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THIRD SUNDAY IN LENT -- YEAR A
RCL: Exodus 17:1-7; Romans 5:1-11; John 4:5-42
RoCa: Exodus 17:1-7; Romans 5:1-2, 5-8; John 4:5-42
 

Exodus 17:1-7

Reflections and Questions

1. Is the account of why Moses has to die in Deut. 32:48-52 a mythologization? In the Exodus 17 account of the waters of Meribah, there is no hint of disobedience by either Moses or Aaron, the reason stated for their having to die before reaching the promised land in Deut. 32. Interestingly, there is another account of the waters of Meribah at the beginning of Numbers 20 in which Moses and Aaron disobey by striking the rock twice -- but this is a prelude to explaining why Aaron has to die by the end of Numbers 20! I must admit that the Girardian understanding of myth has me questioning what really happened with the deaths of Moses and Aaron. It almost seems more likely to me that they were killed because someone got tired of their leadership, making them the scapegoats at times of crisis, but were able to successfully mythologize the account of Exodus 17 so that God could be blamed for their deaths as appropriate punishments for their disobedience.


Romans 5:1-11

Exegetical Note

1. There is an exegetical note that is of tremendous importance to me. I would dare to say that this decision of translators changes the entire nature of our reading of Romans. I am referring to the last phrase of 5:9 in the NRSV: "saved through him from the wrath of God." The original Greek is simply: sothesometha di' autou apo tes orges. In short, there is no trace of the words of God in the original. The translators have assumed God's ownership of the wrath and inserted it in. (By the way, in verse 5:2, "rejoice in the hope of the glory of God," Paul does bother to state the words of God, so Paul wasn't in the habit of leaving out words that we should feel like we need to fill in.)

Is it just the NRSV? I have twelve English translations ready at hand with my Bibleworks software program, and eight of the twelve add God into the equation of "the wrath." (If you are interested in the four which didn't: the King James, New King James, New American Bible, and [true to its name] Young's Literal Translation.) In the New Jerusalem Bible, the translators even interpretatively change the verb to "the retribution of God"!

It makes me want to cry out, "My God! It is clear that we are still your enemies!"

We continue to want to make God responsible for our violence -- even when St. Paul is trying desperately to work that difficult transformation of the idea of God's wrath simply into "the wrath." Paul in Romans is trying to help us to see that the wrath which kills us is our own wrath. If God is said to have a wrath at all, it is simply one of turning us over to the consequences of our own wrath. This addition on the part of the translators completely kills Paul's efforts! See a full exposition of this thesis regarding Paul's re-working of the "wrath of God" in Romans in "My Core Convictions," Part II.

It becomes imperative that I offer you once again James Alison's insights into the transformation of "the wrath of God," cited from the section "The Pauline Witness" in The Joy of Being Wrong (from chapter four of that book, which we have been featuring during Lent). Last week I offered you the excerpt of this section in its entirety; this week it important to give you the first four paragraphs in the body of these reflections:

If it can be accepted that one of the first fruits of the resurrection in terms of human understanding is a new understanding of God (deathless, loving his son, and thus showing righteousness), and simultaneously, a new understanding of humankind (constituted in death, killing the son, and thus showing sinfulness, within a context of forgiveness), then we can imagine (at least) two stages to the preaching of this new insight. The first is an early stage in which this insight is preached as such, within the terms of reference of the linguistic-religious matrix within which the insight was born. The second stage is the gradual development from this insight of a new language about God and about humankind, where, consonant with the insight itself, there begins to develop a theology based on the new understanding of God, and a dependent anthropology based on the new understanding of humanity. It seems to me that we have evidence of exactly this process in the juxtaposition of the Pauline and the Johannine witnesses.

In the Johannine witness, set out above, we have a later stage in the development where the anthropological working out of the insight is clearer, as is the clarification of the understanding of God from elements of discourse formed within human violence. (1) Thus John is able both to offer a theology worked out from the new understanding of God, and reveal the anthropological mechanism that led to the revelation more clearly as an anthropological mechanism. In the Pauline witness we have a somewhat earlier stage in the working out of the same insight, where the place of the Johannine anthropological mechanism is taken by Paul's meditation on the function of the law. It seems to me that by reading the Pauline version of the same basic insight in the light of the Johannine development it becomes possible to achieve a certain clarity as to what Paul is about that is entirely faithful to his thought. The evidence is to be found in the first eight chapters of Romans. (2)

In the first place we can see that for Paul the Gospel is the Gospel of the righteousness of God. This is what the death and resurrection of Jesus has revealed for him. That is shown in Romans 1:17, and again in Romans 3:25. What has happened in between these two references is that Paul, because of the necessity of clarifying the question of the exact theological nature of the Law, has gone in for a long explanation of the inverse consequence of the same revelation of the righteousness of God: the revelation of what he calls the wrath of God. The content of this revelation is exactly the same as what I suggested above: that all humans are constitutionally wrong (we all have a "debased mind," 1:28), and constitutionally idolaters, as is demonstrated by our not knowing the righteousness of God. It would be as well to examine this notion of the wrath of God because of the easy misunderstanding to which it is prone.

