Lent 3, Year A
Texts: Ex 17.1-7, Rom 5.1-11; Jn 4.5-42
A man is hurrying down a crowded street to a very important meeting. Around the corner, coming the opposite direction, comes a woman, also in a rush to be somewhere. He is talking on his cell phone, she is looking at her watch. They get to the corner at the same time… and collide. Briefcases are dropped, papers are strewn, and as they make apologies to one another and bend down to pick up their things, their eyes meet. We all know what happens next.
The Bible was written before romantic comedies had been invented, but this scene still existed, though in a slightly different form. In the Bible, when somebody wanted to convey that two people were going to fall in love, the setting was not a busy street corner, but a well. The woman would come to a well to draw water, and there she found a man instead, and we all know what happens next.
Zipporah met Moses at a well, where he fended off some shepherds so she and her sisters could water the flocks. Isaac’s father, Abraham, sent a servant to go find his son a wife, and that servant met Rebekah at a well. Isaac and Rebekah’s son Joseph met his beloved Rachel at a well—this very well, as it happens. So when this unnamed Samaritan woman meets Jesus at a well, we all know what happens next. Kind of.
In this common trope, the woman goes to the well to get something she needs (water) and comes away with something she needs even more (a husband).* The Samaritan woman, we soon learn, has been married 5 times and is now living with a man who is not her husband. The story has sometimes been told as though she were immoral for this reason. The reality, though, is that she has either been divorced or widowed 5 times. If she has been divorced, it may be because she is unable to produce children, another shameful stigma she must carry. Since she is not married to the man she is currently with, we may assume that he is unwilling to marry her, perhaps because 5 other men didn’t want her.
In short, we get the impression that this is a woman who carries with her a great amount of grief, shame, and hurt. The fact that she is coming to the well at noon might support this idea. Normally, the women of town would all go to the well together in the morning or evening when it was cool; yet here this woman has come by herself at noon—when the day is hottest. It would seem that she might be avoiding them. Whether that is her choice or theirs, she is isolated.
She stands in stark contrast to Jesus’ conversation partner from last week. Nicodemus was a male Jew and, as a Pharisee, was probably a learned man. She is a female Samaritan, and for all we know an uneducated peasant. Nicodemus, who came after dark (perhaps so he would not be seen by his fellow Pharisees), never quite gets what Jesus is trying to tell him. John makes a sideways rebuke of Nicodemus and others like him when he says, “The light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.” (Jn 3.19-20)
This Samaritan woman, however, encounters Jesus in the full light of day, at a well, where according to the popular culture narrative of her time she might well find a man to rescue her from her situation by whisking her away to be his bride. We know, of course, that Jesus does not marry her, but he does see her. I don’t mean he merely sees her, but that he sees her—all of her. Even in this brief, chance encounter, Jesus can see who she is, and can tell her all about herself.
Her neighbors know all about her, too, and that is why she avoids them. However, when Jesus says, “you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband,” it is not with pity or judgement, but with sincerity, perhaps even empathy. Where others in her town might say that with a sidelong glance or lowered eyes, Jesus asks her for a drink of water from her jug, breaking all the rules about how men are not supposed to talk to strange women in public, and Jews are not supposed to share dishes with Samaritans.
In the trope, the woman goes to the well and comes away with a husband. In this story she goes away with neither (notice that she left her jar to run back into town), but she does leave with something more important than either. Nicodemus was a privileged Pharisee; he could not understand what Jesus was trying tell him because he didn’t think he needed what Jesus was offering. On the other hand, this woman knows how thirsty she is—not just for water, not even for a husband who will love and support her, but for real, life-changing relationship with God. Nicodemus, who came at night, could not see his own need, and presumably left confused. In the light of day, this woman could see that Jesus was offering her something she needed desperately.
If there is a common theme in our scripture readings this morning, it may be that in each case, God gives what people need even when we don’t know we need it. At Rephidim, the Israelites thought they needed water, but what they really needed was reassurance that God would not abandon them. The Samaritan woman thought she needed water, too, but found that what she needed more was somebody who would love her fully for who she was. Paul tells us that, whether we know it or not, we need to be reconciled to God, and God has already accomplished this reconciliation through the blood of Jesus. Notice that Paul does not say through his death, but through his blood.
