Third Sunday of Lent, Year A
Exodus 17:3-7; Psalm 95:1-2, 6-7, 8-9; Romans 5:1-2, 5-8; John 4:5-42
The first reading is a part of the Book of Exodus that purports to give a kind of travelogue of the journey of the Israelites to Mt. Sinai. It was a time of testing — God testing the Israelites. One might add that they did a lot of testing of God. There are three tests related to water and food. In the first test the Israelites after a three-day journey have come to the Wilderness of Shur, an area in what is today NE Egypt near the Mediterranean Sea. The water was bitter, unfit to drink. The Lord showed Moses a tree and commanded him to throw the tree into the water, “and the water became sweet.” Thus the first water-test — easily solved. The second test concerns food. As the journey toward Sinai continues, the Israelites arrived in an area called the Wilderness of Zin, a desert region southwest of the Dead Sea.
They longed for the tasty dishes of Egypt, wishing the Lord had just killed them in Egypt before beginning this miserable journey. They accuse Moses and Aaron of having a plan to lead them out into the wilderness to kill the whole people with hunger. The Lord hears their outcry, and fortunately his patience is not yet exhausted. He says, “I will rain bread from heaven,” but there were detailed stipulations about how and how much and when to gather this bread. The testing of the Israelites lay in the observance of these stipulations. The Lord supplied their craving for meat (protein) by sending quail. Not a bad deal — the basic ingredients of a modern sandwich. The third test — again a water-test. The location: Rephidim in the Wilderness of Sinai. There was no water to drink. They blamed Moses — that he had a plan to kill them and their cattle with thirst. Moses cried to the Lord. Moses still had his miraculous rod (staff) that had been the instrument to part the Nile. That’s awesome power! The Lord instructed Moses to stand on a certain rock, strike the rock with the rod, and water would flow from the rock. And so it was! The selection of this story for a Sunday of Lent somehow relates to the Season of Lent as a time of testing us. Will we submit to the Lord testing us, or will we test the Lord?
The Responsorial Psalm 95 was selected because it contains references to the two water tests of the Israelites at “Meribah and Massah in the wilderness.” The Hebrew words Meribah and Massah mean “dispute” and “temptation” respectively. The Psalm contains a warning in the people’s response, “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.” The last verses of the Psalm tell us that the Lord was quite upset with the way his people treated him after all he had done for them. Their punishment: none of the complainers would enter the place of rest (the Promised Land) the Lord had prepared for them.
The second reading is from the Letter to the Romans. Paul begins, “Since we have been justified by faith . . . .” God’s intervention in human affairs by accepting the death of Christ as a sacrifice of expiation (atonement?) for sins, displays God’s uprightness. This uprightness of God overflows to us and justifies us (makes us pleasing to God) when we connect to it through faith that God has done this. This is why, once we have given the assent of faith, “have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” This in turn gives us hope of glory, a firm hope because “the love of God has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” Paul notes how difficult it would be to die even for a good person. Yet Christ died for us while we were still helpless sinners. By this system of justification God proves his love for us. Paul would have been an outstanding German systematic theologian!
The gospel reading is the first of the three great RCIA gospels — Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well. There is too much to explain, so we can only choose a few points. The first point is the antagonistic relationship, sometimes deadly, between Jews and Samaritans. This has a long history which here has to be taken for granted. Jesus takes the initiative. He opens the conversation, reaching across long-established borders of hatred. In asking her for a drink from the deep well, the author of the gospel indulges in a favorite teaching device — the use of a “straight man.” In this case a straight woman. The straight man asks dumb questions, giving Jesus opportunity to teach by elevating the question to a higher level. In this case Jesus raises the level from water standing in the well to living (flowing) water. This water in turn is not water in a running stream. Those who drink this water will never thirst again. John’s gospel later reveals that the living water Jesus gives is the Holy Spirit. See John 7:37-39. An abrupt change of subject: “Go call your husband and come back.” She replies, “I have no husband.” Jesus reveals that she has had five husbands and the one she has now is not hers. A serial bride? Does John intend the five husbands to symbolize the five heathen tribes imported to the area after the Northern Kingdom fell to the Assyrians in 722 B.C.? They brought their own gods. Perhaps. The husband, although not hers, may symbolize Jesus himself who is leading her gradually into faith in him. But who knows?
The disciples return from a trip to the grocery and offer the acquired food to Jesus. He replies, “I have food to eat of which you do not know.” Now the disciples become the straight men, “Has anyone brought him food?” The dumb question brings elevation to a higher level, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me, to accomplish his work.” Immediately we find out what that work is. “You think the harvest will come in four months, but look up, and see the fields are already ripe.” What were they supposed to see? The Samaritan woman had gone back to her town and told everyone about her conversation with Jesus. So the harvest the disciples are supposed to be seeing is the whole Samaritan town coming out toward Jesus to meet him and welcome him to stay with them. He agrees. The outcome: the former enemies now proclaim Jesus “the Savior of the world.” He has breached established borders. His mission is no longer only to his own people, but to the world. There is much more to tease out of this story.