The word wrath (orgé) appears ten times in Romans. Only once does it appear as the wrath of God (Rom. 1:18). On the one occasion where it appears to be something inflicted by God on people as a result of our wickedness (Rom. 3:5) Paul expressly indicates the mythical nature of the terminology ("I speak in a human way"). On all the other occasions where the term appears (2:5, 8; 4:15; 5:9; 9:22; 12:19; 13:4, 5) it is impersonal. Even in the first case, where the orgé is linked to theou the content of the wrath of God is itself a demythification of a vindictive account of God (whose righteousness has just been declared). For the content of the wrath is the handing over by God of us to ourselves. Three times in the following verses the content of the wrath is described in terms of handing over: 1:24; 1:26; and 1:28. That is to say that the wrath, rather than being an act of divine vengeance is a divine non-resistance to human evil. (3) However, I would suggest that it is more than that. The word "handed over" (paredoken) has, in primitive Christian sources a particularly subtle set of resonances. (4) For God is described as handing over (paredoken) his own son to us in a text no further from our own than Romans 8:32. The handing over of the son to us, and the handing over of ourselves to sin appear to be at the very least parallel. The same verb (paredothé) is used in 4:25 where Jesus was handed over for our trespasses, and raised for our justification. I would suggest that it is the handing over of the son to our killing him that is in fact the same thing as handing us over to our own sins. Thus wrath is life in the sort of world which kills the son of God. (JBW, pp. 125-127)

Resources

1. James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong, p. 151. As a follow-up to this week's (and last week's) excerpt on "The Pauline Witness," I offer an excerpt of Alison's section from the next chapter on "The Pauline Understanding of Desire" (pp. 147-156). It's a bit longer but a good follow-up, I think, to last week's reflections on Paul. I think that it also fits the pattern of John 3-4. John 3 gives us the problem of our involvement in death along with God's promise of life. John 4 seems to focus more on the problem of distorted desire: namely, that with mimetic desire our desires become famished cravings, a continual thirst for more -- in short, addictions. Only Jesus offers the living water of desiring in God's love that can quench our thirst. This week's offerings from Alison on Paul focus more on that latter problem (see also below).

2. Gil Bailie, "Paul's Letter to the Romans" audio tape series, tape #4.

3. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, Sacred Violence, pp. 171-173. He sees Romans 5:1-11 as parallel to 1 Corinthians 13 in laying out for us the foundation of a new human order based on "The True Triangle of Love: Faith, Hope, and Love." Link to an excerpt of the first part of chapter 7, "Sacred Violence and the Reformation of Desire," pp. 161-173. Here is the conclusion which puts Romans 5:1-11 at the heart of his argument:

For Paul the chief concrete image of agape is the self-giving of Christ in the crucifixion. In Romans 5:1-11 the triad of faith, hope, and love points to the work of Christ as the substance of the idea of love. The essence of the divine agape is the act of God in giving the Son to die for enemies (Rom 5:10). In Galatians 2:19-21 the crucifixion is a demonstration of the fact that God "loved me and gave himself for me" (tou agapesantos me kai paradontos heauton hyper emou -- Gal 2:20). In 2 Corinthians 5:14 -- "the love of Christ controls us because we are convinced that one has died for all (hyper panton); therefore all have died" -- expresses the same idea.

The essence of these statements is in the preposition hyper with the genitive: Christ died on our behalf, to do us good, to give us something of value. This inverts the insinuation of the serpent that God is envious. It demonstrates the divine generosity and thus disarms rivalry with God, replacing it with the proper mimesis of God's love. (p. 173)

Reflections and Questions

1. "For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son..." I view this as the evangelical basis for the Christian ethical charge to love others even to the point of loving our enemies. We come to be able to love our enemies because God loved us even while we were still enemies. Once again, see "My Core Convictions," Part II.