In the Hebrew way of thinking, the life force of a creature resides in its blood. When Paul says that we are reconciled to God through the blood of Christ, he is not indicating that Jesus died as punishment for our sins, but rather that through his blood he shares his life with us —the life of God’s only, beloved Son. He shares with us the life of one who can see a person truly and fully for who they really are and love them unconditionally. When he says, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, shed for you and for all people for the forgiveness of sins,” perhaps this is what he means: that when we drink “in remembrance of him,” his blood gives us the ability to see people as he sees them, to love as he loves. To be seen is to be loved, and to be loved is to be seen.
Jesus sees the woman for who she is, and loves her, even daring to ask a drink of her, to treat her like a person rather than a strange woman or a Samaritan, even talks theology with her. But the point at which she receives what she needs—that mysterious ‘living water’ he keeps talking about—is the point at which he tells her who he is, helps her to see him. “I know Messiah is coming,” she says, to which he replies, “I am he.” But that’s not really what he says. What he really says is “I AM,” recalling the holy name spoken to Moses from the burning bush at Sinai, the holy name that led the people through the wilderness, that gave them safe passage though the sea and provided manna from the sky and water from a rock. When the woman sees that this is not just a strange-but-kindly Jew, but I AM—the God of Abraham and Jacob and Moses—who sees her and loves her, she leaves both man and jar and runs to share the news. And, of course, we all know what happens next.
Her experience of Messiah is so life-changing, so fulfilling, that she cannot keep it to herself. She may have felt isolated from her community, but that did not stop her from running to share the news with them: “Come and see! See a God who loves and accepts me and all of us for who we are, a God who is with us!” Jesus offers her “living water,” and water is called living when it is flowing, like in a river or bubbling up in a fountain. Living water is the opposite of stagnant water that grows stale and brackish. The living water she receives from Jesus bubbles up inside her and spills out so that she cannot help but share it. And we all know what happens next: when the townsfolk come they, too, receive this water. They, too, are changed by their encounter with Messiah, and they say to her, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe: we have heard for ourselves and we know that this is truly the Savior of the World.”
This is a story about a woman who came to a well looking for water and found something better. Not a husband, like we might expect from the setup, but an experience with I AM, a life-giving encounter with God’s Messiah. Like her, when we gather here, we meet God in the flesh—the embodied presence of I AM. We encounter this God in the most unexpected places: in bread and wine, in water and word, in the God-given and gathered community around us, in the miraculous water from a rock in the desert, in a chance encounter at a well, even nailed to a cross. Our God meets us in these simple, sometimes even god-forsaken places; and we all know what happens next…
*In the culture of the ancient Near East, since women had little agency of their own, a husband was a woman’s primary means of social, economic and physical safety. Things are thankfully different in our own context, but at the time this story was told, it would have been a commonly accepted thought that this woman needed a good husband to save her.
Lent 1, Year A
Texts: Gen 2.15-17, 3.1-7; Rom 5.12-19; Matt 4.1-11
The word “temptation” has a negative connotation; it brings to mind someone or something intentionally trying to seduce one into doing something they know they shouldn’t. The words “testing” and “trial” are not much better. They both conjure images of evaluation; of passing or failing, being acquitted or convicted, each with their subsequent reward or punishment attached.
Our vocabulary makes it hard to know what to do with these two stories of God testing or tempting people, including God’s own Son. We get very uneasy with the idea of God tempting anyone and we come up with all sorts of creative explanations for how God is at work in these stories; or sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we are simply left dwelling with the troubling image of God tempting human beings that God created out of some cold curiosity or sadistic pleasure. Why would God act in such a way? Why would God allow—or cause—Jesus to be tested like he was? If God posted a cherub with a flaming sword to keep Adam from the Tree of Life after the fall, why not have the cherub guard the Tree of Knowledge before the fall?
The ancients had a little richer vocabulary than we do, and didn’t seem to have the same semantic problems we do with these stories. The word used in Matthew’s gospel to describe Jesus’ ordeal can have the negative connotations of “temptation” or “test”—to try to cause someone to sin—but it also can also have more positive connotations, like proving the quality of or refining something.
