Third Sunday of Lent
Exodus 17:3-7 | Romans 5:1-2, 5-8 | John 4:5-42
Oh God, author of every mercy and of all goodness, who in fasting, prayer and almsgiving have shown us a remedy for sin, look graciously on this confession of our lowliness that we who are bowed down by our conscience may always be lifted up by your mercy. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever, amen.
Cum era buerant. It’s a prayer of a pilgrim who questions if he’s on the right path as he journeys and worries that he may be in error. There’s something about this path that God has given us, and for some strange reason, it remains always nebulous, always hard to grasp. It’s like we’re always in this cloud of unknowing, but we’re given enough information. We’re given enough to make a decision whether or not we want to be on the path — the path. If there’s any way for us to figure out the path, it is to go to the story of Jesus, the Messiah but not simply to look at him but to look at the whole picture, from Adam and Eve to the stories of the incredible time that Jesus spent on this earth as a resurrected body and was so effective in his powerful teaching.
So it’s one basic story, and it’s clear that the beginning of the story is all about leaving a place of slavery. So we have Moses in the first reading. He wants to free people, and he’s being called by God to do just that. But freedom is really an interesting thing. The freedom from slavery would be I am no longer going to be forced to do what someone else tells me to do or makes me do. So to be free of slavery is to be not under someone’s control, but at the same time, if you look at independence, it means separation, a separation from somebody. So if we’re not to be under God’s control, if we choose, “Well, I’m not going to do that,” we have to also accept the fact that, if you ask for independence, you’re also saying, “I don’t need your support. I don’t want you to control me. I don’t need you to help me. I want to do this on my own.” This may seem oversimplified, but if you look at the story of Adam and Eve, and you look at all these issues that we’ve been looking at throughout this entire salvation history story, it always seems that human beings are having a hard time certainly being told what to do. Somehow they’re realizing, and they do certainly as we mature and grow, that the goal of life is not to surrender to somebody else’s will or another law or rule but to somehow awaken inside of us a new rule, a new law that’s written in our heart. So the path is to follow the destiny each of us have, and it’s something that we don’t know fully, and we need the support of God to reveal it to us. But more than that, we need some kind of mysterious strength and power to know how to deal with this union, this communion we have with this divine figure. It is so difficult to fathom.
As I said last week, I was talking about this, and I was saying it’s so interesting that we want so much to do what God calls us to do, but then when you realize what God calls us to do, it’s pretty frightening, because the easier thing to do is what the Old Testament asked of people before they were really capable of doing much more. They were told, “Here’s the rules. Here’s the laws. You do them, and God is pleased, and you’ll be rewarded.” That’s clear, but then you look at the New Testament, and what’s it saying? Well, you need to learn about presence, and you need to learn about intimacy, independence. Take those images of those words and those thoughts. Think of it. Independence, we don’t want independence from God. We may not want God to be telling us all the time what to do through an institution, but we want support. We want to feel his presence, and his presence is simply — presence, the word, means to be connected to, to be one with, to be here. When someone talks to you and they’re drifting and you know they’re acting like they’re listening but they’re not, well, their presence has left you. You often say, “Where’d you go? You’re not here anymore.” Presence, God’s incredible presence in us, in our life, that’s who he is. I love the answer that he gives to Moses about, “Who are you, God?” He said, “I am who I am. I’m not going to explain to you who I am. You can’t fathom who I am. You just believe I am who I am. Get to know me. Hang out with me. Let me do what I do best with you.”
So if we want to have his support, but we don’t really want his control, then we’re going to have to figure a way that, through his support, we are empowered to be able to do what’s right, and that’s the promise. And how does that work? Well, the greatest of mysteries — God comes, knocks on our soul, our heart and says, “Let me in. I’m going to come, and I’m going to dwell with you. And all I’m asking from you is intimacy.” And what is intimacy? Making known what is hidden, making known who you are to another person with absolute honesty and holding nothing back. These are the things about me that I’m maybe not proud of, that I’m not happy with, but these are my struggles. This is what I want to share with you, who I really am. And God said, “That’s wonderful, because the more you share with me who you are, I’ll share with you who I am.” It’s the most classic description of an intimate relationship that we have in marriage, in friendship, in family. No secrets, no secrets. So we have this challenge then not to figure out how to live according to the church’s rules and laws but letting somebody divine enter into us. Now, which is easier? Which would you prefer if you had a choice, that both of them were equally effective? I’d pick the first. I just asked you would you like to go into someone’s house or home or presence that you know and tell them everything about yourself, even though you’ve hidden so much of it. Do you want to do that? I don’t, but if I tell you, “These are the things I’d love for you to do for me, and then we’ll be friends, we’ll be connected,” ah, that’s easy.
