March 23, 2014 Exodus 17: 1-7 John 4: 5-15
Rev. Catherine Purves
The main stumbling block that we have in appreciating these two biblical stories from Exodus and the Gospel of John is the fact that we don’t really know what it’s like to be thirsty. All we have to do is turn on the tap to get a drink, or stop in a store and buy a bottle of water. There are water fountains everywhere for us: in schools, in office buildings, in parks. (In North Park there are even water fountains for dogs!). Runners and walkers and even nonathletic people (like me) carry plastic water bottles with them wherever they go. We never have to be thirsty.
Pictures of people in Africa who must stand in long lines waiting to fill their jugs or jars or cans with water – these have no counterpart in our experience. The open rebellion of the Hebrews in the Wilderness of Sin because they were thirsty and had no water – we read as a story about a pitiful lack of trust in God. The account of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at the well – we read metaphorically as a situation in which Jesus was offering the woman a salvation that she didn’t know she lacked. If we don’t know what it really means to be thirsty, if that is so much outside of our own experience, then we will never appreciate the power and the impact that these two stories had on the people who told them and retold them.
As I was writing this sermon on Friday, I looked out the window, and it was snowing…again! If it hadn’t been snowing, it would have been raining. We have more water than we want. We are super-saturated most of the time. How many umbrellas do you own? I keep one here at church, one in my car, and another one at home, just in case. And it is usually the case that I need one. We seem to have water falling from the sky more often than not. In fact, we have so much water that we complain about it! How different that is from the experience of the Hebrews in the wilderness and the Samaritan woman at the well.
For them, being thirsty was a matter of life and death. Don’t come to these stories thinking about how it feels after you put too much salt on your pot roast and need to pour yourself an extra glass of water after dinner. Think instead about the scenes from Lawrence of Arabia where Peter O’Toole was dragging himself across the Nefud and the Sinai Deserts with no water. Think about even camels dying of thirst. Image wilderness wastes stretching as far as the eye can see, nothing but sand dunes and sky and a blazing sun. Are you beginning to feel thirsty?
Let’s have a little compassion for the Hebrews who were led by Moses away from the fleshpots of Egypt into the Sinai wilderness where Peter O’Toole (Lawrence of Arabia) almost died. There was no water. The Israelites weren’t quibbling about non-essentials. They really were thirsty, and there was nothing that they could do about it. They also had children and livestock to worry about. Moses was probably not exaggerating when he said that the people were almost ready to stone him. They were desperate. Water did not just suddenly start bubbling up from the ground in the wilderness. And without water, they would undoubtedly die. Are you thirsty yet?
This was how important water always was for the Hebrews. That’s why God’s providing of water in the wilderness was such a defining event for them as a people. They quarreled with Moses and they tested God, but God delivered. As they were on the verge of dying of thirst, they wondered whether God was with them, and in the giving of water in the wilderness, they had their answer. This became a primary symbol of God’s presence and God’s providence that protected the people he had chosen, and called, and led out of bondage. The Lord was with them. Their thirst was quenched.
All of this history and this living symbolism formed a backdrop for the encounter that Jesus had with the Samaritan woman at the well. In addition to that history, we also need to be mindful of what it must have been like for the people of Sychar, and all of the villages in Israel and Samaria. Remember that every person and animal would have relied exclusively on that well for life. Imagine having to walk to the other end of Bellevue every day in order to draw water from the well. You might have to do that more than once. It was noon when the woman met Jesus. She’d probably already made the trek to the well early in the morning. She might have to go again before dusk. If you had flocks and herds, you would also need to take them to the well, lowering your bucket again and again to fill the troughs for them to drink. Life revolved around water, and the source of water, and the effort it took to procure water for yourself and your family. Are you feeling thirsty yet?
I expect that they were always feeling thirsty, or thinking about being thirsty, or worrying about not having enough water. Now, the woman’s response to Jesus’ offer of living water makes sense. “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” We might think, “Silly woman. She didn’t realize what Jesus was saying or what he was offering.” But she was not being silly. She was dead serious. Water was like liquid gold. You could live without food or with minimal food for quite a while. You can’t live without water. Using water as a symbol to talk about what Jesus was offering the woman made perfect sense. Water was something that she absolutely needed and that she was desperate to have. She knew all about being thirsty. What she needed to learn was that in Jesus another kind of thirst could be quenched, a thirst that was every bit as important for life.
But the woman didn’t know that she had that other kind of thirst. And perhaps the Hebrews didn’t realize that another kind of thirst was driving them as well. The last verse of our reading from Exodus hints at a different kind of thirst when it says that the Israelites kept asking, “Is the Lord among us or not?” Are we out here in the wilderness on our own, or is God with us? The woman at the well discovered that she had another kind of thirst too when she later asked Jesus where she should worship and told him that she was waiting for the Messiah who would explain all things. It was this other kind of thirst that eventually drove her back into the village, leaving her water jar behind, to tell her neighbors, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” This other thirst is expressed so well in the opening verses of Psalm 42.
“As a deer longs for flowing streams,
so my soul longs for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God,
for the living God.”
Are you thirsty yet?
We are not desert dwellers. We do not have to live in fear that our well will run dry. Nor do we have to organize our days and our lives around the procuring of water. We don’t know what thirst is. Can we really understand what was going on in our two readings for today? Can we appreciate what being thirsty meant to the Hebrews and to the woman at the well? And that other thirst, the thirst for God, is that something that we just take for granted as well, because we have ready access to God through the church, because we have an abundance of Bibles, and because we are free to worship as we wish? Perhaps we have never really experienced that desperate, driving thirst either.
I got a newsletter from one of our overseas missionaries this week. Rev. Darren Kennedy and his wife, Elizabeth, and their two sons, Calvin and Sammy, are living in Egypt. Darren is a teacher at the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo, but he also preaches and celebrates the sacraments in local churches. In the newsletter there were two pictures of baptisms conducted by Darren and Elizabeth (who is also a minister). We have been told by the General Assembly Mission Council that, because the Kennedys are serving in a region with high security concerns, no information about them should be posted on any website, and we cannot contact them directly. This is both for their safety and for the safety of those with whom they work. It is not safe right now to be a Christian in Egypt.
In 2011 twenty-one people were killed when a church was bombed in Alexandria. In August of 2013 at least 40 churches were looted and torched; 23 others were attacked along with Christian homes and businesses. Christian schools, monasteries, book stores, and even an orphanage were targeted. And yet, people were still bringing their young children so that they could be baptized. That is a thirst that we can barely imagine in our country where we have half-empty churches on virtually every street corner, and where baptisms are often rare. Are you thirsty yet?
Lent is a season when we might profitably contemplate that other thirst. Our busy schedules and the fact that we don’t have to worry about the church being there for us may distract us from the truth that we have a real and genuine thirst and that the living water Jesus gives us is absolutely precious. Our inability to feel that thirst might prevent us from realizing that we need to seek out that living water, the living presence of God in our lives and the saving activity of Jesus in our lives. Christians in other parts of the world realize how deeply thirsty they are, and they are desperate for the Word of Scripture, for a worshipping community, for the food and drink of the Sacraments. People, like those in Egypt, will take tremendous risks just to have their children baptized and to be part of the church. Can you even imagine that? As we continue our journey through Lent, let me ask you one last time: Are you thirsty yet…. and… are you thirsty enough?