In this sense, testing can be a way of preparation. Think of it this way: if you are preparing for a written driving test or the SATs, you might take practice tests. As we go through school, we face a myriad of tests which are intended not only to evaluate our progress, but to teach us, to prepare us for life beyond graduation. In the same way, the tests we see in Scripture are not God trying to trip us up or see if we are good enough, but are often milestones along the way to what God has in store.
This is why one reason why testing (temptation) has historically been such a big part of the Church’s Lenten practice. Those who choose to give up chocolate or sugar or whatever don’t do it so that they can lose weight, but in order to experience temptation and to practice resisting it. The idea is that if we can practice resisting that desire for instant gratification in small ways we might be able to better prepare ourselves to resist temptation in larger ways that might help us be better followers of Christ.
The story in Genesis shows how we are prone to give in to temptation. Even though God told the humans not to eat from the tree, they couldn’t get past how beautiful it was, how desirable its wisdom was. While the snake puts the idea in their heads, they choose to disobey; and it was that disobedience, Paul says, spread to all humanity—and through that disobedience came death.
Just as the Genesis story is about how prone we are to failure, the story in Matthew’s gospel proves that we are capable of more. In the wilderness, Jesus shows us that when we trust in God it is possible for human beings to choose life and obedience. When he was offered the same opportunity as Adam and Eve—to trust in his own authority and power rather than God’s—he refused. Not only that, but Jesus was weak and starving; Adam and Even wanted for nothing and still made a poor choice.
As all biblical stories do, these stories both operate on multiple levels. On the one hand, the story of Adam and Eve is a just-so story about why we make bad choices. It’s in our DNA; we can’t help it. Jesus’ ability to resist temptation in the wilderness shows us why he is worth listening to; even at his weakest, he passed the test that Adam and Eve failed.
However, there is more at work here than this. The word “Adam” literally means “human” in Hebrew. The deeper truth to which both of these stories point is that we face similar decisions every day of our lives; decisions where we are faced with two options: one leading to life, one to death. On one side is Adam, the archetype of humanity, showing us the near inevitability of our failure; on the other is Jesus—also a man not totally unlike Adam—proving that we have the ability to make the right choice.
Taken together, these stories show us the arc of a narrative that describes how God is preparing humanity for the kingdom of heaven. Each of these temptations—these tests—is helping prepare humankind for what is to come. It was Adam’s failure that set the stage for Jesus’ success. Adam the human failed in the garden, Christ the human Son of God succeeded in the wilderness, and now as we each face the same tests they did, we learn from the examples of each and, with God’s help, we corporately continue to move closer and closer to the vision of wholeness that God has always had for all creation.
None of us is born a finished product. Throughout our lives—right up until we take our final breath—we are always growing and changing. Creation is the same way, evolving over generations and across millennia, always in a process of transforming into something new. It only makes sense that God created humanity to be the same way. Our faith is not a destination, but a journey: throughout the course of human history, we have always been and always will be journeying through the wilderness, facing new and different temptations.
Even Jesus himself—God’s own son—had to be prepared for his work with the trials in the wilderness. The question at stake in these temptations is not whether he is really the Son of God, but what it means to be the Son of God. He could have created bread from stones, feeding not only his own starving body, but the whole world, taking away hunger and poverty forever, but he chose instead to rely on the power of God’s word for sustenance. He could have leapt from the temple and proved to himself and all who saw that God would rescue him from the worst that could befall, but he chose instead to trust that God would protect him if and when the time came, that neither he nor anyone else needed that proof. He could have ruled the whole world as he saw fit, but he chose instead to trust that God will—in spite of all evidence to the contrary—accomplish what God has set out to do from the beginning: God will redeem all creation in God’s own way and in God’s own time.
Having been prepared by his testing in the wilderness, Jesus was able to preach the coming of God’s kingdom and remain faithful to God’s vision through every obstacle. Even death on a cross held no fear for him, because he knew that God’s work would still be accomplished in him. He shows us through his life, death and resurrection the freedom from fear and insecurity that comes from trusting fully in God. As we journey through Lent and the rest of our lives his example of a life lived freely in God’s care is a promise to us of what lies ahead.
