Date: October 4, 2015
Bible Text: Exodus 17; John 4 | Reverend Dr. Katie Snipes Lancaster
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.
Today we move from font to table, from water to food, from thirst to hunger. We begin at the most elemental, the most necessary, the most essential: water. Without it, even our food dries up, crops die, fires spread, reservoirs and streams and wells dry up. Maybe it all seems like an ancient problem—the Dust Bowl of the 30’s, the West African drought in the 70’s, Ethiopia’s drought in the 80’s—but California’s unprecedented drought today spurred on by greenhouse gasses, demands that we change the way we live. Too much water does the same thing in reverse: thunderstorms, tornadoes, tropical cyclones, monsoons, and melting snow trigger powerful floods that uproot crops and contaminate our reservoirs and streams and wells with unsafe water.
Water is essential. It is both truly life-giving and metaphorically rich. Without it, there is no life on Earth, and with it, possibly, there is life on Mars. Can you believe it? Water on Mars? After witnessing that blood red moon eclipsing last Sunday evening through our cloudy Chicago skies, it is both shocking and not to hear Monday that Mars now shows definitive signs of water—albeit briny, says NASA. Shocking, because for so long it has seemed a thing of science fiction, and not so shocking because of that eclipse: a tangible reminder of how wild and vast our universe can be.
Water flows on the surface of our neighbor, the red planet, and the timing of this watery report couldn’t be better for Ridley Scott’s new film, The Martian, that was released this week. I haven’t seen the film yet, so don’t worry, I won’t give away any spoilers, but I understand that, because of NASA’s close collaboration, it is the most scientifically accurate space travel film ever made. Well done, Mars, well done.
I suspect it will take months, years, maybe even decades for us to work out exactly what water on Mars can mean for us. Maybe this week’s news will prompt a new generation of scientists, leading to increased scientific curiosity and scientific literacy, even among clergy and politicians and fellow citizens. Maybe it will prompt brave pathfinders to take on new levels of exploration in this final frontier. Maybe it will prompt new thinking about who we are as humans—just as Galileo and Newton and Einstein and Darwin did.
This newfound water on Mars will also impact us as God’s people—expanding our image of God, challenging us to look deeper into the mystery beyond mystery of the divine.
Last Sunday, I had driven down to Hyde Park, seeking fewer clouds and a better view. Standing on the shoreline of Lake Michigan, gazing up at the eclipsing moon, I was surrounded by hundreds of others, also looking up, looking out, and looking beyond. Maybe you were there, too, somewhere along the long shoreline. There was an energy to that communal act, watching together, mostly wordless, but certainly not silent—an experience that was sacred in its own way.
That eclipse was the kind of event that simultaneously made me wonder about the future, as well as become deeply curious about the past. Not yet knowing that scientists would announce their discovery of water on Mars the very next morning, I was there, standing on the shore on Sunday night, wondering how future scientific discovery might again change our thinking about our place in the universe—just as it has so many times before. And, at the same time, I was wondering how ancient people would have viewed this same event—no twitter hashtags to follow, no news report quickly explaining away the moon’s tint and disappearance, no experience of transatlantic flight or video footage of moon landings to color their encounters of the sky.
Our ancient faith family, wandering the desert with Moses, would have certainly experienced the world in a different way than we do now, ancient rhythms feeling different without streetlights, ancient songs sounding different without car stereos. But, unfortunately there are days when Moses is just another desert wanderer among thousands, and in a year when our planet’s Syrian refugees number the millions, it is not difficult to connect the dots between their journey and that of Moses—escaping deadly oppression, wandering in search of a homeland, seeking basic unchanging necessities of water and food and rest.
And so, we begin with water because, as W. H. Auden wrote, “putting first things first: Thousands have lived without love, not one without water.” Yet, somehow, I would say, it is through water that God shows love, it is at the water’s edge that God’s love is made known, and it is through such tangible, life-sustaining realities that God claims us as beloved.
In fact, I would say that we are people of liquid faith. Our sacred story entangles us with water and the sacred from the beginning, the divine spirit hovering over the watery chaos as God speaks order into creation. Our first spiritual home, Eden, sits at the meeting place of four rivers flowing from north and south and east and west. Primordial Noah is the first to watch watery chaos return again, a flood sweeping away all the earth he’s ever known, save for an ark-full of family and creatures two-by-two.
