Water of Life
Both our Hebrew scripture and our gospel lesson this morning have water at the heart of their story: the miracle of water coming from a rock at the command of Moses (with a little help from God) in Exodus, and the living water Jesus talks about with the woman from Samaria at Jacob’s well in the gospel according to John.
The water from a rock could be literal, and with a little imagination, could also be symbolic, but the living water of John’s gospel is clearly metaphorical, at least, it is to me.
We all know how important water is to life on earth: very few living things can exist without water for very long. Humans are made of 55-60% water, and can only survive about 3 days without it. Too little water leads to dehydration, and possibly death, and too much water dilutes the amount of sodium in our bodies, and can also lead to death.
Water comprises about 71% of the earth’s surface, and 96.5% of the earth’s water is found in the oceans. That means that the remaining 3.5% of earth’s water is fresh water, the kind that we all need to stay alive.
Until the last few decades, scientists believed that only earth had water. We know now that water in the form of ice has been found on the moon, on Mars, and is now thought to be present across the universe in various places.
Being without water in a desert, though, is a serious situation, and the people of Israel who were following Moses in the desert were either without water, or didn’t have enough for everyone. Moses grew angry with the people’s quarrelling with him, and considered their quarrelling with him to be testing God, and God’s ability to bring them safely through the desert.
Exasperated, Moses cried out to the Lord that the situation was getting desperate, he feared that the people were going to stone him in anger. God’s response was to instruct Moses to gather some of the elders, and using the staff with which he had struck the Nile and parted the waters, strike the rock at Horeb.
When he did so, water flowed from the rock, and the people were saved.
That sacred site was named Massah and Meribah, which are the Hebrew root words for quarrel and test.
In the Hebrew tradition, when a person or place is ‘named’, it shows a particular significance, especially here. So this place, at a rock at the foot of Mt. Horeb, is now forever know as Massah and Meribah, and serves as a reminder of when the people of Israel quarreled with Moses, and put God to the test, and reminds the faithful of the lesson learned on that day.
Another sacred site for the people of Israel is Jacob’s well. There, Jacob, and his sons, drew water that nourished their families, and their flocks. In our gospel passage, Jesus was resting there when he began to speak with a woman from Samaria. This is unusual for 2 reason: one, single men didn’t talk to women in public places, and two, Samarian people did not get along with Jewish people, their cultures were in conflict.
For Jesus to engage in an in-depth conversation with a woman from Samaria would have been scandalous at the very least, and this explains why the disciples, upon returning to the well, were astonished at what was happening. This broke several well-known social rules, and maybe a few religious ones as well.
But the importance of this story isn’t Jesus and his culture-busting behavior. It’s not even the water in the well that had drawn them there. The important component of this particular story, for this particular time is the living water Jesus speaks about, ‘a spring of water gushing up to eternal life’.
Living water that quenches spiritual thirst, that provides spiritual life. We can’t get it from a rock, we can’t get it from a well, or a faucet, or from the cooler at a convenience store. The living water Jesus is talking about is for our spirits, and it comes from the Holy Spirit.
For some, the living water is found in music. Sacred music. For others, it’s in prayer. For still others, it’s in the sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist. For some, it’s in obedience, and others it’s in faithfully asking the hard questions.
Similarly, when Jesus speaks of the food that his disciples know nothing about, he isn’t referring to a secret stash of food, he’s speaking about spiritual food, that which feeds our souls.
Have you ever thought about what feeds your soul? Have you ever thought about what quenches your spiritual thirst?
Are those the kind of things that you actively seek in your life, or are you surprised when you suddenly experience spiritual food and living water, and the relief that they can bring?
Are you aware of your spiritual hunger and thirst?
Here’s an interesting thing: the 4 verses before this morning’s scripture say this: Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard “Jesus is making and baptizing more disciples than John”-although it was not Jesus himself but his disciples who baptized- he left Judea and started back to Galilee. But he had to go through Samaria.
After learning that the Pharisees were aware that he was gathering disciples, that his following was growing, Jesus went to the least likely place to convert disciples: Samaria. And not only did he convert the one woman at the well, but the passage tells us that many of the Samaritans believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, and many more believed in him because of his own word.
