The Third Sunday of Lent: March 19, 2017
Preacher: The Rev. Katharine Flexer, Rector of St. Michael’s Church
Well, isn’t it great that Tuesday is the equinox, the first day of spring, and the weather is so, well, wintry? Getting a bit sick of this, aren’t we? So Isn’t it marvelous in these cold winter days (that should be spring) to come to church and hear these hot, dry, desert stories from the Bible – stories of the Israelites wandering and thirsty in the desert…Just stop for a moment, and imagine it, that desert story, feel that warm dry air…and the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman sitting at the well in the hot midday sun…ahhh, feel that Mediterranean sun. Sun that makes you want to sit back and put on your sunglasses and just bask, doesn’t it…sit and let the heat radiate through your whole being, warm you right through and through, air so hot that you can just sit there and be warm, so hot that you start to get a little thirsty, actually, pretty thirsty, so you reach for that tall, frosty drink of – wait, where is it? It’s really hot, and that cool drink would be really nice – where is that drink, anyway? Now you’re getting really thirsty, you’re drying out, you’re parched. Where is that drink of water? What are we doing out here in the sun anyway? Don’t you know it causes skin cancer? Where is the shade? Who was supposed to bring the beach umbrella? Who brought us out here anyway? It’s no wonder that in today’s reading from Exodus, Moses cries to God, What shall I do with these people? They are almost ready to stone me!
Sometimes at the beginning of Lent we sing a sort of lugubrious hymn that goes, Eternal Lord of love, behold your church, walking once more the pilgrim way of Lent. By now it starts to feel like slogging through the pilgrim way of Lent. How much farther is this Lent? It’s such a hot, dry, difficult time of the year, spiritually speaking anyway. Why do we have to do this every year? Why do we have to keep coming to this well to draw water?
We’ve begun to sift through the results of the spiritual life inventory that so many of you took a month ago – 192 of you, to be precise, a phenomenal number, answering questions about your spiritual beliefs and practices and how the church is or isn’t a part of those for you. The Renewal Works process begins with the leadership team, the 18 people we commissioned here a few weeks back, spending time with the data over a series of workshops, finally making a report and recommendations to the vestry and congregation in May or so. So we have to leave you in suspense a little longer as we digest the material. But one thing that already is clear from the results is that in this congregation of St Michael’s, there is a great hunger, a great thirst, to go deeper with God. Which is both thrilling and daunting to see, as your clergy. So much that we can and should do together to learn and practice the basics of belief and spirituality – so much that we can and should do to grow, each one of us, in our life with God. We’re like travelers in the desert, looking for that water – and I pray that I and your other leaders can help, and not hinder, in that quest. I’m praying that we don’t get to the point that Moses and the people get to in Exodus.
So instead, let’s tiptoe closer to the well that Jesus sits at in the gospel reading, when the Samaritan woman comes along. She’s just coming like she comes every day, because that’s the place you get water, and you need water to cook and clean and drink and live by. I recently saw a lovely short animated film called ‘Water Path for a Fish,’ where a boy tries to save a goldfish he finds swimming in a puddle from a very hungry cat. The whole town is in bed, but then a sudden noise – water flowing – wakes them all up. Everyone on the street grabs their bucket or jar or pitcher and races to the village well, whose water spigots have just turned on, and in the dark night, they all cluster around to fill up their vessels before the water turns off again. There could be some panic to their actions, and yet they all take turns, and make sure that everyone is able to get what they need, and the water keeps running until they have all taken their fill and gone back home. The goldfish does manage to save itself by jumping from jar to pitcher to bucket to escape the cat. The lack of water, however, is the backdrop to the whole story – no matter the hour of the night, the whole thirsty town will turn out to get the water they need, and to make sure others get the water as well.
That’s the need the Samaritan woman has, there in the heat of the day in a desert climate. She needs water, and has trekked out to get it – as women in parts of the world today still must trek for miles to get clean water. And there at the well a strange man begins to chat her up, a taboo act, particularly because he is a Jew and she is a Samaritan and their people have long been at odds. But she needs the water too much to flee, and besides, she’s not the fleeing type. And it’s only after a fair bit of back-and-forth that she begins to realize that the water he’s offering her is not the water in the well she comes for every day, the water of daily existence. He’s offering her water for her real thirst, the thirst in her heart and soul for God. And when she realizes that, she loses her cool, abandons her water-carrying duties, runs off to tell the village of this deeper, truer nourishment on offer right here in their town. And bless them, they listen to her and come running too, and they come to believe and to drink the water Jesus has for them.
