THIRD SUNDAY OF LENT(A) March 12, 2023
Exodus 17: 3-7; Psalm 95;
by Jude Siciliano, OP
The generations before us were a traveling folk. Except for Native Americans, we all came from other places to be here. (It is believed that even Native Americans arrived here during the Ice Age, 20-30,000 years ago.) The number of vowels in my last name gives evidence to my ancestral origins. The "old folks," so they seemed through my boyhood eyes, left the poverty of southern Italy for America – the "Land of Promise." And, despite the poverty and prejudice my grandparents’ generation endured, their sacrifices bore fruit for their children. Here we are, a couple generations later, educated, employed, well fed (perhaps too well fed!) and settled in "our country."
The Israelites were also a traveling people and we can tell from today’s first reading that they had a harder trip to make. They had left slavery behind, but their arrival to the next place, the Promise Land, was long delayed and the trip to get there was arduous and tempted their faith. They were forty years in the desert. They didn’t like what they left but, as the reading from Exodus shows, at this point of their travels they were very discouraged. Each day was a struggle and the present moment looked impossible. They were thirsty and they were beginning to doubt Moses and their God. Where was God in this hard place? The name of the place summarized this moment of their journey: Massah means "Proof"; Meribah means "Contention." That’s how hard the place was! The trip was too long, with too many camping grounds and too many frustrations and failures. Was God with them? Judging from their condition, it didn’t seem so to the Israelites.
We can identify with the people wandering in the desert, for we too have known similar moments on our journeys. There have times when we have lamented, "How long must I endure this?" "When will it end?" "Can I/we make it?" We know what we have left behind and we are not sure what lies ahead. Will it be worth the struggle? We have known the hard places; we have known the rock at Horeb.
We can understand the temptation the Israelites had to return to the old places and the old ways. We have dreams we want to see come to fruition for ourselves and or family, yet at the rock, the hard place, those dreams feel flimsy. So, for example: We would rather go back to silence and getting along, than to more open communication and the pain that may cause. We would rather stay in a relationship that is not working, than risk a break and go forward to new, uncharted territory. We would rather stay with an abusive spouse, than choose the scary terrain of independence. We would rather continue old habits and dependencies, than go through the sacrifice change requires.
Lent urges us to shift to a traveling mode. Lent invites us to set out; to say to ourselves, "I have got to change, I have got to make this journey." We are being invited to leave behind what is not working and not good for us and go to a place up ahead. Like the Israelites, we start out making the changes we must, but the road is long, uncertain and sometimes very hard to stick to, so our resolution dissolves and we look back to where we used to be and turn around.
The experience of the Israelites in the desert reminds us how much we need God – day by day. Today’s Exodus story reveals that at the very hard place, at the rock of Horeb, God will provide the refreshment we need. God tells Moses to strike the rock with his staff. From the rock water flows to quench the people’s thirst. Is the same possible for us: that from the very hard places of struggle and temptation God can draw water for us and refresh us? How? By the steady hand of a friend; the presence of one with us by the bedside of a loved one; in the support group that encourages and challenges us to stay with the program so we can break an addiction or destructive habit; the voice of confrontation from a loved one, who encourages us to be better than we have been. The initial experience has the sound and feel of the rock; but then, through God and God’s instruments, we discover that we are at the rock at Horeb and God has made living water flow to quench the thirst only God can quench. The Israelites, we are told, quarreled and tested God at the hard place and asked, "Is the Lord in our midst or not?" To their sunrise, they found that God was.
The story of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman is a familiar one – perhaps too familiar. It is an important story for John and he spends a lot of time narrating the exchange between the two. (There’s a shorter option in the Lectionary, but why violate the storyteller’s intent by reading a chopped up version? For the sake of brevity will we sacrifice the dramatic development in the account? I plan on inviting the congregation to sit down and listen to a good tale.) Because the story is so familiar I find myself leaning heavily on John P. Pilch’s input for new insights (Cf. Below).
Pilch notes some "irregularities" in the story. He says the Mediterranean world is divided according to gender: women have their places in the home and kitchen; men have theirs in the fields, market place and the gate. The well is common to both, but women and men go there at different times of the day. Women go in the morning and evening. The Samaritan woman is there at noon – something is wrong. Is she avoiding the other women of the town? Does she have a "reputation" and is shunned by them? She is at a well, at noon and she is alone, speaking to a strange man in a public place.
The conversation between Jesus and the woman raises even the suspicions of Jesus’ disciples. When it is over she goes to another public place to tell those gathered there (men at the market?) about her conversation with Jesus. Pilch notes the subversions that are occurring in the story. John is giving new roles to women in his community. He fashions the conversation between Jesus and the woman in a seven part dialogue; each speaks seven times. Is a new creation story being told in this seeming unimportant moment and place? Just as God created light on the first day, so Jesus leads the woman out of her darkness into light, to a deeper understanding of his identity. Did you notice the growth in the woman’s awareness of Jesus, revealed in the names she gives him? She begins by calling him "a Jew," then moves to "prophet," then, she tells the town people, "Could he possible be the Christ?" Later they call him "the savior of the world."
The woman gets more time in this story than anyone else in John’s gospel. She grows rapidly in her insight about Jesus and he commissions her to go call her husband and return. She announces Jesus’ presence to the people of the town and is, therefore, the first disciple in John’s gospel.
In our first reading the people grumble against Moses in the desert. They are thirsty and demand water. Under God’s direction Moses strikes the rock and water flows. In the gospel Jesus, the new Israel, is thirsty and stops at a well in Samaria. There he receives a good reception, first from the woman, then from the townspeople. Jesus finds rejection among his own; among Samaritans, he is welcomed. He reflects God’s thirst for people, willingness to go outside the usual religious and social boundaries, and God’s desire to give life giving water to anyone thirsty enough to seek it. The woman in today’s story has no name. Perhaps she represents all of us, regardless of race, gender or nationality, who acknowledge our thirst for more than we can provide for ourselves.
The entire exchange between the woman and Jesus is characterized by respect, openness, even mutual challenge. But there is an underlaying current throughout the story – Jesus’ compassion. He accepts the woman as she is. She, on her part, reveals an honest probing into Jesus’ identity; more than we find among Jesus’ disciples. Two strangers meet at an unusual place and their honest dialogue brings one to a deeper knowledge of herself and the offer of a new and deeper life.
Is it possible then that, when we meet a stranger and are willing to put aside all the political, social, ethnic and religious barriers that normally separate people, and enter into open dialogue, that we too might come to the life-giving experience the woman had and discover God in the stranger?
Click here for a link to this Sunday’s readings: