Lent 3—Year A, March 19, 2017
Exodus 17:1-7, Psalm 95, Romans 5:1-11, John 4:5-42
Saint Paul makes a startling claim in Romans today. He claims repeatedly that God has come to us in Jesus Christ. This is a claim that undercuts all human religion because religion is always busy looking for a way to get to the divine. The Masai in Kenya, I’m told, will leave a cup of milk outside the hut at night in order to get the gods to come near their hut and thereby keep the wild animals away. When asked why not bring the cup into the hut so they can have the gods up close and personal, they say the gods are dangerous and need to be kept at arm’s length. This is religion: as my friend Gray Temple puts it: “religion is a human technology for the control of divinity.” (I first heard Gray speak on this and the passage from the Gospel in a talk called “Fellowship with the Father” back in the early 1980s. It can also be found in his excellent book The Molten Soul. I shall always be indebted to him for the grace I received from this talk, which is why I bring it up so often.)
We may laugh at such foolishness, because we know we have the right religious technology: we know using the Book of Common Prayer and singing the proper hymns, in a church service done decently and in order is what God really likes and is the way to get God to give us success, happiness, well-behaved children, and a long pain-free life.
Saint Paul will have nothing whatsoever to do with religion because the major problem with religion is it has the direction all wrong: religion imagines the direction is from us to God. We do the right thing, the holy thing, the sacrificial thing, or even the loving thing, and then God will draw near and give us what we think we need. In other words, our religious behavior gets us to God.
Paul says, however, that the only true direction is from God to us.
He writes: “…while we were still weak…Christ died for the ungodly.” We are powerless, so God comes to us in Jesus Christ who dies, not for the religious experts, but for those living in contradiction to the will of God, the “ungodly”.
He writes: “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” The direction is from God in Jesus Christ to “sinners”.
He writes: “Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God.” We don’t do something that saves us from wrath, but God does what is needed through Jesus Christ.
And by the way, the wrath of God is not some characteristic of God. I like how Peter Kreeft retired professor of Philosophy at Boston College puts it: “Wrath is how God’s love appears to us when we sin or rebel or run away from him. The very light that is meant to help us, appears to us as our enemy when we seek the darkness.” Quoted in Repenting of Religion, page 59 Greg Boyd
Another way of seeing it is that we are not punished FOR our sins. We are punished BY our sins. Eat 10 hot fudge sundaes and you will know the wrath of an upset stomach.
Paul goes on: “…while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son….” While we are actively fighting God, God comes to us in Jesus Christ.
The direction is crucial: it is always, always, always, from God to us in Jesus Christ. This is why Jesus could say, “come unto me all who are burdened and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”
So do we have any role in this divine rescue? It is “faith”. Faith, here and elsewhere, is best translated trust: Faith is the trust that allows us to relax into the arms of Christ which are already holding us.
When we were learning to swim we had to trust that the water would really hold us.
Faith doesn’t create the conditions of new life, faith trusts those conditions are really there and is willing to let Triune God hold us above the chaos of life. Faith trusts what the Word of God says: that God comes to us in Jesus Christ when we are weak, sinful, caught in wrath, and enemies of God.
If you are feeling weak, sinful, guilty, or mad at God then you are in the perfect position to trust that God is there for you in Jesus.
So are you saying it is enough to just believe this?
No, because faith is different from belief: Back in 2005 our church mission group took a day off for some adventure, so I found myself standing on a platform high in tree in a forest in Nicaragua. I watched one of my friends get into the harness and jump off the platform and make it safely on a zip-line to the next platform. Having seen this I now believe it is possible to make it across. After all “seeing is believing”, right?
Yet, when it came time for me to get into the harness and jump off the platform I found my belief was not enough. I needed faith, an inner trust, in order to let go.
I can believe all day that God has come to me and now holds me in Jesus Christ. But I don’t have faith until I make that inner surrender and let myself go into those arms.
So where does faith come from? Does it come from my effort? No, faith is a gift from God that allows me to trust God.
I can’t generate this faith by trying hard. All I can do is talk to Jesus and ask him to give me this faith, which he always does. Then I can step off the platform!
So what does this transformation from human religion to God’s revelation and then to the birth of faith look like in real life? It looks like the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well.
The first thing to see is Jesus does not act like someone trying to get to God through religion. Rather he acts like he is already filled with God. Notice three things Jesus does that he wouldn’t do if he were practicing religion.
First, he is willing to approach this woman even though they are alone. Religious men in that culture avoided being alone with a woman because it is too easy to end up in sin.
Second, Jesus is approaches her even though she is a Samaritan—Samaritan’s were seen as heretics and half-Jewish-half-pagan: you certainly wouldn’t eat their food or drink their water.
Third, Jesus approaches her even though her life is a mess, with a long resume of broken relationships. He knows this about her because she is getting water at noon, during the heat of the day, instead of in the cool of the day along with the other women. She can’t go then because she will be pecked to death by the women whose religion tells them they are being good when they attack someone like her.
She has three strikes against her but Jesus pursues her with the healing, so she can know the embrace of God in her broken, traumatized life.
And notice how he approaches her: with acceptance and honesty and charm. Her sins draw the savior to her because that’s why he has come from the Father. He tells her the truth about herself, not to hurt her but to heal her. Jesus offers her a new life—not built on the opinion of others or even on her opinion of herself, but on the firm foundation of God’s love for her. She has been living off the toxic water of a sick society that treats her as the identified sinner, so they can feel better about themselves. Jesus offers living water from the heart of God.
HERE’S THE THING: JESUS DOES NOT COME TO CHANGE GOD’S MIND ABOUT HER. RATHER HE COMES TO CHANGE HER MIND ABOUT GOD.
THIS WOMAN IS HAVING A BRAND NEW EXPERIENCE: JESUS KNOWS THE TRAUMA AND HEARTBREAK OF HER LIFE, YET SHE DOESN’T FEEL SHAMED AND CONDEMNED. IN HIS PRESENCE SHE FEELS LOVED AND LIBERATED!
How is this possible, she wonders? This goes against everything she’s ever been taught about religion.
Could this be the Messiah?
Could she really let go OF HER RELIGION and TRUST THE REVELATION—Trust ENOUGH TO fall into the arms of the God she has met in Jesus?