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Lent 3 - Desert Witnesses

Lent 3A: Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 95;

Romans 5:1-11; John 4:5-42

March 12, 2023

C. Partridge



Good Morning, St. Aidan’s, and welcome to the third Sunday of Lent. For over three weeks now we’ve been making our way through this season centered on eremos, the wilderness or – to emphasize the translation we’re dwelling with this year—the desert. We entered this terrain together on Ash Wednesday, remembering our mortality. Two weeks ago, we made our way with Jesus to the desert space of testing, a place where we are called not simply to survive or to resist temptation but with clarity and grounding to embody beauty, as Lisa da Silva shared with us. Last week we stood with Weston and his family as he affirmed his lived experience and identities. And in between these Sunday witnesses, we have been in spaces of rich conversation, in our cottage meetings and in our Wednesday evening formation series. This season is, as that series and our home Wilderness Kits emphasize, a space of desert spirituality that can speak to our own lived experiences of desert. As the Lent-plotted stories of the Israelites in their forty-year wandering, of Jesus in and beyond his 40-day sojourn, prepare us to embrace the Paschal Mystery, these stories invite us to embrace the Wisdom that meets us in the desert, the grace offered to us in the midst of deep challenge.

The readings we heard this morning are so rich and so intriguingly interconnected, it has been hard to choose which to lift up for our deeper consideration. As I sat with these readings this week, I was struck by how they tell a convergence of stories in which a person or people are challenged to receive God’s living water in the midst of the desert. The challenge itself is not simply the terrain or climate, but how we prepare for it, how we navigate it, and what makes us most vulnerable to its extreme qualities. In other words, the challenge is as much internal as it is external.

Our first reading from the seventeenth chapter of Exodus paints a picture of a community worn down and at the end of their rope, parched physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Their bodily needs lead the way: they have run out of water in a dangerously dry locale. They’re also starting to crack emotionally and spiritually. And frankly these dimensions are all related: if you’re seriously physically uncomfortable, if your blood sugar is very low, if perhaps you have a severe dehydration headache, you’re not going to be at your best. By our section of the story the Israelites had recently completed a ravenous negotiation. They had complained bitterly in the chapter before our passage, “‘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). Moses had reported the issue to God. God gave them quail to eat in the evening and rained down manna to gather in the morning. The Israelites had said “what is that?” but they ate it. Now they were thirsty, and again they complained: “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” (Ex 17:3). Psalm 95 describes this moment as a collective “hardening of heart” (Ps 95:8). The Israelites had already witnessed God’s power in their desert exodus, but in the panic of their thirst it is as if their parched locale has breached their every defense. They cannot imagine God truly is “among them” in such a moment. Once more Moses turns to God, this time concerned his life might be in danger from the snowballing of all this collective discomfort and anxiety, this Massah (testing) and Meribah (quarreling). In response God tells him to take his staff, the same one with which he had struck the Nile, parting its waters, and now to strike a particular large rock at Mount Horeb. In a kind of reverse image of the earlier miracle, the dry rock would part, allowing water to flow (Ex 17:5-6). The God who saved the Israelites in this way could be named as “the rock of our salvation,” as Psalm 95 celebrates, the One by and through whom new pathways of life can emerge.

Our passage from the Gospel of John also depicts a moment of intense exchange, in which potential hardening of heart is averted through an unexpected and transformative openness. Closely following Jesus’ nighttime interchange with Nicodemus, this encounter takes place at noon in Sychar, a place some scholars have identified as Shechem.[1] Like the Israelites in the desert, Jesus was in need of water and so he approaches what the text refers to as Jacob’s well (John 4:5-6). This brief reference signals the reverberating presence of earlier stories. Wells as sites of encounters between biblical men and women could sometimes be precursors to marriage (Gen 29:10-20; Ex 2:16-21).[2] That it was Jacob’s well signals the gift of this land to his son Joseph after Jacob had reconciled with his brother Esau (Gen 33). This gift was followed by terrible violence against and on behalf of a family member (Genesis 34). Another signal that earlier stories are afoot in our scene is the reference to the woman who meets Jesus there as a Samaritan. Samaritans and Judeans were at odds over where true worship should take place – at the temple in Jerusalem or at Mt. Gerizim.[3] And of course, as mentioned, there are the parallels between the Johannine story and our first reading from Exodus. Bearing all this in mind – even as other stories may also be flowing under the surface – Jesus and the woman stand in a particular moment, present to one another, and engage in a dialogue that becomes a vessel of grace.

