If You Hear His Voice

For Sunday March 23, 2014
The Third Sunday in Lent

Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year A)

Exodus 17:1–7

Exodus 17:1-7

17:1 The whole Israelite community set out from the Desert of Sin, traveling from place to place as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink.

2 So they quarreled with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses replied, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you put the Lord to the test?”

3 But the people were thirsty for water there, and they grumbled against Moses. They said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?”

4 Then Moses cried out to the Lord, “What am I to do with these people? They are almost ready to stone me.”

5 The Lord answered Moses, “Go out in front of the people. Take with you some of the elders of Israel and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go.

6 I will stand there before you by the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it for the people to drink.” So Moses did this in the sight of the elders of Israel.

7 And he called the place Massah and Meribah because the Israelites quarreled and because they tested the Lord saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”

Psalm 95

Psalm 95

1 Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord;
let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation.

2 Let us come before him with thanksgiving
and extol him with music and song.

3 For the Lord is the great God,
the great King above all gods.

4 In his hand are the depths of the earth,
and the mountain peaks belong to him.

5 The sea is his, for he made it,
and his hands formed the dry land.

6 Come, let us bow down in worship,
let us kneel before the Lord our Maker;

7 for he is our God
and we are the people of his pasture,
the flock under his care.

   Today, if only you would hear his voice,

8 “Do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah,
as you did that day at Massah in the wilderness,

9 where your ancestors tested me;
they tried me, though they had seen what I did.

10 For forty years I was angry with that generation;
I said, ‘They are a people whose hearts go astray,
and they have not known my ways.’

11 So I declared on oath in my anger,
‘They shall never enter my rest.’”

Romans 5:1–11

Romans 5:1-11

5:1 Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,

2 through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God.

3 Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance;

4 perseverance, character; and character, hope.

5 And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.

6 You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.

7 Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die.

8 But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

9 Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him!

10 For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!

11 Not only is this so, but we also boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

John 4:5–42

John 4:5-42

4:5 So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph.

6 Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon.

7 When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?”

8 (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.)

9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)

10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”

11 “Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water?

12 Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?”

13 Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again,

14 but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”

16 He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.”

17 “I have no husband,” she replied. Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband.

18 The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.”

19 “Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet.

20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”

21 “Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.

22 You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews.

23 Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.

24 God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”

25 The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”

26 Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.”

27 Just then his disciples returned and were surprised to find him talking with a woman. But no one asked, “What do you want?” or “Why are you talking with her?”

28 Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people,

29 “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?”

30 They came out of the town and made their way toward him.

31 Meanwhile his disciples urged him, “Rabbi, eat something.”

32 But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about.”

33 Then his disciples said to each other, “Could someone have brought him food?”

34 “My food,” said Jesus, “is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work.

35 Don’t you have a saying, ‘It’s still four months until harvest’? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest.

36 Even now the one who reaps draws a wage and harvests a crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together.

37 Thus the saying ‘One sows and another reaps’ is true.

38 I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labor.”

39 Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I ever did.”

40 So when the Samaritans came to him, they urged him to stay with them, and he stayed two days.

41 And because of his words many more became believers.

42 They said to the woman, “We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world.”

           It's well and good to talk about liberation from oppression, whether from Pharaoh, Herod, or some modern day dictator. That's the theologically correct rhetoric among Christians. But that's not always how the story unfolds. We human beings are much more complex.

           In Exodus 17, the ancient Hebrews were barely out of bondage in Egypt when they begged Moses to go back. After 430 years and ten generations, some people had grown to love their enslavement.

           After the Exodus, after crossing the Red Sea on dry land, and after songs of celebration by Moses and Miriam for all God's mighty acts of deliverance, the liberated Hebrews set out. The very first story about them, though, describes how they demanded a return to their status quo in Egypt.

           Slavery had its consolations, whereas freedom was precarious.

Wall painting from the tomb of Rekmire, 15th Century BCE.
Wall painting from the tomb of Rekmire, 15th Century BCE.

           The Exodus 17 story is retold in Numbers, Deuteronomy, and the Psalms, including Psalm 95 for this week. The people complained, grumbled, tested God, and "broke faith" with their Liberator. As is often the case in the Bible, the place was memorialized with a name to mark its significance. Moses called it Meribah, which is Hebrew for the verb "to find fault."

           They faulted Moses: "Is the Lord among us or not?"

           They tested God: "Where is the proof of your presence?"

           We shouldn't be too hard on the Hebrews. They faced harsh conditions in the desert. They only did what many of us do.