Even when we inevitably fail our own tests along this wilderness journey, we know that God is with us, sustaining us, like God sustained Christ. Like Adam and Eve, even when our failures bring dire consequences, we know that God remains with us. “Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all,” Paul writes, “For just as by [Adam’s] disobedience the many were made sinners, so by [Jesus’] obedience the many will be made righteous.”
We are tested and tempted daily; sometimes we succeed, sometimes we fail; but with every success—and every failure—God is preparing us and shaping us into the kind of people that God has created us to become. The free gift of God’s grace means that God takes even our failures—failures like our rejection of God’s Son on the cross—and uses them to bring us closer to God’s promised vision of wholeness for creation. “[T]he free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many.”
Christ has shown us not what we are capable of, but what God is capable of through us. From the beginning, all we Adams and Eves have known failure like our parents in the garden before us; but Jesus in the wilderness and on the cross, shows us how God uses even our failures to bring about God’s ultimate success. Along our wilderness journey, as God prepares us for the kingdom of heaven, Jesus has given us his own self to sustain and nourish us. The failure of the Old Adam within each of us brings death, but in baptism we have already shared that death with Jesus. Raised to new life with him, we are now free to follow Christ without fear of what happens when we fail.
The choices we make are still important, but not because we will die if we are wrong. The choices we make along the way are important because, without the threat of death hanging over us, we are freed to boldly follow wherever God my lead—even through the cross—knowing that eternal life is ours through Christ who saves us.
Epiphany 7, Year A
Texts: Lev 19.1-2, 9-16; 1 Cor 3.10-11, 16-23; Matt 5.38-48
“Be perfect,” he says. No pressure. You might recall that when Moses first delivered the law to Israel, he said, “Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ … No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.” (Deut 30.11-14) As Jesus interprets this law, he seems to be moving it further and further away, making it less likely that we could ever do it. What good is a law that can’t be followed?
We have a saying in modern English: “Nobody’s perfect.” We are fully cognizant of the fact that despite—and even sometimes because of—our best intentions, we screw up. We humans are broken, imperfect beings, incapable of perfection; and yet, here is Jesus, the Son of the God who made us, telling us to do just that: be perfect.
How many of us in reading these last two gospel lessons have recognized our own failure to live out these commands? If you’ve been divorced, if you’ve ever been angry or looked at someone with “lust in your heart,” if you’ve ever been hurt and struck back in anger (either physically or verbally) then you know just how hard it is to keep these laws that Jesus gives. For us, they may as well be up in heaven; they are out of our reach. “Be perfect,” he says. Sure, Jesus, no problem…
Now, there are some interesting things going on in this sermon that our defensiveness before the text might keep us from recognizing. For example: “If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” Since striking someone on the right cheek with the right hand is a backhanded slap, this is an insult more than an injury; it was given by a superior to an inferior: a master to a slave, a parent to a child, a Roman to a Jew. To offer the left cheek requires the striker to hit with either an open palm or a closed fist, the way one equal strikes another. Turning the other cheek says in effect, “Try again; your attempt to demean me has failed. I refuse to give you the power to humiliate me.”
Also: “if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well.” Garments could be taken as payment for debt or penalty; but only the shirt (coat), not the cloak. To sue for somebody’s cloak was illegal, not least because if a defendant lost both shirt and cloak, they would be stark naked. Because of this, it is probably not intended to be understood literally. Jesus’ commandment here is more like a parable, like the story of Bishop Myriel in Les Miserables, who welcomes the shunned convict Jean Valjean with a feast set on his best silverware. When Valjean steals the silverware in the middle of the night and is caught, Myriel pretends that he gave Valjean the silver, and gives him also the candlesticks that he “forgot.”
Nevertheless, do not be fooled into thinking that we can soften or rationalize all these commands of Jesus and so be let off the hook. Two weeks ago, we heard Jesus himself say, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill… whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.” This sermon is Jesus’ first public speech that we hear in Matthew’s gospel. It is his inaugural address; it lays out the foundation of his teaching.
