We “boast in our sufferings,” writes Paul to the Romans, “knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us….” It sounds, doesn’t it, like Paul is encouraging the Romans to brag about their problems and how well they handle them, as if endurance, character, and hope were the prizes handed out in some sort of “affliction Olympics.”
Well, he’s not. The Greek word here is kauchaomai which the lexicon interprets as “to glory in a thing.” The New American Bible rendered this injunction as “we exult in our tribulations.” The old Revised Standard Version translated this word as “rejoice.” I rather like Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of this text in The Message: “We … shout our praise even when we’re hemmed in with troubles.” So, no … Paul is not encouraging competitive bragging.
Well, then, what is he doing?
The letter to the Romans is unique among Paul’s epistles in that it was not written to a church which he founded. Instead, Paul is addressing Christian community he has never before visited. These are not Paul’s people in the sense that the Ephesians or the Corinthians or the Colossians were. Though they are brothers and sisters in Christ, they are a community of strangers, but like the churches Paul founded, they are a community which knows tribulation.
At the time of Paul’s letter, the Roman church had endured persecution and suffering under the Jewish expulsion decrees of Emperor Claudius in A.D. 40 and then specifically Christian persecution under Claudius’ successor the mad emperor Nero. Paul’s words can certainly be applied to individual experiences of pain and affliction, but he is pointedly addressing communal grief and anguish. Rather than urging the Romans to brag about affliction, Paul is explaining his theology of divine love experienced in the midst of suffering.
Do you recall when you last heard these words read in church? As I’m sure you know, the Episcopal Church uses a three-year lectionary which cycles the readings with a focus each year on one of the synoptic gospels. In Year A, we read mostly from the Gospel of Matthew. In Year B, we focus on the Gospel of Mark. In Year C, we follow the Gospel of Luke. Selections from the Gospel of John are scattered through each year.
The last time any of us heard or considered today’s combination of lessons from Exodus 17, Psalm 95, Romans 5, and John 4 was three years ago, the Third Sunday of Lent, March 15, 2020. Do you remember the sermon you heard then? Do you remember what that Sunday was like for you and your church?
The truth is, you may not have heard them or a sermon about them at all! That was the week Covid 19 shut us down. Three years ago this week, church doors were closed, schools were shuttered, work places closed down, restaurants shifted to carry out service or went out of business. We all began to shelter in place, to search for what we came to call PPE, and to observed “social distancing.” There would soon be shortages of bread, toilet paper, hand sanitizer, wet wipes, and — worse — hospital beds and medical ventilators.
Many of us would learn to bake bread; most of us would learn how to use Zoom; and we all learned that not only doctors and nurses, not only police officers and fire fighters, but also garbage men, janitors, delivery people, meat packers, and grocery clerks are among our society’s heroes, the essential front-line troops in our battle to remain a functioning society facing of a deadly virus.
Three years ago this week, we began testing, first hand, both individually and communally, Paul’s thesis that “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us….”
When I read that neat, logical progression, I am reminded of psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s 1969 book On Death and Dying, in which she laid out her theoretical model of the stages of human grief. Originally five and later amended to seven, those stages are shock, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, testing (sometimes called “reconstruction”), and acceptance (which includes a rebirth of hope). It all seems so neat and tidy.
The lived experience of grief, however, is not neat and tidy. There is no logical progression moving forward from one stage to the next. As Kübler-Ross and her colleagues noted, many people experience the stages fluidly, moving in and out of the stages in non-linear ways and in varying time frames, often exhibiting more than one at a time. Grief is “a raw and difficult struggle—one that can be utterly unpredictable.” In a word, grief is messy.
We discovered during the last 36 months that communal suffering is also messy, especially when it is complicated by leadership that denies it even exists; by citizens unwilling to exhibit endurance and have patience with medical research, preferring instead to turn to quick fixes like drinking bleach, inhaling hydrogen peroxide, injecting colloidal silver, or misusing existing drugs like hexachloroquine and ivermectin; and by dishonest charlatans peddling lies and conspiracy theories of all sort. Suffering, like grief, is messy.
Many of the people we encounter in Scripture are familiar with the messiness of suffering and grief. Isaac, Jacob, Job, and Moses leading that unruly and demanding mob across the desert come immediately to mind, as do many of those who encountered Jesus: the woman with a hemorrhage, the blindman at the pool of Siloam, Matthew the tax collector who became an apostle, the woman of ill-repute who bathed Jesus’ feet with her tears. The Bible does not tell stories of perfect people, but of men and women who knew all too well how messy grief and suffering can be, how messy life is.
The Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well whom we meet in today’s Gospel lesson is a particular case in point. Her life is a mess and she knows it … and so does Jesus. The mere fact that she has come to the well “at about noon” is a hint; this is not the time a woman would or should do that.
In Biblical Palestine, women came to the public well at morning or in the evening; men came during the day. This woman is out of bounds! But why? Probably she does this so as not to be seen by other women. This odd behavior just screams that there is something seriously wrong in her life, some messiness that shames her. This woman is at the well alone, in the middle of the day, probably because she is trying to avoid being shunned by the other women of her community.