           Clinical psychologists tell us that some victims embrace their abusive relationships and form emotional bonds with their abusers — battered wives, members of cults, participants in hazing rituals, and, most famously, hostages who exhibit the Stockholm Syndrome of empathizing with their captors.

           We don't like to talk about it, but historians tell us similar things about blacks in slavery and prisoners in concentration camps. For some people, playing it safe as a strategy of survival is easier than the demands of freedom from captivity.

           I experienced a version of the oppressed's preference for bondage when we lived in Moscow from 1991–1995. When economic chaos followed the demise of the Soviet Union, and ruined the lives and life savings of average citizens, people longed for the bad old days. ""I'm not educated," said our helper Vera, "but things were predictable under Brezhnev."

           Andrée Seu wonders whether we really want to be free from our bondages. She recalls a scene in The Great Divorce by CS Lewis in which a man is plagued day and night by an awful lizard (lust) on his shoulder. But when an angel offers to slay the lizard, he objects.

Mural painting from the tomb of Khnumhotep II, 1910–1874 BCE.
Mural painting from the tomb of Khnumhotep II, 1910–1874 BCE.

           Lewis then observes: "There is always something they insist on keeping, even at the price of misery. There is always something they prefer to joy — that is, to reality… The time comes when, though the pleasure becomes less and less and the craving fiercer and fiercer, and though he knows that joy can never come that way, yet he prefers to joy the mere fondling of unappeasable lust, and would not have it taken from him. He'd fight to the death to keep it. He'd like well to be able to scratch: but even when he can scratch no more, he'd rather itch than not."

           In his new book of poetry Idiot Psalms (2014), Scott Cairns takes himself to task for his Lenten lethargy. He's full of good intentions unfulfilled. In a downward spiral, each successive verse is worse than the previous one. The poem is called "Lenten Complaint."

The breakfast was adequate, the fast
itself sub-par. We gluttons, having
modified our habits only somewhat
within the looming Lenten dark, failed
quite to shake our thick despair, an air
that clamped the heart, made moot the prayer.
As dim disciples having seen the light,
we supplied to it an unrelenting gloom.

Wipe your chin. I'm dying here
in Omaha, amid the flat, surrounded
by the beefy, land-locked generations,
the river, and the river's rancid shore.

O what I wouldn't give for a lifting,
cool salt breeze, a beach, a Labrador.

           There was nothing spartan about his breakfast; it was more than enough. His fast was more sub-par than self-sacrificial. Lent is a time of new beginnings, but Cairns admits that he changed his ways "only somewhat." As a "glutton" and a "dim disciple," he failed to "shake our thick despair." Having seen the light in the Lenten dark, he nevertheless overshadowed it with his oppressive gloom.

           In the last verse, Cairns admits defeat and throws in the towel. He hates where he's at, he doesn't like the people he's with or their land, and he longs for more fortunate circumstances. He'd rather be carefree on a beach with his dog than concerned with Lenten disciplines.

           Like Exodus 17, the gospel in John 4 is a story about water — the Samaritan woman at the well. In both stories, talk of physical hardship (fatigue and thirst) gives way to descriptions of spiritual sustenance. Jesus changes the conversation about literal water to one about spiritual nourishment. The former, however good and necessary, is no substitute for the latter.

           "Everyone who drinks this water," says Jesus, "will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water that I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to everlasting life."    

Mural painting from the tomb of Nakht, c. 1400 BCE.
Mural painting from the tomb of Nakht, c. 1400 BCE.

           Lent is an opportunity to understand our physical appetites not as something bad, but within the greater perspective of something better.

           In another poem called "Slow Boat to Byzantium," Cairns describes eager pilgrims who are waiting to board their boat to the famous monastery of Mount Athos. When they get to that sacred place, they can finally and fully embrace their spiritual disciplines.

           But their boat is anchored in a shallow cove and going nowhere. The pilgrims get irritated when such mundane matters delay their spiritual quest. After another boat ferries them to their destination, Cairns concludes with some wise advice.

If any of this frank, confusing clatter
has distracted you from prayer, the odds are good
the whole endeavor is already somewhat

compromised. Take heart. These ups and downs will not
abate, so you will surely find in time
a practice less dependent on good fortune.

           Don't pine for the past — the bad old days were bad. Don't wait for a better future. Don't grumble about the present circumstances.

           Rather, "Today, if you would hear His voice, / Do not harden your hearts as at Meribah, / As in the day of Massah in the wilderness; / When your fathers tested Me, / They tried Me, though they had seen My work." (Psalm 95:7–9).

Image credits: (1) BlackJews.org; and (2,3) Resume.Bible.Free.fr.