In one way or another each of the readings today has to do with faith. In Exodus the Israelites who followed Moses to the wilderness were now finding themselves out of water and were openly hostile to Moses. They angrily challenge Moses asking him why did he bring them out of Egypt, “to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” Their faith in Moses and in God is tested and seemingly only the miracle of water from the rock of Horeb would bring them back. In psalm 95 God says directly, “Harden not your hearts as your forebears did in the wilderness. This people are wayward in their hearts; they do not know my ways”. In Romans we hear this passage, “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us’.
Now before I get to the Gospel reading, which I think is also about faith, let me address for a while a concerning issue about faith that seems to emerge from these three readings. The issue of concern is our faith while we are in difficult or challenging circumstances. These readings, and in particular Romans, seem to say that not only should our faith hold fast in times of trouble and distress, we should be perhaps thankful for these situations because, to quote Romans directly, “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character”. In a very real way it brings up the ages old question of why do bad things happen to good people, but also adds on to the end of it this question; why on earth – in their misery - would they loose their faith?
I guess if you boil this issue down to its basic element the question becomes - for people with a faith and belief in God - is suffering a part of God’s plan for us? Does suffering make us better? Does God want us to suffer to test our faith and make us better people? There are many who believe this to be the case. Christopher told me of a person he knows through work who actually hopes to get cancer. This person has a strong faith in God and hopes to get cancer so that they can endure pain and therefore go directly to heaven. Quite frankly I find this kind of theology grotesque. I have a strong suspicion that this person did not come by this sort of belief by themself. They were likely taught it by those who believe God inflicts pain and suffering as a test. ‘If it was good enough for Job, then bring it on to me Oh Lord’, is what they would be saying. As an important side note and a segue to my theology on this issue, do you remember what happens to Job in the end of the story? He doesn’t die and go directly to heaven. God ends his suffering and rewards him with a long and prosperous life here on earth. Also remember that the whole Job story is not bout testing Job’s faith. God knows Job’s faith is strong and will endure. The point of the story of Job is to show the devil that human faith in God can run deep despite - and not because of - personal misfortune and prolonged suffering.
So why do terrible things sometimes happen to some people? I don’t have a good answer to that, I simply do not know. And I would hold with great suspicion anyone who said they did know. Suffering seems to be a part of life, a part of out humanity, but why some have to deal with it more than others is a mystery. But is it a part of God’s mystery? Does God want us to suffer so that, as Romans says, we develop character? My answer to that is unequivocal. No, no God does not want us to suffer – ever. It is not, never has been and never will be a part of God’s plan. Let me put it to you this way. Does a loving parent ever want their children to suffer? Of course they do not. The parent may well be incapable of preventing their child from experiencing pain and affliction but they do not want it to happen. God is the eternal, loving parent of all of us and does not want or wish us to suffer.
Now I would cautiously agree that going through a time of distress can and often does change a person and that the experience can give the person more awareness, they can gain a perspective they did not have before. Everyone has at some point has to work through physical and or emotional pain and the encounter with these does expand their personal frame of reference. At the very least you know what it is like, for example, to loose a loved one and you can share that experience with someone who is going through it, perhaps for the first time. And herein lies an amazing thing about suffering – God does provide for us the means to help us through. From family and friends who are there to support us, to professionals and care-givers who assist and look after us in our time of most need.
And then, then there is this precious thing called faith, our faith in God. Faith that can help sustain us when we are in troubled waters. God is our loving parent and if we reach out to Her for help She will be there. There is a remarkable album by Neil Diamond. I say album because it was recorded back in the 1970’s. It is called ‘A Hot August Night’ and it is a live, outdoor performance done in Los Angeles. The energy of the performance is absolutely engaging and the audience is clearly swept up in the emotion of the moment and the feeling of the music. The final song is called Soolaimon and along with its name it has an African feel to it with some amazing rhythmic and almost mesmerizing drumming. I bring this up because at the height of this song, at its dramatic climax Neil Diamond says lyrics along these lines, “In times of suffering put your hand out to those who can help you and say to yourself that’s what this hand is there for. At the same time you’ve got to take the other hand and reach it to the God up there, saying that’s what He is there for”. And then he adds “Halleluiah”! I love that image. One hand stretching out to those who can help you and one hand stretching out to the one who created you and loves you and wants more than anything for you to come through.
And now we come to our Gospel reading. Jesus comes to Samaria and finds himself alone with a Samaritan woman at a well of water. Given the social, cultural and religious context of the time Jesus should not have even conversed with this woman. In a very profound and touching conversation with the woman Jesus slowly reveals himself to her. She asks if the Messiah is coming and Jesus says, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you”. The woman leaves the well and goes and tells the other Samaritan’s of the town what she has witnessed. The Samaritan’s in the town come to Jesus and he spends two days with them and as the Gospel says, “Many more believed because of his word”. Jesus knows there are lost sheep everywhere, including the people of Samaria, so he sends out the disciples to all nations to spread the good news and the healing. God is a loving parent and only wants the best for all of Her children.
So what does this gospel reading have to do with faith, and in particular faith in the context that I have been discussing? I think I can answer this in a simple and well-used phrase, ‘for God so loved the world’ – for God so loved the world He sent Jesus to be the manifestation of love here on earth. Ours is a God of compassion and although sickness and suffering and pain and misfortune seem to be a part of life, through Jesus God let us know in no uncertain terms that we do not walk that journey alone. Jesus was and is there for us. God always has been and will be forever there for us. The Holy Spirit is on call 24/7 all the days of our lives and is there for us.
Sickness, suffering, pain and misfortune are a part of the mystery of life and they can be tremendously difficult to go through and I do not underestimate that difficulty. But put one hand out to those that care saying that’s what that hand is there for, and put your other hand out to the God up there saying that’s what He is there for. Walking with God may well not end the pain, but the journey is made easier when you accept into your heart the love of those who walk with you. Sickness, suffering, pain and misfortune need not test your faith because there is no test of faith involved in these things. A loving parent does not test the love of their child. That love is innate, immutable, forever and well beyond the measure of any test - and so is God’s love for us. In times of trouble all the faith you need is to say ‘Dear Lord hold my hand’, and know that is exactly what God is there for. Amen.
The Rev. Patrick Blaney