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Lent 3, Cycle A

Confess your sin and turn around! God will see to it. This theme meshes with the historic purpose of the Third Sunday in Lent, at which time the ancient church candidates for baptism on Easter were given careful scrutiny. Once again Sin, Justification by Grace, and Sanctification receive a lot of attention, with some attention to Atonement.

Psalm 95
This is a liturgy of God’s kingship (perhaps for use in the temple), beginning first with a hymn and then from verse 7b on providing an oracle warning the congregation against disobeying God’s Law. The hymn begins with a summons to worship, calling people to sing and make a joyful noise, coming into Yahweh’s presence with thanksgiving. He is said to be the rock of our salvation (vv. 1-2; cf. 89:26). As such this and the next three verses may have been part of a processional hymn for entering the temple. Yahweh is said to be a great God, a great king above all gods (v. 3). The Hebrew people were still clearly aware of the pantheon of gods that existed in the ancient Near East. Yahweh is said to control all things on the earth (Providence and Creation) (vv. 4-5). We are summoned to bow and worship him, as his people and sheep (vv. 6-7a). The faithful receive a prophetic warning not to harden their hearts as the Hebrews did in the wilderness of Meribah (about 150 miles north of Mount Sinai) and Massah (another name for Meribah) (cf. Exodus 17:1-7; Numbers 20:1-13) (vv. 7b-9). It is noted that as a result of such unfaithfulness the Lord hated that generation for forty years, and they did not enter the Promised Land [the Hebrew word menuchah, literally "rest," is used here] (vv. 10-11).

Application: The first five verses can be the basis for praising God. The idea of the Lord being the greatest of gods invites a critique of the idolatry we practice in everyday life, putting other things ahead of God. Other warnings against unfaithfulness (with precedents in the stories of the Hebrews during the Exodus [Sin]) flow from the Psalm. But this confession of sin needs to be balanced, just be treated as preparation, by the word of forgiveness in the first two lessons (Justification by Grace) or by the awareness that ultimately God is in control of all there is in nature, working for our good (Providence).

Exodus 17:1-7
Like all of the first five books of the Old Testament, Exodus is the product of several distinct literary strands, all originating between the tenth and sixth centuries BC. The book is so named for the Greek term referring to the liberation of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage. Its Hebrew name (meaning “these are the names”) refers to the first words of the text’s prologue. In this lesson we consider the story of water in the wilderness of sin (which has a parallel version in Numbers 20:2-13). Sin was probably fifty miles west of Mount Sinai in modern-day Saudi Arabia.

Continuing to travel by stages (making various stops in the Exodus) (v. 1), camped in the wilderness the people had no water and quarreled with Moses to receive it (v. 2). They wonder why he had brought them out of Egypt to such suffering (v. 3). Moses is reported to have accused the people of testing [the Hebrew word nasah is more properly translated "try," implying a court hearing for] the Lord (v. 2). He pleads with Yahweh, asking what he is to do with the people (v. 4). (They had complained earlier about the need for water and been delivered with both water and bread from heaven [15:22ff].) The Lord replies that he is to take leaders with him along with the staff with which Moses had stuck the Nile (v. 5; 7:20). Unlike in the version in Numbers, this earlier literary strand tells the story without a reference to a shrine from which to seek divine counsel. The Lord promises to be standing in front of Moses on the rock at Horeb and commands Moses to strike the rock so the people would receive the drink (v. 6). Water lies below the limestone surface in the region of Sinai. The place was called Massah and Meribah (meaning “test” and “find fault” in Hebraic; see the Psalm for more on the location of these wilderness areas), because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord (v. 7).

Application: The text provides an occasion for confessing our sin as we identify ourselves with the Hebrews, never content with the miracles in our lives. But the fact that we and they did not deserve it does not stop God from giving his people what they need (Justification by Grace and Providence).

Romans 5:1-11
In this text Paul continues introducing his theology and himself to the Roman church with a discussion of the consequences of justification for living the Christian life. He begins by noting that justification by faith brings peace [eirene] with God through Christ, through whom the faithful obtain access to the grace in which they stand. Insofar as Paul was Jewish it seems appropriate to understand his comment here to align with the Hebrew equivalent shalom, so that the peace brought about by justification is a state of well-being and thriving, including social justice. Paul continues to claim that the faithful may boast in the hope of sharing God’s glory (vv. 1-2). Thus they may boast in sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, character, and a hope that does not disappoint, for God’s love has been poured into their hearts through the Holy Spirit (vv. 4-5). While the faithful were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly (v. 6). Paul elaborates on how rarely anyone will die for a righteous person. But God proves his love by dying for us while we were still sinners (vv. 7-9). As a result we have more certainty now that we have been justified by Christ’s blood and will be saved by him from God’s wrath (Atonement) (v. 9). While we were still enemies of God we were reconciled to him through the Son’s death, and so we will be saved by his life (v. 10). Consequently, the faithful can boast in God through Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation (v. 11).

Application: Many themes related to Justification by Grace, the Atonement, and Sanctification emerge from this text. Among the myriad possibilities, it affords opportunities to reflect on how we have been enemies of Christ (Sin) with the reminder that he still died for us. We might explore how it is that Christ’s blood saves us (why his death was necessary to placate God’s wrath [Satisfaction Theory of Atonement]). Another possibility pertains to sermons emerging from the text on Sanctification. Preachers could explore how justification launches us onto a life of peace (see the description of Paul’s vision of peace above, including Social Ethics) and the suffering that accompanies Christian living, so that the only boasting Christians do is in Christ, not what they do.

