Sunday, March 27, 2011

Water in the Wilderness (Sermon)

Last week I saw a cartoon in which two guys were crawling across the desert on their hands and knees, no sign of water or shade in sight, and one is saying to the other, “You and your alternate scenic routes!”
We’ve all been there, right?  Some of those scenic routes are well worth the time – it’s wonderful, for instance, to stretch out a trip through the Blue Ridge Mountains by driving at least part of the way on the Parkway.  But the  Parkway isn’t for those in a hurry – I think the speed limit is 35 mph.  And if you travel with my dad – well, let’s just say that I love my dad, but don’t hop in the car with him if time is of the essence.  On the other hand, if you want to discover some unusual destinations off the beaten track, he’s the driver you want behind the wheel.
And you might want to take a scenic route through even the desert.  I remember being confused by the terms desert and wilderness when I first began to pay serious attention to the Bible.  They sounded so foreboding – and I was a backpacker and a hiker, here, in the United States, so I thought of the desert and the wilderness as desirable places.  To me, desert meant the Sonoran Desert in southern Arizona – dry, for sure, but home to saguaro cacti and all sorts of birds and lizards, and a place that blooms dramatically after the spring rains.  And wilderness to me meant places in which I had backpacked, isolated and empty of human company, but filled with great beauty and exuding life.

It was awhile before I got a look at some photos of the Sinai desert, and the desert east of the Jordan River, and understood what desert and wilderness mean in the Bible.  They’re practically synonymous terms, and they refer to hugely empty and desolate places, mountains and cliffs of rock, windswept and dry and barren lands.  Not places in which we really want to spend a lot of time, not unless we’re well equipped with many bottles of water and many camels.

The desert is not just a literal place, of course.  It’s also a metaphor for similar places in our live: empty and desolate, dry and barren places.  Places which we do not find desirable.  And yet here we are in Lent, faced with two desert stories.  Because Lent is a time in which, as writer and artist Christine Valters Painter reminds us, we are invited to honor the desert places in our lives.

There are two great season of preparation in the church year.
During Advent we prepare to welcome the incarnate God, who comes among us in the                             form of a charming baby, surrounded by adoring grown-ups.  And because of the way in which Christmas has been co-opted by our culture of consumer advertising and materialistic focus, it becomes a season of add-on.  What more can we do?  How many parties, how many presents?  How much food, how many family gatherings?  One thing after another, and little of it has to do with God become human.

But Lent?  For Lent, we Christians are on our own. Our culture is not interested in a season of subtraction, of take-away.  A season in which we insist that we must recognize brokenness and sorrow before we can rejoice in resurrected life.  A season which requires of us a time in the desert before the lilies burst into bloom.
 And truthfully, we’re not all that interested ourselves.  We’re interested in the positive, in moving on, in overcoming the hardships of life and forging ahead.

But Lent tells us: there is another facet to our lives, another facet that invites us into a deeper
knowledge of the God who knows our desert places, who joins us there and accompanies us through their treacherous paths. 

Our texts today offer us two different looks at life in the wilderness.
Sometimes we find ourselves in the wilderness because we’ve been called there – often rather unexpectedly.  The Israelites – they left Egypt in a hurry, but filled with the assurance that God was calling them to something new.  They expected liberation and prosperity – but, as we see in today’s story, they find much the opposite.  They find hunger, and loneliness, and dislocation, and thirst – and yet, they also find, in their complaining and anger and near-insurrection, that God accompanies them.  “They’re going to do me in!” their leader Moses tells God, and God tells Moses to strike a rock so that water will pour forth, quenching their thirst and re-energizing them for the journey.

When have we felt confident of God’s call, only to find ourselves in the wilderness? Perhaps for one young lady it’s getting that full scholarship to college, her heart filled dreams of medical school – and then she fails organic chemistry.  Twice.  She thought God was calling her to serve the sick and injured, and now the wilderness has closed in on her.  Perhaps a man gets a huge promotion – finally! that second mortgage will be paid off and finally! he’ll be able to show his stuff – and he discovers that he’s in way over his head.  He thought God was calling him to a better use of his gifts, and now desert lies before him.  Perhaps some of you as a church community feel as if you are on something of a wilderness tour right now, as you search for a new pastor.  You know God has called you to this community, to this place, to this arena of worship and mission – and yet, it takes a LONG time to find the leadership you seek.  Where’s the water?!

None of these desert places feel much like scenic routes.  Lent is not much of a scenic route. 

Or, perhaps, is it a scenic route after all?  Is this a time, perhaps, to honor the journey and develop a new layer of attentiveness to the God who accompanies us?  Where might God be inviting us to grow in recognition of God’s presence, in the failed class or in the overwhelming new job?  Where might God be inviting us to look more closely, to see more clearly the underlying story and pattern in the church on a new journey, in the family situation that once looked so promising and now seems to spell disaster, in the friendship that began in hope and has now foundered on the rocks?  Where might there be a trickle of water in the wilderness – or even a gushing waterfall, unnoticed by eyes tired of the long walk across rough terrain?  Where might we find ourselves immersed in the water of grace in the desert?

