One of my favorite TV commercials from the 1970s showed a man crawling through desert sand, dragging a suitcase. He looked thoroughly parched and desperately thirsty. Just when it seemed that he could go no further, a stranger appeared and offered a canteen of water. Instead, he requested dry, salty crackers. After shoving those crackers into his already dry mouth, he opened his suitcase and pulled out a bottle of soda which was carefully packed in ice. He took a long drink as the voice-over announced, “Build your thirst, build it till you can't take it anymore, then blow it away with Teem.” Teem hasn’t been seen in the United States since 1984, but that image remains in my mind.
The people quarreled with Moses in the desert and asked, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt to kill us with thirst?” The thirst had been building and they couldn’t take it any longer. Moses was between a rock and a hard place, as they say, and it turns out that a rock was the answer to everyone’s prayers.
Two Sundays ago I mentioned climbing Mount Sinai with an Egyptian guide named Mohammed. As we began the trail from St. Catherine’s Monastery to the mountain, Mohammed pointed to a rock and with his limited English explained that it was the very rock that Moses struck with a stick. It looked like a pretty ordinary rock. A barbed wire fence prevented us from touching it. There was definitely no water in sight. I had my doubts about the rock, knowing that many supposedly authentic sites are made up so tourists like me can spend money. I did take a photo and learned later that there are at least a few other absolutely authentic monoliths in Egypt that are the rock Moses struck. Wherever that rock might have been in the minds of the writers of Exodus, imagine a few drops of water emerging from a crack, becoming a steady stream, and then suddenly bursting forth like water from a fire hydrant, soaking the Israelite pilgrims as they danced wildly and drank deeply.
In our own part of the world, the Native Americans who lived here before us, often in very dry places like the desert southwest, are credited with the phrase, “water is life.” I saw those words on teepees and tee shirts all over the Standing Rock encampment last fall. We expect to hear any day now that oil is flowing through the pipeline beneath the Missouri River. The route of that pipeline was successfully moved ten miles south after the city of Bismark, North Dakota expressed concern about water contamination. That same concern from the Lakota tribe, just to the south, went unheeded. In our Bible story, the people grumbled and quarreled with Moses. Their arguments were heard, and pure, clean water was the result. To say that the people have grumbled about the pipeline in our heartland is an understatement. Those complaints appear so far to have gone unheard for the sake of money they themselves will never benefit from.
When people cry out for water and justice and remain unheard, the thirst builds until it is cannot be tolerated any longer. We can’t blow it away with Teem. There’s not always a rock nearby, ready to be to be struck by Moses’ rod. What do we do with that thirst?
The Lectionary’s Gospel reading today is from John chapter 4. The whole text is 41 verses long and the paragraphs can’t be easily truncated, so I’m just going to summarize it for you. Jesus was thirsty. He was sitting by an old well in the desert, but he didn’t have a bucket or a ladle and so he asked a woman by the well if she could give him a drink of water. They immediately got into a long and highly theological discussion of religion and relationships and what Jesus referred to as “living water.” The woman was astonished that Jesus even bothered talking to her, her being a hated Samaritan and all. The combination of being a woman and a religious half-breed would have caused most men to shun her, at least when it comes to conversation about important things. Jesus suggested that what she really needed was some living water, the kind that bubbles up from within a person, rather than from a well. Not water that you drink, but refreshment nonetheless. Jesus said that this living water would gush up for eternal life. Water is life. I’m of a mind that eternal life is more than some abstract future destiny. It’s a quality of living that Jesus also described as abundant.
No wonder we get thirsty when we forget to tap the inner resources that God has already poured into us.
One of the greatest gifts that Pete Terpenning shared with this congregation was contemplative practice. I am not naturally inclined toward meditation. I’m too antsy. I can’t stop myself from thinking about what I’m supposed to get done or how much time is passing as I try to empty my mind of its clutter and simply be present to the moment. But it’s important for me to stop and be still. That’s why I love that every Sunday morning begins with a Taize service. Those moments of meditation are the best way to start any week. And remembering that I need to be present to God and others through prayer is important before I rush into the busyness of Sunday morning.
Often people avoid looking within because when we do we are often confronted with uncomfortable truths about ourselves. We have to grapple with who we are and what we believe, and the process of doing so can lead us through an interior desert. Doubts about ourselves and even about God are amplified when we remove the props that hold us up during the busy moments of our lives.
The people who followed Moses into the desert had all kinds of doubts. Was life on the run really better than the life they left? Did God really care about them, or was God so cruel as to allow them to die of thirst under the relentless sun? How could life be so unjust?
The woman at the well lived in a desert of her own. Racism directed toward Samaritans was rampant, and her own life was apparently a mess as she tried to find her way forward after five failed marriages. She had doubts about faith. Even when her personal audience with Jesus had ended, she had more questions than certainties. She returned to her village and related all that Jesus had said. She asked others, “He can’t be the Messiah, could he?”
Thich Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese Buddhist monk and activist who Martin Luther King Jr. called “an apostle of peace and non-violence.” As a result of speaking out against the Vietnam War, he was exiled from the country for almost forty years. He has this to say about the experience of doubt: “Doubt in my tradition is something that is very helpful. Because of doubt, you can thirst more and you will get a higher kind of proof.” I’m not sure what he means by “proof,” but I think his point is that when we grapple with our beliefs, when we experience a deep thirst for truth, whatever we end up with is more solid than simply accepting what others have told us is true.
It’s OK to grumble like those who traveled with Moses. It’s OK to ask hard questions like the woman at the well. When we do so with sincere hearts, there is no condemnation from God, only gladness, I think, that we are being honest.
Many people are experiencing life as a desert right now, not simply because of doubts about faith. Personal struggles at home and with health are difficult to walk through. Political realities are challenging our values and even threaten the livelihood and mission of those who work in fields like science and health care. No wonder people are grumbling like those who had enough and confronted Moses.
Are you thirsty? Maybe more time in the desert is required of us, but desert wanderings don’t last forever. When the water suddenly bursts from the rock or when a cup of water is offered by a stranger, drink deeply. Know that our parched souls are indications of our humanity and even teach us important lessons, but that God ultimately will refresh and restore you with the pure, cool water that you need. Be open and ready to receive.