Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Proper of the Day: The Third Sunday in Lent

Today we continue to hear from the Gospel of John, this time the complete story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman. There's so much packed in here I hardly know where to begin. So I won't. Instead, I offer my very first public sermon, offered on this day 6 years ago. A fellow seminarian and I were invited to co-lead Morning Prayer at a little parish on the outskirts of the Diocese of Indianapolis. We flipped a coin, and Greg (now Rector of Ascension Episcopal Church in Cranston, RI) chose to be Officiant, so I preached. Here's what I offered. Comments as always, are welcome:

St. Stephens Elwood, IN
Third Sunday in Lent 2002
Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 95; Romans 5:1-11; John 4:5-42
R. F. Solon, Jr.

I want to thank you for asking Greg and me to worship with you today. It’s a great honor and privilege.

May these words be in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Have you ever been to Massah? How about Meribah? Maybe you think you haven’t – after all, according to the Book of Exodus they are in the wilderness of Zin, somewhere in the Sinai peninsula. Any maybe these places didn’t really exist in real geography.

But I think they did exist, and do exist even today. “Massah” means “testing,” and “Meribah” means contention. Our Psalm today, the very familiar Venite, the traditional Morning Prayer psalm, is one of those psalms that contains reference to names and places we often don’t otherwise know. Massah and Meribah are examples of those. We read, “Harden not your hearts, as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah in the wilderness, when your ancestors tempted me and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work.” At Massah, the Israelites whined to God that they had no water, and they got on Moses’ case to get some. The Exodus version says that Moses gave them what-for for testing God, but prayed on their behalf anyway. God answered Moses, and arranged for water to come out of the rock when Moses struck it with the holy staff that was used during the 10 Plagues.

But there’s another version of this episode, in the Book of Numbers. In that version, Moses and Aaron his brother don’t come across nearly so virtuous. In that version, Moses and Aaron strike the rock but don’t call on God’s name as they do – they take the glory for themselves. Water still came out of the rock, because God is merciful and cares for his people. But afterwards, God tells Moses and Aaron that they will not see the Promised Land because they, too, tested God. So the Psalm refers to not only to the testing of God by the Israelites, but also by Moses and Aaron.

The Israelites aren’t the only ones testing God. At Sychar, the Samaritan woman does as well. In her conversation with Jesus, she challenges him about who he is. She is eventually persuaded when Jesus reveals that he knows facts about her past that he couldn’t have otherwise known if he weren’t who he said he is - that is, the living water, the one who, as the Samaritan women says, proclaims all things to us. Both the Israelites at Massah and the Samaritan women at Sychar tested God, and it took a miracle to overcome their resistance and show them the truth of God’s love. At Massah, it was the water coming from the rock, and at Sychar, it was Jesus’ knowledge about the woman’s past. In both cases, they couldn’t understand or accept what God was giving them, real water at Massah, and the new living water in Christ Jesus at Sychar.

And God continues to give us good things today. St. Paul lays it out to the Romans perfectly when he says, “We even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.” I think the key point here is that Paul talks about reconciliation with God in the past tense. It’s already happened. It’s a done deal. But just to be sure, I checked several other versions as well. Every single one renders this verse in the past tense, and one of them talks about how we “already’ have received reconciliation. So it’s already done, accomplished, completed. Nothing more needs to be done to reconcile us to God our Father, except what Jesus has already accomplished.

It’s now the third week of Lent – we’re just about half-way through. Lent is the season of repentance and penitence and preparation for the renewal and rebirth of the Resurrection. Part of the point of Lent is that we are reminded that, to get to the new, something old must pass away. And we already know the new – the reconciliation to God and each other that we have in the Resurrection that we are now getting ready for. But to get to the new, we have to deal with the old. It seems to me the key is the verse, “Do not harden your hearts.” The absolute truth of the Gospel is that we are indeed reconciled to God the Father in Jesus Christ. It’s a done deal – our sins are already forgiven! Forgiveness, one writer has written, is the invitation to a future not dictated by past or experience. And that requires a conscious letting go and putting away of that past, that is, our past sins. It can be really hard to accept God’s forgiveness if we have not forgiven ourselves. But that’s exactly what we are called to do – to accept God’s forgiveness, which is already a done deal, by confronting and moving past our own sinful past. That’s a big part of what Lent is all about. We are called to unharden our hearts toward ourselves so we can let in the renewal and rebirth of the Resurrection in our own lives. Lent is about the gradual letting go of our sins and the unhardening of our hearts, so we will be ready, come Easter, to let in the healing power of the Resurrection.

At Massah and at Sychar, it took a miracle for the Israelites and the Samaritan woman to see the new thing God was doing for them, to get them to let go – to unharden their hearts. We already have our miracle – our reconciliation to God in Jesus Christ by his death and resurrection. Remember, it’s a done deal – it already happened. God has already reconciled us to him. All we have to do is accept it.

So - let us not harden our hearts, as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah in the wilderness, when our ancestors tested God.


Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.



jen x said...

I really liked "unharden our hearts toward others" as your theme. One could easily -- and productively -- spend an entire year just on that project.

And apropos of nothing other than I keep meaning to mention this: your blog has awesome graphics!

RFSJ said...


You were up early today! Thanks for the feedback and kind words. I've always felt that the first hearts to unharden need to be our own. God's love can do that, and then we can respond with joy and proclaim thay same love to others. But it's impossible to truly love others if our hearts are hardened to ourselves. And you're right, it's the work of a year - probably even a lifetime!


PS - Thanks, too, for the note on graphics - I appreciate that very much :-)