That water is what satisfies us when nothing else can. It is what sustains us in the desert journey. It is what we need to really live. So it is strange that we will go so long without it even so. It is weirdly easy to come to church regularly, be part of a Christian community, even be part of the ordained clergy, without really drinking the water. Easy until it isn’t at all anymore, and suddenly there you are, gasping like a fish out of water.
I can tell you I’ve had those times – long stretches in my life and ministry when I didn’t really seem to have time for prayer every day. When reading the Bible was what I did professionally, to get ready for sermons and Bible study, but never personally. When my day in the office could be filled with getting things done and being productive and useful, but without really connecting to God as the reason why I was doing it. It started to change several years back when my previous bishop, talking to a group of her clergy, made it clear that she expected us to be saying the Daily Office in our personal prayer time. I still remember her double take as she looked at us all, staring back at her with a mixture of guilt and confusion on our faces, gasping like fish, and she said again, more firmly, You NEED to be saying the Daily Office. It is the prayer of the church. Understand? We nodded. I went home and restarted the next day the practice I had abandoned years before. It was the best episcopal reprimand I’ve ever received.
And I will pass that reprimand on to you. You NEED to be praying and reading the Bible. It is what sustains you through the dark times and the stressful times and the confusing times. When our parents or spouses or loved ones are sick and dying – we need to be praying. When we are upset and angry at the state of our nation and government – we need to be praying. When we are so stressful and busy and crazed in our daily schedule that we scarcely have time even to breathe – we need to be praying even more. And if those words just wash over you without you knowing really what that would mean in your life, come talk to me, or to Leigh or to Kyle, or to the healing prayer team folks and the Morning Prayer officiants and the elders of this church who know what prayer is all about, and ask what it would mean. It could mean the Daily Office of Morning or Evening Prayer, here at church or at home on your own, and we will be glad to teach you more of how to follow those forms in our prayer books. It could mean one of the forms of quiet prayer that we call contemplative prayer, meditating in the presence of God or walking the labyrinth like we have upstairs during this season of Lent. But it mostly means making time, sitting yourself down even if only for 10 minutes – 10 minutes in the morning with your cup of coffee, giving thanks to God for another day, asking God to be with you through your schedule that day, praying for others you have on your heart. And then perhaps 10 minutes in the evening with the Bible, reading a short passage, a psalm or a part of a gospel, the Lenten meditation book, something. Reading the words that are part of our tradition as the word of God, that still have power to speak in surprising ways to us today. 10 minutes in the morning and 10 minutes in the evening. You can do that. You should do that. Start there, and increase slowly.
Because going along in life without that living water – going along sustained only by friendly chat and getting work done and finding those great shoes – even going along with stepping into church a few times a month and listening to a sermon and wandering out again – it’s enough to keep you existing, perhaps, like the little bit of water required to keep the goldfish alive, like the bucket of water the Samaritan woman draws every day. But it’s not enough to give you life – which is why Jesus calls it living water, water we need to be truly living. And it’s not enough to get you through the long dry desert times of life. You need to be drinking from the true well to be ready for those times, and to thrive when you’re in them. We need that true well that is God; we drink from it by being in actual relationship with God, which requires showing up and praying and listening and reading to see and hear God’s word of love for you. It requires that we follow the discipline of being present. There’s no quick way around it.
We follow this pilgrim way of Lent every year to remind ourselves of our thirst – to pull ourselves up short and recognize that we have been surviving on meager rations, a barely adequate diet for our souls, and we are starving. Life will teach us this from time to time anyway; Lent is the annual regular reminder, the spiritual checkup. The letter to the Romans says, God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. Jesus says, the water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life. Water that is gushing and pouring and plenty and abundant and never fails, water for living. It is time for us to remember to drink from that well, and drink deeply. We need it for ourselves; our loved ones need it from us; the world needs it of us. That water will never run out. Thanks be to God.