Third Sunday of Lent Year A
Sunday, March 27, 2011
Let us pray: O God, you promise water for our thirsty throats and water for our thirsty souls. It's all living water in one way or another, water that keeps us alive, water that slakes our longing for meaning, for hope, for fulfilment. Take these words and use them to refresh, to renew, to remember. Amen.
Whenever I hear or read the story we had from the Hebrew Bible this morning I cannot help feeling for both the people and their leader, Moses. How often does a grand plan, a great vision, a new direction absorbed and adopted at onset get bogged down in the nitty-gritty of everyday life and the small, but vitally important concerns of survival and comfort in the moment when the goals and objectives of the initial vision are sensed to be lost, too far away or ultimately unattainable? Perhaps for me it's a case of starting to become something of a wise elder with too much experience, too much time spent reflecting on all the things that could have gone wrong. I found myself thinking of experiences in my own life, in micro fashion somewhat akin to the one described by the story we heard from Exodus this morning.
I don't remember exactly how many times I did this, something like six or seven I think, but every long weekend in May for several years in a row I and other boy scout leaders took a young group of scouts on a three day backpacking trip on a thirty kilometre hike along the north side of Lake Minnewanka in Banff National Park. The leaders were all twenty or early thirty somethings, with an occasional addition of a leader of more advanced years. For the most part those years of completing the hike a kind of coming of age for members of our particular troop for you had to earn your way on to the highly anticipated outdoor experience, have all melded into a composite memory. There are a few exceptions. There was the year we had an encounter with a black bear, which very unfortunately led to the demise of the bear, the only outcome which would have been worse in my mind was something happening to one of the boys or leaders. There was also the year when one of our older scouts at least in age, rolled his ankle, which with a big pack is not a simple problem. It looked for a time like we were going to have to devise a way to get him out of the wilderness not on his own steam, but with some amateur medical analysis, some encouragement (not all that easy - remember I said he was one of our older scouts in age, but not necessarily in temperament) and a lightening of his load by distributing some of his equipment among the leaders, we were able to coax his ankle into action and encourage his spirit into motivation. There was also the year when we were greeted on the Friday of the May long weekend with one of Calgary's freak snowstorms and cold snaps, resulting in a postponement of the hike by a few weeks, this time to be done, fortunately with only a small number of the more mature scouts on a non-long weekend in June. The only problem being that a hike later in the spring also meant high water, flooding even, and an unanticipated fording of the inlet creek (river in this case!) to the Lake. It was up to my thighs, so you can imagine how high the water was on some of the shorter boys! However, a rope to hold onto and leaders on both sides made sure that no problems other than getting soaking wet were encountered. Soaking wet turned out to be a theme for the weekend because no sooner had we crossed the cold water river than we were greeted by a torrential downpour that seemed to last most of the rest of the weekend. I guess that year unlike the Hebrew people we were not worried about the lack of water.
Well, as I alluded to earlier I was drawn to reflect on this Minnewanka reverie in identification with the people and Moses in our story from Exodus this morning. As I look back on those Minnewanka trips, I continue to be amazed at how unafraid I was as a young scout leader. Sprained ankles, all to friendly wildlife, and liquid sunshine notwithstanding, with the advantage of age and wisdom I look back now and wonder if I knew then what I know now and how many things could have gone wrong whether I would even want to venture out with the boys as I so eagerly did some thirty years ago.
Maybe that's the way it is supposed to be. We are drawn to these kinds of adventure when we are young, full of energy and somewhat naive, because if we had to do it later, despite the advantage of wider and deeper experience, an expanded knowledge of both first aid and survival techniques, all the possible bad outcomes would overwhelm me and I would be unwilling to take the risk. I don't know.
Of course, there are big differences as well. We did those trips willingly and for fun. The Hebrew people did not really have a choice, even though they considered a return to the oppression of Egypt as a choice, there really was no choice. They were committed to the Exodus from Egypt and all the consequent hardships they would have to endure. Of course we can side with the people in the story. Who wouldn't be worried when there is no water to drink. It's pretty hard to remember the vision when our immediate needs are overwhelming us. And poor Moses, not only afraid because of the lack of water, but afraid of mutiny and assassination although one might wonder how offing the leader would help the people quench their thirst.
Ultimately, of course, the story is about faith. The important question that gets asked in the whole story is this one: Is God with us or not? Fortunately their leader Moses, and probably that's what identified him as prime leadership material, was not about to give up. Yes, we read that he was frightened, afraid for his life even, but he turned to God, praying fervently, asking for help. Moses did not question whether God was with them or not. He prayed for help and received an answer and some direction. We could spend a lot of time in discussion about the details of how Moses' prayer was answered whether it was a miracle or an insight into desert science and unexpected sources of water, but the more important learning from this is that Moses did not give up on God.
I am always fascinated by the Hebrew tradition around naming. We are told that the place where all this happened was named Massah and Meribah literally testing place and quarreling so that the people would remember this place as the one where they asked if God was with them, and as a reminder of how Moses had been led to an answer that would satisfy their immediate concerns.
In the gospel passage we heard the story of Jesus' encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well, an interesting and enigmatic back and forth about circles of inclusion and exclusion, and living water something different from the water they are drawing from the well. Jesus seems to be making a difference between the water they need for daily life and the so-called living water which is needed for a meaningful life of faith.
I believe that despite the difference that seems apparent in the gospel story the difference between satisfying physical need for water and the spiritual need for nourishment as typified by Jesus' use of the living water metaphor there really isn't as big a difference as it first might seem. It's all about satisfying our needs. When water and food are scarce, those are the needs that need to be satisfied, those are the needs which we would take to God just like the Hebrew people in the Wilderness of Sin. Their spiritual concerns were all tied up in their physical need for water. At the well, the water supply was not in question. Water was fresh and plentiful, and so without having to worry about where their next drink would come from, Jesus and the Samaritan woman could talk about another level of need. Physical needs and spiritual needs are closely tied together living water is fresh and cool and wet when we haven't had a drink, living water is a metaphor for deeper, more inclusive, more satisfying relationship with God when we don't have to worry about where our next drink will come from.
Finally, I want to return to the story of the Hebrew people in the wilderness. I began by reflecting on my identification with both the people and Moses. It is the same way for all of us. We are all called to be followers and leaders. I get the grumbling and complaining. Sometimes it is good for the soul just to get that stuff of our minds, and our chests. But I also know as someone who hears the grumbling and complaining from time to time, just how deflating and depressing incessant harping and railing can be. While it's okay to express concerns for a time even if for the release it offers to us, there is a limit on how much we can take, especially if the grumbling and complaining are being directed at us, and especially if there is not much we can do about it! It sounds as if Moses had reached his limit. After all, he was in the same situation as the rest of the people. It's not as if he had his own private source of water. Surely if they were worried about where their next drink would come from, then so was he! And so while I can completely understand the sentiment of the people, there is also a part of me that wants to say: get with the program, people! We obviously have some problems with water supply, not let's get together and have a brainstorming session on how we might solve the problem. In other words, there is more than one way for God to answer prayers!
Oh and by the way, I said earlier that I wonder if I would be so eager now that I'm starting to reach an age when I might be considered a somewhat wise elder to take a group of young teenagers on a mountain backpacking trip. My questions are all tied up in doubt about what could happen, and knowing all the consequent dangers, whether I would want to risk them. In other words, my concerns circled around questions of what if. But in six or seven years we faced bears, injury, cold and soaked to the skin conditions, and not only survived but thrived, not only dealt with them, but learned a lot in the experience. Worse outcomes could have happened, but they didn't! As I said, there is more than one way for God to answer prayers! Amen.