Sermon March 12: Ex 17:1-7 John 4:5ff Water Rev. Betsy Hogan
So, the readings from the Bible that Gail just read for us – do you know when the last time was that we heard them in church?
It was three years ago. The lectionary cycle of readings that’s followed by most mainline Christian churches around the world is a three year cycle. So these two stories – of the people of Israel grumbling in the wilderness because of thirst, and Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at the well – the last time we heard them in church would have been three years ago.
On the third Sunday of Lent, in 2020. March 15th.
We had a congregational meeting that Sunday after church. It was when we first made up the idea of offering up our land for a development that would serve the common good AND incorporate this historic sanctuary as our St. Matthew’s home. So it was a pretty important meeting!
But then tagged onto the end of it, just as a kind of additional “fyi”, was just a few short minutes in which we generally agreed that we’d sort of take the whole “coronavirus” thing on a week-by-week basis.
Like it was sort of looking like maybe there might not be a service the following Sunday if Public Health recommended avoiding large-ish gatherings…. but we’d sort of keep everyone posted and decide each week and whatever.
And oh, how quickly THAT changed. On a three year lectionary cycle, when I pull up all the commentaries and websites and blogs that I read every week in putting together a sermon, it was fascinating to “click back” as I often do to the last time, and the time before that –
And to find all the stuff for March 15, 2020. The Third Sunday of Lent… and unbeknownst to us, the last Sunday of the Before Times.
When it was all “well, we’ll take it week by week” and some lowkey irritation that some people were apparently hoarding toilet paper. We really had no idea. And it’s probably just as well.
I think reading, learning, knowing history is wildly important – mostly because if it does nothing else for us it at least offers us some perspective on what people have faced and lived through in the past. Which I think helps. Because we have a strong tendency to lose that perspective over time.
An event in history, like the Second World War, which only a handful of us actually remember, we can look back and register that it lasted six years, which is a really long time. But a real full perspective on it is only truly grasped when we ALSO register that for the first three or even four of those years it was by no means clear that there’d be a good outcome for the Allied nations.
I think about that quite a lot. About what it must have been like, trundling along through the day by day, from the autumn of 1939 and all the way into 1943… as long as it’s been for us since the start of covid… with hearing virtually nothing that suggested that all would eventually be okay, and really only quite a lot that suggested that it very much wouldn’t.
Because it’s only when we look inside that experience of managing and navigating and pushing through a time of profound and fearsome uncertainty that we get some perspective on the present. Not just on what’s survivable, but on what’s been survived. Long – and sometimes very long – periods of complex struggle and emotional unheaval… and profound and fearsome uncertainty.
There’s a lot to love about the breadth and depth of the gift to us of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Older Testament – a lot. There are the stories of God’s pouring out God’s love in creation, pouring out grace in endless forgiveness, delivering God’s people from slavery and oppression. There are the people’s responses to that love and grace and deliverance in the Psalms, from the gratitude of Psalm 23 to the praise of Psalm 100 to the heart-broken and desperate and faith-filled laments.
There are the prophets’ furious demands for the people to DO the justice, to LIVE the justice that God made them for, and there are the tales of people just as ordinary and flawed as we are, who regularly get it wrong but sometimes manage to get it right.
There really is a LOT to love about the breadth and depth of the gift to us of the Older Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures.
But one more thing to love about it, I think, is the intimacy and the honesty and the realness and the sheer AMOUNT – of the record we receive through the Book of Exodus especially of Israel’s wandering through the wilderness.
For forty years. Which in Bible speak is just “a really long time”. Delivered from slavery in Egypt by Moses leading them miraculously across the Red Sea, they get to the other side… and things do not go smoothly. At all. For YEARS.
And we hear about all of it. Every bump and thump and bruise to their relationship with God and with each other on the way. Because these are real – and because they reveal. How to get through this thing called life that’s pretty much life in the wilderness, while more or less keeping the pieces together.
It’s the honesty of it that I think is glorious.
