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3rd Sunday of Lent

10 March 2023

Exodus 17.1-7; Psalm 95; Romans 5.1-11; John 4.5-42

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THE wilderness of Sin referred to in Exodus 17 makes a marvellous Lenten theme — or at least it would do, if only it was “sin” instead of “Sin”: a state of humanity rather than a geographical location (close to Mount Sinai).

The English word “sin” is rooted in the idea of an offence, or wrong, not necessarily something religious at all; Latin (peccatum) likewise. I like the Greek best, because it hints at an idea that is more generous to human intentions: at the heart of hamartia is “going astray” or “making a mistake”. In the three readings, we see a spectrum of sinning, from wrong actions such as making a mistake (grumbling, lacking trust: Exodus) to a state of being (our inability to perfect ourselves: Romans) and a conversation that goes beyond the concept of sin by immersing us fully in the loving purposes of God (John).

“Sin” does not always mesh with our psychology-driven concept of ourselves. If nature has made us what we are, perhaps we are not responsible for either our own misdoings, or our happiness. But we can get past both nature and nurture, our genes and our upbringing, if we realise that Christ, who makes all things new, calls us to let go of the past, and take his guiding hand to walk into a future that we choose.

There is an aspect of our human nature which sometimes gets mixed up with our concept of sin, and it can lead to guilt, or a fear of looking within ourselves to find Christ, our inner teacher. That aspect is our appetites, or, we might say, our “drives”. We are governed by appetites that exist to ensure our survival. They have to be powerful in the way in which they influence — even direct — our lives. We can no more excise them from ourselves than we can decide that we want our heart to stop beating. But there is a dark side to every appetite which, instead of protecting us, can ruin us.

Among the chief physical appetites are hunger, thirst, and sex. This Gospel has something to say about all three; and to do so it moves with breathtaking speed. We start from the simplest material we know, which falls freely on us from above, and rises up from beneath our feet, and springs miraculously from the desert rock. Then, moments later, it transforms into a dizzying metaphysical vision of eternal life. A similar shift takes place from the need for simple sustenance (“Rabbi, eat something”: John 4.31) to the truest source of life (“My food is to do the will of him who sent me”: 4.34).

The appetites of hunger and thirst are often sources of anxiety. As such, they are fixed in our minds as difficulties, as problems to be solved. Water would not come so easily to mind as an image of God’s generosity if we had no taps in our houses, if we had to fetch, carry, or pump our own water every day, like the Samaritan woman (with Genesis 24.15-20). Cain, the tiller of the ground, reaped the fruits of Adam and Eve’s sowing (Genesis 3.17-19, 4.2; John 4.37): it took the “sweat of his brow” to keep body and soul together.

Likewise, all kinds of excessive interest in what we eat — not just the gross excess of gluttony — can lead us into sin. C. S. Lewis makes the point beautifully with his finnicky eater in The Screwtape Letters (Letter 17). Our modern fascination with what I think of as “food porn” might have surprised him, but the misdirected appetite would not.

Sex is also an appetite that gets some attention in John 4, albeit in a more allusive way. Just as in the story of the woman caught in adultery, so here Jesus does not condemn the woman; but John shows how Jesus manages our going astray. He tries her with a question, which gives her options in replying: she can tell the truth; she can conceal the truth; or she can justify the truth (John 4.16-18).

She chooses right: to tell the truth. And then Jesus reveals that he knew the answer already. So, why ask? Surely because he is giving her a chance (he is always giving us chances) to be honest about herself. No wonder she goes home saying that he told her everything she ever did.

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