Sunday, March 15, 2020

Sermon: “Sensing the Sacred: When We Thirst”, Exodus 17:1-7/John 4:5-30 (March 15, 2020)

(This is the fourth sermon in our Lenten series, "Sensing the Sacred". 
The others can be found here, here, and here.)


This week’s sermon is a bit of an outlier in our Lenten series, in that we’ll be talking about “thirst”, and thirst isn’t considered one of the traditional senses. However, technically speaking, a sense is any faculty by which we perceive stimuli originating from outside or inside the body.[1] Since our thirst is a way for us to perceive a need of our body, I’d argue that it can be considered a sense just as much as smell, sight, taste, sound, or touch (also, Lent is six weeks long so I had to get creative. Cut me some slack, here).

There’s a significant difference between thirst and the “traditional” senses, though. Smell, sight, taste, sound, and touch are senses that help us to interact with the world around us, but, strictly speaking, none of them are necessary prerequisites for life. People can (and do!) thrive without the use of one or more of these senses (Helen Keller is a famous example). Thirst, on the other hand, is a survival sense. It’s a built-in warning system that lets you know when an essential need isn’t being met so that you can address it and avoid potential disaster.

I feel like it’s pretty easy, then, to draw a comparison between physical thirst and humanity’s need for God. Our society has become increasingly convinced that a relationship with the divine is optional, a preference that we can take or leave on a whim. But I’d argue that just as our bodies crave water in order to function properly, so too do we thirst for God. When God’s missing from our lives, our spirits are unable to thrive. Please don’t misunderstand me: I’m absolutely NOT suggesting that those who comprehend God differently than I do or don’t believe at all are somehow broken or ignorant. They’re not. I’m simply saying that I believe human nature includes an innate need to connect to something larger than ourselves, whether or not we realize it. This has nothing to do with our personal beliefs and everything to do with what and who human beings were created to be.

Now, our sense of thirst is usually pretty reliable, in both physical and spiritual cases. If you were just exercising, it’s easy to recognize that your body needs some water—it craves it more strongly than usual. If you have a relationship with God and it’s been a while since you’ve been to church or prayed, you feel a yearning that tells you something’s missing. In cases of mild thirst like these, it’s relatively easy to identify the issue quickly and get your body or spirit what it needs to regain equilibrium. But what happens when our thirst becomes extreme, and we struggle to quench it? How do we react?

Well, in the case of the Israelites in the desert…they panicked. Straight up lost their collective minds. They turned on Moses, demanding that he provide them with water and accusing him of trying to kill them. This is an understandable response; after all, they feared for their very lives. But was it a productive response? No, of course not. Moses himself had no power to produce water. Even if he DID have it, accusing him of attempted murder certainly wasn’t the best way to go about convincing him to help. But their panic drove them to it.

Really, they had no reason to panic in the first place. One of the very first things God did for them after they escaped Egypt was to provide them with clean drinking water,[2] and God had been consistently providing them with everything they needed ever since. They had absolutely no reason to doubt God’s providence…and yet, they allowed their fear destroy their trust in the blink of an eye.

How often do we panic, not just when we’re experiencing thirst, but when we’re afraid for our health or survival in any way? Our reactions often look eerily similar to that of the Israelites: hurling blame at others, ignoring expert advice in favor of what makes us feel better, abandoning life-giving relationships in the name of self-preservation, hoarding resources. Consider our collective response to the coronavirus pandemic. Consider our national response to immigration. Consider the travel bans, toilet paper shortages, xenophobia, and scathing insults that have become far too commonplace. It’s not a very flattering picture.

Unsurprisingly, our panic with regards to our desperate spiritual thirst looks very much the same. Instead of trying to appreciate worship as it is or work to make it better, we complain that it’s “not meeting our needs” and stop going. Instead of examining what might be missing in our own lives to bring about spiritual thirst, we blame “bad leadership” and start gossiping. Instead of seeking to quench our thirst through connection and generosity, we attempt to force our own desires on others and stop giving. Instead of turning to pastors for help, we get angry when they don’t reach out before being asked and start criticizing. When we panic, our thirst doesn’t get quenched. It gets worse.