John 4:5-42

Resources

1. James Alison, Raising Abel, p. 195. Alison gives the penultimate word in this book to Rev. 7 and John 4, with their images of satisfied desire in never-ending waters. (The last word goes to Hebrews 12:18-24.) Some of what comes before his quote of John 4 connects to the issue of suffering raised by Romans 5:1-5 (mentioned above). But I'm only going to share the last paragraph:

Here it seems to me that we have a key issue: the revelation of God's absolutely creative vitality serves to re-create and nourish our imagination, and, at the same time, the fact that we be induced into praising God, opening out our imagination, works to allow us to be seduced by a beauty and a joy which, they alone, serve to re-create in us ever deeper desires which will never be frustrated, which will be satisfied and fulfilled beyond our wildest hopes. It is not for nothing that an Elder points the seer of Revelation to those who are dressed in white, bringing together elements from Isaiah (49:10 and 25:8), and from Psalm 23, and mixing them with the image of the lamb standing slain in the center of the heavenly liturgy: 'These are they which have come out of the great tribulation, and have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the lamb. It is because of this that they are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple: and he that sitteth on the throne shall dwell among them. They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more; neither shall they suffer the scorching of the sun, for the lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall feed them, and shall lead them unto living fountains of waters: and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes.' (Rev 7:14-17) Fountains of living water! The biblical symbol par excellence, proper to a harsh, dry, Middle Eastern land, of human desire absolutely fulfilled, without frustration, running over, harmonious and peaceable. It is this same fountain which Jesus had offered to the woman at the well of Samaria, instead of the water which does not satisfy: 'The one who drinks of the water which I shall give will never more be thirsty: for the water that I shall give will become in that person a spring of water welling up into life without end.' (John 4:14) The fixing of the mind on the things that are above has as its end to recreate in us a pacific imitative desire which does not know frustration, but whose longing, viscerally moved, is to participate actively, by creating the wedding banquet of the Lamb in the midst of this world, in God's creative vivaciousness, utterly incapable of frustration.
2. Gil Bailie, "The Gospel of John" audio tape series, tape # 4. Link to my notes / transcription of Bailie's lecture on John 3-4.

3. Andrew Marr, "Healing a Broken Community at the Well" (online article). He expands on the theme that this woman was likely a scapegoat for her town's people; he compares it to Girard's reading of the Gerasene Demoniac.

4. Tom Truby, member of Theology & Peace, used Girardian insights to offer a sermon in 2011, titled "Thirst Quenching"; and in 2014 "Knowing What We Keep Secret."

Reflections and Questions

1. Many of the details of this story are lost on the modern audience who do not realize the dynamics of a first century Jewish man talking to a Samaritan woman. I think it is helpful to get into character as one of the Samaritan men from this woman's town (or, for female preachers, the woman herself) who came to believe because of her testimony. In more of a narrative form, it is easier to fill in some of those dynamics without it sounding too much like a lecture. For an example, see the sermons "A Shocking Revelation," the 1996, 1999, and 2002 versions, which start out similarly but have differing conclusions. In 1996 I focused more on Bailie's theme of having a loving encounter with Jesus that changes, that gives us the psychological (he uses the term "ontological" more these days) depth we need to exist in our modern situation. In 1999 I emphasized more the fact that this woman's testimony was the first key to the many other Samaritans who came to have an encounter with Jesus, too, through her. We were emphasizing outreach into our urban neighborhood at Emmaus, and a key to that is learning to share our own healing encounters with Jesus. The 2002 version is somewhat of a hybrid; I was also using the format of reading John's text within the character's telling of the story.

2. An element that I missed in my 1996 and 1999 renderings of this story (which I tried to correct a bit in 2002) is one for which, as a man, I welcome the help of female colleagues to see: the mythologizing element for a woman such as the one we meet in this story. The ending of her marriages may have been for relatively innocent reasons in a culture in which the husband has a complete monopoly on the matter of divorce. The succession of marriages would have the habit of building on one another to destroy the woman's reputation -- sadly, perhaps even to the point at which she internalizes it, too. It seems by the habit of going to the well at midday, a time when she would be least likely to meet others, that she had a bad reputation. But in a patriarchal society, how much of that reputation grew out of the woman's own actions, and how much out of the scapegoating mechanisms of a culture oppressive to women?

3. Another element to attend to would be the idea of living water posed above under the Romans 5 lesson. The water which quenches (in John 6 it will be the bread of life which satisfies) is a remedy for the distortions of human desire. With mimetic desire bouncing off of one another, our desires become famished cravings, a continual thirst for more -- in short, addictions. Only Jesus offers the living water of desiring in God's love (the antidote to desiring through each other) that can quench our thirst.

