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Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Lectionary Scriptures: Exodus 17:1-7, Psalm 95:1-11, Romans 5:1-11, John 4:5-42

This week’s lectionary readings lend themselves to discussions of water (and what we thirst after) and wilderness experiences, among other things.  Those are more or less (always more or less) what we discussed at the weekly lectionary breakfast, and I won’t get through this blog without touching upon them again.  Try reading these texts without doing so.

Behind them, of course, is the human condition.  Always, the human condition!  How can one go wrong with a topic as large as “Life Happens!”?  It reminds me of one of my managers and colleagues when I was on the national staff of the American Baptist Churches in the USA.  Whenever he was speaking and they wanted a title in advance, he told them “Good News!”  That way he could go almost anywhere he wanted.

So---I’m not sure whether to hang “Life Happens!” primarily on the Exodus reading or the epistle reading from Romans---or both.  In Exodus the Israelites are out there in the wilderness complaining---again.  Sure, the story is about water and about God’s provision for our thirst both literally and metaphorically, but today I notice the complaining.

“The people quarreled with Moses.”  (Exodus 17:2)  Here they are out in the wilderness and “there was no water to drink.”  (vs. 1)  I’d probably complain too.  We humans often have a tendency to complain when the going gets rough.  There’s the saying, “When the going gets rough, the tough get going.”  Some, I’m afraid just sit down and give up.  Even the tough may shout a few choice four-letter words.  The Israelites have done it before.  The previous chapter begins with complaining also, this time about food.  “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”  (Exodus 16:3)  When finally they reach the point of entering the land of Canaan, they send out spies, most of whom bring back a scary report about the giants in the land---and the people complain. (See Numbers 13:25-14:4)  It is here that they are condemned to spend another forty years wandering in the wilderness so that most of them will never see the Promised Land.  (See Numbers 14:5-38)

Hard times come to most of us at one time or another.  They came to Paul.  In this week’s reading from Romans he “boasts” about his sufferings, as he does on other occasions.  In II Corinthians 11:24-28 he says, Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one.  Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked.  And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches.”  Paul knew how to complain, or “boast.”  In our reading from Romans, the things he endures are built into a summary theology.  “ . . . suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”  (Romans 1-5)

Now, I don’t want to offer platitudes or suggest that we just have to buck up and get on with it.  Too often those in the midst of great loss or suffering have been “comforted” with the suggestion that they will find growth in the midst of these experiences.  When we are in such a situation, what we may need most is a hug.

I would like to suggest, though, that we are ultimately called to find God in such times, because God is there---in the wilderness.  Wilderness, in the Bible, is a place where people find God, are guided by God, are pushed beyond the limits of all comfort and support and resources and discover the possibility of going on.  They reach deep within and discover that there is a divine spirit at work, empowering them from within.

In the Romans passage, it is a spirit of love.  I don’t want, today, to pursue Paul’s various attempts to interpret the meaning of Jesus’ death on a cross, or the various interpretations that have grown up in church life (along with their abuses) over the years.  What he gives us here, what Jesus gave us, is a picture of love.  In this case it is not of a father who gives up his son, a troubling image if one thinks seriously about it, but of one who is willing to choose to lay down his life---not just for a friend, but for one who is sometimes thought of as an enemy.  (See Romans 5:10)   “ . . . rarely will anyone die for a righteous person---though perhaps for a good person someone might actually die.”  (vs. 7)  We read stories of parents risking their lives for children.  Last night on Chicago Fire a father covered his family with his body during a fire.  He died, but the family lived.  And there are professionals who routinely risk their lives.  “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.”  (vs. 8)

Life happens.  We complain.  But at the deepest level there is love at work which will buoy us up and carry us through.  Sound Pollyannaish?  I’m not suggesting that things will go easy, that troubles will soon and miraculously pass---only that we seek to find the heart of God even in those times.  There may be long dry spells in the wilderness but “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us . . .”  (vss. 3-4)

Life happens.  Many responses are possible.  My wish would be that hope and love would be at the top of the list of possibilities.  I’ve just finished reading Barbara Kingsolver’s book, Animal Dreams.  In that book Hallie writes a letter (from Nicaragua during the time of contra war there) to her sister Cosima.  Hallie, keeping going against great odds, says to her sister, “The very least you can do in your life is to figure out what you hope for.  The most you can do is live inside that hope, running down its hallways, touching the walls on both sides.”  I’m told that Barbara Kingsolver features those words on her website.  When asked about them in an interview, she says, “I would say that I’m a hopeful person, although not necessarily optimistic.  The pessimist would say, ‘It’s going to be a terrible winter; we’re all going to die.’  The optimist would say, ‘Oh, it’ll be all right; I don’t think it’ll be that bad.’  The hopeful person would say, ‘Maybe someone will still be alive in February, so I’m going to put some potatoes in the root cellar just in case.’ . . . Hope is a mode of survival.  I think hope is a mode of resistance.  Hope is how parents get through the most difficult parts of their kids’ teenaged years.  Hope is how a cancer patient endures painful treatments.  Hope is how people on a picket line keep showing up.  If you look at hope that way, it’s not a state of mind but something we actually do with our hearts and hands, to navigate ourselves through the difficult passages.”

In the Bible, places of significant encounter are often given a name.  At the end of the Exodus reading, we are told, “He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?’”  (Exodus 17:7)  Psalm 95 recalls that encounter.  God says, “Do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah in the wilderness, when your ancestors tested me, and put me to the proof . . .”  (Psalm 95:8-9)  Would that more such places in our lives could be called “Hope”!

Perhaps the Gospel reading is about a place called hope.  It is, among other things, about water again.  Two needy people meet at a well.  Jesus is “tired out by his journey” (John 4:6) and he meets a Samaritan woman who has lived through five husbands and is now alone.  (vss. 7, 16-18)  By rights they shouldn’t have had anything to do with each other.  The woman herself asks, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (vs. 9.  The verse adds, by way of explanation, in parentheses:  “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.”)

The lengthy reading includes conversation between them on several topics.  The first is water.  Jesus speaks to her of water which he will give and people will never be thirsty again.  “The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”  (vss. 13-14)  Samaritans and Jews differed on where they should worship, so she asks for clarification and Jesus speaks of an hour “when the 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)

Hope wells up in this woman and she runs off to share with the people of Sychar, her home.  The punch line is in verse 42 after Jesus has spent a few days with those people.  They say 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)

Life happens.  Pay attention.  It’s not about which church we worship in, not even about this teaching or that teaching, or what someone has told us.  Inspiration may come in and through all that, but most of all it comes from the struggles and joys of each moment, moments where we find truth and hope and a spirit of self-giving divine love at work!


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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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