The lectionary readings begin with our ancestors being led by Moses through the wilderness, on the journey from slavery in Egypt toward an unknown Promised Land. Memories of the long wilderness period in ancient Israel's life are prominent throughout the Hebrew scriptures. There are many times when, as at the end of today's psalm, Psalm 95, our ancestors seem ashamed of their behavior amid the hardships and difficulties. The psalm-singer in Psalm 95 imagines God's voice speaking to the people:
“Harden not your hearts, as your forebears did in the wilderness,
at Meribah, and on that day at Massah,
when they tempted me.
They put me to the test,
though they had seen my works.
Forty years long I detested that generation.”
Various stories depict our ancestors as a motley crew of refugees traveling with no visible resources whatsoever. It was a time of great danger and high anxiety. They came close to losing their trust in Moses, their leader, but above all they could not sustain their trust in the God to whom Moses’ words and their own lives bore witness.
We are in the midst of Lent. Wilderness stories present a compelling picture of ourselves as well as a plausible record of our ancestors' experiences with God. Perhaps Ash Wednesday raised our consciousness about the failures of our lives and the absence of sustainable spirituality in our daily tasks. By now, however, Ash Wednesday is behind us, and our repentances have probably dried up and worn thin. The business of re-examining our capacity to trust God in the bad times as well as the good has become gritty, like sand in our shoes, as we walk the Lenten journey.
Is God reliable, in fact? Can we trust in this God to provide for our needs in times when we have no resources for living? Quite often the deep questions of our faith and trust in God are urgently and powerfully connected to questions about material realities – the things we need for life – especially when basic necessities fail us for one reason or another. In the case of our ancestors in the wilderness, where oases were few and wells were missing altogether, their urgent need was for water, the stuff of life. God had provided water in the desert for them once before, in an earlier chapter of Exodus, and now they needed water again. As always, they grumbled and became quarrelsome. What was the matter with Moses and God that they could not or would not repeat the trick with the water? And in this quarrelsome fashion, the traveling refugees articulated the big question of our own so-much-milder Lenten journeys: “Is the Lord with us or not?” They did not want a God who could not deliver the real, life-giving goods. And neither, of course, do we.
God answered the depth of their anxieties, saying to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people. ... I will be in front of you on the rock of Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it.”
Yes, God was among them. God heard them and answered their needs just as decisively as he had heard their cries from Egypt in the beginning of this Exodus story. When God provided the water of life, the faith question was also answered. The rocks of the wilderness were transformed into a source of life for them.
Yes, this God was reliable. Subsequent generations saw this episode on the Exodus journey as a sign of God's endless, patient faithfulness in the face of ancient Israel's anxieties and desperation. The event was also, and honestly, remembered negatively, as in the previously quoted verses of Psalm 95. Like our ancestors, when we are rendered anxious and desperate by crises – fire, flood, famine, joblessness, homelessness, lack of money, the terrors of war – we test God by asking him to respond to our concrete, specific needs. Like them, we need a somewhat sturdier trust. Part of the Good News about this God is that he provides what is needed without our anxious grumbling, without our desperate angry shouting. In the infinite outpouring of his generosity, God gives to all his creation what is needed for its life, without any coercion on our part. Our hungers, wants and needs, and whether they get met, are not the measure of this God's reliable generosity.
The New Testament stories of Jesus are all framed in such a way that this amazing, tried-and-true, reliable generosity of God is seen in all Jesus' activities and in the way Jesus lived and died. In today’s gospel reading from John 4, the conversation between Jesus and the nameless woman at the well is an artful picture of this basic claim: only God – and for us, therefore, only Jesus, his Son – provides the stuff of life. The God who speaks to this woman of Samaria at the well in the heat of the day, is the God who turned the wild, barren desert into livable land for our dusty ancestors' journey, with manna from heaven to eat and water from rocks to drink.
John the gospel-maker has used the material reality of water in this story as a metaphor. The narrative starts with the solid, old, deep well outside the city of Sychar in Samaria. The well is named for long-dead Jacob, and it has been the source of water for the woman's ancestors just as it is for Jesus and herself. Jesus swiftly moves to conversation about the God who is the source of all gifts, water, and life itself. In the conversation, water is not simply something to drink, it is a sign that the gift of God is the quality of life on earth, “a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”
Then the narrative moves to focus on the woman. One might say that she has had a difficult and rocky life, but the good news is that out of the failures and inadequate resources of her life, God/Jesus can make something new, quenching her thirst for something better. The narrative also moves through this woman's own history to the larger historical context. Jerusalem and Samaria had failed quite miserably to overcome their mutual estrangement and to heal the wounds of their histories. It had become as inconceivable for Samaritans to worship with Jerusalem Jews as it was for Jesus to be talking to a woman in public. John has drawn a picture of two people who, practically speaking, could not have shared a common life, divided as they were by any number of things: history, sin, gender, and geography.
But the outrageous good news is, of course, that with this God among us as source, support, and provider of life beyond our wildest imaginings, the stories and metaphors of scripture can become the aspects and qualities of our lives as individuals, as communities, as society. In the light of that good news, Lent continues to be a time for noticing how our faith and trust play out in our lives. It is a time to let go of our failures and trust God in Jesus to bring new life for everyone with dried-up relationships and messed-up histories. And Lent continues to be an urgent time for rethinking our relationship to the world we live in. The deep wellspring of water, providing John with such a rich metaphor for our connection to God and each other, is in our time a powerful icon for the destructibility of our planet and how our silent complicity and consent to such destruction puts God's loving generosity to the test.