Horeb, but then God was in the sheer silence. God is a friend of silence. But God has not always been silent, so we rummage in our minds and through Scripture to the times God has spoken, and we are stupefied, humbled, and challenged by the way people failed to be attentive to God’s words. God always issues warnings. But God does not coerce. God speaks, God loves, God waits, God warns. There’s a lot of responsibility in us to answer, to stick with this God.

Worship then is a time for praise, but also a time to hear words of warning. Worship is a call to obedience, a warning flare fired in the air to illuminate the perils of the week to come. Interestingly, Hebrews 3:7—4:13 is a long, musing sermon on this same story in Exodus 17. The early Christians were evidently flagging in their zeal. Hebrews, using the same story Psalm 95 used, encouraged them to persevere. The promise offered there is the same pledge at the very end of our Psalm for this week: “Rest.” And not just rest, as in taking it easy or getting your batteries recharged. It is the Lord’s rest. Eternal rest. The kind of rest that can “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). The rest that is trust, the rest that is the liberation from me doing what I want and instead being part of God’s great movement and adventure in this world and the world to come.


  1. Commentary first published on this site on March 19, 2017.
  2. Martin Luther quotation appears in Roland Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther, (Abingdon Press, 2013), 352.

Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 5:1-11

Orrey McFarland

The epistle lesson for the Third Sunday in Lent continues in Romans. It may seem like we’re jumping around the letter, but there is a logic to it. In Romans 5:12-21 we see Paul’s theology of sin and grace at the macro level of Christ and Adam; in 4:1-5, 13-17 we see the specific story and promise of grace for the unworthy in Abraham; and in Romans 5:11 we see Paul present his theology of grace for believers in the present, with an eye towards future hope.

The already/not yet of grace (5:1-5, 9-11)

In Romans 5:1-11, Paul’s understanding of grace is set forth within an already/not yet scheme. Christians have already been justified, yet they await final salvation (5:1, 9-10). For this reason, a key theme in this passage is hope: on the basis of our present standing in God’s grace, we look towards future salvation with confidence.

Verses 1-2 describe this “already”: “Therefore, being justified by faith, we have peace with God.” Justification happens in Christ’s blood (Romans 5:9); through Christ believers “have access into this grace in which we stand” (5:2 English Standard Version). When Paul says “this grace,” he is speaking of the specific gift of Christ described in 5:5-8.

Verses 9-11 describe the “not yet”: although presently justified and reconciled, we are still awaiting the final deliverance from God’s wrath. For Paul, the Christian’s current standing “in grace” provides the strongest basis for confidence in the future: that is, he makes the strongest link between present justification and future salvation. God loves and has acted to redeem sinners; and if he has done that, just imagine how confident we can be that he will rescue his people! Believers do not look to the future in fear or doubt; rather, grace turns us in confidence towards final salvation.

Yet we still have life to live between now and then, and in verses 2b-5a, Paul sets forth how Christians live “between the times” as those who are in grace yet also experience “sufferings.” Paul believes that what Christians suffer “produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” But the reason for Paul’s confidence is because this hope is anchored in God’s love for us—the love of God that has been “poured into our hearts” through the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Thus, Paul makes clear here that God’s love is poured out through the Holy Spirit. The Spirit, for Paul, is both gift and Giver: as such, the gift of the Spirit is inseparable from the gift of Christ, because it is “through” the Spirit that one receives God’s Christ-shaped love (see also Galatians 3:1-5; 1 Corinthians 12:3; 2 Corinthians 4:13; 5:5; 1 Thessalonians 1.5-6). Believers, therefore, are justified by faith and stand in grace: this is the “already” that defines their existence “between the times,” as they look forward to the future in hope because of the love that shapes their lives in the present. But who, exactly, is God’s love for—and what is this love?

Who is God’s love for? (5:6-8)

In verses 6-8, Paul explicitly defines divine grace and love as Christ’s death for the ungodly. The “for” that connects verses 5 and 6 make clear that the following verses define for us what God’s love is. Paul’s clunky expression, “while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly,” makes it clear that Christ died at a counterintuitive time for the sake of people who did not deserve it. Indeed, Paul celebrates the absurdity of Christ’s death for the ungodly. Anyone who has been in a church for very long is familiar with the claim that Christ died for sinners. But here Paul goes out of his way to underline that there is a total absence of worth on the human side of the equation; we have nothing to show God that makes it reasonable for him to give his Son for us; that is, there is a total absence of human logic for why Christ would do this for us.

Paul acknowledges that sacrifice for a person of particularly high quality is certainly possible. All humans are drawn to show love for those who have worth to them: family, friends, people within their sphere. Love draws us to take care of the “right kind” of people. Paul also acknowledges that self-giving or sacrifice is done for an understandable reason. “For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die.” For example, one might sacrifice oneself out of love for family, or duty to country or colleague. These are good things. There are many kinds of sacrifice we would say are honorable, selfless. Paul is not distinguishing Christ’s sacrifice from these others by saying his was selfless and others are not. Rather, Paul wants us to see that Jesus’ death does not make sense like these do. From a human point of view, Jesus died for the entirely wrong people, at the wrong time. Human love is a fitting gift; the Christ gift is unfitting. The former goes to proper recipients; the latter goes to the unworthy. As Luther famously put it, “The love of God does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it.”

Thus, Christ did not give himself for the “righteous” or the “good.” Instead, “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” And here Paul makes the radical claim that the death of Christ for sinners both demonstrates and defines God’s love: “but God has demonstrated his love for us.” Since God’s love is Christ’s death for the unworthy, we can be confident that our hope “does not”—and will not—“put us to shame.” For if God’s love for sinners has meant the reconciliation of enemies now, how “much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life” (Romans 5:10)?

In Romans 5:1-11 Paul continues to drive home his theology of grace for sinners—a theology in which the enemy is reconciled, the unworthy is loved, and the afflictions of the present time cannot overwhelm the confidence we have for our future salvation.