3rd Sunday Lent, 3-19-17
Between a Rock and a Hard Place
Our first reading – is so much like the society we live in; I read it and I think about shopping malls and huge department stores full of children demanding every thing that catches their eye. Just two chapters before, God had opened the Red Sea so the Israelites could walk thru on dry land and the Egyptian army, which was pursuing them, was destroyed. The Israelites had their freedom after generations in slavery. Then in the next chapter, the people had become discouraged in the desert and feared they would be without food. God provided them with quail for meat and manna for bread, as much as they needed. Now there is an uprising because of the scarcity of water; the people are full of anger and rebellion, and Moses fears they will kill him by stoning, the death reserved for someone who has sinned against the community.
But I don’t find it amazing the people were full of blame and empty of faith in the face of all their blessings. What I find amazing is that God doesn’t sweep them all into a garbage bag and start over with a new nation. Sorry, I know that was a Grinch-like, heart-two-sizes-too-small thing to say.
But Moses nearly worked himself into a nervous breakdown over freeing these people, and there is no hint that the faintest idea of thanking him ever crossed the people’s minds. We would say he was “between a rock and a hard place”, and a miracle of God was the only thing that saved him. No wonder we see deserts as places of trial, temptation, hardship – and we see water as life-giving, cleansing, refreshing, freeing, forgiveness.
By the time our Psalm was written, someone had figured this out. Our Psalmist says, “For he is our God, and we are the people he shepherds, the flock he guides; let us come into his presence with thanksgiving.” But notice that the Psalmist uses the image of a “rock.” Moses had feared that rocks would be hurled at him by an unruly mob and he would be killed. Then rock had been a geo-physical thing in the desert, used by God for the miracle of water, almost an image of grace. Now the Psalmist speaks of God as the “Rock” – an image of steadiness, reliability, permanence, dependability, an instrument of safety, certainty, and protection. Being between a rock and a hard place is all right – if God is your rock.
St Paul backs up the image of the Psalmist. He says, that “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Paul had been a “Grinch” of a guy before he encountered the Risen Christ on his way to Damascus. Now, he deeply believed, even as he waited on death row to be martyred, that God’s love, the rock of his salvation, would bring him to eternal life regardless of the most difficult “hard place” one can imagine.
And then we read John’s account of “the woman at the well.” I have a confession to make about this woman. At first, when I read about her, I liked her even less than the rebellious Israelites in the desert. She comes alone to the well, not with the other women, as she should have; she spoke to Jesus, as she shouldn’t have. She’s pretty bold, even hard in her responses, saying, “Are you greater than our father Jacob?” She’s not ashamed of immoral behavior, but blunt and in-his-face about where the Samaritan’s place of worship. Given a little attitude in her voice when she says, “I know that the Messiah is coming…he will tell us everything”, her response is rock-hard, rude. No wonder she was alone and shunned by the community. No wonder the women had decided this woman was beyond their help, a lost cause, evil. She seems to have chosen the hard place she’s in, determined to deflect any attempt to help her with stony bitterness.
Then a miracle happens that makes Moses and his staff hitting the rock look simple. All Jesus says to this woman is, “I am he, the one speaking with you.” These few words accomplish in seconds what it took 40 years to accomplish with the Israelites. She not only took to heart what he said, but she was quick to abandon her water jug, having accepted the living water. She told the others with such intensity and certainty that they believed her and come to Jesus themselves, saying, “We know that this is the savior of the world!!”
Perhaps the woman would have done well in our society, been a great corporate CEO with her edgy repartee, blunt questions, and boldness in sorting out a situation. Perhaps the rigid limits on women in that society, reflected in my own negative initial assessment of her, contributed to her outcast status.
Maybe the love that Jesus felt for all God’s lost children was enough to dissolve the stony fortress this woman had constructed around herself. Maybe it was a miracle healing; the living water of the Spirit broke open her rocky heart and that water power-cleaned her soul. I don’t know what happened. She was like a forgotten potted plan, wilted and dying, suddenly transplanted near a running stream of water, becoming a strong, food-yielding tree.
I do think some conclusions to these readings are warranted. I have 4 to offer:
- God loves us, despite how badly we behave. God gives us freedom from oppression long before we learn how to live freely. We need to look to God for ways to get out of our hard places. Love can provide enormous freedom. Status quo and expectations can be jails.
- God is the faithful one. Us – not so much. But God is good and provides for us. God created a world that gives us water and food and shelter and all we need, if we look. God gives us good people to pray for us, who lead us in God’s ways, if we listen.
- The Psalms are full of wisdom. We need to give thanks, we need to worship, and we need to recognize we are God’s people. We need to make sure our hearts don’t get rocky.
- People are not always what they appear to be. Society is not always just. Outcasts are loved by God and sometimes used to wake the rest of us up. All of us need a brain-flush on occasion with some living water of repentance and renewal. Lent can happen at any time.