The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks–Lent 3—Year A (video link)
Everybody’s on a journey today. The whole congregation of Israel is journeying on through their wilderness by stages. Jesus is making his way from Judea back to Galilee by way of Samaria. A Samaritan woman treks out to a well in the heat of the noonday sun. And what do all of these travelers have in common? They are tired. They are in need of rest. They are thirsty.
Let’s drop down a little deeper.
So, the people of God have moved on from the wilderness of Sin and have set up camp in Rephidim. And they are tired, and they are thirsty, and they are whiney, and they are agitated, and they are in a quarreling mood with Moses. And the people of God move from “we’re-in-this-all-together” to “Give us water to drink”—sort of a demanding tone. And Moses gets a little defensive, both on his own behalf and on behalf of the LORD—“Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” The people are having none of Moses’ defense. They are thirsty, and they are in a complaining mood, and they come right back at Moses—“Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?”
Oh, that hits Moses right where he lives. Can you imagine the voices that must have been raging in his head—“Why did I bring these people out here? What possessed me to think that was a good idea?” And the deadly, “This is all my fault.” And Moses starts to get sucked down the shame vortex.
But in a profound act of resilience, Moses had the awareness to cry out to the LORD—“What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.”
And God heard that cry, and God instructed Moses to go on ahead with some elders, and to take that staff that he’d used to strike the Nile, and that God would be standing there in front of him on the rock at Horeb. God made Moses a promise—“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, and he called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the LORD among us or not?”
What were the people of God thirsty for? (pause) Water, yes, but something much deeper, and much harder to confess—“Is the LORD among us or not?” That is a daggone haunting question. When healthy young women have complications and babies don’t survive, “Is the LORD among us or not?” When we can’t hardly figure out how to talk with our neighbor, talk with our fellow citizens, “Is the LORD among us or not?” When children go to bed hungry in this country and die of famine in Africa, “Is the LORD among us or not?” When we struggle to articulate a notion of the common good that is truly held in common, “Is the LORD among us or not?” When we don’t know what to believe, or whom to believe, and it all just seems too much, and Egypt starts looking really good, we know that we are thirsty to know, “Is the LORD among us or not?”
Whose cry was it that got God’s attention—was it Moses’ cry for help, or was it the people’s thirst, or was it both? The people of God were thirsty, but not just for water; they were thirsty to know that God had not abandoned them. God didn’t just give them water, but God stood before them on that rock; God gave them Presence, God’s Presence, and when Moses struck that rock, that rock on which God stood, the water for which they longed flowed. All the quarreling, all the testing, it didn’t make God go away; it brought God close—sometimes, you’ve got to cry out to God about how thirsty you are if you are to discover the water your soul is looking for.
Then, there’s Jesus. He’s decided to leave Judea and return to Galilee because he’s heard that the Pharisees are saying that he’s baptizing more people than John, though the gospel writer tells us that it’s not really Jesus doing the baptizing, but it’s Jesus’ disciples doing the baptizing. Oh, the first century version of comparing our stats on the parochial report—and while our denomination wants to know these statistics, Jesus clearly does not. He heads back for Galilee by way of that no-man’s land for upstanding Jews—Samaria. He comes to the village of Sychar, and it’s midday, and it’s hot. He’s plum tuckered out by his journey, and he plops down by a well, and not just any well, but Jacob’s well. And he’s thirsty.
And then there’s the Samaritan woman who comes to the well at midday. Okay, the only reason you would come to the well at midday is because you can’t come in the morning when all the other women came to draw water. She is a triple outcast—a Samaritan, a woman, and a woman of whose manner of living wasn’t acceptable to the rest of the community. You think she’s thirsty?
So, a very long exchange unfolds between Jesus and the woman. They cover the territory of well-known social norms, norms which they are breaking—how it is that a Jewish man is asking her for a drink? Jewish men don’t share things in common with Samaritan women. They cover the territory of the proper place to worship—is it on the holy mountain in Samaria or in Jerusalem? They cover her rather complicated personal history—a history that, in every other instance, isolated her, but somehow didn’t present a barrier to Jesus.
