Material for Worship on the Third Sunday of Lent, 12th March, 2023

Moira writes: This morning in our three readings we are reminded that God cares for us and wants us to seek him out when we struggling with our sin and with our faith. He wants to give us hope and he also wants to renew and reform our lives to bring us closer to him. In our Old Testament reading, Exodus 17:1-7, the people were thirsty both physically and spiritually. Their faith was failing, and they questioned whether God was still with them or had abandoned them. In the second reading, Romans 5:1-11, Paul points out to his readers that when they find themselves (ourselves) having to endure suffering, they (we) needn’t worry because when they (we) endure and trust in God, his grace will give them (us) hope. Paul also reminds us all that when Christ died for our sin, it was taken away from us so that we might be reconciled with God.

As you reflect on this image by Jeff Preston and read our Gospel passage, John 4:5-42, try to picture yourself as the woman at the well and notice how she feels when she realises that Jesus knows her every secret.

It’s a true saying that we never know what goes on behind closed doors. It’s impossible to know what is going on in the lives of others, because quite often the person before us puts on a front to protect themselves. In our Gospel story, Jesus knows all about the woman who is standing before him. He can see into her soul and knows the things that trouble her. However, we mere mortals do not have that power, and so we have to be careful when we are talking to people and realise that there could be things going on in their lives which they might be sensitive about. All of us has had, at one time or another, deep rooted fears or insecurities that we have hidden from one another. Perhaps we have unresolved issues or painful experiences we have tried to bury, but which keep rising to the surface. And so we all have parts of our lives that we don’t want others to see. Everyone is also affected by what is called ‘social programming.’ Just like a computer is programmed to do certain things, so our upbringing and our social interaction with others programmes our lives. We are constantly bombarded with information which has the potential to shape or reshape our lives, especially the process by which we develop our beliefs, attitudes and feelings about ourselves, other people and even God.

When we begin our journey of faith, we begin to allow God to re-programme us, to change us into the people he wants us to be. As Christians we are constantly re-forming ourselves as we learn and grow in God’s Word. Throughout the Old Testament we hear stories of people who try to hide from God, but it’s all in vain. Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden were first, because their nakedness became apparent to them after they ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge. Cain hid from God because of what he did to his brother Abel. Jonah tried to hide from God because God wanted him to go to Nineveh with a message of repentance, and later on, David tried to hide from God after his sin over Bathsheba. Here in our Gospel story, the Samaritan woman was convinced quite quickly after speaking to Jesus, that here was no ordinary man. How on earth did he know of her past marriages and her extramarital affair? In his encounter with the Samaritan woman and in revealing to her, her past misdemeanours, we can see that Jesus is showing an attribute of God, revealing that he himself is God incarnate. How else would he know all these things about the Samaritan woman. In this season of Lent, we are more conscious of our sins than at any other time of the year I think, and perhaps when we have a time of silence before the absolution in our Liturgy, we begin to bring to God the things that we know we should be confessing. Confession of sins, whether in private or through speaking them aloud to another person, is not giving God any information that he doesn’t already know. However, it’s the person who repents who is being informed, bringing to the surface what it would be more comfortable to keep to ourselves. Believe me when I say that nothing that is said or done this Lent will surprise God, but it might just surprise us.

In our Gospel passage, the Samaritan woman was fully aware of her pain and agony, and over the years had learned to deal with it on her own. She had plenty of reasons to feel guilty and even reasons to blame herself for all her shortcomings. She had been programmed to feel this way by the society she lived in. First of all, she was a woman with a lesser role in the patriarchal society she lived in. More so, because at the time she had no husband to protect her reputation. Secondly, she was a woman with a bad reputation, people no doubt knew of her infidelities and her shortcomings and as was the way in these times, the finger was always pointed at the woman in adultery and not the man. Thirdly, she was a Samaritan, a foreigner and a second-class citizen which meant in the culture of that time that she was a person to be avoided. And fourth of all, she was a person who was spiritually thirsty and hungry, searching in her own way for peace, love and acceptance and something more.

Picture now Jesus coming into this scene at the well. How did he react and deal with the woman’s predicament? Firstly, Jesus didn’t reject the woman, but he accepted her, just as she was, warts and all, and because of this it opened the way for dialogue and for listening to her needs. Secondly, Jesus helped the woman to see where she was going wrong in her life and why she was perhaps feeling rejected and put down. Jesus let her see for herself how the sins that she was carrying were weighing her down and that if she could name these sins and leave them behind, putting her trust in God and his healing power, her life would be re-formed and re-energised. Thirdly, Jesus showed her how to praise God through worship, not in a particular place, but in spirit and in truth. It’s not the places that we worship that are most important, although they often help us in our devotion, but it’s the action of worship and following the ways of discipleship that count more. And finally, Jesus reveals himself to the woman as the Messiah, the Son of God. The Samaritan woman declares “I know that Messiah is coming, when he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” And Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.” It’s exciting to see Jesus piercing through layer after layer of social programming and personal responsibility in this Samaritan woman’s life. It took years for her to be the way she was, but Jesus had already begun the healing process. Hidden cupboards were opened, open wounds were healed, scars were dealt with, grace, love and forgiveness were flowing like a river of living waters as the inner longings of a lonely soul were met by the Master.

Can you picture the woman of Samaria talking to people today? She might say something like this: Hi, I am a foreigner to you but it doesn’t matter to God, it doesn’t matter to me, so it shouldn’t matter to you. Listen, I have great news. Jesus is the Messiah. He revealed that to me. I was lost, really lost but I have been found. I have been re-programmed now, re-formed. And all of this is based on God’s grace and freedom. I don’t have to do anything to earn God’s favour. Now I want to serve God because of what God has done for me. And what about us today? Do we have issues we are not dealing with, do we have things that we need to name to God? Perhaps we are becoming aware of our blind spots and are in need of re-programming, of re-forming by God. Perhaps we can try to use this time of Lent to work on these things. Just as in the Springtime we uproot the weeds growing in our gardens, during Lent let’s uproot the things we don’t need, the things that are holding us back from being the people God wants us to be. Only then can we allow God to work in our lives and plant the seeds that we do need in our lives, so that new life can spring up. Remember, God knows everything before we even decide to open our souls to him. “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!”