The combination of Old and New Testament readings for this fifth Sunday in Lent at first seems an odd one. You have Isa 43:16-21, the prophet’s divine oracle about God doing a new thing. The “former thing” was the Exodus from Egypt (“Thus says the LORD, who opens a way in the sea and a path in the might waters. . .” ) But now God says “Remember not the former things and consider them not. See, I am doing a new thing: in the desert I make a way and in the wasteland, rivers.” What is this new thing?. When we turn to the New Testament passage, perhaps hoping that it will offer us a new answer (for the prophet, the new thing was the return from exile.) But in John 8:1-11 we hear not of a new thing but of a rather old one. First, there is a woman caught in adultery. Then, there are the male religious leaders who want to stone her. These two passages seem at first to have nothing to do with one another. And yet on closer inspection that is not quite true. According to John’s gospel, in this desert of sin and condemnation a new thing does indeed spring forth: “Woman. . .Has no one condemned you?” Jesus asks. “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and sin no more.”
It might be easy to miss the newness of the thing even here. For those of us who spend our lives falling and getting back up, even the process of sin and repentance seems to get old. Perhaps that is why the prophet uses the language of the desert, a dry and weary place. “In the desert I make a way, in the wasteland, rivers. Wild beasts honor me, jackals and ostriches.” The desert is a place of thirst. And in such a context , one can never tire of flowing, fresh water. It is what revives us and keeps us alive. What is God’s new thing of which we might never grow wear, the living water that quenches our thirst?
According to this pairing of lectionary passages, the way of forgiveness is God’s new thing. Without it, we could not, with Paul, speak of “forgetting what lies behind” in order to” continue [our] pursuit toward the goal, the prize of God’s upward calling, in Christ Jesus.” God’s forgiveness of us keeps a path ever before us. And in human community, it is our forgiveness of others that opens up a new way in the desert of damaged and failed relationships.
As I write this, white smoke has emerged from the Sistine Chapel, and many are gathered in the departmental lounge awaiting the appearance of our new Pope. There is anticipation in the air, but also caution. Will the new Pope bring change in the church? If so, what sort? A new thing is about to spring forth in the Roman Catholic church. But the truly new thing—the ever new thing—is God’s forgiveness that makes a way in the wilderness, and our ability to forgive ourselves and others.