Sunday, March 27, 2011


Third Sunday of Lent

Exodus 17:1-7

Water from the Rock

From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarrelled with Moses, and said, ‘Give us water to drink.’ Moses said to them, ‘Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?’ But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, ‘Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?’ So Moses cried out to the Lord, ‘What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.’ The Lord said to Moses, ‘Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.’ Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarrelled and tested the Lord, saying, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?’

John 4:1-15

Jesus and the Woman of Samaria

Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard, ‘Jesus is making and baptizing more disciples than John’— although it was not Jesus himself but his disciples who baptized— he left Judea and started back to Galilee. But he had to go through Samaria. So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.

A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink’. (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’ (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink”, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?’ Jesus said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.’


How can I not talk about water this morning? We have just endured one of the rainiest late winters and early springs in memory. Over 50 feet of “crystallized water” have fallen in the mountains. Basking in the sunshine up in normally rainy Bellingham, Laura Hindes wrote gleefully on Facebook the other day that she was glad she didn’t live in “rainy California”. The “golden state” may have to rename itself the “moldy state”.

We’re a bit hard to please, if the truth were known. We grumble about droughts and water shortages which are caused by overly abundant sunshine. But when the drought is relieved by an abundance of rain, we grumble about too many rainy days and how depressing the weather is. Jan has a solution for us ... her preference is that it rain at night when we are asleep and when we awake, the skies clear and the sunshine spreads itself warmly over the drying land. There ... now if someone could just work that out ... make it happen. I know I have no control over such things. I can only promise fair weather for the day of your very special outdoor event, at least as long as the weather prognosticators call for zero chance of precipitation.

Water is such an enormous paradox ... too little and we suffer and die. Too much and ... we suffer and die. But just the right amount ... and we flourish and have hope. This is what has made water such a potent symbol in religious writings, including the writings in our Bible. Water is a chaotic flood. Water is a gentle stream. Water is pure. Water is brackish. “Waterless” equals judgment and thirst and dying gardens. “Watered” equals blessing and refreshment and abundant yield.

It was out of the watery chaos that the dry habitable lands of earth emerged in the stories of creation ... and re-emerged after the flood. It was watery chaos through which the children of Israel were led by Moses to liberation and the same watery chaos that submerged and thwarted Pharaoh’s army. Water as freedom and water as judgment. It is that ancient Biblical understanding of water as related to birth and re-birth and to judgment and freedom that is present in the sacred act of Baptism ... Baptism then and Baptism now ... birth, judgment, re-birth and freedom all bound up in the drowning, cleansing and saving waters of Baptism. Anyone care to take a dip? With any luck I’ll pull you back up.

Perhaps that’s a subconscious part of the reason we don’t baptize babies ... it seems to me that you, the potential baptizee, ought to have some part of the decision to enter such symbolically potent and meaning-laden waters. And that’s a little hard to do when you’re still blowing bubbles with your own saliva.

Water plays a central role in our two Biblical narratives today. In the first narrative, it is a shortage of water that has the grumpy children of Israel grousing at Moses and grousing at God. And in the second narrative, Jesus encounters a Samaritan woman at a well and offers her living water. Thirst of various kinds dominates these two narratives.

Hunger and thirst are related physical impulses. Too little food as with too little water equals too little cheeriness. My dad and my younger son, Alex, don’t look particularly “related” to the casual observer ... to be sure, most buzz-cut 20 year old grandsons don’t resemble their 82 year old grandfathers. But here’s how I know they’re related: both of them can get quite grumpy when food is withheld too long. Let either stray too far past their stomach’s understanding of mealtime and, let’s just say that these ordinarily sweet-natured souls can get a bit ... testy. It was especially true when Alex was a young lad ... the saying around our house was a well-fed Alex was a happy Alex. It’s truer than ever with my dad ... if you promise him lunch, then it had better be served at lunchtime. A well-fed Jim is a happy Jim. My oh my.

As it is with food with my family—and likely your family, so it was with the children of Israel following poor brow-beaten Moses through wilderness that was nearly devoid of food and water.

It wasn’t so long before that the children of Israel were oppressed and suffering slaves in Egypt. The apparently modern themes of oppression and suffering in Egypt go back a long, long way as we know. The suffering of the children of Israel was so intense that it caught God’s ear ... and God’s heart. Before long, God had raised up a leader to liberate the freedom hungering slaves. The book of Exodus from which this morning’s story comes is aptly named for it is one of the central and defining moments in Israel’s existence ... an exodus or a getting out and leaving behind of that which oppresses and enslaves and dehumanizes.

Now if a visible and tangible leader representing an invisible and intangible—but very powerful God—miraculously led you out of an oppressive and life-threatening experience ... how long would your gratitude last? For how long would this “expedition to freedom” and this “journey to the promised land of milk and honey” be fun? Enjoyable? How long might it take for you to begin to take notice of the rumbling in your belly ... the dust in your mouth ... and the still lingering memories of bad food, but all you could eat of it in Egypt. Bad food, but all you can eat sounds like the $3.99 buffet in Las Vegas. Now there’s a place to get out of if you can.

How much hunger and how much thirst does it take to begin to prefer less freedom to a mere promise of freedom? This is a critical question in that wilderness and in any wilderness. Through Moses’ flawed leadership, and through very trying circumstances, God is trying to shape a people ... trying to gain their trust, trying to deepen their faith, trying to shake their complacency, trying to whet their appetite for freedom and steel their resolve against oppression.

