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27 March 2011
Year A, Revised Common Lectionary

Exodus 17:1-7
Psalm 95
Romans 5:1-11
John 4:5-42

In the desert and near the desert, water is precious. That seems obvious, but until Alana and I came to Jerusalem, I did not really know what that meant. Growing up, my first idea of wilderness was northern forest, deep shade and green light, tangles of rocks and trees, or high old woods with stately trunks…and rivers, lakes, streams, bogs, and swamps. I come from a place where the summers get hot and humid and the grass turns brown in August, but no photographs or descriptions were enough to prepare me for what I saw last September when arriving in Israel. It was difficult to imagine so many shades of brown, or that there would be trees, but that each was really an oasis of green with strategies for soaking up every last drop of moisture. But Jerusalem really is not in the desert proper, the desert you see when you go east towards the Dead Sea or south to the Negev. However, my first trip to the Negev was in February, when a hint of green was starting to shout its annual defiance of the incredible heat to come. The preciousness of water in the desert really refers to its transformative power, which I have seen most recently walking, not through desert, it’s true, but through the scrub land in western Jerusalem near the Israel Museum: suddenly the land lay awash in red, yellow, and pink wildflowers, large and small. It seemed almost an altogether different landscape.

* * *

The presence and importance of water abounds in the lectionary readings for the week after the third Sunday in Lent. From the book of Exodus, one hears the story of God, in response to the complaints of the Israelites, giving water out of a rock in the desert; the Psalm refers back to that incident. The Gospel reading from John is the story of Jesus meeting a Samaritan woman by a well. The Romans passage is the only one where water seems more peripheral (though there is blood, and you could argue that it is the water of life).

What I am learning more and more is that interpretation depends a great deal on choice. This becomes clearer to me as I reflect upon preaching. For those like me who come from traditions which allow some leeway in deciding which passages will be read and preached on each Sunday, that becomes the first choice which affects interpretation. As you go about exegesis, you choose where to focus. You cannot explore every possibility the texts offer, you can’t read every commentary in existence. Then, as you compose the sermon, keeping in consideration the situation and needs of the congregation with whom that sermon will live (as much as you know them), you bring out aspects of the text which address that specific congregation. There are more hidden choices, too: your interpretation will be affected by the books you have chosen to read, the courses you have chosen to take, the shape your life has formed, and by the choices made by others, by authors and teachers, by the preachers you have heard, etc.

Interpretative choices are never innocent. Focusing on certain verses colour the way you see and present others. This week’s readings provide a case in point. Here is a fragment of the conversation of the woman at the well with Jesus:

The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:19-24).

You could give this a pluralist reading, suggesting that it shows openness to worship on the periphery–in this case, the worship practices of Samaritans–and that the quality of worship depends more on what is done with that worship, where it leads in devotion and practice. But you could also choose to focus on the idea of ‘true worship’, and assume that this means that neither the people of Samaria nor the people of Jerusalem have been engaged in what is ‘true’. Put this together with the Exodus passage and the Psalm, in which God is depicted as criticising the hard-hearted nature of the complaints of God’s people in the desert, and this week’s lectionary readings seem ripe for pointing to the triumph of Christianity’s ‘true worship’ and the supersession of any other way, especially Judaism.

Sometimes you feel that a particular interpretation is just plain wrong or unjust. Of course, choices again play a role in this. Background and the people around you greatly affect where your values end up. Sometimes decisions will surprise you, but they still tend to connect with the overall person you are. Somewhere along the way I made the surprising choice to be open to the love of someone outside my faith tradition, but I am pretty sure that such an openness was shaped by who I had been and who I was already becoming. Still, the presence of Alana in my life has added another step to my sermon composition process–considering whether anything I have decided to say might break the heart of my beloved. (I must admit that I have not always succeeded at this. No one can know another person enough to predict perfectly what will hurt, and no one always heeds the warning signs. But I wish.)

It can seem that journeying through the wilderness of interpretation is full of blocked roads, paths that circle back on themselves, or, worse, ways which lead to peril, for you or for others (or is that really the same thing in the end?). Still, it is because interpretation involves choosing from a multitude of possibilities that I find any hope in this endeavour at all. In the passage from Romans, Paul writes that

Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us (5:7-8).

To me, this is a restatement of a thread which runs throughout the scriptures: that God’s way is one of radical generosity. This means that the stories in Exodus and in John both can be read with God’s generosity in mind: the giving of water to satisfy needs, a conversation that opens up relationships from the fences of suspicion. Harmful interpretations may be presented, but they are not the only ones.

In Christian theology, any understanding of preaching involves to varying degrees both the choices and understanding of human beings (preacher and congregation) and the presence of God’s Holy Spirit, making the connections that human beings might neglect, guiding thoughts and hearts in directions that cannot be predetermined. Put together, this means that there is always hope for better attending to the text, to one another, to the world, to the divine. This hope is like water in the desert, even if just a drop of water in parched land. And in the desert, and near the desert, water is precious.