In the two passages that Gail read earlier, the gospel passage tells us of Jesus meeting a woman at a well and offering her “living water”. It’s an expression that also comes from the Older Testament. It’s the way that the prophet Jeremiah describes God and God’s Spirit – as the living water that fills us and nourishes us and gives us our life and our strength, that fuels our love and our goodness.
For Jesus, it’s God and God’s Spirit simply poured out for us and into us, this living water of our being God’s beloved, as we are and always, into eternity.
But in the Exodus story we heard first, any contemplations of that “living water” – poured out in God’s deliverance of God’s people from oppression and slavery – have been set aside temporarily in service of conversations about ACTUAL water.
And the seriously problematic lack thereof, in this particular part of the desert wilderness in which God’s people Israel happen to find themselves at this particular moment.
Which is serious. We all know we can’t live without water. Where there’s no water, the people perish. Full stop. When the woman at the well expresses an interest in Jesus’ “living water”, it’s at least in part because she wonders if it might mean she won’t have to haul herself down to the well every day just to get enough water to stay alive. Because that is not fun. And for millions and millions of people around the globe now, it’s still not fun. But it’s reality.
So for the people of Israel to find themselves in a place in the wilderness where there’s no actual water – the presence of God as “living water” notwithstanding – it’s serious. It’s very serious.
And they are not, to put it mildly, feeling very patient about it.
But here’s what’s striking, I think, about how that uprising in the wilderness plays out. Moses immediately characterizes the anger and frustration that gets vividly expressed in this passage – from just some people yelling at him “we need water” and “give us some water to drink” all the way to other people wondering aloud and really quite pointedly whether they’d have been better off left back in slavery where at least there was water –
Moses immediately characterizes all that anger and frustration that’s breaking out around him as anger and frustration against God. “Why do you test the Lord?” is how he rebukes them. And later on he’ll name the spring that arises “Massah and Meribah” because that means “Is the Lord among us not”.
He immediately characterizes all that anger and frustration as reflecting the people’s loss of trust in God. And there is, to be frank, no actual justification for him to do that.
Because there’s nothing in this passage that suggests that the people have lost their trust in God. Their living water, their strength and their hope.
They’re not angry at God. They’re not frustrated with God. They’re angry and frustrated with Moses. Their trust in God, that God IS among them, that God IS with them, their living water – there’s nothing in this passage that suggests that ever wavers. And in responding to Moses when he cries out to God for help with this quarrelsome people, God equally conveys NO suggestion to speak of that God imagines the people have lost that trust… in God.
There are plenty of other places in the scriptures where God heavy-sighs and even grieves because people have lost their trust in God – but this is not one of them. Instead God’s response just “okay, take some elders, take your stick, bang that rock, boom – water for the people.”
If Moses were being a little more honest, he wouldn’t have called that well “Massah and Meribah because the people asked ‘Is the Lord among us or not’. He’d have called that well whatever the Hebrew is for “Trust in God AND hold your leaders accountable.” Because that’s what the people actually do here.
It’s the DEPTH of Israel’s trust in God in this passage that fuels the action they take, in challenging Moses. It’s the DEPTH of their trust in God’s unwavering love and what God wants for them, in its absolute firmness, that provides them with the clarity to demand of Moses the essentials of life they know they deserve as God’s people.
And that’s how they get through the wilderness. Not perfectly, and in fits and starts, but with this crucial combination of deep deep trust that God is with them, that they’re not alone, that they’re loved, that God wants for them what they need – and the gumption on that basis to actively hold their leaders to account for it.
They get frustrated, they get weary, but they don’t let Moses off the hook – because their trust in GOD never wavers.
That’s what it means to be filled with “living water” – God’s Spirit flowing flowing refreshing restrengthening, new every morning is thy love. It’s not just the feeling of being loved. It’s the gumption to demand for ourselves and for others what being loved means on the ground in this life in the wilderness – wellness and wholeness and rest and water.
However often and for however long it takes. Thanks to be to God, our living water who abides with us on the way. Amen.