I truly would hate to think how most modern Americans would fare in the real wilderness. We who can get down-right cranky if our paper is late or our beer is flat or our favorite TV show is canceled. It’s like George Clooney in “O Brother Where Art Thou” standing in the mercantile shouting at the storekeeper who didn’t stock his favorite hair grease, “I don’t want Fop, dad-gummit, I want Dapper Dan.” If you at all believe how we are depicted in modern media and entertainment, we have become impossibly shallow and whiny and picky and self-possessed. I’ve heard an ad recently on the radio for Kohl’s Department Stores that speaks to its shoppers in tones and terms that make shopping sound like the single most important act of our human existence. Are we shaped by these ads? Or are they simply reflective of who we’ve become? A little of both, very likely, but neither is cause for much rejoicing.

But it goes deeper than that. Not so long ago, we were a society that prided itself in “rolling up its sleeves” and “doing our share” and “getting it done”. Those are slogans from the first half of the 20th century. Concern for the other at least equaled concern for self. I remember Lora Ingalls telling about how poor families during the Depression would come by her family’s farm in Nebraska and how her mother and father would offer them a meal and place to sleep.

But now a growing number, perhaps even a majority of this nation’s citizens and leaders treats the idea of carrying our fair share in the form of the public burden as a crime against American freedom. We severely underfund shared public services and services for the poor, struggling and disadvantaged and yet a shocking number of people attack any attempt to personally or properly fund these things. It has been noted, wisely, that the general health of a society or a nation can be seen in how they treat their weakest members.

And I guess the line of connection that I’d like to draw is the ever-shallowing and the inward turning of the human soul that helps create a “lifeboat mentality” where if only a few can be saved, then it’s going be “me first”. The only problem is that there’s still an extraordinary abundance and a never-ending shopping spree by Americans that is quite at odds with the perception that we are being taxed to within an inch of our lives. And it’s an extraordinary abundance that is quite unevenly spread ... far too much here and far too little there. There seems to be a battle on for the “American soul” and it’s not at all clear who’s going to win, but it does seem clear who’s currently losing: those on the lower side of the economic spectrum.

In the wilderness of Sin—that is the actual name ... in the wilderness of Sin it is a battle for the soul of the wandering Children of Israel. In the wilderness journey between Egypt and the Promised Land, God is seeking to lead and teach and guide the people of Israel into a depth of faith and trust and experience that will serve them well in any future wilderness journeys, any exiles, any times of oppression. And yet the people resisted—as people will, and sometimes outright refused to put their trust in God.

We sometimes struggle or even refuse to put our trust in deeper, more substantial things and then wonder why we feel so frail and so beset when trouble comes our way. And we wonder why the little gods we can buy with our credit cards, when trouble comes, fail to console us. And when we struggle or even refuse to put our trust in deeper, more substantial things, then it should be no surprise to see us grasping more and giving less, more easily fearful of the future, resisting the generous impulse, resisting the needs of our neighbors.

We all of us ... all of us ... need a little more of what Jesus offered to a nameless woman on a hot day in Samaria.

Jesus, the gospel of John tells us, is on a journey through another wilderness of a fashion ... he’s en route from Judea to Galilee, but on the way passes through Samaria ... which would be like a modern Israeli traveling to Jerusalem via the Gaza Strip. It is not a friendly and hospitable place to say the least. It’s midday and Jesus stops by Jacob’s well to rest and attend to his thirst. At the same time a woman arrives at the well to draw her daily water. And we most of us know enough about this story to know that nearly everything is wrong about their encounter ... Jews and Samaritans in contact ... a man and a woman in contact ... a woman who has to draw water when no one else is around because of all the rumors that surround her presumably licentious behavior.

Everything is wrong except that Jesus is not bound or defined by these conventions. Jesus defines his rules of conduct according to a deeper, more honorable code. “Love your neighbor as yourself.” And who is your neighbor, someone asks Jesus in Luke’s gospel? Well, according to Jesus’ answer—which also involved a Samaritan, there’s no one you can see or think of who is not your neighbor.

Jesus intuits this woman’s story, her need to draw water away from the gossips who come in the morning. He sees and senses her loneliness and her struggles. And though he is thirsty himself, he offers her a gift of water ... and it is water of a kind that will tend to a thirst deeper than even one’s bodily needs.

Living water from a living God for our living souls. Need any of that? Got water?

Let me say again: we sometimes struggle or even refuse to put our trust in deeper, more substantial things and then wonder why we feel so frail and so beset when trouble comes our way. And when we struggle or even refuse to put our trust in deeper, more substantial things, then it should be no surprise to see us grasping more and giving less, more easily fearful of the future, resisting the generous impulse, resisting the needs of our neighbors.

Water from a rock ... living water from the well of God’s being.

The Children of Israel wandering in the wilderness received water from a rock to slake their physical thirst ... but their story reminds us that it took more than that moment of thirst relieved to relieve their quarreling with God and their fear of the future. The story tells us that their school of hard knocks in the wilderness stretched on for whole ‘nother generation.

The Samarian woman, on the other hand, received outright the gift of living water offered her. And her testimony about Jesus brought that gift to many, many more in her city ... and many more since.

The promise of water from a rock is hard one ... unless you know where to drill and have a good pump on hand. The promise of living water, however, is sure and real. It is the water of generous grace and acceptance, it is the water of abundance for our neighbors and us, it is the water that ends quarrelling and brings our passions to bear on the problems that confront us all.

Living water can be chaotic and wet and messy, to be sure, but perhaps the upside of the chaos is the promise to scour away and even drown the selfishness and greed and tawdriness that can afflict overly self-satisfied people and societies.

Dear friends, as an antidote to the fear that seems to drive so much selfishness, let us again and again drop our buckets into that well that promises never to go dry.


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