Later, it is a drought and a famine that brings our ancestors to Egypt, in search of food. And so, in Egypt, when the Pharaoh had forgotten his ancestors—Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and Joseph—we meet baby Moses, floating down a river in a basket, while his family watches expectantly in hopes of someone scooping him up into safety. As an adult, Moses meets God in the dry, dry desert—a holy voice from burning bush shouting out to him—“Take off your shoes, for this is Holy Ground. I am the God of your ancestors Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, I am your God, I am who I am. Go, lead your people out of Egypt.” Imbued with divinely extraordinary powers, Moses stands with Charlton Hesston arms spread wide, as God parts the Red Sea and the people cross safely out of slavery and into the desert.
We know this story of liquid faith. After an ancient song of celebration—praising God that Pharaoh’s army, horse and rider were thrown into the sea—the people set out into the desert where God provides manna, bread from heaven and turns bitter water sweet. We should not be surprised then, when Moses, seeking water for his equally grumpy and thirsty people, can, with God’s guidance, bring water from the impossible; water from a rock.
We are people of liquid faith; Moses’ water-bearing God doing the impossible again, being made known in Jesus Christ. Our watery faith story picks up in the Gospel of John where we first meet Jesus—our light in the darkness – not first in the manger, but at the river. In John’s gospel, when we first meet Jesus, there are no Magi or Shepherds or Angels, just John the Baptist—the voice crying out in the wilderness—standing at the water’s edge, at the Jordan River, baptizing. In Jesus’ baptism, John is equally surprised that the Holy Spirit hovers there like a dove from heaven.
Immediately after his baptism, our water-story continues. Jesus gathers up his disciples, and this one we call Christ journeys north to a wedding in Galilee where, at his mother’s request, Jesus performs his first miracle—turning water into wine. We are, indeed, people of liquid faith.
Back in Jerusalem for the Passover meal, Jesus meets with a wealthy religious leader, Nicodemus, telling him that it is through water and the Spirit that we can see and know and enter God’s kingdom. Not long after that—but just before Jesus has his chance to walk on water—he travels with his disciples through Samaria, where he meets this woman at the well.
Jesus is breeching all social convention by talking to this woman, a Samaritan. Not that we’re surprised—we’ve come to know Jesus as one who lives against the grain. Not only that, he is breeching social convention by even traveling along that road through Samaria. Yes, as the gospel notes, it is the most direct route, but it would have been controversial for him to travel that way, let alone seek water at their well. Like a Sox fan turning up at Wrigley, in Cubs territory looking for a beer, Jesus was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and yet it is just that that makes this story so compelling—it is what makes Jesus’ offer of living water so life-giving and so life-changing.
Jesus takes the most direct route, and does so boldly, while Moses, alternatively, wanders. There is no good historical reason why it would have taken Moses and his people 40 years to cross the desert; even at its widest point, the desert that separates the “flesh pots of Egypt” and the “promise land flowing with milk and honey” is only 200 miles across; a 4 hour car ride, or at most a 20 day hike—double it if you consider the children and great-grandmothers Moses would have been traveling with.
- Moses’ desert wanderers wonder “Why are we here?”
- Jesus’ new friend, the Samaritan woman, is wondering “Why are you talking to me?”
Their journeys are unusual. And, yet, there is something comforting in that—it makes our unusual journeys no less odd, but it makes us fellow sojourners with Christ, wanderers with God’s people. Our journey to Mars, our journey to a cloudless Hyde Park, our journey to Englewood or Evanston or Italy, our boundary crossing trek to Lambeau Field; there, we are offered living water, there God arrives, announcing good, announcing abundance, announcing life.
Today is World Communion Sunday. It is a day when we are invited to “taste and see that God is good.” All across the globe, Christians are together proclaiming that God’s love stretches across the heavens, and is equally written on our hearts. Long ago, those rivers in Eden flowed north and south and east and west, but somewhere along the line, the watery chaos returned, and we were flung to the far corners of the earth. At our common table, we gather again—and as Christ says, they will come from north and south and east and west, to sit at the table in the kingdom of God.
When the Samaritan woman saw Jesus at the well, she told him, “This well is deep and you have brought no bucket.” And I tell you, “today’s meal is abundant, it is full, it is a great feast, and you have brought no plate?” Yet, it is here, at this feast, that we are called to taste and see that God is good, to bear witness to our liquid faith, knowing that God goes with us to the water’s edge and beyond, as we wander, and as we wonder about God’s mystery beyond mystery. In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. Amen.