Today in the Spirit: Lent 3A

By

“It gives me great pleasure to see the stubbornness of an incorrigible nonconformist warmly acclaimed.” The Scriptures, contrary to Albert Einstein, understand stubborn disobedience to the word of God to be a non-conformity in which the Almighty takes no pleasure (though he forgives it through Christ!). The readings and Collect assigned for Lent 3 every year may constitute the harshest messaging the church puts forward anywhere in the liturgical cycle.  The selections for Lent 3A constitute a collective strike against the obstinance of unbelief in the sinful human heart. The Collect has the people of God crying out for God “to purify our disordered affections.” In the Gospel reading from John 4:5-42 Jesus, while no doubt showing great empathy with the Samaritan woman, patiently works through impertinent religious objections she holds onto even in her desperate state. The OT reading in Exodus 17:1-7 and Psalm 95 both recall an incident of the Israelites in the desert starting a riot so fierce against YHWH and Moses that the place gains an ignominious new name Masah (testing) and Meribah (quarreling). Paul’s teaching in Romans 1:16-32 begins, For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men and continues from there to describe the deep descent into depravity of those who are stubbornly disobedient to righteous decrees they have heard.   

The Collect

Heavenly Father, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you: Look with compassion upon the heartfelt desires of your servants, and purify our disordered affections, that we may behold your eternal glory in the face of Christ Jesus; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Sponsored

Massah and Meribah (Exodus 17:1-7)

And [Moses] called the name of the place Massah and Meribah, because of the quarreling of the people of Israel, and because they tested the Lord by saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?” (7).

Our assigned OT text for Sunday is the end of a narrative subsection in Exodus (15:22-17:7) in which the focus is dissension in the ranks of Israel wandering in the desert, and YHWH’s response. Grumbling (Hebrew lun) on the part of the Israelites is going on throughout this section (15:24, 16:2, 16:7-8, 17:3). Quarreling (Hebrew rib) and testing (Hebrew nasa) appears only here. Muttering under one’s breath has given way to publicly bringing charges against and openly questioning the good faith of Moses and God. The situation is riotous to the point that Moses cries out to God, They are almost ready to stone me. Striking (pun intended) is the forbearance of YHWH. Even at this stage by Moses striking the rock God provides water just as earlier he had made bitter water sweet and sent manna and quail for food. With this reading the church will have us face “all oppression, conspiracy and violence” inside each one of us as followers of God. Today, with the Spirit’s help, we receive the names Massah and Meribah as places located in our own hearts and cry out in response, “Good Lord, deliver us.” (The Great Litany, BCP, p. 92).

Do Not Harden Your Hearts (Psalm 95)

Oh come, let us worship and bow down;
    let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker!
For he is our God,
    and we are the people of his pasture,
    and the sheep of his hand.
Today, if you hear his voice,
    do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah,
    as on the day at Massah in the wilderness,
when your fathers put me to the test
    and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work.
For forty years I loathed that generation
    and said, “They are a people who go astray in their heart,
    and they have not known my ways.”
Therefore I swore in my wrath,
    “They shall not enter my rest” (6-11).

Our appointed psalm is a song of praise like many others in the psalter but with a sudden and intrusive warning at the end against waywardness of heart. The names Meribah and Massah we will recognize from the OT reading to be bywords associated with a low point in the history of the Exodus. A temple prophet speaks the voice of YHWH as if to say “Pardon me: you will praise me as your Rock, but I remember that cursed place where I provided for you from a rock even in your faithlessness.” That word Today (used in much the way I seek to use it these devotions) introduces an idea or ideas calling for a response which must not be delayed; or as Dr. Leslie Allen describes it, “a moment of opportunity which demands a response for or against God.” So today, in Lent, prompted by the Spirit who will from time to time interrupt our routine Christian devotions to get our attention, let us take heed to recall our waywardness from the past and see to making changes we know already God wants us to make in the present.  

Against All Ungodliness (Romans 1:16-32)

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.” For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth (16-18).

It is pretty much all Romans for NT readings in Year A of Lent. This hard reading is nowhere to be found in the Sunday lectionary of the 1979 BCP. Here is one reason why it is so vitally important that we have it: for the Good News to be really good, we need to hear how bad the bad news really is. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, etc. Resist every temptation to distance yourself from the great weight of sin described here by the repeated use of the pronoun they. Yes, Paul is talking in this section about the unrighteousness of non-believers here (as opposed to those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints, 1:7), but his references to the lusts of their hearts to impurity and a debased mind must cause us to stand at attention–do they not? Though we are saved, we can never be too far removed from the confession “I still struggle with depravity even now.”  Today, Holy Spirit, let me in this season of Lent, reading Romans, come to grips with the bad news of the unrighteousness of my sin, and the death it deserves, that I might know the [Good News]…the power of salvation to everyone who believes.   

I Who Speak to You Am He (John 4:5-26 (27-38) 39-42)

Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come here.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true.” The woman said to him, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us all things.” Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am he” (16-26).

Make no mistake: Jesus is making as vicious an attack against misguided religious devotion with the Samaritan woman as he does with any religious leader we see in the Gospels. It is stunning actually, given her circumstances, how proudly the woman presents herself as a Samaritan of Sychar (the site of Jacob’s well). Jesus patiently parlays with her until she admits that she too is waiting for the Messiah–and then from the narrative we know he has her right where he wants her. John reports that the woman says, “I know that Messiah is coming…When he comes, he will tell us all things.” What did she mean by tell us all things? (Notice how often after this the narrative Jesus repeats her testimony: “a man who told me all that I ever did”). Jesus knows what the dear woman really wants is not answers to abstract theological questions but deeper and more intimate secrets that will change the trajectory of her life. What is it, in the end, that causes her to leave her water jar and run home? It is the word of knowledge about her husbands, and then her faith to believe Jesus when he declares, I who speak to you am he. Friends, our Lord is happy to have our heads, but what he really wants is our hearts, because it is there that he can really set us right. Today, with the help of the Spirit who is God patiently parlaying with you until you break, make yourself vulnerable like the Samaritan woman to receive the word from Jesus that will make you whole. 

Today in the Spirit

Reflections and related content, sent straight to your inbox.

Published on

March 6, 2023

Author

Geoff Little

Geoff Little writes the Today in the Spirit series of reflections on the ACNA Sunday and Holy Day Lectionary. He is the founding rector of All Nations Church in New Haven, Connecticut, where he lives with his wife, Blanca.

View more from Geoff Little

Comments

Please comment with both clarity and charity!

Subscribe to Comments
Notify of

0 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments