Scripture Readings: Exodus 17:1-7 | Psalm 95 | Romans 5:1-11 | John 4:5-42
“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.” (Romans 5:3-5, NRSV).
One of my favorite cartoon strips of all time is Calvin and Hobbes. Does anyone remember that one? For those of us unfamiliar with this brilliant work of illustrated literature, Calvin and Hobbes is about the imaginative life of a young boy and his stuffed tiger. Together they get into all sorts of trouble and have amazing adventures, and Calvin often ends up butting heads with every adult around. Not that it usually does him much good, in the end.
Time and again, we readers find Calvin grumbling and complaining about the cruelty and injustice of adults, especially his parents, when they ask him to do his homework eat his supper or finish some chores. Against all of Calvin’s complaints when things don’t go his way, his unsympathetic father usually resorts to repeating the same simple response: “just do it anyway… it builds character.” Whatever unpleasant, or difficult tasks lie ahead they should just be endured… because suffering, apparently… builds character.
Unsurprisingly Calvin doesn’t find this message all that compelling, and he often ends up suspecting that his parents are out to get him; that they really don’t care about what’s best for him. That ultimately, he (and Hobbes, of course) have to fend for themselves.
This past week it seems like everywhere you turn, there’s more news about COVID-19: This new respiratory virus that has captured the minds it appears, of our entire world. There’s a lot of fear and anxiety driving the actions of many: fear of not having enough of the things we need; fear of suffering, sickness and death, both for ourselves and our loved ones; and for a whole lot of us there’s also just the plain old fear of the unknown, as everything around us seems suddenly so unstable.
These are not necessarily unreasonable fears, by the way. As a friend reminded me yesterday: this is especially true for the most vulnerable. For the poor, for our elders, for those with other health complications, there is a lot at risk right now… especially if the rest of us choose to give our own fears free reign and turn our backs on our neighbours, only looking after ourselves. It’s OK to feel afraid at times. But what we do when we’re faced with our fears, really does matter, especially if we are called to care for those around us.
So as disciples of Jesus Christ, how are we called to respond? How should we react in genuinely fearful situations? We know we shouldn’t panic, but then what should we do? Just suffer through it? Does our passage from Romans command us to simply endure it all? Is St. Paul, like Calvin’s uninspired and un-sympathetic father telling us: “just to suck it up” because whatever difficulties we might have to face “builds our character”? Is that all the hope that we have to hold onto?
Today we heard in the Scriptures another story of when God’s people had to face a genuinely fearful situation, and this story opens up for us a way to answer that question. The book of Exodus tells of how the LORD rescued Israel, delivering them from slavery in Egypt and setting them free to live with Him. Our reading takes place in the early days of Israel’s rescue: not too long after all the plagues, and the parting of the sea, and just after the LORD provides them with manna, food from heaven. All along this journey so far God had graciously, and patiently led His people to freedom, as they stumbled along after Him into the unknown. And today we heard, how they ended up in the wilderness without water. They were faced with a frightening shortage of one of their most basic needs.
In their genuine fear of thirst, suffering, and death, (which I think all of us can completely understand), the Israelites turned against their LORD: calling into question His integrity and goodness, and also His ability to ultimately save them. “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” They could only conclude, it seems, that God didn’t care. That the LORD would bring them all that way, then abandon them to die.
How often are we tempted to believe the same as they did? That the Living God ultimately doesn’t care about us? When we’re faced with the unknown... with our own insufficiencies… with the grim possibility of our suffering or death… When we are genuinely afraid, we are also being asked to answer this question: “Do we still believe that God actually loves us? Will we continue to believe that the LORD really cares?”
Despite all their doubts, and their ungratefulness, this part of the story of Exodus, of Israel faltering out of fear, gives us a glimpse into the grace of the Living God and points us to the source of our own enduring hope. The LORD does not leave even His unfaithful people to fend for themselves, or tell them simply to “suck it up” and endure their sufferings quietly. No, mercifully... miraculously… the LORD still delivers them, pouring out life-giving water as Moses strikes the rock. The LORD remains faithful and cares for His people, even when they had failed to trust in His saving love.
This sacred story invites us to learn from Israel’s early failure, and to hold onto our faith when we are faced with genuine fear. To entrust ourselves again to the saving love of our LORD, and to place our hope firmly in Him whatever comes our way.
Even when we can’t seem to see the way forward anymore. Even when we don’t seem to have all that we need. Even when we are faced with suffering, loss, or death: God is asking us to trust Him, to trust in His enduring love.. a love ultimately made known in the crucifixion of Jesus. Just as Moses struck the Rock and God’s gracious water poured out to spare His people, Christ was stricken for our sake “while we were still sinners” to bring God’s saving life to us and to our world.
When our genuine fears would have us question whether or not God really loves us, let us turn again and again and again to the cross of Christ.
That is what St. Paul urges the Christians in Rome and us, to do: Not simply to suffer in silence, in order to “build our character”… but rather to face whatever lies ahead by trusting in God’s saving love which can turn even our sufferings into a source of hope:
Excuse the long quotation, but let us hear our reading from Romans again as St. Paul anchors our confidence in the saving love of Christ: “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.
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 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. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God.
For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.”
What are we Christians to do when we’re faced with genuine fear? We are not asked to ignore them… to pretend they are not real. But fears and all, we’re called to look to our Saving LORD in faith. To lean on Christ’s life-giving love and let Him lead the way as He calls us to genuinely care for those all around us… and to share the hope we have in Him through our words and our actions.
Through the Holy Spirit at work in us, may this be so. Amen.