And Jesus mixes his metaphors when the disciples return with food, telling them, "My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work" (John 4:34). There could hardly be a more direct playing into the language of mimetic theory. Jesus came to satisfy our famished cravings by nourishing us with God's desire. (The language of completing God's work also looks ahead to next week's John 9 passage and James Alison's brilliant reading of it.)

4. In 2005 I began the Lenten season by preaching the story of Genesis 3 around the insight of mimetic theory into persons as being constituted through the eyes of others. "Self-consciousness," often tied with the maturation process of 'losing the innocence' of childhood, is, according to mimetic theory, more accurately an "other-consciousness." We become increasingly aware of how others see us, and so we increasingly see ourselves through the eyes of others. My reflections for Lent 1 bring out the role of eyes in the Genesis 3 story; and I suggest a good February story, the movie Groundhog Day, as an illustration of seeing ourselves and the world through the eyes of others. I also suggest an ideal Girardian resource for understanding this theme, namely, Chapter 9 of James Alison's On Being Liked.

John 3 presents the opportunity to extend this theme over several weeks -- the theme of persons constituted through the eyes of others -- through its language of being born from above. We are reborn from above as we find ourselves being known through God's loving eyes in Jesus Christ. Nicodemus is still perhaps too closed off to this possibility. He even comes under the cover of darkness, signaling his not wanting to be seen.

This week's text in John 4 provides a good example of being reborn in the Samaritan woman at the well. She encounters Jesus in the bright light of high noon, and through the eyes of Jesus she is able to see herself in a new light. And Lent 4A brings a climax of these themes, perhaps, with the John 9 text about rebirthing humanity and healing our blindness by seeing ourselves through the forgiving eyes of Jesus. Will there be an extension of these themes for the John 11 text of Lent 5A? In 2005 I'm in a team ministry and don't preach every week; but perhaps 2008 will provide the opportunity for five weeks under the theme: "Reborn from above to eternal life through God's loving eyes in Jesus Christ."

5. The 2005 sermon (largely extemporized from notes and not offered here as a manuscript) did have behind it the theme of seeing ourselves through others, but developed it in terms of John's basic image: I spoke of our thirst for an unconditional love to affirm us as worthy human beings. We all suffer from this to some extent or another. But I explored it in the case of this woman and the parallel modern categories of sexism and racism. I had attended the Friday before a town hall meeting on racism. There are the huge institutional ways in which racism affects people of color, such as much higher incarceration rates, especially for drug offenses. (The statistics show that white people are most frequently imprisoned for violent crimes, as we would expect; but people of color are currently most often imprisoned not for violent crime, but for drug offenses.) Prison is a sure place in our modern world for a person's spirit to die of thirst. But it is even more difficult for white folks to understand all the little ways that people of color face day-to-day of having their affirmation dried up. The woman of color who was presenting on fair housing took a moment to tell one of these stories. She is a black Latina woman and was shopping with a fair-skinned woman of Mexican heritage; she was the one trying to make the purchase, but the sales clerk kept addressing her fair-skinned friend.

As a white male, I can become aware of the privilege that this rarely if ever happens to me. I've seen it happen to my wife: we are buying a car together and she is doing most of the talking, but the sales person keeps addressing me. I've seen it happen to people in wheel-chairs, that others will talk to the person pushing the chair as if the one in the chair isn't there. It happens a lot to children -- I've done it myself -- that we address the adult with them on a matter that more directly involves them. There are so many ways everyday in which we treat others as lesser, and we ourselves are treated as such. There are also insidious and massive ways in which such treatment as lessers is institutionalized around skin color, ethnic heritage, gender, physical ability, sexual preference, and so on. And so our world continues to be thirsty for the unconditional love of a heavenly parent who shows no preferential treatment, sending the Son to die as one cast out and raising him as the source of living water of that unconditional love and forgiveness. The woman at the well, and her fellow citizens of Sychar, received a foretaste of that living water for poured out for all in the cross. (Remember that John is the only evangelist who has a soldier pierce Jesus's side for a gush of water.)

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Notes

1. But see John 3:36 ! It is clear from the context, however, that this is an anthropological reality, not a theological one. It is less immediately clear that the same is true of the Pauline uses of wrath (though it is no less true).

2. I am much indebted for the treatment that follows to R. Hamerton-Kelly Sacred Violence (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992) especially chapter 4, "Sacred Violence and Original Sin," 88 - 119.

3. As Hamerton-Kelly indicates, Sacred Violence, 101

4. This word is vital and recurrent in all the Gospels, where much is made of the irony of God handing over Jesus, Judas handing over Jesus, and Jesus handing over himself.