Monday, February 25, 2008

Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent

Third Sunday in Lent (February 24, 2008)
“Is the Lord Among Us or Not?” (Exodus 17:1-7; John 4:5-26)

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

“Is the Lord among us or not?” That was the question the children of Israel asked out in the wilderness before God graciously provided water from the rock. That will be the question we will consider this morning.

But first, did you notice in today’s Scripture readings the three different people who demanded water to drink? First, there were the children of Israel out in the desert. Then, there was Jesus at the well in Sychar. And then there was the Samaritan woman who encountered Jesus at that same well.

“Give us water to drink,” the children of Israel demanded of Moses. As if Moses could just say “abracadabra” and water would somehow appear there in the desert. After all, not long before this he turned the stagnant, bitter water at Marah into fresh, clean water suitable for drinking. All it took was throwing a log into the water, as the Lord had directed him. Soon after that, they arrived at Elim, where there were 12 springs of water from which they could drink. And not long after that, manna and quail covered their camp to feed their hungry stomachs.

But now, here they were, after another three days of traveling in the wilderness, and they had no water. They griped and grumbled. They blamed Moses for dragging them out of Egypt, only to let them die of thirst ... but not before attempting to stone him to death first. Moses said that what they were really doing was testing the Lord. They did not believe God’s promise to take care of them in the wilderness. Even after the event at Marah. Even after the manna and quail. And I haven’t even mentioned the parting of the Red Sea. After all that, they doubted the Lord’s presence and said, “Is the Lord among us or not?”

“Give me a drink,” Jesus said to the woman at Jacob’s well. That was a surprising request. A Jewish man speaks to a woman in broad daylight ... and a Samaritan, to boot, whom the Jews avoided like the plague. But Jesus begins the conversation this way in order to confront the woman with her sin. As far as we know, she had no particular quarrel with God. In fact, it seems as though she was quite content with her life. But her loose living certainly put God to the test. 5 husbands and now shacking up with a fellow. It took Jesus to shake her up a bit, and then to offer her something greater than water from a well. “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’” Jesus said, “you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” She did not recognize the presence of God in Christ. She did not know that this Jew talking to her was the Savior of the world, the promised Messiah, God in the flesh.

And so what does she say? She now demands water. “Sir, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water.” She doesn’t recognize the presence of the Lord God at the well. She sees Jesus as some sort of heavenly “Sparkletts” delivery man bringing fresh water right to her door. At this point, her motivation is no different than the children of Israel. All she wanted was an easy way out. All she was concerned about was getting her earthly needs met. Faith and trust in God and recognizing his presence was not anywhere near her mind and heart.

Can you relate to the children of Israel? There’s a part of us that can’t blame them for complaining. I mean, three days in the desert without water. That’s a lot to take. It wouldn’t take long to try your patience, even if God had promised to take care of you. Without water, the threat of death is imminent. You look up and see buzzards flying around, waiting for their dinner ... YOU!

There are times when our life feels like a desert. Times of spiritual dryness come our way. You find it difficult to pray. Your patience is tried. You lack joy and peace. You complain and grumble. Worship seems meaningless and pointless. Maybe you are so depressed that you would indeed rather be vulture vittles. And you ask, “Is the Lord among us or not?”

How about the woman at the well? Can you relate to her? We may be at a point in our life when we’re not complaining or grumbling about our condition. Instead, we are quite content with our lifestyle. We get very comfortable with the way we live, even if it includes some things that are not pleasing to God. We go on our merry way not realizing how truly thirsty we are. We live as if God didn’t matter, and the question, “Is the Lord among us or not?” is not really something we ask, because things are just fine ... or so we think.

Like the children of Israel in the desert in their time of drought and dryness, God allows times of testing in our lives, times of dryness. And like the woman at the well who was quite comfortable in her sin, God sends times of testing to us to shake us out of our complacency. How do we respond? Do we repent of our grumbling and complaining or our complacency? Do we submit in faith, like Abraham did, as we heard in last week’s sermon? Or do we test the Lord by distrusting his kindness and providential care? Do we grumble against our leaders? Do we blame our church or our pastor? “Is the Lord among us or not?” we ask. That question reminds me of people who judge a congregation on the basis of their feelings. For whatever reason, they walk into a church and say, “I just don’t feel the Spirit here.” Well, who said you were going to ever “feel” the Spirit? The Spirit works through the Word of God whether we feel him or not.

Out in the desert, God did not “desert” the people. In spite of the quarreling and testing of the children of Israel, the Lord still provided water. “Is the Lord among us or not?” the people asked. But God told Moses, “I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb, and you shall strike the rock, and water shall come out of it, and the people will drink.” “I will stand before you there.” God was present. He was present in the pillar of cloud and fire. He did not leave them. He was merciful and gracious to them. Moreover, that water that came from the rock must have been a veritable geyser to quench the thirst of so many people.

At the well, Jesus did not desert that sinful Samaritan woman. He did not turn his back on her. In spite of her sinful life, the Lord still revealed himself to her as the promised Savior. The woman said to Jesus, “I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us all things.” And Jesus said, “I who speak to you am he.” The Lord God himself was very much present there speaking to the woman and promising her so much more than an everlasting supply of water to drink. Drink of that water and you’ll get thirsty again. But the water that Jesus gives will become in the one who drinks it “a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

There are times when you and I ask “Is the Lord among us or not?” But God has not “desert”-ed us. He is merciful and gracious to us in spite of our grumbling and complaining, in spite of being comfortable with our sin. St. Paul said, “For while we were still weak, at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly ... but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Rom. 5:6, 8) While we were still weak. While we were still sinners. Jesus did not wait for us to stop grumbling and complaining before he went to the cross for us. Jesus did not wait for us to repent of our sin before he shed his blood for us. He looked down the halls of time, saw us in our sinful condition, and “for the joy set that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame” ... the shame of being cursed by God for our sin, the shame of knowing what it’s like to have God turn his back on you. Since Jesus did this all for us, we can trust that he will never turn his back on us, his face will always be turned towards us in grace and mercy. And now, as St. Paul says, “We have been justified by faith” ... “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Rom. 5:1)

“Is the Lord among us or not?” He is indeed among us in the means that he uses to bring his forgiving grace and mercy. He used means with Moses. What was it for Moses? A staff. Take it and strike the rock. And God’s Word of promise was that he would be standing right there, causing water to come forth. And so now, he uses means with us. He tells us to take water and baptize in the name of the Triune God ... and the Lord is among us. He tells us to take bread and wine, which in the Lord’s Supper are his True Body and True Blood, “given and shed for you for the forgiveness of all your sins” ... and the Lord is among us.

You see, when Moses struck the rock and water came out, it was about more than just quenching the thirst of the travelers in the desert. In 1 Corinthians 10, St. Paul writes that out in the wilderness, the children of Israel “all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that accompanied them, and the Rock was Christ.” It was Christ who was present there preserving them and helping them. And today, in Word and Sacrament, you and I drink from that same spiritual Rock. He refreshes us with forgiveness and eternal life which overflow within us like a never-ending spring.

Times of dryness will still come. But in those times, we can count on the living water of Christ. He has already quenched us in the water of Baptism. Our sins have been washed away and “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” (Romans 5:5)

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