John 4:5-42
The lesson recounts the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman and other teachings. This is an account unique to this highly stylized final gospel, not written until late in the first century, probably not by John the Son of Zebedee but perhaps by a disciple of his. It is a gospel about encouraging readers to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, and this is clearly the word emerging from this text. This theme along with an appreciation of the gospel’s universal outreach is evident in this story of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman and its consequences.

Jesus comes to the Samaritan city of Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to Joseph, where Jacob’s well was located. (Sychar is about forty miles north of Jerusalem.) He is reported to have been tired by his journey and sitting by the well (vv. 5-6). A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus asked for a drink. Jesus’ disciples had gone to the city to buy food (vv. 7-8). Both Jesus’ request for water from the woman and the disciples’ venturing into a Samaritan town to buy food were unusual, given hostilities of ritual purity between Judeans and Samaritans. This encounter suggested to pre-modern Jews that a marriage for Jesus might be in the offing, since the Hebrew ethnic heritage was built on meetings at a well between a Jewish lad and a foreign woman. Moses, Jacob, and Abraham all met their foreign-born wives under these circumstances (Exodus 2:15-21; Genesis 29:1ff; 24:1ff). The same ritual barriers emerge in the woman’s response of surprise that Jesus would make such a request of her to provide him with water (v. 9). Jesus in turn states (it was rare for a rabbi to converse with a woman) that if she knew the gift of God who it is that requests the drink she would have asked for the living water [hudor zao] (v. 10). (The phrase “living water” correlates with the Hebrew term for “spring” [mayim] [Jeremiah 2:13].) The woman in turn responds that Jesus has no bucket and the well is deep, so it is unclear where he can get the living water. She asks if he is greater than Jacob, who gave the well before which they stand (vv. 11-12). Jesus answers that the water of the well does not quench thirst, but the water he will give will become a spring gushing up to eternal life (vv. 13-14).

The Samaritan woman then requests the water about which Jesus has spoken, so that she might never thirst again (vv. 17-18). He responds that she should call her husband and return (v. 16). Further dialogue between them leads Jesus accurately to report (without being told) that she has had five husbands, and then she reveals that she now lives unmarried with a man (vv. 17-18). The number five corresponds to the five false gods worshiped by the Samaritans (2 Kings 17:30-34). The woman exclaims as a result of Jesus’ discernment of her married state that he must be a prophet (v. 19). She then proceeds to note that the Samaritan ancestors had had a temple on Mount Gerazim, but the Judeans say that worship must be in Jerusalem. (The disagreement had been crucial to the tensions between the Northern Kingdom [Israel] and the Southern Kingdom [Judah].) To this observation Jesus responds that the hour is coming when the Father will be worshiped in neither location, for God is Spirit and those who worship him must do so in spirit and truth (vv. 20-24). The woman responds that she knows the Messiah (also called Christ) is coming, and Jesus says it is he (vv. 25-26). This use of the phrase “I am” [ego eimi] is characteristically employed by John’s Jesus. It is most suggestive of God’s revelation of himself in the name Yahweh (I am who I am [Exodus 3:14; Isaiah 43:10-11, 25]), and so it is in a sense the Johannine Jesus’ claim to divinity. The disciples return and wonder why Jesus was speaking to a woman (v. 27). Jewish religious teachers in this era did not speak with women in public.

The woman leaves the water jar to return to the city and witnesses to what transpired, so that people wondered if Jesus might be the Messiah and go to see him (vv. 28-30). Meanwhile the disciples urge Jesus to eat, and he responds that he has food to eat that the disciples do not know about. After they express puzzlement, Jesus responds to them that his food is the will of the one who has sent him (vv. 31-34). He further elaborates on the field now being ripe for harvesting and that the reaper can already gather fruit for eternal life. (The harvest seems to refer to those who accept Jesus, including the Samaritans.) He claims to have sent them to reap that for which they did not labor [since Jesus has done the labor through his life and impending death] (vv.35-38).

In closing it is reported that many Samaritans from Sychar came to believe in Jesus because of the woman’s testimony reported above. They come to him and ask him to stay, and he stayed for two days (vv. 39-40). As a result many more come to believe (v. 41). (The theme of coming to believe is stressed far more in John than in the other gospels.) The Samaritan believers told the woman it was no longer because of what she said that they believed, but because they had heard for themselves they believed that Jesus is truly Savior of the world (v. 42).

Application: A text this lengthy offers a myriad of sermon possibilities. One could focus on Jesus’ interaction with Samaritans, despite Judean suspicions of the religious convictions and ethnic purity of these targets of the ministry in this lesson. This is a witness to Justification by Grace with Social Ethical implications (the inclusivity of a Christian perspective). That Jesus’ interaction with the foreign woman at the well connoted marriage to the Hebraic mind reminds us that the relationship between Christ and the faithful is like a marriage (cf. Song of Solomon; Galatians 2:19-20). A testimony to the divinity of Jesus (Christology) is given in the lesson (relate his “I am” statement to the name Yahweh, see above) and also a testimony to evangelism and that coming to faith is not a matter of merely believing what has been heard, but faith with conviction (Sanctification).

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Authors of
Lectionary Scripture Notes
Norman A. Beck is the Poehlmann Professor of Theology and Classical Languages and the Chairman of the Department of Theology, Philosophy, and Classical Languages at Texas Lutheran University
Dr. Norman A. Beck
Mark Ellingsen is professor at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, Georgia
Dr. Mark Ellingsen