Know God within your heart, soul

  • February 19, 2008

Third Sunday of Lent (Year A) Feb. 24 (Exodus 17:3-7; Romans 5:1-2, 5-8; Psalm 95; John 4:5-42)

Is the Lord with me or not? A very human question — perhaps one we have asked many times. One might prod the complaining Israelites to remember all of the mighty wondrous deeds that God performed on their behalf in order to liberate them from bondage in Egypt. But people can have very short memories concerning acts of kindness, especially when God is the benefactor. What has he or she — or God — done for me lately?

It is easy to become absolutely possessed by our immediate difficulties and struggles, and that is what happened to the Israelites. Their murmuring and complaining — the unhappy fruit of resentment and fear that poisons the heart — begin to be vented against Moses. They are afraid of death and long for bondage in Egypt. Forgotten is the suffering they experienced in bondage and their cries for deliverance. Freedom can be a scary thing for it calls on us to display courage, perseverance and trust. God provides water for them and later on food, both from unlikely sources. When we are journeying with God we can “expect the unexpected” — God will often work in ways that surprise and challenge us.

The journey through the wilderness becomes an epic struggle between the compassion and power of God on the one hand and the negativity and fear of the people on the other. Ultimately it is a partial failure and God keeps them in the wilderness until the generation born in slavery has passed from the scene. It is easy to praise God and be faithful when all is going well. But somehow many are deceived by the notion that being religious or fervent in one’s faith will smooth the road that one travels. That is certainly not the case and it is this very idea that causes so many to become disillusioned and “lose their faith.” Believers are not exempt from tragedy, failure, struggle and suffering. God has not promised to make it all go away, but only to be there for us always.

Paul would agree, but unfortunately we must go to two verses omitted by the lectionary committee. The vanishing verses insist that it is precisely because we are at peace with God and have access to grace that we can boast and exult in sufferings. Suffering produces character, Paul says, and character produces hope. And we will never be disappointed by this hope. Our struggles refine and perfect our soul, but faith and hope are the necessary conditions.

Throughout His ministry Jesus habitually crossed boundaries and barriers and this encounter in Samaria is no exception. By engaging in conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well He has already pushed back the boundaries of gender, religion and ethnicity. But the most formidable barrier that He has stepped across is that of fear and mistrust — the same barrier that is the cause of so much grief and pain today. With gentle and playful irony Jesus engaged the woman in conversation and began to brush aside the veil of human incomprehension. In a desert climate the linkage of water and life is a powerful metaphor. Despite her initial confusion at His reference to living water, it soon becomes obvious that Jesus is speaking of the Spirit that only He can give. It is something that will satisfy all human longing for God and will never fade away or fail: the permanent residence of God in the human heart and soul.

As the woman began to be intrigued by this enigmatic stranger and his message, age-old questions bubbled to the surface. Who is right, we Samaritans or you Jews? Where is God properly worshipped — here in Samaria or in Jerusalem? As is often the case, neither option is “correct” — the answer transcends both and must have been disturbing to His listeners. He insists that He is heralding a new spiritual order in which divinity is not tied to location, group, status or class. Worshipping God in spirit and truth means worshipping and knowing God directly in the holiest and most sacred place in the world: within the human heart and soul. In this experience of God there is no need whatsoever for the religious possessiveness, competition and uncertainty that are the plague of our own time.