And somehow, both Jesus and the woman forget about the water in the well because the living water is flowing. It wasn’t the particular words of the conversation that healed her; it was the fact that they were engaged in conversation at all. It was something beyond all words; it was the Word made flesh in him. When she said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming…When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Jesus simply responded, “I am, the one who is speaking to you.” The english translation says, “I am he,” but that’s not the greek—the greek simply says, “I am.” Jesus gave the woman his Presence and his Presence runs deeper than Jacob’s well—Jesus’ Presence is Presence itself—the Divine I AM of Exodus 3 and the burning bush and the rock at Horeb—the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.
Once the woman encountered that Divine Radiant Presence in Jesus, she left her water jar and ran into the city to tell anyone who’d listen that she’d met the one who’d told her everything she’d ever done—and this was unbelievably good news, because in his Presence she was more than her history. Her thirst to be seen, her thirst to be seen as more than the narrative that people, and she herself, had constructed about her, her thirst to be seen as the beloved daughter of God that she was, one in whom God’s image dwelled richly—that thirst was quenched, and she was made whole.
And that brings us to Jesus’ thirst on that hot day. It, too, was for more than water. He thirsted to cross all the boundaries of ethnicity and gender and religion. He thirsted to pour out his compassion and Presence as living water. He thirsted for connection. He thirsted to let his love overflow, knowing that when that love is flowing, he is more than satisfied. No wonder, when his disciples tried to urge him to eat, he responded, “I have food to eat that you do not know about…My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work.”
On this third Sunday in Lent, for what do we thirst? Where are we feeling cutoff, isolated? Where have our narratives, both those we’ve constructed about ourselves and those which have been projected onto us, and those we’ve projected onto others, where have our narratives separated us from our neighbor?
As we make our way through this wilderness before us, journeying by stages, where is our hope fading and what nostalgic memory of Egypt are we holding onto that is starting to look seductively good?
What is the thirst beneath all of our thirsts? What is breaking our hearts, causing us to cry out “Is the LORD among us or not?” What is the living water for which our souls long?
On this third Sunday in Lent, can we let down our guards and take off all pretense that we’re just fine and come clean before God, and one another, with the truth of just how thirsty we are?
Can we muster the fierce courage of that Samaritan woman and come to this table with our hands outstretched, eager to hold the Presence of Jesus in our hands, eager to drink his being into ours, knowing, trusting that this is the well given to us; this is our place of encounter with the great I AM, this is the living water from the deep well that will sustain us this day, and tomorrow, and all the days to come.
And then, having drunk of this living water, can we leave whatever water jars we have lugged here this morning, can we leave our water jars here, and run back to our cities, and to our circles, with the awareness that we, ourselves, are vessels full of living water. Can we be extravagant in pouring this love out into all the parched places that are so thirsty?
Can we be heralds of the good news that there is a Presence strong enough to hold our narrative, and all the narratives flying around, and that freedom will come in getting real honest about the narratives?
Can we trust that if we keep “doing the will of him who sent me,” if we keep trying “to complete his work,” if we keep working to cross the boundaries and reconcile what is divided and repair the breaches that are all around us, can we trust that, as we do this, we, too, will discover the food that so clearly, to the absolute amazement of his disciples, filled Jesus’ soul?
It’s a thirsty doggone time in the life of our little St. Luke’s community, and in the life of our world, and our cry rises up, “Is the LORD among us or not?”
But just as God stood on the rock at Horeb, and Jesus met that Samaritan woman at the well, God stands before us now, and Jesus is waiting to meet us at this well.
“Take, eat, drink this, all of you”—the living water is flowing deep beneath our feet, and all around us, and beyond us, and between us; the living water is yearning to pour itself out and yearning to be received.
The great I AM is holding us all, whether we see it or feel it, or not.
Drink in this Presence,then, go, share this living water with every thirsty soul you meet. Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
March 19, 2017