March 12, 2023
The Third Sunday in Lent - March 12, 2023
The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin
Readings: Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 95; Romans 5:1-11; John 4:5-42
From the Book of Exodus, “… the (people) quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?’” I speak to you in the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
“Is the Lord among us or not?” While that question comes from today’s Old Testament lesson, it could easily be uttered today – even by people of faith. For the truth is, people are tired and thirsty right now. Many are so bewildered by ideological extremes that are destroying any sense of common purpose and common decency, that they wonder, “Is the Lord among us or not?” Globally, we are witnessing untold carnage through war, earthquake, and outright hatred and distrust of others that is destroying whole nations. Many among us worry over rising inflation and decreasing income, worry about having enough food to feed our families or continue to afford even a place to call home. “Is the Lord among us or not?” A timely question this morning.
Our Old Testament and Gospel readings offer two very different and yet connected stories. In our reading from Exodus, we overhear conversations among some people who are in the midst of their Exodus from out of slavery in Egypt. They have been wandering in the wilderness for quite some time. While Moses assures them they are heading to a Promised Land: a land where food and water abound, and everyone will dwell in peace, they’re not there yet. All they can see right now is an endless wilderness all around them. They are tired and thirsty. And it is human nature that when people grow tired and thirsty, when dreams and plans don’t come together as they had hoped and believed or even thought they were entitled to experience, they become irritable. And in that irritable state, start to ache not for the future, but the “good old days” of the past.
When I read this story, I picture people saying, “Gosh, remember Egypt? Yeah, we worked like dogs from dusk ‘til dawn hauling bricks and we were chained together and whipped and beaten by the Egyptians every single day. But, you know, we always had something to eat and drink. Now, those were the days, huh!” Ah, the subtly of selective memory – a memory that distorts reality. Selective memory can grow like a cancer even within the hearts and minds of God’s people so that we soon forget how often God has intervened to not only provide food and drink, but also lift us out from whatever enslaved us, and by God’s simple presence alone, brought us hope. And so it was for the people of Israel. In today’s reading we overhear them blame Moses for their predicament and out of their thirst and despair cry out, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
In today’s Gospel reading, we overhear a different conversation: A conversation between Jesus and a woman. Like the people in our reading from Exodus, Jesus is tired and thirsty. He sits down next to a well. A woman arrives to draw water and he asks her for a drink. What follows is the longest conversation between Jesus and any other person in the entire New Testament. That tells us this story is of incredible significance.
The fact that this woman is a Samaritan adds intrigue to this story. See, while part of the same family tree, let’s just say Samaritans and Jews had a less than positive relationship. Samaritans were Jews who had intermarried with other nations and cultures, and therefore, were considered impure. And that impurity, it was believed, forever barred them from entering God’s kingdom or knowing the joy of God’s promised redemption in and through the Messiah. Israelites and Samaritans worshipped the same God and yet, religious rules forbade them from worshipping together. So, Jews worshipped at the Temple in Jerusalem and Samaritans worshipped on a mountainside because Samaritans were unwelcome: a people to be avoided and outright shunned. They were like that relative no one wants to even mention, let alone bring to church. And when we add to this story that this woman has had five husbands and now there is a sixth man in her life, we expect the story will focus on sin and adultery and separation from God. But that’s not it at all.
The mention of multiple husbands suggests a deeper understanding of not only the Samaritan people themselves, but our own selves. Samaritans as a people, just like each of us, had made wrong choices in their past – five or six times or more - (in my case it’s fifty or sixty times) - leading them away from their relationship with God. But Jesus, rather than condemning this woman’s past, gently invites her and all her Samaritan neighbors to meet the Messiah face to face and, thereby, welcomes them into a new and wholesome relationship with God, just as they are!
The woman responds, “I know the Messiah is coming but we’ve been told we are not welcome in God’s temple.” Jesus answers saying a time is coming when neither temple nor mountain will be the place to worship. And this leads to the climax of the story: Jesus says the new place to worship, the new dwelling place of God – the new house of God – the new Beth-el, to use a term coined by Jacob at who’s well this story takes place – the place where God and humanity will commune together will be in the person of Jesus Christ himself who stands right in front of her. In the midst of this woman’s own spiritual thirst, hunger, and despair, her wondering “Is the Lord among us, or not?” Jesus answers, “Yes … I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”
St. Paul, in today’s reading from Romans, says this new dwelling place of God has been made possible through Christ who reconciles everyone to God – Jew and Gentile alike - by faith alone. One’s past, background, wrong choices, and even one’s own righteousness: none of it matters. Through and in Christ alone we are reconciled to God and justified to call God our Father once more by God’s grace to us in Jesus Christ whose body, friends, we have become and by whose body we are nourished in the Eucharist. Paul says just as we are welcomed into God’s kingdom by the mercy and grace of God in Christ, so all must be welcomed by their faith alone into the body of Christ: the Church.
And therein, these different lessons this morning come together and challenge the Church: the Body of Christ in this community. You see, as stated earlier, people are tired and thirsty right now. Tired from worry and stress, and thirsty for good news, thirsty for hope and a sense of dignity, thirsty for love and to be loved. They cry out, “Is the Lord among us or not?” And many are just too plain tired and thirsty to even seek an answer.
You know, prophets and sages foretold that a day is coming when the “dwelling place of God will be with mortals, with us” (Ezekiel 37:27; Rev. 21:3). Friends, the Gospel – the Good News of God in Christ – tells us that dwelling is already in our midst, and it resides within us, within all who claim the Name of Christ as their own. And yet God’s presence, the assurance that God is, indeed, among us and desires to transform whole societies, can only be fully realized in this community, state and nation, if and when it is found to be so alive in us that it makes a difference in how we seek and serve Christ in our neighbors whether known to us or strangers. St. Paul in his 2nd letter to the Corinthians says, “… we are the temple of the living God” (2 Cor. 6:16). It is up to us – through our lives, our values, our voices, our actions – to answer the question “is the Lord among us or not?”
And yet, our lessons this morning suggest it is not enough to simply answer “Yes” to that question. God’s people must be the answer. How can we be that answer? Well, most of us know someone - members, friends, relatives, neighbors - who are facing hardship right now: unemployment, deep personal loss, and worry for the future, concern for their child or aging parent or spouse. And there are those who believe that because of some past mistake in their life, or because of their gender, race, sexual orientation, or income, they are unwelcome here. Some, like the people described in our reading from Exodus are so overwhelmed they only see a wilderness before them. Others, like the woman at the well, wonder if they will ever be worthy enough to see the Christ. Some might even think, “Who cares if God is among us because it doesn’t change anything.” And being present to those in need is the beginning of being the answer they seek after, thirst and long for.
The Body of Christ is called to be God’s redeeming, forgiving, welcoming and sustaining presence wherever we go, wherever we live, and to whomever we meet. That is the timely message of the Gospel so richly affirmed in today’s readings. So, I invite you to join with me and ask ourselves this week, “If the Lord is among us, how might God’s presence be so evident in my heart and mind, in our hearts and minds, that together we physically become God’s grace-filled, welcoming and loving presence in this community and the world?
Is the Lord among us or not? Friends, only our changed selves – yours and mine - can ever, and will ever, be the answer. Amen.