Monday, March 24, 2014

3rd Sunday of Lent: The True Gift

Exodus 17:1-7
John 4:5-42

You may remember the mini-series "Roots" that came out in the 70's, I believe.  Author Alex Haley put together a remarkable story of his own ancestry and his search for his African origin.  It was a great story and Mr. Haley had found his ancestor who had been forcibly taken from his African homeland and sold into slavery, so there was that measure of success.  Still, I wonder if he really found what he was looking for.  If that one ancestor was his goal, then yes.  But if he was trying to learn more about who he really is in the present, he may have come up short.

Though there were many memorable scenes from that movie, the one that stands out in my memory to this day was when Mr. Haley had found his ancestor's village.  One of the elders of that village began to tell the story of that particular tribe, and he seemed to go on forever.  Mr. Haley was shown to be fighting sleep until the elder finally mentioned the name: Kunta Kinte.  It was surely an exciting moment for Mr. Haley to have found the one he set out to find, but what was most remarkable about that scene was the tribal elder who told the entire story from the 20th century to the 16th century when Kunta Kinte was captured!  Who can do that now??

Moses commanded that the people of Israel should always be able to repeat this awesome task of telling THE story of the Exodus and Israel's deliverance from slavery to their children and their grandchildren - in other words, in perpetuity (Deuteronomy 4-6).  It would be necessary for the people of the Covenant to remember their past - but not exclusively to know their ancestors. 

It would be more important for them to remember Moses' warning not to get too attached to their own flesh, their own comforts, "the cities you did not build, houses full of good things you did not fill, wells you did not dig, vineyards and olive trees you did not plant" (Deuteronomy 6:10-12).  In other words, do not look to the "things" that give us pleasure and satisfaction only in the moment; look instead to the Creator of these "things" who gives this and much more.

I suspect if the woman at the well had remembered what she should have been told, she would have acknowledged much more than the ancestor Jacob "who gave us the well".  She would have perhaps been more mindful of YHWH who gave His people water (Exodus 17:7); the same God who gave them the entire land - AND - a future they would otherwise never know about.

We Christians, however, are stuck.  We make the mistake of believing ours is a story which only began at Pentecost - or perhaps in Bethlehem.  Even then, we do not often even try to go back even further - back to that moment the woman at the well was referring to when she said, "I know Messiah is coming" (John 4:25). 

The danger in mistakenly believing we have been fully satisfied and are no longer hungry or thirsty is that we stop looking.  When we stop looking, we fulfill not Christ and the New Covenant; rather we fulfill Moses' prophecy that "when you have eaten and are full ... you forget the Lord ..." (Deuteronomy 6:12). 

Yes, even "justified" Christians forget - and probably more easily than most others who are still searching.  We think we have found the Source of all things in Christ, so we too often overlook the 'True Gift" by taking far too much for granted - or worse, overlooking that which matters most.

Jesus told the Samaritan woman, "If you knew the gift of God ... you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water."  And the woman, having missed the point entirely, asked in return, "Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob who gave us the well?" 

There are a couple of items that should draw our attention in this brief exchange.  First, the woman wrongly attributes the well to Jacob.  It is known as "Jacob's well", but that is only a geographical, maybe historical, reference.  Through Jacob, the people of Israel were given an identity; they were made a nation in fulfillment of the Covenant YHWH made with Abraham.  And they were given a land AND a future through this Covenant.

The woman shows us a little more about "grasping for straws", however.  Too often this woman and her marital situation are misappropriated to the issue of marriage and divorce, but I cannot see that this is the point especially when we are not told why the five marriages ended (and we have no reason to read something into this exchange).  Rather, we must understand this is a culture in which unattached women do not fare well.  This is a culture in which women are wholly dependent on being legitimately attached - that is, claimed and perhaps owned - for the sake of their well-being.

Knowing this, then, what do we see from a woman who has had five husbands and is apparently living with another man who is not her husband?  I see a woman who is looking for something tangible she can hold on to.  I see a woman - perhaps a nation of YHWH's chosen - seeking and reaching desperately for worldly safety and security.  I see a nation keenly aware of its physical lineage and needs but wholly unaware of their very source of existence.  Jacob is the past; he had a unique place in Israel's history, but that moment is gone and the well attributed to Jacob could very well go dry and soon be useless.

We cannot pretend we can look past our physical needs for the basic necessities of food and water, but we also must not try to pretend physical satisfaction will ultimately sustain us, food that gives to US but offers nothing back.  Jesus identifies the "living water" that is given from Above which becomes in us a "spring of water gushing up to Eternal Life" and real "food which is to do the will of the One" who sent Jesus; that is, food which wholly and eternally sustains us, food that nourishes not only our own immortality but which also sends us beyond ourselvesIt is food and water which constantly reproduces.

The danger in forgetting the Exodus story and failing to tell that story is that we become a people without a story. Yes, we are made whole in Christ Jesus and that by faith, but even that wholeness has a source of its own which is not tangible as something we can purchase for ourselves.  But the True Gift is revealed in that story - and that is the story which tells us who we truly are.  Apart from this we become little more than the woman at the well who will continually thirst and never be fully satisfied. 

Israel's story IS our story - and that is the True Gift because that story is our Savior's story - the story we are invited into, for now and forever.  Amen.    

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