Lent III Lessons: Genesis 44:1-17, Psalm 95, Romans 8:1-10, John 5:25-29
"From the wilderness the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as God commanded. And they camped, but there was no water for the people to drink." This is what we hear from the book of Exodus. God's people had been journeying for a long time. They were hopeful and excited about their newfound freedom from slavery in Egypt. But in the midst of their journey, tired and weary from walking, they found themselves in a place that had no water to quench their thirst. When they got upset about it, Moses got upset at them for being upset. And then God finally relented and gave the people a spring of water. The scripture writer notes throughout the story that God's people persisted in doubt.
There's something strange about this. Why would God bring God's beloved people out of slavery and then leave them out to dry, literally? They're in the wilderness, a place unknown to them, and they're thirsting. Thirst is no insignificant thing. Thirst, if left unquenched long enough, could lead to death. Thirst is such a fearful experience that there are psalms dedicated to it: in Psalm 42 we pray, "As the deer that pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for God," and in Psalm 63 we pray "My soul is thirsting for you, O God, like a dry, weary land without water."
For the people of Israel, a dry land was an unfruitful land. A dry people was a dying people.
And here we are, on the third Sunday of Lent, not quite halfway through our journey in the Lenten wilderness, and we find ourselves parched. My guess is that you, like I, have given up something for Lent (in my case, being the overachiever that I am, I gave up four things). If you're like me, your Lenten fasting leaves you yearning, sometimes bitterly, sometimes desperately, for the familiar comforts you gave up on Ash Wednesday.
This Sunday's lessons are all about water and thirst, and they may be the most important ones we hear during Lent. We think of Lent as a time to honor Jesus' ultimate sacrifice on the cross by making sacrifices of our own, and Lent is that, but Lent also has something far more difficult to teach us.
The harder lesson of Lent is difficult to perceive when our fasting is overshadowed by our certainty that relief is coming. Unlike our voluntary Lenten fasting, for the Israelites wandering in the wilderness, there was no timeline or guarantee of reaching an oasis. Their journey out of slavery in Egypt meant leaving behind all their known sources of refreshment, period. It meant taking the extraordinary risk that they might involuntarily and without warning have to abstain from water--an abstinence that, if prolonged, even for a few days, would have the power to claim their lives.
By leaving Egypt, they weren't just taking their lives out of the hands of Pharaoh; by seeking freedom, they were submitting their lives to the mercy of their God, their sole protector from the dangers of the wilderness. As they found themselves stopping to camp in a place with no water, they were terrified. They were so sick with parched mouths and deep thirst that they were no longer sure that the God in whom they had put all their trust would be willing or able to save them from death. They had already journeyed too far from Egypt to go back. Their lives hung by a thread, and they could no longer save themselves. Only God could. And that scared them.
Centuries later, when Jesus offered living water to the Samaritan woman, he was offering her God's new covenant: the promise that as long as she sought this new living water, rather than seeking water from the source she had always turned to, she would never have to fear dying from thirst the way the Israelites had feared dying from thirst in the wilderness.
The lesson from John's gospel isn't merely a story about the Samaritan woman. It's a story about us. We have been offered this same living water by God in our baptism, and yet what do we do? We build up storehouses of comfort around ourselves in order to make sure that we never have to rely on anyone but ourselves. Our lives get so cluttered by the comforts we take for granted that when we tear away some of those comforts during Lent, we feel a deep, uncomfortable emptiness. We taste a morsel of the same bitter fear that haunted God's people in the wilderness, and we can't wait to get back to the way things were. In the end, we would rather drink from the well that we've always known than trust in some guy who doesn't even know to bring his own bucket. We might give up what we cling to for a few weeks, but who among us is willing to let our comforts go indefinitely? If I let my sources of comfort die, I risk dying, too.
I'd like to suggest that we ask ourselves what we left behind in order to enter this Lenten wilderness, and whether we're willing to leave behind all the rest. Do we dare to empty ourselves of everything we cling to until all we have left is our aching thirst for God and the trust that God won't let us die? Perhaps, as we enter the second half of Lent, we can risk losing it all--every thing we think we need to be happy, all our enslaving attachments, every shackle of our obsessions--and move forward to the unknown, unguaranteed future. And maybe then, as we go forward bearing nothing but our thirst and radical trust in the face of terrifying dryness, God will lift up for us a spring of living water, and we'll be able to rise from our knees to unfettered, quenching, resurrected freedom.