The Third Sunday in Lent (Year A), 15 March 2020


March 15, 2020

Reading 1Reading 2Reading 3Reading 4Reading 1 AltReading 2 Alt
Exodus 17:1-7Psalm 95Romans 5:1-11John 4:5-42

by Russell Pregeant

Gospel: John 4:5-42

“Only by [a person’s] becoming aware of [her/his] true nature, can the Revealer be recognized.”1 With these words, Rudolf Bultmann cuts to the heart of the little faith-journey depicted in John’s story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman.  We can recognize Jesus as the Christ, the one who reveals God, only if we come to know ourselves. And if to know Christ is to know God, then to know our true identity is also to know God, and vice-versa. Knowledge of ourselves and knowledge of God are two facets of the very same thing.

When the woman speaks to the other Samaritans in verses 28-29, she raises the question, “He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” The Greek construction shows that a negative answer is expected, but it is clear that the woman is seriously considering the proposition. The negative construction should thus be taken not as a tendency toward rejection but rather as a sign of the woman’s expectant astonishment: “Could this really be so?” Her faith is not fully formed, but it is clearly in the process of coming to fruition. And the point we should not miss is the reason that she gives for wanting to believe: he has told her everything about herself. We need, however, to look beyond the merely factual level of Jesus’s recounting of her marital history to get the real point. These details are simply stand-ins for his knowledge of her inmost being. And it is this fact—his in-depth knowledge of her—that allows her to recognize who he is. It is only after he has shown her that he knows her through and through that she is able to hear his own self-revelatory declaration: “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.” When we hear the truth about ourselves, we are ready to claim our true identity and let our lives be transformed.

This story stands alongside other faith-journey stories in John, and together they illustrate various responses to Jesus and stages of faith. Nicodemus recognizes something special about Jesus, but he approaches him only at night and never makes a declaration of faith. The woman comes right up to the edge of faith and is perhaps an implicit believer. Those to whom she speaks about Jesus—and we can consider her testimony a witness, even though based upon incomplete faith—finally make a full confession of faith. But it is only after their own encounter with him over a period of two days that their faith is in fact complete. So they say to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.” Hearing about Jesus and coming to know him intimately represent two different stages in faith-development.

Already we can derive two possible sermon themes from this story. One is the necessary correlation between self-knowledge and knowledge of God. However much we might profess faith in God, that faith remains distorted to the extent that we are not honest about ourselves—the extent, that is, to which we deny the darker aspects of our psyches. Another approach would be to stress the importance of in-depth knowledge of Jesus for the development of mature faith. What I mean is this: all too often, when Christians speak of knowing Jesus personally, they are really thinking in terms of a mental image based upon very subjective feelings rather than upon serious encounter with the words, deeds, and character of Jesus as portrayed concretely in the gospels. There is a tendency to pick and choose tidbits from here and there and construct what is often a highly sentimental Jesus who offers great personal comfort but little if any challenge. The Jesus of the gospels is quite different—to know him is to be shaken to our foundations even as we are indeed offered grace abounding.

One of the ways in which this particular story challenges us is inherent in the identity of the woman. She is, in the first place, a woman! And lest the reader miss the point, the narrator offers in v. 27 this reminder of the social convention that Jesus, as a religious teacher, breaks by speaking with her in public: “They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman.” She is not just any woman, however; she is a Samaritan, a member of a religious community that shared a history with the Jews but was now considered heretical and thoroughly despised. The Jewish-Samaritan rift is evident in the interchange, as the woman expresses surprise that Jesus speaks to her and takes the Jewish side with the declaration that “salvation is from the Jews.” He transcends the rift, however, in verses 21-23, when he declares that the dispute as to where one worships—Jerusalem or Samaria—is irrelevant. It is not physical location that determines the validity of worship, since God, as spirit, must be worshipped “in spirit and in truth.” Here the dualisms of above/below and spirit/flesh that were at work in last Sunday’s gospel reading come implicitly back into play. The distinctions that human beings make—even interpretations of religious matters—belong finally to the world “below” rather than to that “above.” So now we have yet another way of approaching this text: to know God through Jesus is to know a God who heals all human divisions; the world of the spirit is not an exclusive club but is inclusive of all that God has created. And to know Jesus is to know ourselves as part of a fully inclusive community of beings. 

 

First and Second Readings: Exodus 17:1-7 and Romans 5:1-11

“Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character.” So says Paul in Romans 5:4. Following his lengthy exposition of his doctrine of justification by faith, Paul turns in 5:1 to the consequences of faith—that is, to the characteristics of life in Christ. “Once justified,” Joseph A. Fitzmeyer summarizes, “the Christian is reconciled to God and experiences a peace that distressing troubles cannot upset, a hope that knows no disappointment, and a confidence that salvation is assured.”2 The phrase quoted above from 5:4 comes in a sequence in which Paul argues that the effects of faith are such that those who are in Christ can not only withstand suffering but can in fact experience spiritual growth through it. Thus, he claims, “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our heart through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” I focus on the relationship between endurance and character because I believe it is particularly appropriate for Lent and also because I can see in it a connection to the reading from Exodus. 