It appears that the Pharisees didn’t scare Jesus one bit.
Jesus used the metaphors of spiritual food and living waters to the spiritually hungry and thirsty to describe his ministry. And even though his new followers didn’t know it, they were starving, and dehydrated spiritually. And, after interacting with him, like many before them, they became followers of his way.
The people of Israel, traveling in the desert, knew that they were in a desert. But do you think the woman from Samaria knew she was in a spiritual desert? Not until she started speaking with Jesus. And not only did that conversation convert her to being a follower, she convinced many other neighbors to be followers, too.
So many of our neighbors are in spiritual deserts. The cultural food and drink that we all can get from the media, from celebrity, from acquiring material possessions is spiritually empty, and ultimately not satisfying.
Who do you think should be telling our neighbors about this spiritual food and living waters? I think maybe we should. I think that in this story, in the gospel lesson this morning, you and I are the woman from Samaria. And we are called upon to act on our beliefs and to share the good news with those who haven’t yet heard it, or have heard it, but aren’t yet ready to believe it.
Something about our gathering, something about our singing, something about our praying, and our fellowship feeds our souls. The spiritual food and living waters found in our worship, our mission, and our stewardship, are meant to be shared. The Holy Spirit feeds us when we’re together, and when we are apart, but especially when we are intentionally living out our faith lives.
The water Moses brought forth from the rock at Massah and Meribah with God’s help was in response to an emergency. The people of Israel followed Moses out into the desert, and without water, they would have died. They marked that spot as the place where they quarreled with Moses and tested God.
The water Jesus talked about with the woman from Samaria at Jacob’s well is in response to a different kind of emergency. A spiritual emergency. Would the Samaritan woman have died with without it? Probably not. Spiritual food and living water lift and sustain our spirits, and it is available to anyone who needs it.
I believe we need both types of water in order to be fully ourselves. And when we understand how and where we can get the living water Jesus offers, we are more spiritually whole, as well.
Sometime this week, consider reflecting on where you receive the spiritual food and living water that Jesus offers, and what you do with it once you’ve partaken.
And, if you are really bold, maybe you would consider telling one other person about it. Amen.
Several years ago, our family used the February break from school to visit the Grand Canyon in Arizona. We flew into Phoenix, rented a van to drive to a town called Williams, north of Flagstaff, and then took a train north to the Grand Canyon National Park on the South rim.
From the moment we started heading north, the elevation began to rise. Phoenix is already 1000 feet above sea level. And the further north we traveled, the higher the elevation. Markers on the highway told us when we had reached 2000 feet, then 3, then 4 then 5 and so on until we were just outside Williams, at about 7000 feet.
To put things into some kind of perspective, Mt. Marcy, the highest peak in the Adirondack mountains is a little over 5000 feet. Mount Washington, the highest peak in New England is a little over 6000 feet.
The train from Williams took us the final 60 miles into the park, and we went up another 1000 feet, so that by the time we reached the south rim of the canyon, we were at 8000 feet.
Standing on the edge of one of the most majestic and awesome canyons in the world, where the land looked flat as a pancake, we were higher than the highest peak in New England, and we weren’t even on a mountain!
And even though we weren’t technically on a mountain, our experience there, our presence on the rim of the Grand Canyon can be considered a ‘Mountain-top Experience’.
Mountain-top Experiences are moments when we feel absolutely exhilarated, almost overwhelmed, a real high point in our lives, so to speak. They don’t have to actually occur on a mountain-top, they can occur anywhere, at any time in our lives. But it’s the exhilaration and the thought that it sure would be nice if we could stay right there in that moment that sets a Mountain-top experience apart from other moments in our lives.
Everybody has a Mountain-top experience or two in their lives. A moment when your breath is taken from you by the beauty of what you are seeing, or by the impact of what you have seen.
Other Mountain-top experiences in my life include living in India, climbing one of the Alps in Austria, (remind me to tell you the story of Betsy’s crazy cousin Gunther sometime) and renting a cottage on Cayuga lake with Betsy and the girls.
There are probably many more, but these are the moments when I felt like I just wanted time to stand still, so I could bask in the moment for as long as I liked.
