Below is my sermon for the third Sunday in Lent
The Collect: Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
- Exodus 17:1-7
- Psalm 95
- Romans 5:1-11
- John 4:5-42
The Christian calendar is designed to train us in being fully and truly Christian. Many of us are familiar with learning to think as Christian people—that is, training our brains to be Christian brains. We give less attention to our bodies and our loves and our longings. But the Christian calendar helps to train our whole being in being Christian—our bodies, our hearts and our desires.
Because our daily lives are so busy and filled with instant messages, news items, emails, text messages, friend requests, status updates, and other tyrannical trivialities, we forget to long for a Savior from heaven and to pray that God would come to save and to restore. We are too busy to wait actively and expectantly for King Jesus to return to defeat evil forever and redeem his broken creation.
The Lenten season has just this purpose—it trains us to feel and to long as Christian people. “Lent” comes from an old Germanic word for “spring-time,” and we can think of it as sort of a spiritual “spring cleaning,” a time for self-evaluation, growth, penitence, and simplicity. This is a season for taking a good look at our lives, to consider our corporate and personal relationships to God and to God’s people.
Lent often involves giving something up, or fasting, some sort of discipline of the body. This has several purposes. It reminds us that we are creatures, that we are dependent upon God. When you give up a pleasure, or something that is a regular part of your life, you miss it. Your body longs for it. It’s what you think about all the time—you become obsessed! When we get this feeling, or this sense, or this obsession, we can let that remind us of our creatureliness—we are dependent on God. God is our life and our breath. We need God absolutely. These feelings can become like training wheels for our prayer habits. Whenever you get that feeling, you can pray this: “Lord, I need you. I am not independent.”
In addition to self-discipline and simplicity, giving something up for Lent trains us to long, to yearn, to desire. If you’ve given up chocolate, or coffee, or some other small but significant pleasure, you start longing for it, looking forward to Easter when you can take it up again and fully enjoy it once more. Again, this longing becomes our teacher, fixing our attention on Easter. It trains our bodies, our entire selves, to long for Easter, to look forward with eagerness to the coming of the victory of God over sin and death.
And this longing trains us to pray. When we have these yearnings and desires for the arrival of Easter, we can pray this: “Lord, your creation needs you. We long for you to come and save; return and restore your wounded world.”
Lent, then, becomes a teacher, training us to long for the coming of the Lord to reclaim creation, to fully restore our bodies.
With the season of Lent in mind, then, let’s consider the collect and our Scripture lessons for this morning.
The collect mentions that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves. We are sustained by God. He is the one who protects us, keeps us, guards us. But how? How are we sustained by God?
We get an early glimpse of God’s provision in our Exodus passage. God had liberated Israel from enslavement in Egypt and was leading his people into the land of promise. During their journey from their harsh enslavement, Israel quarreled with God and questioned his presence among them. They were thirsty and argued with Moses, they complained about the conditions while on their journey to blessing and to freedom.
Israel’s quarreling with Moses and with God demonstrated, as the Psalm says, that their hearts were hardened and that they did know God and his ways. They did not know that God was among them, having powerfully liberated them, and was leading them to the land of promise. Though they had seen God’s powerful triumph over the gods of Egypt, they put God to the test, becoming a faithless people. And yet, God provided them with water, sustaining them.
Romans reminds us of the intensity of our intimate connection with God. We might say that God is among us, but Paul notes that we inhabit God himself. He is our environment, our oxygen, our source of life. Just as God liberated Israel from slavery to Egypt and brought them into the land of blessing, God has liberated us from sin and death and brought us into this community, a community that inhabits God himself because we are in Christ by God’s Spirit. And God is at work among us to empower us in the midst of our suffering, to transform suffering into fuel for perseverance.
We find something very surprising in our Gospel text. There are all sorts of dynamics of sustenance going on here. Jesus asks the woman for sustenance and promises her that she can become a source of sustenance herself. If she were to ask Jesus, Jesus would give her not just any water, but living water.
The echoes of this go way back. Rivers flowed from the Garden of Eden, giving life to the rest of creation. And the temple was spoken of as having rivers flowing from it, giving life to Israel and to the rest of the world. In the same way, Jesus is telling this woman that she can become a source of life for her community—a source of God’s own sustaining power. And this happens simply by her opening herself up to Jesus and speaking truthfully to him, and opening herself up to her community and speaking plainly about Jesus.
Ironically, she does indeed become a source of life. The first instance of this is shocking. In the midst of her conversation with Jesus, the disciples return and ask whether Jesus has eaten anything. Jesus responds in a way that recalls what our Psalm says about Israel not knowing God’s ways. He to the disciples: I have food that you don’t know about.
What is Jesus’ food? What sustains Jesus?
It is arresting to contemplate, but Jesus’ conversation with the woman is his very food. Jesus is sustained by mission; by being in a town where he’s not supposed to be; by talking with a woman, a social act that shocks both the woman and the disciples. By breaking the cultural rules of what is socially acceptable and by enjoying conversation with this particular woman about the mission of God to seek true worshipers—that is Jesus’ very food. It is what sustains him.
The second instance of the woman being a source of life is her speech to the rest of her town. She relays the news about Jesus, and they too come to see that Jesus is the Christ.
What do we learn, then, from these passages about how God sustains us as a community?
First, God is indeed among us. God is our life and our breath. We gather as a community to be reminded by our participation in the Eucharist that God is our very food. The illusions of our world tell us that we are sustained by our work, by our paychecks, by the hum of our various devices, by the mysterious workings of the global economy. But I wonder if we are the people that do not know about the food that truly sustains us. We rehearse weekly the reality of the Christian faith that reminds us that we are fully dependent on God for our life and breath. But how often do we pay attention to the words that are spoken?
Second, it is mission that sustains us. The realities of how we do “church” in modern America may fool us into thinking that this is just another set of activities that we add to our lives to have some kind of spiritual fulfillment. But this community is the true center of our lives. When we participate in efforts like Family Promise, offering relief to those who are suffering and having solidarity with those whose lives are filled with confusion, chaos and pain, God is sustaining us. We are being a source of life for others, and these efforts are the means whereby we are fed and sustained by God. We, as a community, become a river of living water for others, and God is sharing his very life with us.
And third, because God is among us, and because, as Paul says, we stand in this grace, inhabiting the life of Christ, we are sustained in the midst of our suffering. In fact, this mysterious reality of inhabiting God’s very life has the transformative dynamic of turning our suffering into fuel for perseverance. God produces his life among us not despite our suffering, but through it.
This is a beautiful lens through which we can look at the current moment in our journey as a community. We may be discouraged because of where we are. But if we stay together as a community and do not give in to the temptation to abandon ship, we will discover that God is among us, producing the dynamics of renewal and redemption, keeping us together as a community and working to sustain our lives and preserve us, giving us life.
When we look around at the current shape of things as Grace Episcopal Church, we may ask, like Israel did, “Is the Lord among us, or not?”
The Lord is indeed among us. We are still enjoying the meal whereby he sustains us. There is still work to be done. There is still mission to be carried out.
In this season of self-examination, let us remember that we are sustained by the God who liberates, by the God who is always bringing his people into places of freedom, of flourishing and of sustenance.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.