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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Lent 03/15/2020

Today’s readings begin with the people of Israel wandering in the wilderness and wilderness is always an appropriate place to be during Lent, wilderness is an appropriate theme for Lent. The biblical wilderness is probably not the same as what we think of as wilderness, biblical wilderness being more about uninhabited dry desert places as opposed to rough, uninhabited wooded and rocky places of which there are an abundance here in the UP.

What they have in common though is what they represent symbolically. Wilderness places are uninhabited so when you go there, whatever it looks like, you’re out there, exposed and on your own, without a lot of resources; around here even your cell phone might be useless. So exposed, the wilderness can be a place of testing, a place where you’re more likely to have to come to terms with the basics of existence and survival, basics like who you are and who God is. That’s why the earliest monastics retreated to the desert as they tried to live lives that more closely reflected the teachings of Jesus, wanting to escape a church that they felt had strayed from those teachings and given in to worldly temptations.

During Lent, while we don’t go out into the actual wilderness, we do enter into the symbolic wilderness. Every year we observe this forty-day period during which, if we take it seriously, we should be trying to come to terms with those wilderness questions, questions concerning who we are and who God is. Specifically, we think about relationships and the ways our relationships with God, our neighbors and creation aren’t what they should be and we consider how that might change. We do so knowing that we’re not the first ones to struggle with such questions and such relationships.

The people of Israel were in the wilderness, at a place called Rephidim, a place whose location is unknown, the name perhaps being more symbolic than anything, derived as it is from a Hebrew verb that can mean to weaken or dishearten. The people were disheartened, justifiably disheartened because they were thirsty with no access to water in the desert wilderness. When you’re disheartened, you’re likely to want to take it out on someone and Moses was their immediate target; they blamed him for leading them out of Egypt and getting them into this wilderness predicament. But the water question also became a God question as included in their complaint was the question, “Is the Lord among us or not?”

With that, they give voice to the age old feeling that God is absent. In the face of all kinds of hardship and tragedy it’s another God question, the feeling that God is absent or maybe just unable to do anything to change things and I dare say it’s a question that all of us have had at one time or another. For some, the coronavirus and its effects may be prompting the question right now.

It’s interesting though that while omnipresent is one of the big O words used to describe God, the Bible doesn’t always assume that’s the case, it doesn’t always assume God’s presence. Like in this reading, the Bible acknowledges that sense of absence and maybe even hints that sometimes God is absent. But…what’s never questioned is God’s ability to act. The people of Israel complained and wondered about absence because they believed that God could change things and that, if Moses was the agent of God, he ccould be the agent of change too.

So…the people complained to Moses and Moses in turn complained to the Lord saying, “What shall I do with this people? They’re ready to stone me.” What we then get is a dramatic answer of “Yes” to the “Is the Lord among us or not?” question. Moses was worried about the people using rocks to kill him, but God, the Lord, makes a rock become a source of water and with that, a potential instrument of death becomes a source of life.

The Lord heard the cry of the people, he heard the complaint of the people and the answer was “Yes! Yes, the Lord is among you and is able to transform a dry place of wilderness into a place of life. The Lord’s answer in this time of crisis was a resounding “Yes.”

The people of Israel told these stories because they needed to remind themselves of that “Yes.” The best guess is that this whole narrative of Exodus wilderness wandering was put into writing during a much later wilderness time, when the people were experiencing exile in Babylon, another situation from which there seemed to be no way out, another situation when the “Is the Lord among us or not?” question had to have been asked. But, as they reminded themselves of God’s “Yes,” a way out did become possible, and, in time, the exile did end; God’s answer was “Yes.”

The woman at the well in today’s gospel was in a different kind of wilderness, one perhaps of her own making. Typical of John, the text isn’t very direct but there are hints that the woman Jesus encountered wasn’t exactly a pillar of society. Respectable women would go to the well in the relative cool of the early morning when, besides drawing water for the day, it was also something of a social hour. This woman however, goes at noon, during the heat of the day, perhaps to avoid the respectable women with their comments and dirty looks.

Further evidence of her questionable reputation was the husband situation. When Jesus told her to call her husband, she didn’t lie as apparently she wasn’t married to the man she might have claimed was her husband, but it was up to Jesus to remind her of her five previous husbands. We don’t know what happened to those five, the text doesn’t tell us, but clearly, this woman has a past.

She’s also a Samaritan with Jesus having crossed into Samaritan territory, territory that many would have said he should avoid because, as the text says, “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.” But, despite all that, Jesus interacts with the woman in the midst of her wilderness.

Besides being a wilderness story, this is a water story too, another story of water in the wilderness. In the heat of the day, Jesus asked the woman for a drink but his request quickly became an offer not just of water, but of living water, a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.

Keep in mind that this is John’s gospel we’re dealing with which often means that one does better to focus on images rather than to try and make logical sense of the disjointed dialogue and here you get this image of living water and Jesus saying that those who drink of the water I will give them will never be thirsty. The woman couldn’t have fully understood what Jesus was talking about, but nonetheless, she was all in saying, “Sir, give me this water.”

What John does with this dialogue is that, in a dramatic way, he makes the claim that Jesus can do what only God can do; Jesus is part of the “Yes” of God. Just as the Lord provided life giving water for the people in the wilderness, Jesus offers life giving water to the woman of Samaria in her wilderness. Water becomes a sign and symbol that in Jesus we are offered and given a new and different quality of life. In and through Jesus, we too are the recipients of God’s “Yes.”

One of the goals of our yearly Lenten journey is to more honestly come to terms with who we are as sinful human beings, not so that we are driven to despair, but so that we more fully understand the gift of grace we’ve been given, so that we know the power of God’s “Yes.” That too is illustrated in the story of the woman at the well. The dialogue between her and Jesus is somewhat vague as it always is in John’s gospel, but through that dialogue, whatever her past is, she has to face it.

She knows that Jesus knows, but…what she learns is that even though Jesus knows her perhaps better than she knows herself, the offer of living water is still made; she doesn’t have to hide from who she really is. In knowing herself better, she also comes to know Jesus better and she’s ready to share her newfound knowledge with others: “He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” The answer of course is another resounding, “Yes! Yes, he can be and is the Messiah.”

I don’t know if the intent in this story is to portray this woman as being a “worse” sinner than anyone else and as a Lenten text, I don’t think that’s the point anyway. Sin isn’t a comparison game; Lent isn’t a comparison season where we say, “At least I’m not as bad as,” whoever; fill in the blank. Instead it’s about being more honest with ourselves and such honesty will tell us that we are sinners, that we fail to always be who God would have us be. That honesty leads us to the only God who can help us and that God, revealed in Jesus, is a God of grace.

That’s the story of the woman at the well. Knowing herself better and knowing Jesus better, a way out of her wilderness was revealed, a way of life was revealed just as it was revealed to the ancient people of Israel. She heard the resounding “Yes” of Jesus and she drank from the living water he offered.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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