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Third Sunday in Lent

Readings: Exodus 17:1–7, Romans 5:1–11 & John 4:5–42

In the Bible, the Book of Exodus tells the story of God freeing the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and bringing them to the Promised Land of Canaan. With Moses leading them, their journey took forty years as they travelled through the wilderness, and on several occasions along the way they experienced situations where they lost faith in God.

The first was when they arrived at the springs of Marah, after three days without water, only to find the water in the springs contaminated; and the second was when they travelled from Elim to the wilderness of Sin without food and felt they would die of starvation. And even though God provided for them on both of those occasions, the people still lost faith for a third time when, after travelling through the wilderness of Sin, they arrived at Rephidim and found no water there.

On each occasion, they lost faith when they faced adversity; when they had to contend with trouble or suffering. In our world today there are Christians who lose faith in God when they experience trouble or suffering. I read a story recently about a young woman, with a strong faith, who experienced a relationship breakdown, and then lost custody of her only child in the ensuing custody hearing. She decided there must not be a God, because if there was, how could He let her go through the pain and suffering she had experienced.

The  Apostle Paul had a very different view on this. When writing to the church in Rome, Paul said that Christians had been justified by faith, that is, by the grace of God, they were both brought into a good relationship with God, and also given the promise of eternal life with God, if they believed in Jesus Christ. Paul drew on his own personal experience of suffering to say that not only should Christians boast in the hope of sharing eternal life with God, but they should also boast in their time of suffering. 

He argued that suffering leads to endurance, which in turn leads to character, which in turn leads to hope, and we are not disappointed in hope, because that hope comes to us through God’s love, which God Himself has given us in the gift of the Holy Spirit. And as I’ve already mentioned, Paul wasn’t just making this up, he had experienced great suffering himself as he went about proclaiming the gospel. He was beaten, flogged,  stoned and imprisoned for his belief that Jesus was the Messiah, but none of that stopped him from spreading the good news of Jesus.

From my childhood, I have always believed that God is with me, helping me get through tough times, but I have certainly had moments when I thought that God might have deserted me. I experienced a particularly difficult period between 2007 and 2009 when I was first made redundant from my role as a Sales Director of a multinational food manufacturer, which paid a very good salary, and was subsequently out of work for over seven months. During that same time my second marriage ended, and then a failed business venture left me broke and sleeping on my mother’s couch for a number of weeks. 

During that time, I regularly turned to the Bible, looking for strength and hope. I would read particular passages, and feel better for a day or two, but then my spirits would drop and I would feel the worry and anxiety closing in around me again. So I would read passages from the Bible again, feel better for a few days, and then slip back into the feelings of despair. That cycle lasted for a number of months but eventually it broke, and I then started to feel positive and hopeful about the future. In my own case, the suffering produced endurance, the endurance produced character, and the character produced hope.

Psychiatrist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross developed a similar sequence to Paul’s, which has been described as the ‘five stages of grief’ model, with the five stages being: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. The model has been applied both to people who are dying from incurable diseases, and also to people experiencing relationship breakdowns. 

When thinking about either this model, or Paul’s sequence, we have to be mindful that we don’t think of them as being too linear, that is, something that just occurs in a straight line, with one stage automatically following on from the one before it. We know the journey from suffering to hope is not linear and that suffering, endurance, and character are not bus stops that follow automatically. Each stage is a challenge in which we might dwell as witnesses to God’s presence, even in God’s apparent absence.

Paul’s words in verse 5 of today’s passage can help people dwell in each stage with grace: “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” This generosity of God is worth holding up and affirming. God’s love is “poured into our hearts.” We need to have it poured. We need to drink it in, freely, eagerly, over and over again in order for our lives to move, with God’s help, toward the hope that does not disappoint. It’s God’s power at work in us that makes the progression possible.

I think that what Paul was saying about the love of God being poured into our hearts, is very similar to the living water that Jesus speaks about in today’s gospel passage. When Jesus says that the water he gives will be like a “spring of water gushing up to eternal life”, I can’t help but think that God’s love moves us towards the hope that does not disappoint, which is the hope of eternal life with God.

Aspects of today’s gospel story, like our earlier story from the Book of Exodus, also contain a message about faith. Jesus has come to a Samaritan city, and engages in dialogue with a Samaritan woman at a well. The author of John tells us the Jews and Samaritans don’t get along. The Jews and Samaritans are both descendants of Jacob, once upon a time they were both members of the nation of Israel. One of the things that divides them is their belief about where God must be worshipped. For the Samaritans it was on Mount Gerizim, whereas for the Jews it was in the Temple in Jerusalem. The Jews also considered their traditions were superior, and carried with them the authentic revelation of God, which is something that Jesus alludes to when he says to the woman, “You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.” (John 4:22 NRSV)

However Jesus also tells the woman that “the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem”. Jesus is referring to the fact that God will be worshipped through him, because God has been revealed in him. In response to this the woman says to Jesus that she knows the Messiah is coming, and in turn Jesus tells her that he is in fact the Messiah.

The woman believes that Jesus is the Messiah and she convinces other Samaritans to come and listen to Jesus for themselves, and they become believers based on the word of Jesus. This is a stark contrast to the reaction from the Jews in Jerusalem, where people only believed in him based on the signs or miracles they saw him perform. And like the Israelites in the story from the Book of Exodus, who lost faith in God when things got difficult, the Jews would also turn away from Jesus when things got too difficult for them.

But we can take heart from Paul’s message in today’s passage from Romans, that when we face times of trouble and suffering, God is with us, His love has been poured into our hearts through the gift of the Holy Spirit which God has given us.

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