Justification, Wrath and the Water of Life (Homily for Lent 3, March 23rd)

Bill Whitla’s Homily at Holy Trinity for Lent 3, March 23, 2014

Exodus 17:1-7

Grumbling people quarrelling with Moses

Demanding water to drink in the wilderness

Moses striking the rock so water will come out of it.

Using the same rod with which he smote the Nile. to poison it, now is used for fresh water to save the people of Israel.

People are testing Moses, but fundamentally testing God by asking Is the Lord among us or not?

It’s a good question about whether this testing and quarrelling —or the striking of the rock, becomes the reason that Moses cannot enter into the Promised Land (see Deut. 32: 48–52; see also Deut 20).

Psalm 95 alludes to the same passage from Exodus, but with no answer about whether Morses, Aaron, or the people did enough wrong to be punished by not seeing the Promised Land.

Romans 5:1-11

Cathy Miller mentioned some of the difficulties with Paul in Romans last week. And there are real difficulties—the theological language; the complex argument, the fact that Paul makes the most unambiguous (or are they ambiguous?) statements about same-sex relations in chapter 1; his comments on the meaning of the crucifixion and its relation to human beings in chapters 1 to 5; his use of the language of the lawcourts—and all of these are topics that we might discuss later at the forum. I must admit that I am solidly smitten with Romans. Always have been.

And for us at Holy Trinity there is the question of the Atonement. What does the Crucifixion mean and how is it related to the notion that we are all saved?

In to-day’s lesson from Romans, we come face-to-face with a problem that has been at the centre of our worship at Holy Trinity for Good Friday, our understanding of the Atonement —what does it mean to say that Christ died for our sins, and how are we “justified” or made free people?

Paul has come to the end of his argument that justification is a gift if God given to all who have faith. It’s a legal term, and it means that you are found to be made just—to be made righteous (for that is what the word “righteous” means in the NT): “Righteousness” means “justice.” Paul has been explaining justification by faith, the great Lutheran standing point. and here says that it comes with peace

And it looks as though he is contrasting the “Glory of God” in verse two with “the wrath of God” in verse 9

But here we come to a significant problem! The meaning what Paul is saying is tied up in the first sentence of the third paragraph in to-day’s readings. Let me take a moment to unpack it. This is the version that we are reading:

Since we have been put right by Christ’s sacrificial death, we will all the more surely through Christ be saved from God’s anger.”

Now here it is with some explanation:

Since we have been put right (Paul uses one word dikaioō, being justified) by Christ’s sacrificial death (ooops. Here’s a major problem. The translators’ interpretation comes jumping into the text. — ‘by Christ’s sacrificial death’ is not in the Greek New Testament at all—just the words ‘by his blood’), we will all the more surely through Christ be saved from God’s anger.”

Here is the King James version —pretty accurate:

Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him”

The Greek text says nothing about wrath or anger (Greek orgé) being “of God” either!—those words simply do not appear in the Greek at all. They clearly do appear in the earlier passage about the “glory of God” but not in verse 9. No “of God” applied to wrath or anger! Those words have been added, because translators cannot conceive of wrath meaning any thing else. They want the crucifixion to mean that the “Wrath of God” is meted out on Christ on the cross to make him a sacrificial victim, an abused son. S\But setting God up as a God of wrath is making God into an object of idolatry. We want a God of wrath because that permits bullying and scapegoating. But a God of wrath, says Paul is a false God, and worshipping that false God is idolatry. Instead, recent critics have seen that all through that Paul is writing in the form called a “diatribe” in that he is taking on various false teachers, arguing with them and stating different cases. So when the words “But” or “Therefore” or other such words occur, they are being addressed to his hearers as another voice, another direction in the argument —“but on the other hand, let us say …”

Now, Romans was written before Paul went to Rome. He wrote it from Corinth where he was staying with Aquila and the Christians who had been expelled from Rome under the edict of Claudius. There were serious disagreements and disputes in Rome between the Jewish Christians and the Gentile Christians (who refused to be circumcised)–and the Emperor Claudius expelled the Jews + Jewish Christians in 49 Common Era; In 54 Claudius died and new emperor, Nero, allowed Jews and Jewish Christians to return —worse arguments and confrontations. in 56/7 Paul writes Epistle to Romans to encourage peace between the warring factions. Jewish Christians very likely are given voice in the Epistle re the Judgment and the wrath of God —especially (from their viewpoint) on the Gentile Christians. Instead Paul wants peace and friendship—love—amongst all of the community.

Some commentators have said that this passage is equivalent in Romans to the great passage on faith, hope, and love in 1 Cor. 13. Here too it is faith, grace, and love. So we are to be saved from wrath by Christ’s self-offering —God is not filled with anger, with wrath—and so we are not to be filled with anger, at God, at each other, at ourselves —instead, we are to love. It is through wrath that we inflict violence on each other. Wrath kills us. By love we are reconciled.

John 4:5-42

Then comes the much-loved story of the Samaritan Woman at the Well. There are close parallels with Exodus: water; well, not a rock; Jesus thirsty, not the people; the woman thirsting for living or running water. And the question of whether the Lord is here or not.

