This is the message that I presented at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church for the 3rd Sunday in Lent, 27 February 2005. The Scriptures for this Sunday were Exodus 17: 1 – 7, Romans 5: 1 – 11, and John 4: 5 – 42.
There are not too many occasions when I get to use either chemistry or science education in my sermons. Today is one of those occasions.
When I taught science education courses in Texas, I would always ask my students what were the two most important liquids in Texas. Generally, they always got the answer right, water and oil. For without the one, you cannot get the other.
In chemical terms I suppose I could speak of the structure of the water molecule and how it affects the structure of ice molecules and why ice floats in water. I could also speak of the boiling and freezing points of water and how these unique temperature points make water a liquid when other similar substances are gases. These properties of water make it a very unique substance in the universe and very probably the key to life.
The properties of water can be explained by a phenomenon known as hydrogen bonding. It is hydrogen bonding which is the key to the structure of the DNA double helix, the basis for life as we know it.
Yes, water is a very unique substance. But one thing that does not require science of any kind for an explanation and has been known since mankind first walked has explored this world is that we need water to survive. For without water, our chances of survival are limited. The Israelites knew that very well. That is the reason that they were screaming at Moses in today’s Old Testament reading.
There are two things that I find interesting about this incident in the desert. First, it is not the first time that the Israelites have yelled at Moses about their situation.
In Exodus 14: 11 – 12, the Israelites said, in response to the oncoming Egyptian army, “Because there were no graves in Egypt, have you taken us away to die in the wilderness? Why have you so dealt with us, to bring us up out of Egypt? Is this not the word that we told you in Egypt, saying, ‘Let us alone that we may serve the Egyptians?’ For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than that we should die in the wilderness.” (Exodus 14: 11 – 12) Then, in Exodus 16: 2 – 3, the people “complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. And the children of Israel said to them, “Oh, that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the pots of meat and when we ate bread to the full! For you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly by hunger.” (Exodus 16: 2 – 3)
The Lord’s response to the first complaint was the parting of the Red Sea and the destruction of the Egyptian army; the Lord’s response to the second complaint was to provide manna from heaven. The first time the people were afraid, for the Egyptian army was powerful and the Israelites were incapable, at that time, of defending themselves. But the manner in which they voiced their complaints showed a lack of faith, not fear. In the second instance, their complaints come after they have seen the power of God destroy the Egyptian army and how God provided fresh water for them. One might think that by the time they had come to this point in their journey, they would known and understood that it was a small thing for God to provide them with water.
Asking for water is not a sin; but what the Israelites are doing in this reading today is complaining. This is a challenge to God’s faithful mercy and evidence of unbelief in His provision. There is also something interesting about this passage. When the Israelites first came to Egypt, they were nomadic herdsman, used to traveling in the desert and seeking sources of water. Now, after all the years in Egypt, they had forgotten the skills that kept their families alive. They did not know how to find the water that would keep them alive and instead of seeking out a means of finding the water, they complained.
There are a many times when we are like the Israelites in the desert. We would rather complain about the situations that we face than seek an answer. And we often forget that the answer that we seek is available if we only look for it.
But Paul tells us that we need not struggle so; our efforts need not be futile. No longer are we trapped in the here and now, suffering and complaining but rather looking forward to the future and what it will bring. The tribulation of life no longer brings us down but rather gives us strength and endurance. Because of Christ, Paul writes, we have access to God. In those days, to gain access to the king was a special occasion and one not many were granted. But, through Christ, we now have access to God. We no longer face judgment for our life as it would if we were to stand before an earthly king. Our presence before the throne of God gives us reason to celebrate and rejoice.
It is the water of the well that ties this reading in the New Testament to the reading of the Old Testament today. Jesus is in Samaria because it is the direct route between Judea and Galilee. Most Jews, who wanted to avoid Samaria and contact with the Samarians, would travel a more circular route, going north along the River Jordan. But Jesus saw no need for that because he held no prejudice against either the Jews or the Samaritans.
To the Jews of the Bible, the Samaritans were a group of people to be excluded. Disagreements had arisen about what were the holy sites; for the Jews, it was Jerusalem, for the Samaritans, it was Mount Gerizim. This difference was one of many between the two groups both of whom descended from the Israelites who wandered in the desert. For the Jews, the Samaritans were beyond contempt and not worthy of any salvation from God. It was this contempt and hatred between the two that allowed Jesus to tell the story of the Good Samaritan and for us to know about the woman at the well.
For the woman of this New Testament story is coming to the well to get her daily water supply. But she is coming at the worst possible day, noontime. It is the beginning of the hottest period of the day and the time when most people were in the cool of their homes. So why does she come then and why did she not come earlier, especially when the well was the social center of the village?
Is it perhaps because her life is the subject of gossip at the well? Is it because she is not welcome among the women of the village? Many of us are amazed, as was the woman, when Jesus speaks of the woman and the person with whom she is living but who is not her husband. But a woman does not come to the well at the worst time of the day unless she does not want to be a part of society.
And while the woman expects Jesus to spurn her as the citizens of the town have and as the Jews have done to Samaritans for countless years, He does not. He treats her with respect in requesting a drink of water and he treats her amazement kindly. More importantly, Jesus offers to her what He offers to all of us, the chance for salvation.
Jesus also gives a chance to see ourselves, for there are times when we are the people being excluded and there are times when we are the ones doing the excluding. The one thing people are doing today is struggling. When we look around the world today, we see people whose hearts are struggling, we see people whose minds are fighting and we see people whose souls doubt. It would be very difficult for us to be anything else but one of those individuals. And then we find that we are like the children of Israel in the desert, judging Moses for his failure to provide them with water. And we find that we are like the disciples, who would have sent the people sitting on the hill listening to the Sermon on the Mount home hungry rather than try and find a way to feed them with six loaves and two fishes.
But we can change the way we see the world, we can ease the doubts that torment our souls, and we can end the fighting in our minds. Like the Samaritan woman, we need to see Jesus, not as an excellent teacher or renowned rabbi, but as the Son of God, a revelation of God. She sees in Jesus the bearer of the Good News, she hears from Jesus that there is new life found in the Spirit, in the Living Water.
And this new life summons her from the ageless racism and divisiveness that was her life and into a new eternal life. When the woman at the well looks again into the well, she sees not herself or others, but the image of Jesus. The same is true for us; for when we see Jesus, when we turn our eyes to Jesus (UMH #349), life changes. For the woman at the well, drinking from the well of the living water will give her life and invite her to love rather than judge others.
The people of Israel found the days of the Exodus a struggle. At every step of the way, they argued with Moses and with God. God chose to love them, in spite of themselves. Many times, we argue with God because we struggle as we journey through the wilderness. Like the woman at the well, we find that we are alone in our struggle, seeking comfort when the times are the most difficult.
During this Lenten season, we need to face ourselves and see where our heart is focused. When we are tempted to judge others or to promote ourselves, we can remind ourselves that we we do not walk this path of love and righteousness under our own power. (Adapted from “Spiritual snobs” by Scot McKnight in “Living the Word” from Christian Century, February 22, 2005) On those days when this walk gets hot and we get thirsty, we should pause and get a cup of water. But not water from the well of daily living, for that water does not quench the thirst we have, but rather water from the Living Water. It is that drink of water that we search for.