Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“This Grace in Which We Stand” (Romans 5:1-8)
March 19, 2017
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The collect for today, the Third Sunday in Lent, like every Lenten collect, is theologically rich, and one that relates to our day-to-day lives:

Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever.  Amen (The Book of Common Prayer 218).

In this collect we immediately acknowledge how strong God is and how weak we are: “Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves.”  Do you believe that you have no power in yourself to help yourself?  That flies in the face of rugged American individualism, against a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality, doesn’t it?  This idea causes some to bristle.

Perhaps some of you remember the hit television show MacGyver (1985-1992) in which Richard Dean Anderson, sporting his rather unfortunate mullet haircut, played Angus MacGyver, a brilliant scientist and trouble shooter who would pull himself up by the bootstraps again and again by using ordinary objects to make something to get himself out of an apparently impossible jam.

For example, in one episode MacGyver used cleaning fluid, moth balls, a telescope, rope, a pulley, and handlebars—all of which happened to be conveniently lying around the attic—to make a rocket-powered harpoon gun/zip line and literally zip away from trouble.  Another time he used a fallen satellite and its parachute, along with his ubiquitous duct tape, to build a hang glider and fly away from the bad guys.  MacGyver always seemed to have power in himself to help himself.  The problem is, while all of us find ourselves in situations in which we need help, none of us is MacGyver.  Some problems need more than duct tape.

Yes, hard work, determination, ingenuity, persistence are all good, but there are still situations in which the truth is “we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves,” situations in which we are totally dependent on help from God—not the unbiblical Lord who helps those who help themselves, but the biblical Lord who helps those who cannot help themselves.

In today’s Old Testament lesson the Israelites are journeying both literally and figuratively in “the wilderness of Sin” (capital S), and “there was no water for the people to drink.”  The Israelites railed against Moses, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?”  The Israelites had no power in themselves to help themselves.  So Moses turned to God, who helped him, and all the Israelites, by sending water out of the last place you would ever expect water, a rock.  The Lord helped those who could not help themselves.

Similarly, in today’s gospel passage John tells us about a Samaritan woman who was also in the wilderness of sin.  Her personal life was a train wreck—she had been married to five different husbands and the man with whom she was currently was not her husband.  Rather than going to the well in the early morning like all the other women did, she went in the middle of the day, perhaps to avoid the gossip of others more fortunate than herself.  Not only that, she was a Samaritan, and therefore belittled and despised.  So there she is, alone, in the wilderness, thirsty for more than water—a woman who had no power in herself to help herself.

But when she arrives at the well, Jesus, “tired out by his journey,” was already there.  And Jesus began to speak to her about “living water…a spring of water gushing up to eternal life,” living water for the real thirst in her life.  And when she begins talking to Jesus about the coming Messiah, Jesus, as he rarely did, revealed himself as that very Messiah, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”

The disciples then arrive, and were annoyed with Jesus for speaking to this Samaritan woman, who was so excited she left her water jar there at the well and rushed back to town to tell others, the same people she had been avoiding, about Jesus.  The townspeople came out and persuaded Jesus to stay with them for a couple days.  He did and as John wrote, “many more believed because of his word.”  The Samaritan woman and her neighbors had an unexpected encounter with the Lord who helps those who cannot help themselves.

Sometimes on the surface people may look like they do not need help, like they are capable of pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, but beneath the surface, they really need help, they really need living water.  In his poignant and acclaimed 1961 novel, Revolutionary Road, Richard Yates recounts the tragic events of a married couple, Frank and April Wheeler, who appear to have it all together on the surface in their affluent suburban Connecticut home, but beneath the surface are actually in a wilderness of sin, thirsting for living water.  One afternoon Frank is in the front yard of their beautiful home, reflecting on his adult life:

Wasn’t it true, then, that everything in his life from that point on had been a succession of things he hadn’t really wanted to do?  Taking a hopelessly dull job to prove he could be as responsible as any other family man, moving to an overpriced, genteel apartment to prove his mature belief in the fundamentals of orderliness and good health, having another child to prove that the first one hadn’t been a mistake, buying a house in the country because that was the next logical step and he had to prove himself capable of taking it.  Proving, proving; and for no other reason than that he was married to a woman who had somehow managed to put him forever on the defensive, who loved him when he was nice, who lived according to what she happened to feel like doing and who might at any time—this was the hell of it—who might at any time of day or night just happen to feel like leaving him.  It was as ludicrous and simple as that (53).

Though externally self-sufficient, internally Frank thirsted for living water.  He was weary of proving himself—“proving, proving”—and he was insecure about being married to April, “who loved him when he was nice…who might at any time of day or night just happen to feel like leaving him.”  Unfortunately, as the novel progresses, Frank and April Wheeler persist in their wilderness of sin, trying to assuage their internal thirst with drinking and infidelity, ultimately with tragic results.  Frank and April Wheeler had no power in themselves to help themselves.

What about you?  Is there an area in your life that is a train wreck?  Are you somehow in the wilderness of sin or on the never-ending merry-go-round of proving yourself, afraid you are not really loved, thirsting for living water?  Is there something in your life that defies whatever “duct tape” you may use to solve it?  That is when the Lord meets you at the well; in fact, the Lord is already there.

Listen to what Paul wrote in today’s passage from his Letter to the Romans:

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 (Romans 5:1-5).

In other words, the means by which the Lord helps those who cannot help themselves is grace.  You may not have peace with other people, or peace with your family, or peace in your job, or even peace within yourself—but you do have peace with God through Jesus Christ, who gives you grace in which to stand.

This may sound silly, but God did not send you duct tape so you could assemble some nifty invention to help yourself out of whatever jam you find yourself; God sent his Son to give you living water, grace in which to stand.  Later in this passage Paul identifies the ultimate manifestation of this “grace in which we stand”:

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 were still sinners Christ died for us (Romans 5:6-8).

In fact, in his First Letter to the Corinthians Paul identifies the rock from which the Israelites were given water in the wilderness of Sin as none other than Jesus Christ: “They drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ” (1 Corinthians 10:4).

And in his death on the cross, Jesus not only shed his blood, but poured out living water, literally and figuratively—as later in his account of the gospel John tells us that after Jesus’ death: “one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out” (John 19:34).  What Jesus told the Samaritan woman—“The water that I will give will become… a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (John 4:14)—happened on the cross.

When it comes to your relationship with God, you have nothing to prove, because God has done the proving for you.  God proved his love for you in that while you were still a sinner, Christ died for you.  This means when it comes to proving yourself, you can step off the merry-go-round, and rest secure in God’s love.

The good news of the gospel is the Lord indeed helps those who have no power in themselves to help themselves—and continues to do so, even now, by giving us “this grace in which we stand.”