Now the story of the Exodus is pretty dramatic, and also very much oriented toward community.  That’s one view of the desert experience which our texts offer us today.  But there’s another version, a version that we hear in the story of the woman at the well.

Sometimes we’re just living our ordinary, perhaps solitary, lives and we don’t even recognize that we’re in the desert. Things are going along and, while we may not be satisfied, we accept them as they are; we don’t anticipate or hope for change and we certainly don’t expect a call to new life and wholeness.
The woman at the well might have been such a person: discouraged but accepting.  We don’t know the details, the reasons behind her having had five husbands, but her life must have been a hard one, filled with fresh starts that ended repeatedly in disappointment.  And we see her at the well, not one of a group of women in conversation and community relationship, but alone, isolated from the camaraderie of her village, doing her work but doing it without joy or hope.
 And yet, the water of Christ’s grace comes her way.
How does this happen for us?
As it does for the woman at the well, it usually happens through other people; other people who are Jesus for us. Other people who sit down to help us listen to our lives. Other people who help us see what we cannot: God’s love pouring out and through our most mundane moments.  It’s not very dramatic, but it happens all the time.
Perhaps it happens when the teacher sits down to console and encourage the failing student.  Perhaps it happens when the nurse spreads a sheaf of papers across a table to explain the diagnosis and offer ways of coping.  Perhaps it happens when the co-worker asks you to join him for a cup of coffee so that he can provide some space in which you might reflect on all that has gone wrong.
Perhaps there was someone who noticed that you could be more than you were, someone who recognized that you were parched and alone in the desert.
You know when this happens because you are able to move forward. Not necessarily at your desired speed or toward your originally projected endpoint, but toward a destination beyond the desert. A destination from which you can look back and say, “The Lord was in that place.”
And you may be compelled to share what your encounter has meant. The woman at the well takes off to tell other people about Jesus, and she makes a big impression on them.  She’s one of the earliest evangelists in the Bible, one of the first preachers on a mission to share the love of Jesus with everyone she knows.   And I have to tell you something about why her desire to share the hope of Christ’s living water stands out for me:
You know that the Presbyterian church requires seminarians to study Greek and Hebrew, the original Biblical languages.  And let me tell you, I am NOT a gifted student of ancient languages.  Those classes were a huge challenge for me.  And in Greek, I had a lot of trouble, as most people do, with a particular group of difficult verbs – so difficult that, a young friend of mine, a brilliant young woman, emailed me from Harvard to say that “even the Greeks didn’t understand those verbs.”
Well, on our final exam one term, we had to translate a passage that I just couldn’t get.  “Five men” – it said.  Where on earth does anyone in the Bible talk about “five men?”  I wondered.  And then it clicked – “Five husbands!”  The Greek word anthropos translates to both man and husband.  Once I saw that, I knew that the passage was the story of the woman at the well, and I could go back and put the puzzle pieces together.  Until I got to one of those verbs that I simply could not figure out. That woman – she does something with her water jar. I thought and thought, and finally I concluded: What you would do with a water jar after you’d been to the well is: you would pick it up and leave.  The verb must be “to pick up,” and so that’s how I completed my exam. “She picked up her jar and left.”
“Robin,” my Greek professor shook her head, “she LEFT the water jar behind.  She was so excited that she forgot all about it.  The verb is “to leave.”
 “Oh,” I said.  “To leave.”
 I haven’t forgotten that.  Not the verb – that I HAVE forgotten.  But that she was so excited, so moved by her encounter with Jesus, so changed in who she was and her expectations of life, so compelled to share her new story with others that she forgot all about her water jar and left it behind – THAT I remember.  That she was in a bad place in her life and suddenly she wasn’t – THAT I remember.
The  route through the wilderness is seldom a scenic one in ways that we would like.
It’ s a place in which we thirst, in which we complain and quarrel, in which we find ourselves isolated and heartbroken. It’s a lonely and challenging place, whether we practically dance into its newness and anticipation, confident of God’s leading and oblivious to the hardships ahead, or whether we find ourselves there in our most ordinary of lives, day in and day out, with no hope of release or transformation.
It’s not a scenic byway.  It’s not a place in which we would choose to be.  And yet, it’s a place which Lent bids us to honor, a place in which to pause, to spend some time, to acknowledge our losses and heartaches, to express our anger and our sadness, to live authentically into lives in which brokenness precedes wholeness, in which death is real but resurrection lies ahead.
 The wilderness is the place in which God comes looking for us -
 offering water -
offering life.

Amen and thanks be to God.


  1. Very beautiful indeed.

    I wish you had been preaching at my church.

    (It's Roman Catholic so we won't even go into the up is down world that would require!)

    You brought these two readings to life beautifully!!

    Thank you!

  2. Oh my friend, what a lovely sermon-- and a brilliant weaving together of those two texts. Thank you. That congregation is blessed by you, sharing your deep and real knowledge of desert places and the unexpected living water.

  3. Thanks be to God, indeed!

    Thank you.