In the story of Moses striking water from the rock, it is not the miracle itself that interests me most but rather the people’s quarreling with Moses. And this is in fact what the narrator chooses to emphasize in the closing verse: “He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the LORD, saying ‘Is the LORD among us or not?’” The people, let us remember, began to grumble against God immediately after the delivery from slavery (16:2). And although God provided sustenance in the form of mannah for forty years (16:4-36), when faced with thirst in chapter 17 they once again began to complain. Although recipients of God’s mercy in dramatic forms, they remained dissatisfied. They had no power of endurance in the face of difficulty. But it is just such endurance that Paul claims can develop from the experience of suffering.

There is, however, a great danger in touting the redemptive power of suffering. To do so can easily smooth over the destructive effects suffering can have. It is crucial, in exploring this issue, to make clear that God neither intends nor justifies suffering and, most importantly, does not send it—either to punish us or to develop our characters! We should never forget that, according to the creation stories in Genesis God creates a good world in which the expectation is that human beings will be able to enjoy life. But if that is so, what then do we do with Paul’s claim that suffering produces character? The first point to remember is that Paul is thinking primarily about the suffering that comes with bearing witness to the gospel. And we, today, can extend the point to include the suffering that the purveyors of economic exploitation, rape of the environment, and racial prejudice bring upon those brave enough to work for justice. This is not the only kind of suffering we experience, however. No one of us gets through life without experiencing heartbreak in some way, simply because of the innumerable contingencies of existence. And if we are careful in the way we address the issue, we can see that here too Paul has a valid point. Although this kind of suffering is not given to us in order to build character, how we deal with it can in fact do just that. To put the matter another way, we learn how to be human—that is, to realize our true nature—only through the experiences that life brings us. And for life to be real and meaningful, it must involve contingency. For it is only in our decision-making that we shape our identities and form our characters.

It is important, moreover, to give attention to character formation as an issue somewhat distinct from individual actions we can think of as right or wrong. For although the existentialists are certainly correct in stressing that in each moment we are free to decide who we in fact are through the decisions that we make, it is also true that we come to every moment with a character that has been shaped by all prior decisions. Habit can confine us to the past if we allow it to, but it can also aid us in our spiritual development. Our goal should not be limited to doing the right thing; it should also embrace the project of becoming the kind of persons who always desire what is right. What Paul tells us is that in persisting in right action, even in the face of difficulty, we can in fact become just such persons. We will remain free agents, subject to temptation, but we will have built up, by allowing the Holy Spirit to work within us, the force of character to withstand it.

 

Psalm 95

Verses 8-11 of the psalm relate to the First Reading through the reference to Meribah, where the people’s ungratefulness and stubbornness give rise to quarreling with Moses and doubting God’s presence with them. The first part of the psalm, however, is a call to worship in the spirit of thanksgiving, so that the contrasting sections create a balance of grace combined with praise on the one hand and demand combined with judgment on the other. The over-all message is thus that God is in fact worthy of praise and of one’s confidence but also holds us accountable for obedience. Verse 9, in particular, provides a link to the theme of endurance with the phrase “though they had seen my work.” It seems easy to maintain confidence in God when things go well, but when life takes a downward turn it becomes more difficult. Things are not really as simple as this, however. For when good fortune comes our way, there is a tendency to forget to give thanks and to congratulate ourselves instead. Endurance means remaining steadfast in both good times and bad.

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Endnotes:

  1. Rudolf Bultmann, The Gospel of John: A Commentary, translated by G.R. Beasley-Murray, General Editor, R.W.N. Hoare, and J.K. Riches (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1971), 188.
  2. Joseph A. Fitzmeyer, Romans: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, The Anchor Bible, Vol. 33 (New York: Doubleday, 1993), 39.

Russell (Russ) Pregeant is Professor of Religion and Philosophy and Chaplain, Emeritus at Curry College, Milton, Massachusetts, where he taught a variety of courses, including New Testament, Old Testament, Religion and Politics, and Contemporary Theological Issues. He was also frequently Visiting Professor in New Testament at Andover Newton Theological School. A native of Louisiana, he is an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church and has served as an associate pastor in New Orleans and as an interim pastor in Needham, Massachusetts. He now lives in Clayton, Georgia with his wife, the Rev. Sammie Maxwell. Russell is the author of nine books, most recently For the Healing of the Nation: A Biblical Vision (2016) and Reading the Bible for All the Wrong Reasons (2011). He has also completed a second edition of an earlier book on process-relational theology, Mystery without Magic, which is now under consideration for publication.

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