She doesn’t encounter the women, or the men, of the village. She encounters Jesus. She hadn’t come to the well expected to encounter God. She hadn’t come there to be of service to him or to anyone, but that’s what happened: he asked for a cup of water and she gave it. She could have ignored him; she could have turned away. But she didn’t.
And in that brief moment of unselfish interaction her eyes are opened – opened to a new way of seeing her messy life, a new way in which to live. There is a double revelation here: first of her own broken life and then of Jesus as the Messiah. “Go,” he says, “call your husband, and come back.” To which she replies, “I have no husband.” Jesus continues, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband;’ for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true.” As Anglican Bishop Tom Wright notes, “Jesus penetrates beyond the surface of her words to arrive at the truth about her life.”
This is when she recognizes that there is something special about Jesus; encountering him not just as a man at the well, but truly within the midst of her messy life; she realizes that he is a prophet and perhaps even something more. When she speaks of the Messiah, Jesus declares: “I am he.”
After their conversation ends, she goes back into the city and invites those who will listen, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!” And then, as if she doesn’t quite believe Jesus’ self-identification, she suggests that he might be the Messiah. I don’t know why the New Revised Standard renders her suggestion negatively as a statement of doubt, “He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” The original Greek, while not a complete affirmation, is rather more positive: “meti outo estín ho Xristos” — “maybe this is the Anointed One!”
What became of this woman? How did her messy life progress after her encounter with Jesus? According to the Eastern Orthodox churches, she was baptized and given a name meaning “the enlightened one” –– “Photini” in the Greek-speaking churches, “Svetlana” in the Slavonic churches. According to the Orthodox hagiography, Photini organized her family — five sisters and two sons — got them baptized and turned them into a missionary force. With them, she “began a missionary career, traveling far and wide, preaching the good news of the Messiah’s coming, His death and resurrection.” It is said that she went to Carthage and then to Rome, preached to Emperor Nero, and converted his daughter. S She was thrown into jail, but converted the other prisoners and her jailers, which further enraged the emperor who ordered her executed.
How did this woman, whose life was such an embarrassing mess, become such a dynamo? It was her encounter with, as Paul puts it, “God’s love … poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” She encountered that love incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth. We have the opportunity to receive it in many and varied ways.
It might be through the Sacraments, through daily prayer, or through some form of meditation or contemplative practice. It might also be through some medium we wouldn’t normally think of as religious: an athletic discipline, an artistic endeavor, or doing volunteer work. It might even be through our regular occupations. In any of these and more we can encounter God who “is above all and through all and in all.” In every life activity which focuses us beyond ourselves, we have access to what the Psalmist today calls “the Rock of our salvation.”
As Paul wrote to the Colossians, whatever your do, put yourselves into it, as if it were done for the Lord and you will receive the inheritance. Like St. Photini giving Jesus that cup of water, you will feel connected to that Power which gives order to creation, in whose “hand are the caverns of the earth and the heights of the hills,” who molded the land and controls the sea. And that connection gives us the strength, endurance, and character to handle the messiness of suffering and grief, and in the end to find acceptance and hope.
It is that connection which empowers us to “boast in our suffering.” It is that connection which underlies our faith and our hope, and we call that connection “love.” As Paul says, we are able boast “because God’s love has been poured into our hearts,” or as St. John put it, “We love because [God] first loved us.”
If the suffering and grief of the past three years have taught us anything, if we learned nothing else from living through all the messiness of the Covid pandemic, it must be to rely on divine love, from which (Paul will write later in this same letter) nothing “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation” can separate us. Or, as he wrote in another of his letters: “Faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” And that is something to boast about!
This homily was offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on March 12, 2023, the Third Sunday in Lent, to the people of Harcourt Parish, Gambier, Ohio, where Fr. Funston was guest preacher.
The lessons for the day are from the Revised Common Lectionary for Lent 3 in Year A: Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 95; Romans 5:1-11; and St. John 4:5-42. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.
Click on footnote numbers to link back to associated text.
 Romans 5:3-5 (NRSV)
 Strong’s Number 2744; TDNT Entry 3:645,423
 Peterson, Eugene H., The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language (NavPress, Colorado Springs: 2002)
 See Wright, N.T., The Letter to the Romans, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX, pp. 406-08 (Abingdon, Nashville: 2002)
 Kübler-Ross, Elisabeth, On Death and Dying (Macmillan: New York, 1969)
 Frequently Asked Questions Related to Grief Counseling, Amwell for Patients website, accessed March 10, 2023
 John 4:6 (NRSV)
 John 4:16-18 (NRSV)
 Wright, op. cit., p. 567
 John 4:26 (NRSV)
 John 4:29 (NRSV)
 Romans 5:5 (NRSV)
 Ephesians 4:6 (NRSV)
 Psalm 95:1 (BCP Version)
 Colossians 3:23-24 (NRSV)
 Psalm 95:4-5 (BCP Version)
 Romans 5:5 (NRSV)
 1 John 4:19 (NRSV)
 Romans 8:38-39 (NRSV)
 1 Corinthians 13:13 (NRSV)