So at the heart of this whole Lenten series is how do we get to know what this is that we are engaged in when God showed us something at the end of his life when he died and rose again. What is this telling us? What’s the mystery, the secret? What are we supposed to be getting? Well, one thing — let’s look at the gospel passage, because it’s interesting. If you know the cycle A, the five Sundays are really beautifully summarizing our journey with God. It starts off with getting to know Jesus, who he is, through the temptations. Then we see what he’s here for, to enlighten us, and he becomes bright white last week, and now we get the image — in the original series of cycle A, we had three more things that were really clear. One was a woman at the well, who he says, “I have living water for you,” a man who was born blind, that he heals his blindness, and a man who was dead, and he raises him from death to life. “I give you something that opens your eyes, that makes you now live.”
So this is that same theme but in a little different metaphor, a fig tree. Now, I think the fig tree is interesting in this story about what it is that Jesus has come to accomplish. He said there was an incident on his way to Jerusalem when he knew he was in deep trouble and would most likely be crucified. He ran across a fig tree, and the fig tree was barren. And it was clear that Jesus went to the tree to get some fruit. He wanted to be fed, and when there were no figs there, he got so angry and cursed the tree, and it withered. It seemed like he kind of lost his balance there and just raged, which makes sense to his humanity. The disciples looked at each other and said, “This is weird.” And they said, “It’s not even time for figs.” So here’s Jesus with something on his mind as he’s going back to Jerusalem. What would be on his mind if he thought he might end his career right then and there? “I’m not finished. I haven’t produced the fruitfulness on this earth that I want to. It’s still barren.” Then you look at the fig tree, and here’s Jesus talking about this tree that is there, that for three solid years has not produced any fruitfulness. Three years, what would that sound like? What more clear explanation of his three years of struggling to awaken human beings to a truth that he knew was in them and yet they couldn’t get it. So the recommendation is don’t cut the tree down. Don’t curse it but fertilize it. Fertilize it. Give it something that it doesn’t have, something that’s not in the soil, something that’s not in the earth, something that’s core. They don’t understand. “That’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to give people that incredible gift to fertilize them so they can do this work.” And that’s called redemption. Redemption, it’s the water that’s in us that never ceases to flow. It’s the nourishment that we need as our human nature evolves and grows into who God wants us to be. It’s all the things we need, and it was won for us by this act of Jesus on the cross. And so what is the essence of that act? Well, it sounds like it had to do with some kind of disappointment in his humanity over the fact that he wasn’t finished. Nothing really seemed to be accomplished. His disciples, most of them, didn’t believe in him. The church leaders couldn’t fathom anything he was saying and only saw him as a threat. And so if you were prepared for 30 years of your life to do this work, and you were looking around and it wasn’t finished, you would say, “I’m being asked by the Father to surrender to evil and let these people silence me and demean me and humiliate me?” And he said no twice to that plan, and then he finally gave in. What was he giving in to? Well, God is in him, right? God is so in him that he is God, but this is so interesting. Being God in this context does not take his humanity away. In fact it enhanced it. So as a human being, can any of us say that, when we have a life work and we’re struggling to do it and it looks like your life’s going to end and you’re not going to be able to accomplish it — what’s the feeling? It’s a horrible feeling. I failed. I failed to do the work I’m called to do. Think of the shame that that creates inside of us, and yet Jesus was able to do it. How did he do it? Well, he must have done it, because he knew there was something in the act of surrender to the reality that our humanity will never be enough, never on its own is enough to do what we’re here to do.
I think our humanity can save us from hell, because our humanity basically, kind of on its own, can figure out what’s right and what’s good and bad and follow rules. That just doesn’t take more than a basic human instinct and nature, but we’re asked to go way beyond that into divinity inside of us. And that’s the challenge. How do you surrender the reality that your humanity will not be enough but the divinity in you will be enough? And what it’s going to do is transform you when you admit, “My humanity’s not enough.” That’s what Jesus did. He said, “I am not enough without my Father.” And when that act of surrender to the divine — it was the antithesis of the first Adam who said, “No, I can do this on my own.” And Jesus said, “No, you can’t. Please, please believe. I will do it in you, through you and with you.”
Father, the mystery of your presence within us is beyond our full comprehension. It’s beyond our understanding. The gift that you are to us seems too much, too intimate, yet it is your plan. It is what you’ve asked us to surrender to, so bless this mysterious union of divinity and humanity in each of us so that we can feel it and not so much understand it but feel its incredible transformative power, and then filled with this great gift, we can accomplish the things that we only dream about but somehow never losing fact that they are not what we do but what you do through us. And we ask this in Jesus’ name, amen.