I was half-listening to the radio while cooking supper, and I began to catch bits of an argument, as petulant, accusing voices swirled around my ears. Political commentators, the voice of the people, were arguing passionately about the causes of, and solutions to, the present economic downturn. The various voices quite clearly did not agree on anything, but there was a tense undertone of fear in all of them, a desperate, urgent tension that sliced through my daydreams like a knife. Having just studied Exodus 17 that afternoon, I thought for a moment that I was back in the desert with the children of Israel. In the voices of the commentators, I could just hear the Israelite leaders’ analyses of their desperate situation, as their complaints were thrown around in the assembly: “We are in a dry, desolate wilderness, and there is no water to drink. Babies are crying miserably, throats are parched, valuable livestock hang their heads in the hot sun, and the land that was supposed to be flowing with milk and honey, is as dry as a bone, dusty and barren, our path littered with sharp stones. We are supposed to be God’s chosen people; God has led us to freedom, gloriously destroying all of our enemies on the way. Freedom is supposed to mean prosperity, a sweet and easy life, where the milk flows into our open mouths and the honey drips smoothly down our throats. How can this be?”
When things are going well, when we are feeling blessed, when we are crossing the Red Sea in triumph, we wave our banners and puff ourselves up with the assurance that God is with us. We are more like our Calvinist forebears than we would like to think, subconsciously believing that God’s Elect are the ones who are flourishing. Jacques Fontaine, my Huguenot great …. grandfather, wrote and published his memoirs, in which he describes his flight from 17th-century France and the establishment of his new life in England and Ireland. His manuscript carefully notes each turn of his good fortune, each business deal successfully concluded, each bigger and better home, each successfully educated child, as a sign of God’s presence with him and his family. At the same time, he rubs his hands together in glee as he notes the economic disasters befalling France, the famines and wars and devaluation of the currency, as signs of God’s abandonment of his native land and of its rulers.
When we are the ones who are lost in the wilderness (and such a time comes to us all, small and great) this kind of theology of the Elect backfires on us, and our pride and confidence turn to dust in our thirsty throats, as we blame God and one another for our misfortune. In the midst of desert-like hardship, we have eyes mainly for ourselves. “Why did you bring us up from Egypt to kill me and my children and my livestock with thirst?” says the original Hebrew text in our reading. If this is freedom, we want to go back into bondage, where the problems were at least familiar ones.
We are like the Ancient Israelites, roaming between bondage and perfect freedom. Like the children of Israel, we move by stages from Massah, or Testing, to Meribah, or Strife and Contention. The consequent murmuring and accusing along the way surprise none of us. The truly important question is to discern what we are most thirsty for, in the wildernesses in which we travel in our troubled postmodern times. Listening to the radio, it might sound as if we thirst merely for cheap gasoline for our cars to drink, or for health care, or for economic security. But I think that underneath, we have a deeper, even more desperate thirst. The prophet Amos describes it: “The time is surely coming, says the Lord God, when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord. They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the Lord, but they shall not find it.”
In a world of information overload, of words on the page and words over the airwaves and words through the Internet, we thirst for the one True Word that will make sense of all the rest. We run hither and yon, desperately seeking, frantically longing for a meaningful word from God, desiring to rest in the certainty of God’s Word. “One word, just one sure word, O God, where I can curl up and hide,” we beg. “Just one word that will direct my steps through the shifting sands.” Our thirst for meaning has even driven us from our comfortable homes into church on a Sunday morning. Could it be that we sometimes remain thirsty even in church? That here, where we are supposed to hear God’s Word, we sometimes hear only each other? Here, where we are supposed to find soul-quenching purpose for our lives, we are left quarreling in the midst of a drought? Here, where we are supposed to be comforted, our fears remain, nagging at us during the Psalm, creeping in during the Prayers.
When we are thirsty, says Jesus, we need to ask for Living Water, for the water that will “become in [us] a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” I was interested to read this week that, in our haste to wag our fingers at the morals of the Samaritan woman, we are missing identifying with her misery. She is a woman who, like us, is wandering in the wilderness. She could be a grief-stricken widow five times over, perhaps, or a woman cast aside for not being able to bear children. She must be seeking escape from a meaningless life of drudgery and loss, as she plods day in and day out to the well for water under the hot, noonday sun, scorned by villagers who are afraid that her bad luck might rub off on them. Yet Jesus comes to her and offers to quench her thirst—not her thirst for water, but her thirst for meaning and love. The “living,” flowing water that Jesus offers leads to eternal life—not just to unending life, stretched out over time, but to fullness and depth of life in each moment—to meaningful and joyful life. Water, in the Judaism of Jesus’ day, symbolized revelation or teaching. God’s water was understood as a symbol for God’s Word, the Torah or Teaching of God. For Jews, the Law was the Living Water that quenched our human thirst with God’s wisdom and truth. For John, Jesus replaces the Law as the source of Living Water. It is Jesus who shows us what God is like; it is Jesus who comes to us as God’s Word, who shows us what God’s strange Wisdom looks like. God doesn’t just give us Living Water to gaze at from afar, however. We don’t just read about God’s Water in Scripture. God fills us with that water. When we drink, it becomes within us a spring of life-giving water that cannot be stopped. It dances and flows with the Holy Spirit, God’s gift to us, filling us and overflowing from our hearts out into the world.
The Good News is that God’s Word has come to us in the flesh, in deeds of healing, in the strange grace of the Cross. We can even touch it in the bread and wine, and in the water of baptism. Yet, do we ask for a drink? Or are we too bogged down in our own misery, too filled with hopelessness under the hot sun? Or are we are afraid of Living Water, water that cannot be controlled or contained? Do we prefer the calm of the stagnant water in our own cisterns, water that won’t change us or challenge us or turn our worlds upside down with the power of the Spirit? I know that I would much rather circle and pace around a cool, blue swimming pool trying to devise ways to pull up from the bottom a bottle clearly marked as Truth, than I would take a drink from a cup of bubbling, foaming liquid handed to me by a scruffy-looking stranger with nail-marks in his hands. Yet, for Living Water to flow in and through me, I must drink-- and pass the cup and the invitation lovingly on to you, my fellow wilderness traveler.