Throughout this sermon so far, Jesus has followed a formula: he has stated the law and affirmed it as good, and then expanded upon the law keeping the spirit of it, not just the letter. For example, “an eye for an eye” is a law given through Moses not to condone revenge, but to limit it. It was intended to restrict the use of violence to repay violence. Jesus takes the law a step further in God’s direction when he says “do not resist the evildoer,” commanding his disciples to reject any form of violence, even what is their right due under the law. “Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect” is not just the last in a long line of impossible commands, it is the main thesis of this whole sermon.
If we read this sermon as a list of things we must do in order to be in good standing with God, we will forever find ourselves falling short. Instead, look to the preacher, the one who says, “I have come not to abolish, but to fulfill…” Jesus is Immanuel—God-With-Us; and he is, like his Father in heaven, perfect. He preaches in this sermon about eschewing violence and not resisting evil, about being slapped, having one’s clothes taken, and being compelled to serve the Romans. At the conclusion of his own life, he makes his words concrete: he eschews violence (26.51-4), he does not resist evil (26.36-56; 21.12-14); he is struck (26.67); he has his garments taken (27.28, 35); and his cross is carried by one compelled by Roman order (27.52).
It is no accident that Jesus’ own death so neatly matches the pattern of his first sermon. He shows us that, in fact, these commands are not too far away from us; he himself does them, proving that they are within reach. To borrow the idea from Moses, we might say that he “goes up to heaven and gets them for us, so that we may hear and observe them.” Actually, he does not so much bring down the law as he brings down heaven itself.
What we miss so often in reading this sermon is that it is given in light of the reality that God’s own Son has come among us and that, in his own words, “the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (4.17) The kingdom of heaven is one in which anger has no place, where destructive human relationships cannot endure, in which there are no enemies, only neighbors. These are true not because God forbids them, but because they are not what God has intended for creation. Under God’s reign, these things are not expelled so much as they are healed; and Jesus’ message is that this reign has already begun, brought near by Immanuel.
This does not change the fact that life is still broken and messy, but it does remind us that the broken messiness is not the ultimate power, nor does it get the last word. These words of Jesus are not commandments so much as they are invitations to live in the light of God’s dawning reign. Bishop Myriel did not give Jean Valjean his candlesticks because Jesus commanded it, but because he had something so much greater than those silly candlesticks, something that could not be taken away, something that he wanted desperately to share even with the man who had stolen from him: the joy of God’s grace.
In this sermon, Jesus is not merely laying out more rules to follow, he is describing what the reign of God looks like and inviting us to participate in it. When he says, “be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect,” he’s not imposing an impossible standard for us to follow, he is offering us a gift. “Perfect” is, ironically, an imperfect translation of the word used by Jesus. The word in Greek means to be whole or complete or finished. It is Matthew’s Greek translation of the Hebrew word used in often in the Old Testament to describe what God requires of the Israelites: namely, that they serve God wholeheartedly, to be single-minded in their loyalty and devotion to the One God, just as God’s own self is one.
When Jesus says he comes to fulfill the law, he does not mean he has come to do it for us so we don’t have to, but rather that he has come to bring the law to perfection—wholeness—in us. “Be perfect” describes what God is doing to us: God perfects us—God makes us whole and complete, unafraid and unbound by the fear of anything that might happen to us or be asked of us because we know that we share in Christ’s resurrection. For us to “be perfect,” then, simply means to live out the reality of who we already are: we are children of our heavenly Father.
Jesus’ commands in this sermon are unreasonable and violate common sense because they point to another reality—the reality of God’s impending reign. What Jesus describes here is not what we must do in order to fulfill the spirit of God’s law; it is the Spirit of God’s law that is bestowed upon us, placed on our lips and written on our hearts at our baptism: the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge of fear of the LORD, the spirit of joy in God’s presence.
Jesus is telling us what God is doing for us, not what we need to do for God. His commandments are a challenge and an invitation to trust in what God is already doing, to lean into God’s reign. He has shown us what awaits those who do these things: though it cost him his life, he rose to eternal life—life that he now shares with us. What he has given us so abundantly cannot be lost. To borrow a line from an old, familiar hymn: “Were they to take our house, goods, honor, child or spouse; though life be wrenched away, they cannot win the day. The kingdom’s ours forever!”*
*The line is from Martin Luther’s famous hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” based on Psalm 46