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God's Word on Sunday: God is closest when times are tough

  • March 8, 2020

Third Sunday of Lent, March 15 (Year A) Exodus 17:3-7; Psalm 95; Romans 5:1-2, 5-8; John 4:5-42

Water is an absolute necessity for life. We feel its absence very quickly and soon reach a point where we would do anything to quench our thirst.

We can sympathize with the Israelites as they journeyed through the scorching and inhospitable desert. They had no water and knew that time was running out. Moses even feared for his life from the angry mob. But that was the whole point: God had promised to care for them, and this was a test of just how much the people believed and trusted God.

It would be the first of many such tests presented to the people, all of which they failed miserably. Tragically, fear seemed to reign throughout most of their sojourn in the desert. When fear takes over, faith and trust usually are the first casualties.

God commanded Moses to strike a certain rock with his staff and when he did, water gushed forth abundantly, averting the immediate crisis. The place was then named Massah and Meribah — meaning “testing” and “strife” — denoting that this is where the people had quarrelled and tested God.

The psalm exhorts us to listen to the voice of the Lord and not harden our hearts like the people at Massah and Meribah. It is good advice because that is exactly what we do so often when faced with adversity, suffering or disappointment.

In biblical terms, to harden one’s heart is to be rigid and uncomprehending, failing to see the deeper spiritual significance of events. The temptation is very great to lose confidence in God and give in to the illusion that God is not present or does not care.

The moments when the going gets tough are the times when we are closest to God. We can experience a real transformation of mind and heart, growing stronger in our faith, commitment and experience of God’s presence.

The times in which we live will continue to test us. We are faced with a choice: quarrel and test God, or open our hearts to God’s power and compassionate care.

Paul speaks of faith and hope. Faith, which is absolute trust in God, gives us a deep and abiding peace. Our hope in salvation and wholeness is answered by the love that God pours into our hearts through the Holy Spirit. But that faith and confidence in God comes first — we cannot turn away from God every time things don’t go well.

Paul offers some evidence of this great love: Christ died for us as we are, with no preconditions. In a similar fashion, we reach out in compassion and acceptance to others as they are, not as we would like them to be.

The encounter of Jesus with the Samaritan woman at the well is a story with many layers of meaning. It is filled with symbols and double meanings, but the most important one is that of water.

In the story, water’s life-giving qualities are taken to a new level. It becomes the symbol for the life-giving Spirit of God, which Jesus gives to those who believe in Him. Ordinary water leaves one thirsty again, while the living water that Jesus gives quenches our thirst for God eternally.

As with other metaphors used in John’s Gospel, Jesus used an ordinary word in an extraordinarily spiritual and enlightening way. Jesus gently nudged the woman towards a recognition of His status as the Messiah and an expression of faith.

Near the end of their encounter, the woman asked Jesus a question. She wanted to know where it was proper to worship in Jerusalem as the Jews did, or on Mount Gerizim, the spiritual home of the Samaritans. Jesus surprised her by rejecting both choices.

A new era had arrived with His coming into the world. From now on, true believers would worship God in Spirit and truth, for God is Spirit.

Access to God would not be confined to places, peoples or rituals — the Spirit would grant direct and personal access to God. The human heart and soul would become the altar and temple.

If we accept this, then we must treat ourselves and others accordingly.

We have been graced with the means to know and experience God. Let us take it seriously and not give it away or let it wither and die.