It is almost like a liturgy of baptism, and perhaps has echoes of that. There is a seven-part dialogue of questions and answers. Both Jesus and the Samaritan woman each speak seven times. There is a sharing of information. There are requests and gifts offered. There is water of life There are gestures and words of faith and calls to express beliefs—and eventually a complete confession of faith.

Last week we had the story of Nicodemus coming to Jesus by night. The contrast between Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman is striking. Given the fact that they appear one right after the other in the Gospel, we are meant to notice this contrast in all of its detail. Nicodemus is a Pharisee, an insider, a leader of the Jews. He is a man, he has a name, but he comes to Jesus by night. The character to whom we are introduced in this week’s text is a Samaritan,a religious and political outsider. She is a woman, she has no name, but she meets Jesus at noon, in full daylight.

And the contrast between their conversations with Jesus is even more extraordinary. Whereas Nicodemus is unable to move beyond the confines of his religious system, the Samaritan moves outside of her religious expectations and engages Jesus in theological debate about ethics and the Temple (4:20) and Messiahship

Whereas Nicodemus cannot hear that Jesus is sent by God (3:17), the woman at the well hears the actual name of God, “I AM” (4:26—“he” in the NRSV is not in the Greek text). It’s not “I am he who” but “I Am speaks to you.”

λέγει αὑτo ὁ ̓Ιησοuς ̓Εγώ εἰμι ὁ λαλäν ςοι

Said to her Jesus, I AM that speaks to you

While Nicodemus’s last questioning words to Jesus expose his disbelief, “How can this be?” the last words of the woman at the well, also posed as a question, “He cannot be the Christ, can he?” lead her to witness to her whole town.

Think of all of the ritual and religious and ethnic and social and class boundaries that are at work in separating Jesus from the Samaritan woman. It is so hard for us to imagine.

Jews hated Samaritans and vice versa. Rabbis did not talk to women they did not know. Here the rabbi talks to a Samaritan woman. She had come to the well at noon (John is specific about the time). Why? and alone. Why alone at noon? Women came early for water before the heat of the day and came in a social group. Nancy and I saw that in hill villages in Morocco. Still done, and they take their donkeys loaded with canisters of water, and laugh and talk like crazy. All of that is broken socially and ethnically here. She speaks to a strange man in public: a complete gender disruption.Who knows why she had four husbands, and is living with a fifth, not her husband. Men had the rights of divorce, women didn’t. But the stain of a failed marriage stayed with the woman, and accumulated. She was doubtless also socially ostracized amongst her own. It makes her story all the more remarkable–that Jesus would talk to her, and she to him

Though the woman demonstrates her brazenness in discussing “masculine,” political-religious topics (“Messiah” and “Temple”) with Jesus, he accepts her questions and answers them rather than steering her back to “feminine” topics. Revolutionary indeed!

Comparing and contrasting women’s place in ancient Mediterranean and contemporary Western culture is instructive in its own right but ought not deflect attention from the woman’s astonishing and rapid insight into who Jesus really is: “Judean [a scornfully pronounced identification],” “sir” “prophet,” and “Messiah,” leading ultimately to the her doing another inacceptable thing: She breaks another gender rule, and goes alone into the male preserve, the market place, leading the village to the recognition of Jesus as “Savior of the world.”

Putting down her water jar is a marvellous surrender. How do you cope in this world without a water jar? She earlier asked Jesus. When she puts down her water jar, she surrenders her way of coping, which had been getting in the way.–she was not able to cope well generally, given her marriage situation.

She walks straight back into the village and speaks the truth to the very people who had shunned her. Where is the source of a centred dignity that is immune to all this craziness?

We often try to identify with that woman learning about her own real identity, and above all about his. But identify for a moment with the Samaritan villagers—not the women in the market (except those selling goods there)—but the men.

Look who is running into our midst. So animated. That’s why we listened to her at all when she came running into town to tell us what happened. Most of the time we just ignored her. But she was so excited, not her usual self, slinking around town trying to go unnoticed. No, she was changed! Somehow alive again!

This woman who had been dead to us, buried under a load of shame we heaped upon her, she boldly ran into our midst with a spark of life in her eyes once again. And she proclaimed to us, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, the Christ, can he?” Before we even thought about it, we found ourselves running to meet this person too. If we had thought about it, we would have wondered why she was so excited about someone telling her about her miserable life. Yes, we went to see and hear for ourselves and came to believe that this Jesus was indeed the Messiah.

The evangelist reports: “Many Samaritans from that city believed in Jesus because of the woman’s testimony” (v. 39). But the village men in the narrative offer a left-handed compliment: “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves” (v. 42).

We all thirst. In Revelation, at the banquet of the Lamb who is in the midst, there springs up fountains of living water. We are at that banquet. In our own baptisms we have entered into the water of the well, into the living water, and have received the living waters of Holy Spirit. We are at the banquet for the thirsty and the hungry. We say with that Samaritan woman, Lord, give us to drink that we may never be thirsty. And here we drink indeed. We say, Lord, evermore give us that bread that we may never hunger again—and here we receive it—our daily bread. For, like those from Samaria, we have heard for ourselves, (and we do not have to put down the woman from Samaria again here), and we know that this is truly the Saviour of the world.”