Monday, February 25, 2008

Water Thirst

Water Thirst

Exodus 17: 1 – 17: Psalm 95; John 4: 5 – 42

The Rev. Linda Campbell

We're thirsty! One-third of the world's population lives under what is called ‘water stress.’ The United Nations predicts that two thirds of the world’s population could be living under ‘water stress’ by the year 2025. Two thirds.

Louise and John and I were at Church Divinity School of the Pacific this past Thursday, to hear Naim Ateek, who is an Palestinian Episcopal priest. Before Naim spoke, we had dinner in the dining room at the seminary. In the dining room there was a kiosk that had a great deal of information about water around the world. My friend, Marion Grau, who is a professor of Theology, at the Episcopal seminary, told me that all throughout Lent, the school is focusing on Water – caring for this most precious resource and caring for all of God’s people who need access to clean water.

Naim was there to speak about the situation in Palestine. Water, and who owns the water, is a major stumbling block to peace in that region. Within the bounds of Palestine, Israel has taken ownership of all the water – all the water sources – and sells that water back to the Palestinians, at exorbitant rates – rates far higher than settlers who live on Palestinian land, pay.

Here in California, in the Central Valley, there have been fights over ownership of water – is water a public resource, or a private commodity? Regardless of our political persuasion, whether city dwellers or not, whether from the mountains, the plains or the deserts, we all understand that access to clean water is basic to our health and well being…and that we can’t take it for granted.

In the poor neighborhoods of Tijuana where I led mission trips for many years – the only public service provided these communities is water. No electricity, no sewers, not even decent roads. Only water…trucked into the neighborhoods several times a day. Water – beyond roads, sewers, electricity - is the one thing that is absolutely necessary. I grew up in the Imperial Valley – a true desert. And the fundamental importance of water was completely apparent every day. Water is carried into the valley in canals, and this irrigation water made a stark and stunning difference – on the irrigated side of the canal were fields of alfalfa, lettuce, barley, – on the non-irrigated sides of the canal was rock and cactus…nothing but dusty, deadly desert.

But we’re fortunate. We’ve never been in the position the Israelites were in, wandering out there in the desert. They were following a God who had led them out of slavery and fed them daily with manna and quail. But now, following God, they thought they’d come to a dead end. Their children and livestock – their babies, their goats, their cattle, their chickens, their dreams – were traveling in an extremely barren place – not even shrubs to break the heat of the day – a desert wadi in which the temperatures rose dangerously high during the day, and plummeted frightfully low at night. They were dying of thirst. So, they complained.

“Is the Lord among us or not?” "Yes, we’ve gotten freedom. Yes, we’ve been miraculously saved from the army. Yes, we’ve gotten good food. Yes, we’ve seen the Lord’s presence leading us day by day, night by night. But now our lips are dry. Our tongues are swollen. We’re dying."

Commentaries like to point out the lack of faith on the part of the people…but these people were thirsty! And they rioted. Moses was afraid for his life. So he went to God and God provided water. There are many artistic interpretations of this event. The complete and overwhelming relief of these people and their animals at seeing, and hearing and tasting this good water that has saved them from sure and certain death, is incredibly moving, regardless of artist or style.

In Jewish tradition, this rock of water accompanied the Hebrews for the remainder of their wanderings.

The Israelites were in the desert for forty years, from the time of that first incident at Rephidim, shortly after they left Egypt, until near the end of their travels at the end of the book of Numbers, and in all that time, there is no longer any mention of the people lacking water. Indeed, one text speaks of the people drinking these same “waters of Meribah” years later at another place called Kadesh. So there are indications that water had been miraculously supplied to them all those years - by this same traveling fountain. This tradition of the traveling water supply was known to Paul who says in 1 Corinthians – “I want you to know, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and … all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the supernatural Rock which followed them.”

Walter Bruegermann, an Old Testament scholar, says that the claim of the entire biblical text is that the life of the world is bounded by the self-giving generosity of God. Regardless of the losses which accumulate in our lives and in the life of the world – if we will search our memories - as deep and as far back as we can go, we will find that generosity. We cannot push beyond, will, or imagine our life outside the arena of Holy Generosity.

But for us to drink deeply from the fountain of this Holy Generosity we must know how thirsty we really are. And we are thirsty. We nurture numerous dangerous unhealthy habits in our desire to avoid our hungers and thirsts. We numb them. We medicate them. We fill up our time with work, stress and multi-tasking until our right hand truly doesn’t know what our left hand is doing! Like the Israelites, we quarrel and complain. Even if it’s artificial, we prefer the feeling of being full, active and engaged to the emptiness of hunger and thirst, whether it be emptiness of the stomach or of the heart.

The story of the Israelites in the desert and the story of the woman at the well invite us to pay attention to our deep hungers and our powerful thirsts…because when we follow the lead of our hunger and thirst we will find food and drink for our soul. We will be satisfied because our deep hunger and thirst will inevitably lead us to God, to the Source of Living Water.

Jesus said that those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be satisfied. When a colleague took a group of college students backpacking, they left a cooler of ice and water in the trunk of the car. They wrapped the cooler in as much insulation as possible and set off on their backpacking trip. You know, when you’re backpacking you go from water source to water source – since water is heavy – you can’t carry much of it. And you’re very careful with water – because it’s limited! But on the last day, headed back, they all knew that a cooler of cold water was waiting for them – all the water they could possibly drink! As they got close to the car, they abandoned their backpacks, and rushed to open up the trunk. They all agreed that drinking that cold, cold abundant water was a highlight of the trip! This was a group of Christian students – and after they’d satisfied their thirst, they reflected on what it would be like if they thirsted after justice and God’s peace in the world, as much as they’d thirsted after that cold water. Thirsting for righteousness – for God - means paying attention to the parched places in our lives having courage to ask the big question – “Is the Lord among us or not?”

You know, when you’ve been really thirsty, you find great satisfaction in a drink of water. And when you’ve really thirsted after God’s presence, it’s possible for very simple things to fill your heart – a smile, a remembered line from a hymn, the first light of day, the ability to offer money to a group like Episcopal Relief and Development that builds water sources for thirsty people. Sharing a wafer of bread and a sip of wine with others can quench your heart’s thirst. By themselves these are all just drops in the bucket – but let me tell you -

A drop in the bucket
Is only a drop,
A minor and moist detail.
A drop won’t change
The color and taste
In a ten quart watering pail.
But if that drop
Has the color of love,
And the taste of tears divine.
Then one drop dropped
Into the vessel of life,
Can turn the water to wine.

Thanks to Jerry Campbell for the backpacking story and the ending poem.