Can you think of one of your Mountain-top experiences? A time when you were so exhilarated, overwhelmed, when you had your breath taken away by what you were feeling? If you can remember that feelings, then you are close to understanding what Peter was feeling on the mountain with Jesus.
Our gospel lesson this morning describes what happened when Peter, James, and John went up on a mountain with Jesus. There, they saw Jesus glow a dazzling white, his face shone like the sun. At that moment, Peter’s thought was to build Jesus a dwelling, so he could stay there all the time.
As far as I can tell from the text, Jesus ignored Peter, didn’t he? See, one the most important aspects of Mountain-top Experiences is that we can’t stay in them. We can’t stay there. Those times are fleeting. Or life moves on. Or it’s impractical based on the realities of life.
Whatever reasons Jesus had in taking James, John, and Peter up to the mountain, where he had them glimpse his transfiguration, one thing was sure: they were not going to be staying up there hanging out with Moses and Elijah. There was serious work to be done!
Now, does that resonate with our own lived experience? We live certain moments where we wish time would stand still and we could stay in the moment forever, but we know that we can’t stay, life moves on, and we have a powerful memory of our exhilaration and our excitement.
And after all, would we really want to isolate ourselves on a mountain-top, stuck in an experience that is meant to be fleeting? It’s OK if you say yes! But I think we’d all have to agree that reliving a Mountain-top Experience over and over and over would get old eventually. We can’t remain fixed in an experience like that. That’ s not living life.
And that’s not what Jesus had in mind when he went up to the mountain. In this gospel’s version, he merely ignores Peter, in another, he rebukes him, and tells him that he doesn’t have his mind on the Kingdom of Heaven.
Mountain-top Experiences can motivate us, feed us, remind us of what is important. They can sustain us during difficult times. And we can spend much of our lives seeking them. But they can’t last more than a moment or two. They aren’t designed to be anything more than fleeting moments of awesomeness!
Our Hebrew Scripture tells of Moses, going up to the mountain to meet God. He stayed there for 40 days and 40 nights, but he did not stay up there forever. Moses still had work to do, life to live, faith to explore.
Mountain-top experiences enrich our lives. They add excitement, spice, and a healthy appreciation for God’s beautiful world. I love reflecting on my own Mountain-top Experiences, and I hope you enjoy reflecting on your own.
But ultimately we can’t dwell there. We have to move on. Our family had to pack up from the south rim of the Grand Canyon, and take the train back to Williams. We saw different things on the way back than we did heading into the park.
When we left Williams, we went a different way, and saw even more amazing sights in Sedona. And, as we made our way to Phoenix, we got closer and closer to ground level.
Arriving back in Syracuse, I knew I had had another Mountain-top Experience. And I also knew I wouldn’t be able to stay in it. Now, that doesn’t mean some people shouldn’t at least try: practically everybody who served us, waited on us, or sold us something came from some place other than Arizona. That tells me that a lot of people go to Arizona and have Mountain-top experiences, and a lot of people try and stay to recreate them.
But their days weren’t filled with exhilaration and excitement. Hopefully their weekends were!
By and large, very few people can make their living staying in Mountain-top experiences. It’s too much. It’s not for everyday living.
I give thanks to God for my experiences, and for the insight they have given me so far, and for whatever insight they will give me in the future. We can always learn from our Mountain-top Experiences, no matter how long ago they occurred.
But I’m even more thankful for my daily life. The one that is sustained by those fleeting moments of awe and beauty. The routine, the responsibility, the challenges. The stuff real life is made of.
Moses and Jesus knew that those moments were meant to galvanize them, steel them for the challenges ahead. We know that too.
Just before we left for Phoenix, Betsy and I ran into a parishioner from Fairmount at Wegmans. You should have seen the look in his eye when we told him we were going to try and go through Sedona on our way back to Phoenix. I could tell that he had had a Mountain-top Experience there. It was all over his face.
Now I know why.
On the eve of our Lenten Journey, may our Mountain-top Experiences help us along the way, though our challenges and our temptations. But when all is said and done, may we have the wisdom to know when we must move on from our mountain tops.
Jesus helped Peter, and James, and John, and I suspect he can help us too. Amen.
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