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Sermon Excerpt: "In the Wilderness"

Scripture texts: Exodus 17:1-7 (available here); John 4:1-15 (available here)

The Lenten season is said to mirror the 40 days of temptation that Jesus underwent after his baptism: 40 days in the wilderness. Well, in the midst of a pandemic, we are good and thoroughly in the wilderness now, aren’t we? Given the past week, I think I’m starting to get a sense of what the Israelites were feeling, when they asked Moses, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kills us and our children and our livestock with thirst?”

It hadn’t even been that long; the timeline is a bit unclear, but the story we heard from Exodus takes place just a couple chapters after the Israelites made their escape through the Red Sea. Patience ran short in a hurry: and no wonder, since thirsty days in the desert seem to warp time and space (not unlike the 24 hour news coverage of the coronavirus).

The Israelites were afraid. They were quarrelsome. They had pointed questions for Moses (and for God): why did you bring us to this place? Why didn’t you just let us stay in Egypt—we had it good back in Egypt (compared to this at least!)? Did you really bring us all this way without a plan? And is the Lord even among us…or not?”

That one is the big question: Is the Lord among us, or not? This is the most poignant question a person of faith, be it great or small, can ever ask in the midst of life’s turbulent moments. It is not just a question of whether God is real that one wonders about in such a time as this; the question is whether God is really here with us: if God is really here for us…or whether we are well and truly on our own in the wilderness.

That is where we meet Jesus in John's Gospel text: in the wilderness of Samaria. We meet Jesus under the noonday sun. He was tired, he was thirsty, but had no bucket to drink from the well. Unexpectedly, along came a Samaritan woman, bucket in hand.

You’d like to think Jesus was a polite man in general; in fact, I was reading this very story to Jett and Brady the other day out of their toddler Bible, and in that version we see a happy, smiling Jesus say to the woman, “May I have a drink, please?” But not here! Through parched lips, he croaks out, “Give me a drink.” There is desperation here. Wasn’t that, after all, the all-too-human cry of the Israelites to Moses: give us water to drink! We hear the same very real, very human desperation here, made all the more palpable in the drama of a Jewish man asking a Samaritan woman for a drink. (You see, Jews and Samaritans, they don’t share things in common, let alone drink from the same bucket).

You know what the strangest part of this story is? It never says whether the woman gave him a drink or not. Doesn’t that seem like an important detail to leave out?!? I mean, did she give him a drink or what?

She must have. She must have quenched his thirst, so that he could speak again, and tell her who he is—to tell her of the gift of God, of the living water that gushes up to eternal life, to tell her “I am he, the Christ, the one who is speaking to you.” She must have given him a drink, so that he could answer that big, big question: yes, God is here among us. And as desperate as he was for a drink from her bucket, so too does the Samaritan woman become desperate for the Living Water he has to offer.

None of that would have transpired without that deeply human moment when Jesus’s desperate need was met with the Samaritan woman’s deep compassion. Someone once said that heaven is found in the connections we make in the course of a life. That is what this Gospel narrative is about: the power of God found in human connection…especially in those moments when connection is unexpected. For it is often in what we do not expect—in the chaos of the wilderness—that God speaks most clearly to us.

The Hebrew word for “wilderness” is midvar. It is etymologically related to the word d’bar, which is the Hebrew word for “speak.” It was in the Wilderness that God spoke to Moses and to the Israelites. The Spirit drove Jesus from the banks of the Jordan into the wilderness, so that he could speak words of power against temptation and sin. And now we find ourselves driven by the coronavirus pandemic into the wilderness as well. But remember this: the place where God speaks most clearly and most often is in the wilderness.

We can’t be wholly certain about what sort of wilderness we face with this new coronavirus. By all accounts, there is substantial reason to be afraid, if not for ourselves, than for our vulnerable neighbors certainly. We must take the fear of this virus seriously, and respond appropriately.

But our fear must be tempered by facts, by clarity about what we should and should not be doing from credible sources like the Public Health Board and the CDC. And so too our fear must be tempered by faith in a credible God who lives among us and within us—who can be found where two and three are gathered, even if the gathering is merely virtual. We have to hold on to our faith in Christ whose greatest commandment was to love one another as God loves us, and who empowered us to keep that commandment—even in the wilderness.

There is an important difference between "social distancing" and "being antisocial" I hope we all can keep in mind. We recognize that we are both blessed and cursed to live in a world of interconnection; cursed, because it is hard to separate ourselves from one another, but blessed, in that we can still connect in other ways. Perhaps it’s time that we all rediscover the blessing of a casual phone call: just to check in, just to see how we’re doing.

We are blessed and cursed to live in a society of abundance; cursed, because that abundance is unequally distributed, but blessed, insofar as we can share what we have with those in need. While schools are closed, we can help the children in our community who rely upon school breakfasts and lunches to not go hungry. If we are making a trip to get groceries for ourselves, we can surely spare some non-perishable items for the food pantry.

If (when) we see our neighbors, our friends, our families growing ill, we can provide compassionate care and stay connected, even if it is at a healthy distance. And, as I wrote in my letter earlier this week, we can devote ourselves to prayer and fasting, committing ourselves to the transformative promise of new life in Christ, so that the abundance of life may gush up like a spring, and flow like a river in the wasteland.

So I pray strength for the journey for all of us.

We are in the wilderness now.

But God is still speaking.

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