This is the message that I presented at the Neon (KY) United Methodist Church for the 3rd Sunday in Lent, 7 March 1999. The Scriptures for this Sunday were Exodus 17: 1 – 7, Romans 5: 1 – 11, and John 4: 5 – 42.
Have you ever asked God for something? Maybe it was something small, like a particular gift or you wanted Him to solve a small problem. But it could have been something major like guidance in a change in jobs or an improvement in your job situation or some other life-related issue. Now, there is nothing wrong with doing this; after all, we routinely ask Him to take care of those that are sick and injured and we know that He answers our prayers.
But what happens when it seems like He doesn’t answer our prayers? Don’t we get upset when we don’t get the answer that we wanted? And if we prayed hard and long and the person for whom we prayed doesn’t get better, don’t we get mad? Don’t we feel as if God has abandoned us?
The problem you see is that we somehow have to reconcile the reality of mankind’s miseries with that of a good God. There is no completely satisfying explanation to the problem of a good God who is powerful and sovereign over an evil world. After God did not spare his own Son from the pain of death. And did not Jesus himself seek relieve from the anguish of his upcoming ordeal.
Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. “Abba, Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” (Mark 14: 35)
It is as if we sought to test God, to put our problems before Him and say “Prove that you are God.” It is times like these when we are like the Israelites wondering through the wilderness, questioning God’s intentions, doubting in our own abilities. In the Old Testament reading for today, the Israelites are again grumbling because they do not have any water to drink.
The whole Israelite community set out from the Desert of Sin, traveling from place to lace as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. So they quarreled with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.”
Moses replied, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you put the Lord to the test?”
But the people were thirsty for water there, and they grumbled against Moses. They said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?”
Then Moses cried out to the Lord, “What am I to do with these people? They are almost ready to stone me.”
The Lord answered Moses, “Walk on ahead of the people. Take with you some of the elders of Israel and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will stand there before you by the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out for the people to drink.” So Moses did this in the sight of the elders of Israel. And he called the place Massah and Meribah because the Israelites quarreled and because they tested the Lord saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
This was not the first time that the Israelites had grumbled about God’s plan. In previous chapters, they had grumbled because the Egyptian army was chasing after them and when they did not have any water. Yet, in all instances, God provided the means for them to escape and survive.
As long as it is not too great, as long as we are willing to listen to God, then everything goes well. We might not like the situation but we know that it will come out okay. We just can never understand it when it looks like God has abandoned us.
But we have to understand that God never intended for us to suffer. When Paul wrote in Romans, “but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character hope”, he used the term “in” rather than “because of”. Life is a joyous and triumphant, not one of morbidity and despair. But it can only be joyous when we understand that Jesus died for our sins.
Paul pointed out that we are not God’s enemies, to be the object of his wrath when we have done wrong. Nor are we to be abandoned should things go bad for us. Our suffering produces the perseverance that ultimately brings us hope. Such hope is not real world optimism but the assurance of our future destiny, of our life in Christ. As Paul wrote, “hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.” Note that Paul used the present tense because Christ is present for us now.
The Samaritan woman who came to the well knew first hand the feeling of abandonment. After all, society had not taken kindly to the life style she had chosen to follow. But God and Christ do not abandon someone because of their life style.
The woman was surprised that Jesus knew all about her but should we be surprised? After all, Jesus is always with us, though we might not know it.
God’s presence in our life is best explained by the battle the Israelites fought with the Amalekites. Just after the incident with the water, the Israelites engaged in a battle with the Amalekites.
The Amalekites came and attacked the Israelites at Rephidim. Moses said to Joshua, “Choose some of our men and go out to fight the Amalekites. Tomorrow I will stand on top of the hill with the staff of God in my hands.”
So Joshua fought the Amalekites as Moses had ordered, and Moses, Aaron, and Hur went to the top of the hill. As long as Moses held up his hands, the Israelites were winning, but whenever he lowered his hands, the Amalekites were winning. When Moses’ hands grew tired, they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held his hands up – one on one side, one on the other – so that his hands remained steady till sunset. So Joshua overcame the Amalekite army with the sword.
As it was noted in the Scripture, as long as Moses acknowledged the presence of the Lord by holding up his hands, the Israelites were winning. But when he grew tired and his hands dropped the tide of the battle changed. I think this is very much what we encounter when we are under stress.
Did God leave the battle when the Israelites started losing or was it that Moses and the Israelites had left Him? God was always there, waiting for His people to come to him. Yes, Jesus knew everything about the woman because He was a presence in her life, even if she did not understand that.
The feeling of abandonment is like a thirst that cannot go away. You may drink water but the thirst is still there. Christ offers, not only to the woman at the well, but to each of us today, the opportunity to remove that thirst, of that feeling. Life is not going to get easy just because we accept Christ. If anything, it might get harder.
But when we speak of the Gospel, we speak of the “Good News”. God’s will for us involves an ultimate celebration, not on-going suffering and sorrow. In writing to Romans, Paul spoke of celebrating, of the victory that Christ has over sin.
You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! Not only is this so, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.
The woman at the well came to know Christ because she understood that she had not been abandoned. After it was all over, after everything that he had worked for was taken away, Job came away with twice as much as he had before because he did not lose faith.
The celebration of life goes on because we know that Christ died for us and yet he still lives. Is there a feeling in you that just won’t go away? The path we walk is never easy and there are times when we might think that life is unfair but as long as we continue to understand that God loves us, that He sent His Son for our benefit, the rewards of life are beyond description. The test for each one of us is to allow Christ into our hearts.