Revised Common Lectionary Readings: Exodus 17:1-7, Psalm 95:1-11, Romans 5:1-11, John 4:5-42
All did not go well with the Israelites when they escaped from Egypt. They got hungry and thirsty and began to complain. “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” (Exodus 17:3) After all, we can’t live very long without water. I suppose there’s nothing much more panic-inducing than extreme thirst. I really (really!) can’t imagine it. And then to have to watch your children suffering. How much worse can it get?
It still goes on in parts of the world. Experts tell us that the most critical geopolitical issue in the coming years is probably water and its distribution, and attempts to control it by various political and tribal and national entities. So, water and suffering are related.
Then there’s the issue of suffering, in and of itself. Why me? Why? Why? Why? It’s a question that has plagued humanity since the beginning of time. How can a good and loving God allow such pain and suffering and conflict and destruction? Rabbi Harold Kushner’s 1981 book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, is still widely read. For many, it was one of the most helpful attempts to answer a question that has no fully satisfactory answer. Notice that the title talks about “When,” not “Why.” Kushner, and I believe much of the Bible, assumes that bad things will happen to everyone. The critical question is, perhaps, how we respond when they do. It can be relatively easy to live “by faith” when we are comfortable and things are going well. Sooner or later, though, some challenges are going to come our way.
The escaping Israelites responded by complaining. I guess we do that sometimes, too. The reading from Psalm 95 refers back to this event with the instruction, “Do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah in the wilderness, when your ancestors tested me, and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work.” (Psalm 95:8-9---See Genesis 17:7 where Moses “called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?’” “Massah” means testing; “Meribah” means “quarreling.) How quickly we forget the strength we have experienced in times past when difficulty confronts us in the present.
Paul, in Romans, boasts “in his sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given us.” (Romans 5:3-5) Such words are often reduced to flip assurances to people in the midst of crisis: “It will make you stronger.” Some may even say that God is using some adverse event to test us. Sometimes we say, “Whatever doesn’t destroy you makes you stronger.” Unfortunately, I’ve seen more than one case in which adversity seemed to destroy someone. This text drives us much deeper, calling us to pay attention to what is in our heart, to somehow find redemption in the knowledge that we are loved. Perhaps for those trying to provide comfort, it is also a reminder that the greatest comfort we can give is to love people in their darkest moments as well as in their best moments.
The long reading from John’s Gospel is also about water---and more. It is the story of a conversation Jesus has with a scorned Samaritan woman who has come to a well to draw water---at an hour when she could reasonably hope that she wouldn’t encounter anyone who would taunt her. If Jesus had followed the taboos of his day, he would have avoided any encounter with her. Instead he listens.
I once included, in a book of Bible studies I edited (“Going Public with One’s Faith”), Masumi Toyotome’s study of this story. He titled it “Love Is Listening,” noting that “the woman spoke as often as Jesus did and her words have equal importance . . . This was not unusual in the personal encounters of Jesus. He listened as much as he talked . . . took time to listen attentively to undistinguished persons.”
The story is so rich that I will resort to highlighting and commenting on selected verses and phrases, rather than trying to provide an integrated interpretation.
The story emphasizes water which refreshes the soul, rather than just quenching physical thirst. Jesus speaks of it as “living water. . . (T)hose who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” (John 4:10-14) In the story from Exodus, God instructs Moses to strike a rock, “and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” (Exodus 17:5) It takes more than water from a rock, however, if we are to weather the adversities of life.
Jesus refers to the woman’s history of marriage to multiple husbands (which I’ll just let stand without comment). She sees him as a prophet whom she can ask a religious question. (John 4:16-19) Since Samaritans and Jews claim different holy places as the proper center for worship, she asks Jesus which is the right place. (vs. 20) Again, Jesus points beyond physical location to the power of the spirit within. “ . . . the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem . . . the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” (vss. 21-24)
After her encounter with Jesus, the woman returns to the nearby city and says, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!” (vs. 29) We are told that “many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony.” (vs. 39) This woman without a name had such an impact that we still hear and respond to her story today.
The punchline of the story, however, comes when the people say to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.” (vs. 42)
There is no satisfying answer to the question “Why.” There is only a presence. God walks with us in the wilderness, in the lonely and challenging places of life, loving us still. That’s at the center of Paul’s thought and experience when he talks about his own suffering. He is confident of God’s love for him, speaking of it in terms of reconciliation. It may be an oversimplification to use a popular definition of that word---“the restoration of friendly relations”---but it points to the nature of the community of support we need, and can hope to find in the church at its best, when we are suffering. The suffering may be intensely private and personal, or it may be global and political (which is often accompanied by much person pain as well). We may be able to address some of the causes when we ask the question “Why?”, but if we are not surrounded by a community of love, there will be no final and satisfying healing.