As if that weren’t enough, sometimes we don’t even realize that we’re thirsty at all. Sometimes, our bodies (or our spirits) try to tell us that we need hydration, but something gets lost in communication. Have you ever thought you were still hungry even after a snack, only to have someone tell you, “Drink some water; you’re probably thirsty”? Or maybe you’ve had a persistent headache that doesn’t respond to pain killers, only to realize that you should have substituted water for the seven cups of coffee that you drank throughout the day. Our sense of thirst can manifest in ways that we don’t expect, so we have to know how to recognize our need even when our sense of thirst fails us.

The Samaritan woman recognized her physical need for water, but she didn’t seem to recognize her thirst for God. She was living her life the way she always had with no apparent desire to change. In fact, she seemed to be AVOIDING interaction with others; she probably came to the well at noon in the hope that she wouldn’t run into anyone. Maybe she thought she already had a solid relationship with God (she obviously knew her religious heritage and was concerned about the right way to worship). Maybe it just wasn’t on her mind because she had other things to worry about. Maybe she was deliberately avoiding the issue.

But whatever the reason, the fact remains that when Jesus offered her living water that would slake her deep thirst for God, she had no idea what he was talking about. Jesus had to work pretty hard to get her to recognize the symptoms of this sort of thirst: the division between Samaritans and Jews, the divisions between men and women, the divisions between those who worship in the mountains and those who worship in Jerusalem. Jesus insisted, through his actions and his words, that these divisions were inconsequential for those who worship God in spirit and truth. That they were, in fact, keeping her and others away from the living water that they didn’t even realize they needed. And that he was the one who could offer her that which she lacked.

EVERYONE thirsts for God, not just Jews, or Christ-followers, or the supremely devout. Samaritans do, outsiders do, sinners of all stripes do. And yet we don’t always recognize the symptoms of our thirst, especially when we’re not anticipating it. We can start to sense it, though, when we find ourselves defending the sort of boundaries that constrained the Samaritan woman: when we divide ourselves into “us” and “them”, when we buy into prejudices and biases, when we avoid interactions with others, whether out of shame or fear or anger. I’m not talking about physical boundaries, which are sometimes necessary for everyone’s well-being. I’m talking about spiritual boundaries. These boundaries are a sign that we’re no longer seeing God in one another, and we stop seeing God in one another when we’ve stopped encountering God at all. And when we stop encountering God at all…well, that’s when we begin to thirst. And if we don’t recognize it for what it is, then it gets really, really bad.

So, what should we do when we sense a thirst so extreme that it frightens us? Rule number one: don’t panic! Panic has never helped solve any problem in all of human history, and as we know from reading about the Israelites in the wilderness, it’s not a good look.

Secondly: lean on those with the knowledge and power to help. Moses may not have been able to provide water to the Israelites himself, but he knew that trusting God would mean the difference between life and death in the wilderness. Once the Samaritan woman realized who Jesus was (because he finally spelled it out for her), she turned to him to help slake her spiritual thirst. Even when their instructions sounded utterly absurd (hit the rock with your staff and water will come out of it?? Ignore long-standing social divisions?? For real??) they both put their faith in the ones who most deserved it. They discovered who was worth trusting, and they entrusted their thirst to them.

And third (this goes back to the “don’t panic” rule): don’t look for things that provide temporary relief; look for the source so that you might be satiated. The Samaritan woman abandoned her water jar in favor of the living water that Jesus offered because she recognized that it would sustain her in a new, more complete way. For the Israelites, it wasn’t the rock itself that provided the water; it was God. What would have happened if they’d decided to camp out permanently at Massah and Meribah? They might have felt secure for a while, but water didn’t come from that rock naturally, so eventually the Israelites would have found themselves back where they started—thirsty and scared. So the best chance they had was to continue following God and trusting in God’s care. To see the bigger picture and plan accordingly.

When you thirst, whether for water or for God, do you tend to panic, or do you turn to and trust those who can help? Do you look for solutions that make you feel better in the moment, or do you seek ways to make things better for good? It’s not an easy decision to make. Just as our human nature craves connection with God, so too does it tend towards fear and distrust. But God created us with free will, and that includes the choice of how to respond to scary situations. “Even in a world that’s being shipwrecked,” urges St. Hildegard of Bingen, “remain brave and strong.” It’s a lot to ask, but I believe that we’re up to the challenge. Let us always meet our fear, no matter its origin, with trust, teamwork, and love. Amen.

[2] Exodus 15:22-25a.

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