Texts: Exodus 17.1-7; Psalm 95; John 4.5-42In October 2000, much of the state of Victoria found itself without hot water. A key gas processing plant exploded, rendering most of the state's hot water systems useless. For weeks, the Melbourne papers showed pictures of scantily-clad people cuing at public utilities and hostels, hanging out for that hot shower. I was in Melbourne for a Minister's retreat during the crisis. We were staying at a centre which happened to have electric showers. It was very comical to see the Victorians heading for the showers the moment they arrived, and to hear their shouts of glee filtering down to the lounge from the upstairs bathrooms. The whole episode caused me to reflect on how much we Australians take for granted. I remember staying with my wife, Lil's, Aunty Mary once. Mary works as a doctor in Fiji. We got to talking about the contrast between life in Australia and life in Fiji. Mary pointed out that the most valuable facility an Australian house possesses is not the television, or the microwave oven, or the electric lights and heaters, but the capacity to provide pure, clean, running water by a simple turn of the tap.
The readings from Scripture today remind us that water is most certainly not to be taken for granted. In the ancient Near East, where these stories were first told, water was a very scarce commodity indeed. Much of the land in and around Palestine was extremely dry and arid. Indeed, after several millennia of de-forestation, it is even more so today. Although the Israeli irrigation schemes have become legendary for their efficiency in providing water for Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and some of the other big towns, it remains the case that much of the countryside is still serviced by little more than the wells dug in biblical times. It is still customary for some folk, rural folk in particular, to walk great distances to draw water in the manner of their ancestors. In dry and dusty climes like these, water is valued more than gold. It is properly regarded as both the bringer, and the sustainer, of life itself.
No wonder, then, that the Bible frequently uses the image of water to describe the gift of God for the renewal of a parched and dry life. In Exodus we read the story of the people's thirst. Having left Egypt in miraculous circumstances some months before, the people now find themselves in an inhospitable wilderness called Sin, and their thirst has become intolerable. They cry out against Moses and his God, saying, 'Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our livestock and our children with thirst?' An exasperated Moses goes to God and asks for a solution. The Lord instructs Moses to strike the rock of Horeb, from whence water will flow to quench the people’s thirst. He does so, and the people drink. Now, as with most Bible stories, whatever the historical circumstances that gave this story birth, it is being retold here for a purpose, a theological purpose. So let us listen for that purpose, else we shall miss the point.
Let me suggest to you that the thirst of the Israelites here represents their poverty of spirit before God. Note that the people have been wandering in the desert of Sin (a most revealing name, don't you think?), a place of meaningless desolation where there is precious little to live for. It is a place that represents their fundamental lack of trust in Yahweh, with whom they began to quarrel from the very moment the Red Sea closed behind them. Faced with an uncertain future, the people seem to quickly forget all that miraculous, cosmic, stuff around the liberation from Egypt. So much so, that they even begin to long for the slavery they left behind! 'Take us back', they say. 'Take us back to the place of slavery. It was so good there, compared to this terrible thirst we feel!'
Here the Israelites do what many of us do. They re-write the history of the old days in order to give comfort in a time of uncertainty or fear. The ‘old’ days, in these circumstances, have an uncanny knack for being far rosier than the history books would suggest, and certainly far better than these ‘new’ days could ever be! In moments of uncertainly or fear, people are very prone to nostalgia for a place and a feeling that never really existed. They are also prone to blame the loss of that nostalgic Eden on anyone else but themselves! In this case, it was Yahweh and his servant Moses who copped the blame. Frequently, in these days of apparently diminished Christianity, it is pastors and church leaders who are to blame. In his reflection on this story, the writer of Psalm 95 says that, in fact, the people have no-one to blame but themselves, for they were stubborn and hard of heart. They would not, in the face of uncertainty and fear, trust themselves to the God who had gotten them this far. Preferring the devil they already knew, their hunger and thirst turned to the gods of Egypt once more, the gods who had done nothing but turn them into slaves.
And yet, for all this, the Exodus story finishes not with God's condemnation, but with God's rather surprising provision of water. God sustains the people's lives, though they clearly don't deserve it, and keeps them moving towards the land of promise. Who would have thought? There is an extraordinary word of grace here for us. How many of us are like the Israelites who, having made a radical choice for faith long ago, now long for all that we foreswore at that time? How many of us, having chosen to follow in the footprints of the Crucified, now daydream about life in the service of other gods? Well, I do, for one. Sometimes I lie awake at night and wonder if I'm stark-raving mad; I lie there fantasizing about all those other lives I might have lived. Like the one where I’m an ethics-free corporate lawyer, retreating periodically to my wine-soaked retreat-house in Tuscany. Or the one where I’m Paris Hilton, the limit of my responsibility-free zone being exceeded only by the size of my credit-limit. But no, I became a follower of Christ, which immediately excluded either of these possibilities. And, let’s face it, in the eyes of our possession-obsessed society, that means I am one to be either pitied or detested. Can you see how these mid-night wonderings are a hungering and a thirsting? Like some of you, I hazard to guess, I wake up in the middle of the night feeling that my life has become dry and barren. I long for something more.