The woman, unnamed in contrast to Nicodemus, takes significant initiative in this conversation.[4]When Jesus makes a statement, she asks a question. “Why is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” Or, a bit later, basically, (hilariously) where is your bucket? You’re not going to get very far without one.[5] She would eventually leave her bucket (water jar) at the scene, even as Jesus’ original request for well water had become less pressing (4:28). She makes observations: “I see that you are a prophet” (4:19), as in one who sees and names things truly.[6] She offers a Samaritan position on true worship, but conveys it as part of a dialogue, not a cudgel. Scholars are at odds over how unusual it is that Jesus is dialoguing with a woman, some arguing it a taboo and others pushing back that multiple rabbinic texts show rabbis engaging debate with learned women.[7] She is grounded, clear in who she is, and with nothing to hide (and here I will simply note that scholars are divided on what the matter of her previous husbands is about—we should not assume that Jesus is asserting stigma here).[8] What strikes me is how in the midst of this moment, with all sorts of history, both personal and collective, in the proverbial air, the woman engages Jesus with agency, intelligence, humor, and openness. She returns to her people and shares news of this person with curiosity about his deeper identity: “he cannot be the Messiah, can he?” (4:29) The Samaritan woman meets Jesus in the desert with true openness of heart.[9] In that space, in that posture, she is able to be an agent of good news – “many believed because of the woman’s testimony” (4:39).

As I sat with this story and the other readings assigned today, mindful of the invitation of our Lent formation series, I found myself thinking of the desert experiences we or loved ones in our lives have experienced. I thought about how present deserts can evoke earlier ones, rendering them present in some way, offering wisdom and warning from hard won experience, offering new opportunities for healing, as the Samaritan woman’s encounter suggests. As I’ve shared before, one of my sabbatical projects involved reading through and transcribing some old family documents—carefully preserved letters. Others have done this work before me, including my great grandfather and great aunt, each of whom had diaries translated from French to share with the family, depicting the voyage of their ancestors on a ship that sailed from France around the Horn to San Francisco in 1857/58. The first diary was a collective one, in which all generations of the family took turns making entries during the voyage. The second one was kept by the oldest son (in addition to his entries in the collective diary). I grew up hearing about this story and when I took time to read the diaries last fall, I was especially moved by a moment just before the voyage began. The family had been accompanied to their departure point by beloveds they would be leaving behind. They had boarded ship and were set to leave, but bad weather kept them from being able to set sail for several days. Both diaries report that during this waiting period they were surprised by their grandmother who came to be with them just a bit longer and spent the night with them in the boat. Sometime after reading the diaries I was paging through another family document, a date book recording family births, deaths, baptisms, and such. The document had struck me as useful but not necessarily scintillating. But then I noticed a noun that my rusty grad school reading French didn’t immediately recognize: naufrage. I looked it up. Shipwreck. Shipwreck?! This I had not heard before. As I read further back, it turned out that the previous generation of the family had traveled a great deal (I believe due to a father’s military service), and at one point their ship was caught in a hurricane. They survived, were able to board another ship called the Louise, and a month later the mother gave birth to a baby girl whom she named Louisa. That mother was the grandmother of the later diaries, and her departing son had been with her on the ship that had wrecked. If we liken this moment of departure to a desert – watery though its ocean locale was – we can feel in this voyage the reverberations of the earlier one. We can understand that the grandmother’s release of her son and his family into this journey to new life was one to which she brought all of her wisdom, her fear, her resilience. This was part of the gift of love she gave them.

The desert can truly and literally be a dry place for us, as Weston’s story last week so powerfully evoked. It can also be the unknown of the watery depths. It can be a period of suffering or the uncertain opening of a new life chapter. In that place, we may be under great strain. We may be hungry or utterly parched. We may be pressed from all sides. The challenge is to acknowledge where we are and to keep our hearts open. As we make our way into the very heart of this Lenten season, that is our invitation: to cultivate both awareness of this place, these multivalent locales in which we stand, and to receive what Paul in our second reading named so profoundly as grace. Can we have openness of heart in parched places? Can we let our thirst lead us to God and not harden us in anxiety, grief, uncertainty? Thanks be to God for our forebears, the Samaritan women in our lives, desert witnesses who show us the way.

[1] Adele Reinhartz, “The Gospel of John” in eds. Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, The Jewish Annotated New Testament (Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 183. [2] The Jewish Annotated New Testament, 183 [3] The Jewish Annotated New Testament, 184 [4] Warren Carter, John and Empire: Initial Explorations (New York & London: T & T Cark, 2008), 161. [5] L. William Countryman notes the comedic aspects of the dialogue in The Mystical Way in the Fourth Gospel: Crossing Over into God (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1994), 37. [6] The Jewish Annotated New Testament, 184 [7] Countryman, for example, argues, “Jesus initiates this dialogue, breaching dictates of religious etiquette.” The Mystical Way in the Fourth Gospel, p. 38. By contrast, Adele Reinhartz comments, “while some Second Temple and rabbinic texts warn against speaking with a woman (Sir 9.1-9; m. Avot 1.5), other sources indicate that men, including teachers, did so (e.g. b. Eruv. 553b in which Rabbi Yosi the Galilean initiates a conversation with a learned woman named Beruriah). In speaking with a woman, John's Jesus is simply behaving according to Jewish norms of his time. In John 11, no eyebrows are raised when Jesus speaks to both Mary and Martha.” TheJewish Annotated New Testament, 184. [8] Carter, John and Empire, 201, n. 59 citing Gail O’Day, “John” in Women’s Bible Commentary, ed. C.A. Newsom and S.H. Ringe, expanded ed. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1998), 381-93. [9] Carter, John and Empire, 161

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