Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

As Twenty-First Century Americans we tend not to think about the reality of water scarcity to the extent that many people throughout human history and hundreds of millions today in the developing world have had to do. We just turn the tap on and there it is. Only once in my life have I been very mildly affected by this reality. It was when I was in Pakistan. Despite all the warnings not only to avoid everything but bottled water, but only to drink one particular brand of bottled water, I imbibed what appeared to be the right kind of water only to realize that the bottle must have been refilled from a tap somewhere. This led to a few extremely uncomfortable days. I’m embarrassed to complain about it, though, since hundreds of thousands of children die as a result of unsafe drinking water every year.

Now this is not one of those “do something to fix the world” sermons. You’ve all heard my complaints about those kinds of sermons, and I won’t rehearse all of the reasons yet again for fear of sounding like a broken record. If you want to contribute a little, Episcopal Relief and Development does great work in the area, but be warned that doing so may or may not ever “fix” the problem, progress toward the alleviation of suffering is noble and enjoined on us but it won’t bring about the Kingdom of God, and even a lavishly generous contribution to ERD or UNICEF or any other organization isn’t going to get you a ticket to heaven.

The reason I bring up water safety and scarcity is because they are both so central to today’s Old Testament and Gospel readings, and because it provides some context for what they have to say to us about the tremendous Grace of God in Christ.

First, in Exodus, we see God’s miraculous provision of water in the desert. The children of Israel are wandering through the Desert of Sin. Now, as apposite as that name may seem, that’s just the Hebrew name of the area in the southern part of the Sinai Peninsula, and it has no etymological connection to the English word “sin.” Nonetheless, there was a lot of sinning going on. The Israelites keep grumbling, seemingly almost immediately forgetting that God just saved them from slavery in Egypt. “We want bread. We want meat. Oh we had such great produce back in Egypt. Let’s make an idol and worship that instead of the God who just delivered us.” In today’s lesson, Moses is afraid that they’ve become so irritable that they might even stone him to death! God would have been within his rights to strike them all down. Instead, he instructs Moses to strike the rock with his staff (the same staff which turned Egypt’s waters into blood and separated the waters at the Red Sea) and a great stream of good, clean drinking water flows out to quench the thirst of those who did not deserve such a gift. It was pure Grace.

In my bible study last week, I mentioned that the Church Fathers believed that the Old Testament must be read typologically–that is, seeing shadows of the fullness of the New Covenant in Israel’s story–and that while this may sadly have fallen out of fashion with modern, critical biblical scholars starting in the Nineteenth Century, its appropriateness should be obvious considering that St. Paul himself read the scriptures in precisely this way. I brought this up last week in reference to two typological readings we see in Romans: the connection between Abraham and the Church and between Adam and Christ.

Here in Exodus we see another beautiful example, which Paul explicates in his First Epistle to the Corinthians:

Moreover, brethren, I would not that ye should be ignorant, how that all our fathers were under the cloud, and all passed through the sea; And were all baptized unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea; And did all eat the same spiritual meat; And did all drink the same spiritual drink: for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them: and that Rock was Christ.

Here, I think, we are not to understand this merely metaphorically. Rather, we see what theologians would call a Christophany, a glimpse of the pre-incarnate second person of the Trinity in the experience of God’s chosen people which could only be identified as such retrospectively in the light of our Lord’s Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension. Before they could know Christ, they were baptized in the Red Sea. They ate the bread of heaven in the form of manna. And just as blood and water proceeded from Christ’s side when pierced by the lance of the Roman soldier, so did the same spiritual drink flow as the rock was wounded by Moses’ staff. All this is to say that in response to Israel’s sinfulness, God actually responded not by punishing them, but by giving them even more than they asked for–not merely water, but living water. This isn’t to say that God never punishes to correct his children, but that, as that wonderful prayer which we get to say when we use the traditional rite of the church (and which the prayerbook revisers were sore remiss in excluding from the contemporary rite) our God is a God “whose property is always to have mercy.”

Likewise, the Samaritan woman received more than she asked for or could have even known to request. Her “water insecurity” if we can call it that, was not a matter of living in a desert but of social stigma. As is still the case in hot climates in villages with communal wells, everybody goes to fetch their water for the day in the early morning, while it’s still cool. We might imagine the woman trying to do the same, being taunted by her fellows for her less than savory lifestyle. We can assume that she was not simply five times a widow and that the man with whom she was now co-habitating was not merely a platonic roommate, which is why she evades Jesus’ question about her marital status. I think we miss the point of this story if we make it all about Jesus reaching across cultural divides (which is certainly an element of the story, but not the only one) or if we try, as some commentators have, of insisting that the woman is simply misunderstood. I think we’re supposed to understand that this woman has some serious baggage, some real sin, and while the other women of her town should have shown her some compassion, she is no saint.

Nevertheless, Christ gives her more than mere water that day; he gives her more than she knew to ask for. Indeed, this is only this one time in John’s Gospel where Jesus directly says to anyone “Yes, I am the Messiah.” He chooses a woman whose sins are public and notorious to divulge this truth to, and at that moment she becomes what some derisively refer to today but which should have no such pejorative subtext, a “true believer” and goes and tells everyone she can find, whether or not those people would be inclined to listen to one like her. This, like the water given to the children of Israel, is pure gift–not mere water but living water.

We still receive this living water today, in the Sacraments and in the Spirit which dwells in our hearts. We received it before we knew to ask for it. Even still that grace may surprise us in the midst of deserts into which we’ve been cast or through which we’ve chosen of our own accord to stumble through through ignorance or rebellion. The rock is still there, the well is still there, right before us, whenever we need a drink.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.