Of course, as the much-maligned (but scarily insightful) St. Augustine of Hippo said, all of us remain restless until we find our home in God. When Jesus met the woman at the well, he promised that the water he would give would be able to quench her thirst entirely. We thirst without end until we are given the water of God's Spirit to drink. We hunger until we are satiated by Christ, who is the bread of life. Only God can fill the hole inside. Only God can make life meaningful, right? Yes, but how constantly do we believe this? How vulnerable to the views of others do we remain?
Each of us, said Margaret Cooley, are mirror-selves, people who see ourselves not as we are, but as others see us. So that if others think Christians are naïve fools, we eventually become vulnerable to thinking that way ourselves. And the more we do, the more thirsty we become. Instead of hungering and thirsting after God, we start to hunger and thirst after other 'gods'. Gods like approval from others. Gods like 'the old days'. Gods like the perceived right to a sanitized, pain-free, life. Gods that can never, in a million years, satiate our desire for meaningfulness. Gods that succeed only in making us more thirsty, not less, because they are ultimately ureal, so many chimera: creations of desire and therefore never unable to finally satisfy desire. In this way, all of us who thirst are not so very different to those Israelites in the wilderness, or like the Samaritans who made the marriage covenant with all those pagan gods. Having chosen to believe in God's promise of a land flowing with milk and honey, we started on the journey to find it. Yet, along the way our minds and hearts begin to yearn for lesser things. Deep down we begin to have our doubts. We turn from God, and ceased to believe in the promise. We, like both the Israelites of old and the Samaritans of the first century, become prone to the worship of lesser gods, ever wanting to cleave unto husbands whose promises prove, in the end, to be empty.
Like the woman of Samaria, we may indeed lose our way in life. When faced with earthquakes and tsunamis, with nuclear meltdowns and collapsing buildings -whether literal or figurative - whether as individuals or as church communities, we are tempted to covenant ourselves to the control of the many false gods around us. We may indeed become thirsty for the sweeter water they seem to offer. And, very often, we do indeed place ourselves in their devilish hands. Sometimes it is so, and there is little point in pretending otherwise. The good news is that God does not abandon us to our empty flirtations. If we listen carefully, as the woman of Samaria listened to Christ, we shall hear a word of grace, the promise of a spring of living water which, being alive and real (rather than chimera, a nothing) is able to re-animate our lives and fill us with all that we really need: the far deeper truth that we are God’s beloved children, that in worshipping God we will find not only God, but also our best selves, the selves and communities we can be when we are alive with the Spirit who is love. That truth, and the knowing of that truth deep in our bones, is indeed as powerful as water to the dying. It can fill us with life, and hope, and the courage that is called faith. It can be, in short, our salvation.
But let me conclude with a few words about what this salvation might look like, 'in the flesh', as it were. As always, there is more to be said than can be said, but let me make just this one point for now. Salvation is certainly not about the giving away or cessation of desire altogether, as in Buddhism. It is not about denying ourselves to the point where we are able to shut down our senses, thereby blocking out the enticements of this world entirely. (Not that the Buddhism of the West even pretends to such a thing! In Western Buddhism, the denial of desire in meditation has a very different purpose: only to give it a much-needed rest, so that the drive for power and success can again go into overdrive when the meditation is over!) By way of contrast, listen to what Jesus tells his disciples in one of the many passages in John's gospel having to do with food and drink, with what is real and what is not: 'My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work'.
Christians do not shut down their senses or their desire; they simply have a desire-transplant. We learn, through a long process of attending to the word of Christ in Scripture and liturgy and Christian community, to desire in a different way, to desire as Christ desires so that our own needs, like his, are entirely met by doing the will of our Father. And what is the will of the Father, according to John? That we should not love our lives so much that we are unable to give them away for the sake of loving another. For, in the words of the Franciscan song, it is indeed ‘in giving we receive and in pardoning that we are pardoned’. And finally, it is quite literally true that it is only in dying to our fear, our uncertainty, and our nostalgia for an Arcadian past and handing it all over to Christ on his cross, that we shall find ourselves raised into the land and into the blessed way of life to which God has called us. This is the Lenten paradox. And, my friends, it is the only way to be saved.