(Part III of VII in the Lenten Sermon Series: God's Word and Our Struggle to Respond)
Exodus 17:1-7; John 4:5-29 First Congregational Church, Columbus February 24, 2002 — 2nd Sunday in Lent — Rev. Ronald Botts, Preaching
If the truth be known, I'm not always the most patient person. I'm aware of this especially when I stand in line at the grocery store. It happened to me again this past week when I stopped by after work to pick up just a small number of items. (Have you ever noticed if the limit for items in the express lane is 10, you always have 12; if it's 12, you always have 15?) Well I can't remember the number I had in my cart, but clearly I had to go through one of the regular lines. This always proves to be a dilemma, because now you have to decide which checkout is going to be the fastest when they all have about the same number of people in line. So you assess the carts and, at the same time, try to determine the speed of the cashiers and which lanes have the baggers. Boldly you make your move, then stand by and watch as the lines on either side of you keep going forward while you're standing still. Finally I'm at the point where there is only one person ahead of me. Thank goodness he doesn't have an overly large order. Of course, the very first item the cashier tries to scan doesn't go through and— naturally there no price on it—so she has to send the bagger off to the far end of the store to determine how much to charge.
My fellow shopper now decides that he needs a second six-pack of beer, so he disappears in the general direction of where the bagger went. Meanwhile the cashier has completed itemizing all the groceries, even the one missing its price; still, there's no customer and no beer. So, the cashier says in my direction, "Where'd he go, to the brewery?" I smile and nod in agreement, trying to be very patient. Now he returns with the beer, plus a bag of chips, some ice cream, and a deodorant stick. He's not really hurrying. It's more like strolling, as if he's out for a leisurely walk. I'm doing all I can to remind myself that he's one of God's creatures, too, but the argument isn't very convincing at that moment.
We all get impatient at times. Remembering this may help us to better appreciate our Old Testament lesson for today. The Israelites are hot and tired. They've followed Moses out of Egypt and from under pharaoh's oppression, with the hope of entering into a promised land. Yet, here they are still journeying through the wilderness with no end in sight. They didn't bargain for this long travel time and the hardships they would have to endure. The Israelites press Moses for relief. "Give us water to drink," they say. Moses replies to them, "Why do you find fault with me? Why do you put the Lord to the proof?"
It's not a pretty picture. The people confront Moses further: "Why did you bring us up out of the land of Egypt, to kill us and our children and cattle with thirst?" Moses implores them to be patient, but they respond with the ancient Israelite version of "Show me the money." No matter what Moses says, they shout "Give us water to drink." The people are beyond cranky and it gets so bad that Moses is forced to retreat a bit, perhaps up to higher ground, and take his problem directly to the Lord. You can almost hear Moses cry out, "Lord, I've got a really big problem here. The people are restless. They're not buying my standard answers. In fact, they're becoming more unruly all the time. I'm out of ideas as to what to do. What can you tell me? After all, with due respect, you got me into this!"
Anyone who's been a CEO or a manager has known times when there's been discontent in the ranks. The workers are grumbling among themselves and shaking the very gates. Whatever patience they've had is going fast and talking isn't doing the trick. They're looking for evidence that the situation will be resolved. "Show us something tangible," they say. God instructs Moses to take his rod and use it like a dowser to find a spring of water among the arid rocks. This he does and a saving water is brought forth to both relieve the people of their physical thirst and to restore their trust in him as the servant of God. Until the evidence is there and in front of them, their faith suffers from its weakness. When things are going right it's easy to put one's trust in God and in those who are God's chosen leaders, but the test of faith is in the difficult days when the future is not so clear.
We can fault these ancient Israelites for their tendency to drop away when the going got rough; however, we might do well to see in ourselves a similar reaction when we get into the same kind of predicament. Keeping the faith in stormy days is more an indicator of the depth of our belief than professing it when the sun is shining bright.
Water figures into our Gospel reading as well today as we find Jesus, tired from his travelling along the roads of Samaria, sitting down to rest near a well. No doubt he, like the Israelites in our first account, is quite thirsty. He's ever so near the water, but to no avail because he has nothing with which to draw up the water. It's like a man with no money looking in through the window of a restaurant. Proximity to what you need is of no importance if you don't have the resources to get it.
A woman comes to the well with a jar to access its water. Jesus catches her off guard by asking her directly for something to drink. It surprises her because Jewish rabbis don't speak with women in public, and certainly not to a Samaritan whom they consider religiously inferior. As they talk, Jesus tells her that really he is the one who can offer living water to her. She takes this to mean fresh water rather than the stagnant water at the bottom of the well. She shows an interest in this water that will keep a person from thirsting again, but she understands it in a literal sense.
It is when Jesus begins to tell her intimate things about her life that she begins to perceive him as a prophet. The woman shares her belief with Jesus when she professes: "I know that the Messiah is coming…when he comes, he will show us all things." To this Jesus replies simply, "I who speak to you am he." Just at that moment his disciples arrive and the woman hurries away excitedly to tell others what she has heard and experienced. She is so moved by what has occurred that she leaves her water jar behind. This is a valuable and important item in her life, but even its value pales by comparison with what she has just received. The woman now reveals to everyone what has taken place and witnesses to her gift of this living water.
Unlike the Israelites in the wilderness, the Samaritan woman has faith without evidence. She believes because of the trust she places in Jesus as God's Messiah and she spreads her own good news with anyone who will listen.
Friends, Lent is a time when we ourselves come to Jesus to enter into conversation with him. We arrive at our meeting places with the everyday things of life on our minds, but— if we are willing to cease our talking and listen— he will make it clear that he knows us intimately as well and loves us unconditionally. From him we, too, may receive the living water that will quench our spiritual thirst for meaning and for the fulfillment that we so long for in life. To believe is to step out in faith beyond the unprovable. To believe is to say "I know" because of the inner certainty we have. To believe is to trust and follow because it is the obvious and only thing to do.
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