Third Sunday of Lent: A Rock and a Hard Place
To be stuck ‘between a rock and a hard place’ is not considered a pleasant situation: the implication is that one is surrounded, hemmed in by adversity, faced only with difficult options, in a situation which offers little prospect of relief and from which one cannot escape, even if one would wish to. Our readings offer us a rock and a hard place, a hard dissatisfying situation – but also a way out, imaged as receiving water. However, close attention is needed to emerge from the seeming trap between a rock and a hard place. Let us explore …
The first reading presents us with the struggle of unbelief and belief, of grumbling and trust, of dissatisfaction and peace, played out in the context of a desert – a hard place – and in the presence of a rock. God causes water to issue from the rock. Closer reflection makes it clear that God provides not just the water, but also the rock and the faith of Moses which is instrumental in God providing water from the rock. The Gospel takes up very similar imagery and themes, if its focus is on a journey from the dissatisfaction of life without faith to entrance into the life of faith and thus to eternal life. Again rock and water feature: rock – in the shape of a well, hewn out of the hard ground – but also as a big mountain which was a place of encounter with God and site of worship, and also as the temple, once again made of stone, built on a mountain, and like a mountain used as a place of worship; and water seen now as spiritual, divine, eternal life, in contrast to physical water.
In looking for a solution to the conundrum of the rock and the hard place, it is tempting to go straight to the water, seeing it as a third option. However, I think the key is to recognise the potential in the rock, but that means seeing the rock the right way. It was very reasonable for the Jews to suppose that water would not emerge from the rock, though every natural spring or well hints that it is not impossible. God knew what could be done and God planted faith in Moses that, working in obedience, meant God provided for the needs of his people and relieved their dissatisfaction. The rock is an example and wider symbol of God’s special provision for his people, even amidst difficulties, that is ‘in hard places’.
What then is the rock in the Gospel scenario? What is the mountain where God is really encountered? What is God’s true temple? Well, the answer to all these questions is to be found in the person of Jesus. And to the Samaritan woman, Jesus did not at first appear to have much more potential than a lump of rock. The woman did not at first see in the dusty, dirty and thirsty Jew who sat next to her, the saviour of her own people, a people long despised by most Jews. But Jesus did make a deep impression on her as the conversation developed, demonstrating he knew not only the details of her life but with these he also knew her inner pain and shame but still accepted her and offered eternal life to her. In his example, and in his words and offer, a spring of life issued forth to her. And she received it. She came to recognise him as sent by God as the Christ. She sensed and in a way named and confessed God within him, beyond and within his humanity, but one with it. She came to faith and so a spring of water, of divine life sprang up in her. This seemed absurd to the apostles who did not see her as fruitful ground. Yet she was so fruitful that others came to believe as well. She watered others with the water now flowing from her and sent them to its source: Jesus. It is Jesus then who is the temple, the mountain, the rock. (See also 1 Cor 10:3-4.)
Let us now return to experiencing life as being between a rock and a hard place. Let me suggest that it is a setting that faces us all at some time. I would suggest that the hard place is life without faith or life when faith is tested. The Israelites faced it, parched in the desert. Would God provide? Moses faced it there too, feeling threatened in his ministry, sensing God might let him down. The Samaritan woman faced it, in the chaos and shame of a life of broken relationships, which probably made her an outcast even amongst a people, seen as outcasts. Where do we face it? We may face it in situations similar to these or in other ones, but sometimes we will face it. We will be in a hard place, seemingly trapped there, seemingly between a hard place and an equally unpromising rock. And what should we do?
Let us embrace the rock! Let us go to where we have heard that God is present. In regard to Jesus, it means embracing what might seem to be the unpromising material of his humanity but in doing so we will find and see God within, offered to us. Grace works that illumination in us – just as it did in the Samaritan woman! Further let us be so bold as to believe that Jesus, especially in his death, affirms just how much God loves us in our brokenness, our sin. Jesus, made into sin, made into seeming hardness, dead, is split open and pours His Spirit into us (cf Jn 19:31-37). Nothing now need separate us from God. Our poverty, our sense of bleak emptiness, our desert dryness enables us to receive him! We can encounter God in any hard place, in any rock. God meets us while we are in our problems, most poignantly, as Paul stresses today, while we are still sinners. Let us take all our hard places to the rock which is Christ. Then we are no longer trapped!
And let us offer the rock to others. Moses most probably felt a bit self-conscious, even silly, when about to strike a rock in front of a sceptical, disillusioned, even angry crowd. We may be tempted to feel similarly awkward in offering Jesus to people, in pointing to him as their best option. But Jesus is capable, by grace, of showing them the divine depths in his warm humanity, of showing the real acceptance his death brings, of touching them with the Spirit such that they see hope in the hard place and a way ahead, of instilling faith and confidence, and of pouring the living water of eternal life into them. The Good News is that God has joined us in the harshness and hardness of our lives and, sharing it, he offers to us the water of divine life.
Let us turn anew, like the Samaritan woman, to the living rock which is Jesus and so receive living water. And let us also bring others to him as well, that they too may receive living water, and be built with us as living stones into the temple of which he is the corner stone.