The benefits of drinking plenty of water are well documented. We know that if our water intake falls below our water output we can become dehydrated very quickly. Being well hydrated helps to keep our body running and gives us a sense of well-being. You or I could live without food for more than a month (although we would be pretty sick and hungry if we tried) but only a very small number of people would survive without water for more than a week. We might not often stop to think about it, but water is a great gift.
In today’s Old Testament reading we find ourselves with Moses and God’s chosen people, as they continue to travel from the misery of slavery in Egypt, through the uncertainty of the desert towards the Promised Land. All of the excitement of crossing the Red Sea, leaving their old life in Egypt behind them seems like a distant memory. As they travel through the desert they find it difficult to keep their focus, to remain faithful to the God who has delivered them from the slavery that they endured. The jubilation of experiencing their God-given release into freedom is now replaced by complaining. Gone is there trust and dependence upon God, replaced by questioning about whether it has all been worth it.
“Why did you bring us out of Egypt to die here in the desert?” they ask Moses, and of course through Moses they are asking that question of God himself. It was all very exciting when things were going well. Now they are not so sure that it was a good idea. Already they have grumbled about their lack of food and God has provided manna for them to eat. Now they are thirsty. They seem to have begun to forget the hardship of being slaves to the Egyptians, now they yearn to be back there, where at least they knew the predictability of what would happen next for them. All the hope and enthusiasm of the deliverance at the Red Sea has gone; life is tough for them in the desert and they are complaining – before it was about food, now it is about water: they are thirsty.
We should not be too hard on them as we imagine the scene. After all, when you are thirsty you are thirsty, and it is hard to think about anything else. But their thirst is painted into this wonderful story as a symbol of much more than their need for water. There is a spiritual thirst too, they long to be reminded and assured that God is with them and that all that they are doing is part of his plan.
Many of us will be able to associate with that kind of a thirsting. We may be able to look back at times in our lives when we have longed for an assurance that God is with us, and that he knows our needs, and that what we are experiencing is part of his plan, and not simply a human made diversion. For some of us that kind of questioning may resonate with the experience of living that we are having right now. The desert is a powerful picture image for us. Lifeless, seemingly unending, and without hope. Not much thrives in the desert.
In the midst of that experience for the Israelites, the God who had already provided them with manna to eat, now refreshes them with life-giving water. The experience of the desert is replaced by a gushing stream to quench their thirst, which pours out from a rock, not only to meet their bodily needs but to assure them that God is with them, that they are not alone. But what does Moses call the place where this remarkable sign of God’s presence and love takes place? Does he call it ‘the place of abundant water’ or ‘the place where God’s presence with us was confirmed’ – no he calls it Massah and Meriba – ‘the place where people quarreled and tested the Lord’, reminding them that right at the heart of it all, God was not just providing them with water to satisfy their thirst. He was definitively settling the question of whether he was with them or not. The water was a sign of his life amongst them.
During this Holy season of Lent we journey with those first people chosen by God through their desert experience. We also remember Jesus’ own experience of preparation and temptation in the wilderness before the start of his public ministry. Just like his ancestors before him, Jesus faced questions out in the desert. He was tempted to divert away from the journey that God had prepared for him, he was tempted to doubt that God had a purpose for him. To the Jewish converts who heard that story of Jesus in the wilderness in the Early Church there would have been an instant and powerful connection with the story of the people of Israel fleeing from Egypt under the leadership of Moses and journeying through the desert.
The Israelites, having crossed through the Red Sea entered into a period of forty years of preparation, and temptation in the wilderness before they reached the Promised Land. The Israelites spent forty years there, Jesus spends forty days there. Just as the people of Israel passed through the wilderness into the Promised Land, so Jesus passes through the wilderness to become the promised one, the Messiah who’s ministry will herald and bring in the long awaited reign of God. The people of Israel spent forty years in preparation for, and in the hope of the new life that was to come in the Promised Land. Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness in preparation for his earthly ministry. Both were challenged in their desert experiences. The Church gives us the gift of forty days each year to prepare ourselves in this Holy Season of Lent: to face the challenges of all that we face in the desert-moments of our lives and to bring them to the Cross.
In our Gospel reading we are confronted by another scene of people seeking to quench their thirst. This time it is Jesus and his disciples, out on the desert road, thirsty in the midday sun, who stop by a well to get a drink. In Jesus’ day people travelled with their own buckets, and it seems that Jesus’ disciples did not bring one with them. They know that the water is there, in the well, deep below the ground, but they have no means to reach it, and so Jesus waits there as his disciples go to find food. For once we see a very human portrait of Jesus, thirsty, hungry and tired on his desert journey.
A woman arrives, a Samaritan with a colourful past. She is surprised that Jesus speaks to her at all, it is not the done thing in their culture for a Jewish man to speak to a woman or a Samaritan, or a Samaritan women with her background. But Jesus puts those three things to one side. They begin to have a conversation about the water, out their in the dry dust of the desert as they stand beside the well. “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘give me a drink’, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water,” Jesus says. As it was with the experience of the Israelites, what becomes clear is that in the presence of God, what is at stake is much greater than the temporary relief of thirst.
Not surprisingly this woman wonders in response how he is to give her water without a bucket (that is after all why he asked her for a drink in the first place). But Jesus is offering her living water – not just the wet stuff, but the life-giving assurance that God will be with her. And she, looking down the well still wonders whether what he is talking about can be drawn up with her bucket. She has missed the point, as we so often do when we focus on the needs that we experience in a particular moment, rather than on God’s much bigger and more significant plans.
“I am he,” says Jesus. The one who offers the living water, the one that the whole world is waiting for. As it was for the Israelites, as it was for this woman at the well, so it is for us. “The water that I will give you,” Jesus says, “will become a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” As Jesus continues his conversation with her, she comes to realise that he offers is not just a liquid that will quench her thirst for a moment, but the very hope that her life can be changed and made new in him. “Give me this water,” she replies, “so that I may never be thirsty again.”
Immediately there is a kind of ripple effect. The woman goes back to her village to tell her neighbours what she has encountered, and they in turn come to meet him, and find in Jesus all that she has been saying about him. A reminder to us all that although Jesus meets us individually, he never intends us to be simply in a relationship with him, he calls us into a dual relationship with him, and with each other in the life of the Christian community. Nothing less will do, following Christ will only truly make sense when we are following as a community, with others on the journey through both fertile land and desert. In Jesus’ call, this woman – and then her neighbours – find not only a new way of personal living, they find also a new way of communal living, with all of the responsibilities which go with that.
Water in the desert; to quench our needs from head to toe; to assure us in our desert experiences that God’s purpose is being worked out, whatever it might seem like right now, that we are not alone. Not just for us, but to be shared with others. Like water pouring from a rock in a dry and barren land, like the water in a well on a road in the heat of the midday sun.
This Lent we proclaim, ‘Behold the Cross’ – you will find this water there, gushing from the side of our Saviour. Take heart dear friends this Lent. Jesus says to us, “drink of the water that I offer and you will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become a spring of water gushing up within you to eternal life.”