FRESH VISION AND THE WATER OF LIFE!
Exodus 17: 1-7 and John 4: 7-15
A sermon by Thomas R. McKibbens
September 28, 2014
What a bummer! A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll last month asked the question, “Will life for our children’s generation be better than it has been for us?” And the result was that fully 76% said that they do not have such confidence. And it was the same with the wealthy and the poor, men and women, Republicans and Democrats, old and young, east and west, north and south.
This is not just about who is in the White House. The numbers were similar when there was a Republican President. There is a loss of confidence that is exacerbated by rising threat levels from terror organizations. There’s an old saying that confidence is silent; insecurity is loud.
In the story we read from the book of Exodus today, Moses is finding the people to be louder and louder! “Are we there yet? How much farther do we have to go? My feet hurt. Are we there yet? I think I’m going to throw up! I’m tired; I’m bored; Are we there yet? I’m sick of manna; I’m frustrated; I need a break. Why can’t we rest? Are we there yet? Do we have to wait in line for manna? Aren’t we there yet? Where is God? Where is this Yahwey?”
These are the same people who had observed the plagues in Egypt…the same people who had been liberated from slavery…the same people who had witnessed the parting of the Red Sea…the same people who had been grateful for manna to eat…these are the same people who now experience a widespread loss of confidence! It was hot; they were thirsty; the cattle were dying; the children were crying; tempers were flaring.
The scene is at Rephidim in the wilderness. No one knows exactly where that was. We just know that it was a place they did not want to be. It was a place where their insecurities made them loud in their complaints. Heat and thirst have a way of cutting through the red tape of politeness. Where is God now? There is no substitute for water, the basic element of life that would sustain them. So the deepest question of faith (“Where is God?”) is tied to the deepest material reality of life (“Where is water?”).
That is to say, the water question was turned into the God question! As a result, they dare to ask the question, “Is God with us or not?” In their quarrelsome, testy relationship with Moses, they asked a variation of the question articulated by Eliza Doolittle in “My Fair Lady”: “Don’t talk of love, show me!” “Don’t talk of water, show me!” Don’t give me pious platitudes, show me! You brought us out here, now show us the water!
We are all sympathetic with Moses in this story. After all, it wasn’t his fault that they were thirsty; he was just as thirsty as they were! He was only following what he believed to be the leadership of God. If we had been in his shoes, we would have been tempted to say, “Hey, I didn’t want this job in the first place! Don’t give me any grief after all I have done for you!”
But instead of saying something like that, Moses follows a different plan. Strike the rock, says the Almighty. Strike it! Strike it hard! Just do it! And water will come out of it, so that the people may drink. Like blood from a turnip; like a purse from the ear of a sow; like joy from sorrow; like hope from despair; like Easter out of Good Friday! We can’t explain it; we just know it happens; and this story about water gushing from a rock in the desert is our story, our experience, our faith, our hope.
It prompts us to ask the contemporary questions: is there cool water rushing from the rock of nations exhausted from constant conflict? Is there life-giving water for the person wandering in the wilderness of depression, or the wilderness of addiction, or the wilderness of doubt? Is there refreshing water for the person facing the heat of cancer radiation, the fear of illness, the agony of post-traumatic stress disorder? Is there relief for those who feel dried up inside, thinking they are worthless, living a personal hell, and wondering whether they will ever be good enough?
Years later, Jesus would meet just such a person. She is nameless in our gospel reading for today. We know her as the Samaritan woman at the well. Jesus begins by asking her for a drink of water, but then quickly reverses the conversation by saying, “I have asked you for water, but you should really be asking me for water, for I have the water of life.” And this woman, anxious, parched, and brittle, says, Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty….
This exchange is a dramatic way to make the claim that in this story, Jesus is doing what only God can do: give water in a barren life, turn an inner wilderness into a productive life, and give hope where there was no hope. To some, she was just another nobody, relegated to second or third class status, ignored by others, despised because of her race, ostracized because of her life-style, avoided because of her gender, feared because of her ethnicity, shunned as unorthodox because of her religion, nothing but “a dog,” as most of the Jews called Samaritans.
It is hot; she is thirsty; she takes her bucket to the only source of water she knows, trudging under the heat of the noonday sun, and she encounters this stranger sitting on the side of the well. She tucks her head and ignores him. Of course she does! It is social convention. It is an unspoken rule. They would act as if neither of them were present. She draws her water…, and HE breaks the silence!
And when he does that, he crosses that most formidable barrier in human history, that barrier that separates people from one another by prejudice, by social convention, by hatred, by fear. He breaks that barrier, cutting through all the pretensions and the red tape, crossing over the social expectations and cultural norms built up over the centuries. He speaks to her!
And in doing so he becomes the Jewish man speaking kindly to a Palestinian woman, the Sunni man speaking with a Shiite woman, the Christian fundamentalist speaking with a trans-gendered woman; the Republican speaking kindly to a Democrat, an oil magnate speaking kindly to an environmentalist, the farmer speaking kindly to the urban sophisticate, the majority speaking kindly to the minority. Doesn’t Jesus have any respect for our long-established boundaries? Doesn’t Jesus know about our culture wars?!
When the disciples returned from an errand, the text says that they were astonished that he was speaking with a woman. Of course they were! They were still caught up in the old right and wrong, them and us, good and evil dichotomies. They had been taught about the “evil empire,” and as far as they were concerned, Samaria was the capital of the evil empire.
But have you noticed? The conversation Jesus has with this thirsty, needy Samaritan woman is longer than any conversation recorded in the New Testament! He looks right into her eyes and gives her the respect that no one had given her for no telling how long. He doesn’t care about social taboos. He doesn’t care about what people think. All he cares about is giving living water to a thus far barren life.
This is extraordinary good news! Into the desert of a failed, defeated, dejected, defamed, demoralized, depressed life comes the cool, clear, life-giving, thirst-quenching, hope-instilling water of life! From the hard rock of a failed, floundering, faltering, forsaken, fallen life comes the pure, cool water that quenches the deepest needs of life! This is good news for any culture living in fear, anxious over the future, and thirsting for God.
Could it be today that you are thirsty for such water? Do you find yourself complaining, tired, fatigued from trying to create your own spiritual water supply by pursuing larger portfolios or the latest fashions or longer vacations or loftier titles or the latest I-phone? Have you noticed that such attempt s can leave us still thirsty? Have you noticed that the accumulation of things can leave us full of trinkets but empty of meaning? These scripture stories today invite us to ponder these questions.
They also invite us to stand back while God breaks all the taboos of history and social convention and even logic to supply us with a deluge of refreshment. Stand back and stand by, for we are thirsty people! The staff is raised over the rock; Jesus is waiting for us by the well; and God is longing for us to say, Give me this water, that I may never thirst again!