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Wednesday, March 23, 2011
Lectionary Scriptures: Exodus 17:1-7, Psalm 95:1-11, Romans 5:1-111, John 4:5-42

Finding a way to deal with this week’s texts has not been easy.

Working with Bible study groups I have sometimes invited the group to do a “naive” reading of the text, noticing phrases that seemed to “leap” out at them, eliciting some response from them, reminding them of something that has happened in their own history. It is not always necessary to come at a scripture armed with “scholarly” background.

Here’s what you’re going to get this week: first—an overview of the texts; second, some phrases to which my own “naive” reading responded, with an invitation to you to reflect further on them—or find your own; third, a listing of three possible themes.

Exodus 17:1-7—A story about the Israelites wandering in the wilderness. (vs. 1) They get thirsty and begin to complain. They begin to think maybe they were better off when they were back in Egypt. (vss. 1-3)

We might reflect on the human tendency to complain when the road to freedom gets tough, when resources run thin. We sometimes want to go back to a place where we at least knew where things stood. The freedom fighters in various African countries may at times feel like these wandering Israelites. Maybe we shouldn’t have started out on this endeavor! Someone once asked, “Why do people prefer known hells to unknown heavens?”

At any rate, water comes from a rock and the people’s thirst is slaked. (vss. 5-6) Note that the place is called “Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?’”

Psalm 95:1-11—The Psalms became the hymnbook for worship in the Temple. This Psalm would probably have been sung as the congregation processed in at the beginning of worship. “O come, let us sing to the Lord; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation! Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!” (vss. 1-2) Suddenly the priest speaks with a word of warning, reminding the congregants of what happened in the wilderness. “Do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah in the wilderness . . . (vs. 8) Along with joyous songs, there needs to be heartfelt devotion. In the wilderness, they were “a people whose hearts go astray . . .” (vs. 10) Worshiping God is not to be a time of indecisive wandering in the wilderness.

Romans 5:1-11—The epistle to the Romans is, among other things, a lengthy, more or less systematic, development of Paul’s theology, written in the later years of his ministry. He is making his first trip to Rome. The letter introduces him and his theology to the Christian community there, seeking their support for further missionary work he wishes to undertake in Spain.

These verses deal most specifically with the kind of love which is willing to die even for an enemy, with Jesus being the prime example of that love. “ . . . rarely,” Paul writes, “will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ dies for us.” (vss. 7-8) Verse ten talks about us being “reconciled to God” “while we were enemies.” There’s neither time nor space to place this all in the context of the entirety of Paul’s theology as spelled out in this epistle. For now, in a time when the conflict of “enemies” is all around us, it is sufficient to let Jesus’ example remind us that “enemies” can ultimately only be dealt with effectively through the power of generous and gracious love. Our recent readings have taken us through the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. (Matthew 5:43-45)

John 4:5-42—The Gospel lesson, 38 verses long, is all one story, but the story is about a conversation that ranges over a variety of rich and deep topics.

John’s Gospel differs from the other three. Rather than simply telling the story of Jesus and his teaching (although Matthew, Mark, and Luke each bring unique perspectives and emphases), this gospel is more like a sermon with the stories told as illustrations. It was looking at “John” in this way that made me begin to think of all of today’s readings as “Illustrations in Search of a Sermon.”

The conversation is with a Samaritan women which begins when Jesus asks her for a drink of water. He should not have spoken to her at all. Jews and Samaritans, although having shared some common history, had diverged and weren’t on speaking terms. She would have been considered “unclean.” (vs. 9) Furthermore, she was a woman. A proper Jewish man never would have spoken to an unaccompanied woman in this setting, much less engaged in a theological discussion with her.

The topics of conversation include the water of eternal life/living water (vss. 10-15) and the proper place to worship (vss. 19-24). Jesus says, “ . . . the hour is coming, and is now here, when true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” (vss. 23-24)

After the conversation, the woman goes back to her city and says, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!’ (vs. 29) The story ends with many Samaritans believing, saying to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.” (vss.39-42)

Words and phrases that catch my attention:

From Exodus 17:7—“Is the Lord among us or not?”

From Psalm 95:7—“ . . . we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.”

From Romans 5:3-5—“ . . . suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope . . .”

From John 4:29—“Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!”—What does it mean and how does it feel when someone really knows us fully, understands who we really are, totally “gets’ us?

Reflect on these—or choose your own words and phrases from the various readings.

Finally, some possible themes:

Living Water—Dealt with in both Exodus and John

Crossing barriers—“Enemies” in Romans, “Samaritans” in John, “Hardened hearts” in Exodus and the Psalm

Endurance—Exodus, Psalm 95, and Romans

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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