Ask your presider to tell your listeners (or tell them yourself):

Third Sunday of Lent, March 12, 2023

Before the first reading:

To address their need for renewal after captivity in Babylon, Jewish leaders retold the story of their ancestors' exodus from Egypt. The story has a series of advances and setbacks, mighty deeds by God followed by difficulties. These make the people alternate between belief and doubt.

After the psalm, before the second reading:

Some early Christians believed that pagan converts should be required to earn salvation by keeping the laws of Moses. Saint Paul knows that is not so, and much of the letter to the Romans explains how salvation is a grace, that is, an undeserved gift.

Before the gospel acclamation:

Saint John's gospel was written, in part, to provoke a decision by people who were on the fence about converting to Christ. It shows how Jesus is continuous with their religious tradition, but stretches, breaks and fulfills that tradition.

First Reading, Exodus 17:3-7

Our Liturgical Setting: Today's gospel, John 4:5-42, is Jesus' teaching about himself as the source of Living Water. So the first reading is about a time when God's people literally thirsted and God satisfied them.

The Historical Situation: The Israelites had only recently been slaves, for several generations, in Egypt, and for the most part had forgotten their ancestral religion. God's covenant with their patriarch Abraham seemed long ago and far away. Then this upstart Moses tells them that their ancient Lord has at last heard their cries, and is now leading their escape from Egypt back to their homeland. But this generation does not yet know the Lord. Oh, they've seen some mighty deeds, but they remember that in Egypt they at least were not thirsty.

Proclaiming It: When you relate the people's opening complaint, make them sound petulant. Then make Moses sound scared. He fears for his life and knows the success of this exodus depends on the people trusting the unseen God for an indefinite period.

Help your listeners form a clear mental image of what Moses is asked to do. Go before the mob, God tells him, "holding in your hand, as you go, the staff ... I will be standing there [invisible, even to you]... Strike the rock, and water will flow from it for the people to drink." When the Lord says "Strike the rock," your listeners should hear the "thwack" of oak on stone. Then pause.

The next sentence is quite matter of fact. "This Moses did, in the presence of the elders of Israel." The author doesn't even feel compelled to report whether or not "it worked," so great is his faith (in hindsight). You should say the sentence just that way.

Second Reading, Romans 5:1-2, 5-8

The Theological Background: The first sentence raises some questions:

In this context, "justified" means having justice, which is to say having a right relationship with God, and so enjoying God's favor. (To help English-speaking people avoid confusing this with the legal justice so important to us, some scholars translate the Greek noun as righteousness, and the adjective as "rightwised." It's a bit awkward, but it helps you get the meaning correctly.)

Saint Paul realized that he and all Jews who tried to keep the law of Moses were trying to become justified, but keeping the law wasn't an adequate method. What absolutely does not bring us justice is our own working at it. When in this reading Paul says "while we were still helpless," he's referring to our impotence before God, our inability to make ourselves worthy of God's favor, whether by good works, keeping the commandments, rituals or prayers.

Faith, then, is the admission that one cannot justify oneself, with the confident belief that God will grant us justice anyway. As Paul shows in the last sentence of today's passage, the death of Christ, for people not self-justified, proves that.

Paul calls our situation "this grace in which we stand." By "grace" he does not mean that metaphorical money in one's spiritual bank, or charge in one's spiritual battery, which some seem to mean when they throw around the term "grace." Rather, grace here means the gratuitous, unearned, undeserved character of God's approval of us. (The words gratuitous and grace have the same root in our language.)

Proclaiming it in our Liturgical Setting: These are subtle points, and your listeners won't get them without help from the preacher. But the lector who understands them can give his or her proclamation a proper Lenten emphasis. That demands special emphasis on the last few sentences, beginning "For Christ, while we were still helpless, ..." With contrasting tones of voice, describe the Lord's great self-gift and the abject unworthiness of us sinners whom he loves.

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Links to other smart commentaries on this week's readings

Credit for the picture at the top:

Said to be a picture from 13-century Ethiopia showing Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4, today's gospel), plus a paralytic (John 5?). It's from the website Journey With Jesus. A cropped version here says it's a "[w]all Painting, Church of St. Mary, 13th century, Ethiopia." These attributions are not as precise as I like, and have proven hard to verify. But that's the nature of volunteer work.

This page updated March 5, 2023