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Readings: 3rd Sunday of Lent

19 March 2014

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3rd Sunday of Lent

Exodus 17.1-7; Romans 5.1-11; John 4.5-42

Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

SEVERAL years ago, I was in a coach in the desert beyond Jerusalem. In a similar way to our recent floods, against all expectations, pouring rain had transformed the desert, and our experienced guide was speechless. Dry wadis were flooded, and roads were blocked. We turned round, and went a long way back to safety.

The next day, we heard of tourist coaches that spent the night in the desert - no food, no lavatories, no warm clothing. I was struck by the irony: we wanted to see the desert associated with biblical stories, but certainly did not want to spend the night there unprepared.

The people who were with Moses had no choice. Having come out of slavery, they were en route to the Promised Land, moving from oasis to oasis, having trouble trusting God to care for them. All the hope and enthusiasm of the deliverance at the Red Sea had gone; life was tough, and they were complaining. I have some sympathy.

So God provided food in the form of manna, but now they had no water. Their predictable response? To quarrel with Moses, and demand that he give them water or face being stoned. Experienced Bedouins know to hit the rock exactly where water is to be found, dislodging the sediment blocking it. Somehow Moses managed, and the people drank.

Note what Moses called the place. Not "Where water came from the rock" or "Where God provided", but "Massah and Meribah", meaning "Testing and quarrelling". It has gone down in history as where they quarrelled and asked "Is the Lord among us or not?" Whenever we say Psalm 95, the Venite, at morning prayer, we recall that doleful episode in their history.

The question was not: "Did they need water?" - they did - but "Did they trust God?" Did they have any memory of God's care for them in the previous few weeks, and any sense that God would do so in future? Had they failed to see God's actions in everyday life?

Jesus, too, needed water. He was on a road that most Jews avoided. Samaritans and Jews hated each other, and yet John tells us that he "had to" go through Samaria. Exhausted, by a well, but without a bucket (people carried their own), instead of complaining to God he sat down to see how God would care for him.

God's answer was most unlikely: a Samaritan woman, whose midday arrival indicated that she was an outcast among her peers. Men did not talk to strange women, nor Jews to Samaritans. Would they play by the rules of how God "ought" to work, or be open to God's providing in unexpected ways?

In an age when women could not initiate divorce, even if innocent, her life included abandonment and desert experience. After the extraordinary conversation when, like Nicodemus, she took Jesus's words over-literally, her response was to run to the city and tell of a man who, knowing her history, did not to want to use her for his purposes, but offered her new life, living water. As we heard last week, Jesus did not come to condemn her, but to offer new birth and living water.

We all face situations that seem interminable, and threaten to be the death of us. Whether it is the depression that will not lift, the family whom we dread facing, the addiction we cannot break, the relationship that traps us, or the grief that overwhelms us, at times we end up in the desert.

The question is: how do we respond? Complaining is always tempting. But Paul, who suffered more than most of us will in a lifetime, had a different perspective. Describing a chain of responses and virtues that can flow from sufferings, he concluded with the pouring of God's love into our hearts.

The key is in those last few words: Paul was not involved in mental gymnastics that denied the sufferings; nor did he endure stoically without hope. No, he accepted them for what they were, knowing that they could set in motion a train of growth in the knowledge and love of God, because God's love was poured into his heart.

Halfway through Lent is a good time to ask whether our natural instinct is to complain when under pressure, or to accept God's offer of new life out of situations that feel like death, perhaps a specific one. It is easier said than done, but we are assured that it is possible with God's love, with living water.

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