Creekside Church
Sermon of March 15, 2020

"A Matter of Life and Death"
John 4:5-15

Rosanna McFadden


Good morning! This is the third Sunday of Lent, and actually the fourth time which some of you have heard about our Lenten theme, “Holy Manna: Food for body and spirit:” if you were at the Ash Wednesday service we introduced it then. There’s been a lot of talk the past few weeks about the desert and the wilderness -- Jesus tempted in the desert after forty days of fasting, and Moses and the children of Israel wandering in the wilderness for forty years before they reached the Promised Land. Hopefully all this hot air has not been a complete surprise to you: the Middle East is the birthplace of both Judaism and Christianity, and there’s a lot of arid land and low humidity in that part of the world. There’s a reason that we don’t have biblical stories set in the arctic or the tropical rainforest: it isn’t that God is not in those places, but the people who wrote the Bible were not.

The other reason why all this desert-y stuff should come as no surprise is that I’ve shared my intention to use both Old testament and New Testament scriptures during Lent, and see what we might learn by setting these texts beside one another. The desert is practically a character in the Old Testament, the way it shapes significant stories and the lives of Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac and Joseph. No Old Testament personality is more shaped by the desert wilderness than Moses. Moses has the unenviable task of taking an extended -- that is, forty year -- camping excursion with a multi-generational group of Hebrews who have never lived in the wilderness, and who had little time to prepare for the trip into a hostile environment. If that’s not enough to contend with, these people have an attitude. They are a stiff-necked people: apt to murmur, grumble, complain, and outright rebel by creating their own god out of melted jewelry, rather than waiting on the God of Moses. For forty years God has fed the people with manna: a flaky white substance which they can gather each morning and have enough for the day -- and their feet don’t swell up and their shoes don’t wear out.

And now, after forty years, the promised land is in sight, and as you might imagine, the people are hopping mad. You can find this account in Numbers 20, and also in Exodus 17. The people are mad because they don’t have anything to drink; they are dying of thirst. And they say to Moses for the umpteenth time, “Why did you bring us out in the wilderness for us and our livestock to die? Why did you bring us out of Egypt to this wretched place where we can’t grow grain or figs or grapes or pomegranates. Oh, what I’d give for a pomegranate after forty years.” I’d imagine that after a couple decades, Moses was ready to pull the Caravan over and make them all get out. Fortunately for our story, he prays to Yahweh instead. Yahweh has a plan, and Moses takes his staff and says to the people (and I’m actually quoting here): “Listen you rebels, shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” And Moses lifts up his staff and strikes the rock twice, and water comes gushing out: enough for the people and their livestock.

Next to this story we set the account of John 4 and Jesus’ conversation with a Samaritan woman. I referred last week to the structure of John’s gospel and the signs which point to Jesus as Messiah. This is the next chapter after Jesus’ conversation with the Jewish leader Nicodemus, and it is one more step in increasing the scope and the range of people learning about Jesus. The obvious connection between this story and the wilderness story from Numbers is water. The people of Israel were dying of thirst and God, through Moses, provided them with enough water for them and their livestock. Of course, all these people and animals were going to get thirsty again, and would need more water. Eventually, all of them -- even Moses -- were going to die; not necessarily die of thirst, but die from intention (especially the animals), accident, disease, or old age.

The Samaritan woman has an interesting back story which Jesus miraculously knows, and has been the subject of a good deal of scholarly speculation: she’s been married five times and is currently living with a man who is not her husband. She probably knows a thing or two about death -- maybe some of those husbands died, it is likely that she was divorced if she was unable to bear children. Her being at the well is obviously because she needs water like everyone else, but her being there alone at midday strongly suggests that she is an outcast from her community: a kind of social death. Jesus tells this woman about a different kind of water: a water that you can drink and never be thirsty again; a water that gushes up to eternal life.

We know that water is a matter of life and death. Every animal and plant in the world needs water: some need more, some have adapted to get by with very little, but without water, things die. And here is the irony: water can also kill you. You can swallow so much that you die -- this doesn’t usually happen unless someone forces you to do it -- or you can be immersed in water and drown. Much more common, though, is the risk of disease or death from things which are in the water which people drink. Dysentary, malaria, typhoid and cholera are all water-bourne diseases caused by poor sanitation. They aren’t that common in the US any more, but worldwide they pose terrible health risks. These are all forms of physical disease and death, of course: epidemics don’t have any respect for morality.

Sometimes the things which are life-giving: our commitment to gather together as an expression of our love for Christ and one another, the warmth with which we greet one another, our close fellowship -- those are things which in the presence of an infectious virus can put us and other people at risk. There is a time to gather and a time to refrain from gathering. Social distancing is a small price to pay in the long run for the health of our community.

The connections between the Old and New Testaments which I have tried to illustrate these past three weeks all have a common pattern: the Old Testament stories -- whether it’s the temptation of Adam and Eve, the children of Israel being subjected to and then saved from snakebite, or being provided with water in the desert -- all of those are narratives about physical provision and bodily death. The New Testament includes that bodily aspect of our lives, but Jesus brings the added dimension of spiritual life and death: they are not separate; the body is imbedded within the spirit. We need bread to survive, but we can’t live by bread alone: we must also live by the Word of God; we have been infected by sin -- the spiritual equivalent of snakebite -- and only by believing in Jesus Christ who will be lifted on a cross, can we be saved from our sin; the people who are fortunate enough to find water in the desert are going to need to drink again pretty soon, or they will die. The water which Jesus gives is eternal: the promise of the kingdom of God for those who believe and participate in it. In the course of her conversation with Jesus, the Samaritan woman comes to realize that he is the Messiah, and she shares that living water with her neighbors, many of whom come to believe in Jesus Christ.

I have been thinking about life and death a lot more than usual this week: mostly physical life and death. I don’t want to over-dramatic, but if it has not occurred to you that inadvertent or careless action on your part could compromise someone else’s life, you have not been paying attention to any news media. Obviously we drive automobiles which could be fatal to ourselves and others, but we generally know those rules and parameters, and we know that even if we drifted into the oncoming lane, if no one was coming, that danger has passed. Being in the middle of a national health emergency is different than that: there is a lot of uncertainty because we don’t yet know the parameters of the problem, and anxiety because we don’t yet know what the full impact will be. It has been helpful for me to hold all of those concerns within the larger framework of spiritual life and God’s care. First and most important for me is the conviction that the way we live our physical life matters for ourselves and others. Eternal life is not separate from life here and now: it begins with what we believe and how that belief transforms our behavior. What we do matters in the reign of God. The choices I make impact other people, whether it’s staying home because I don’t feel well, or teaching my children about Jesus. Second, I cannot control outcomes for other people: I can do everything in my power to insure their physical and spiritual well-being, but I can’t make their choices or promise they will be safe from harm. The welfare of members of this congregation weighs on me, as you might imagine, but it is beyond my power to save you. Finally, we are connected to other people -- whether we like it or not. We cannot separate the welfare of people in one country for those in another. Sin and disease do not respect political systems or geographic borders; Jesus came not only for the Jews, but to a Samaritan woman, and a Roman centurion, and for each one of us, because God loves the world, not one specific part of it.


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