Sermon Seeds: Give Us Water
Sunday, March 12, 2023
Third Sunday in Lent | Year A
(Liturgical Color: Violet)
Listen to the Podcast
Exodus 17:1-7 • Psalm 95 • Romans 5:1-11 • John 4:5-42
Exodus 17:1-7 in conversation with John 4:5-42
Give Us Water
Rend Our Hearts (Click here for the series overview.)
By Cheryl A. Lindsay
Have you ever been on a trust walk? One form of trust walk involves pairings of people. Each person receives a partner, with one party responsible for guiding and the other agreeing to be led. Blindfolding or restricting vision of the one being led is important. The one leading knows the path or at least has directions or a map. They know the destination. That is their advantage and responsibility. It helps when the one being led knows the one leading–trust may have already been established or seeded in their relationship.
The one being led has to surrender more than the restricted sense of sight. They also have to give up control and lean on their guide for their safety and well-being during the journey. Normally, trust walks do not involve great distances but take longer to complete as the journey slows by necessity to allow time for careful instructions and cautious steps.
Imagine being on a trust walk for forty years. “Exod. 15: 22–40: 38 describes the ways in which YHWH is able to be present with Israel in this world as they journey toward the promised land.” (Thomas B. Dozeman) In our reading, it is still relatively early in the journey. They may have expected to reach their destination imminently. The walk probably still seems awkward and disorienting. At the same time, the high from escaping Egypt has dissipated and the miraculous signs and wonders that led to their initial liberation and the passage through the Red Sea is already being filed as memory as their current condition presents its own peril.
The conflict between YHWH and Pharaoh in the land of Egypt (Exod. 7: 8–15: 18) gives way to the Israelite journey with God in the wilderness (Exod. 15: 22–18: 27). The central theme shifts from the exercise of divine power against Pharaoh to the presence of YHWH with Israel. The initial stories in the wilderness explore the special relationship between YHWH and Israel made evident through episodes of testing and struggle. The Israelites experience danger immediately in the wilderness in the form of poisoned water (Exod. 15: 22–26), absence of food (Exod. 15: 27–16: 35), and lack of water (Exod. 17: 1–7). In each instance, YHWH provides for the people, purifying the poisoned water, providing manna for food, and drawing water from a rock.
Thomas B. Dozeman
A trust walk is ultimately a test. On the surface, it seems to measure our ability to lead on the one hand and to follow on the other. The leader is charged with providing good instruction and setting the pace and path. The follower needs good listening skills, enough imagination to move towards a vision they cannot see or fully know and communication skills to provide feedback or ask clarifying questions. In this grand, communal trust walk toward the promised land, there are more than two parties, which only amplifies the challenges toward trust and progress. The ultimate guide is the Holy One, who engages Moses as their intermediary but also has his own trust walk as the human leader of this movement. The people follow Moses, who has instructions to impart but knows the end destination no more than they do. It should not be surprising when these moments of tension arise on the journey. If it’s not easy to follow someone who knows the final destination, how much more difficult is it to trust the leader who does not know where they are going?
As a result of the peculiarity of this triangular relationship, the tension plays out in interesting ways. The people have no choice but to go through Moses with their feedback and questioning. It cannot have been easy for Moses to navigate his particular position, he’s both leader and follower in this scenario. He has questions and is being questioned. He received their feedback–demands and doubts–as complaint. After all they had been through together, how could he help but take it personally?
The people ask for water. They have reached a dry place. It’s curious that in this sojourn, they do not follow waterways closely until they reach their destination. In this part of the earth, the terrain varies from lush, verdant landscapes to arid deserts. Water, as an element essential to life, is only surpassed by air when it comes to our constant and consistent need of it for survival. One can go for weeks without food, but only days without water. The request for water is not an unreasonable demand.
It’s also not the whole question. Surely, they need water, but there’s an unexpressed need that also demands addressing. It’s that question that Moses chafes against. When Moses talks to God, he complains against those he perceives to be complaining against him. This moment betrays that Moses also has an unmet need that quenching physical thirst will not satisfy.
“Is the Lord really with us or not?” (v7) This is the real question. Will the Holy One continue to meet our needs while we follow with impaired senses, no direction of our own, and uncertain stops?
It does not make sense to leave the waterways when taking such a trip. It might have been a sign to the people that they were lost. Does God really have a plan? Or, are we lost and wandering aimlessly in the wild?
This is a community on the move from a past act of redemption toward a promised goal. But promise is still promise, not fulfillment. And when the goal is no longer days or weeks away, but months and years, it is easy to lose one’s moorings. These wilderness stories are increasingly about a people stuck between promise and fulfillment. Wilderness is no longer simply a place but a state of mind.
Terence E. Fretheim
In a similar way, the gospel text provides an encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. She has been ostracized by her community and has learned the protective measure of self-isolation. There’s no other likely explanation that she is seeking water from the well when the sun is at its height for the day. She’s trying to avoid company, but Jesus pursues her. In this case, we learn that Jesus takes the direct route on his journey, where most of his people go around, he’s compelled to go through. Jesus does not avoid confrontation or difficult conversation or human need.
Through their conversation, she begins to question Jesus who responds without hesitation or condemnation. Interestingly, when the Holy One responds to Moses’ presentation of the people’s complaint, condemnation and correction are also absent. The Holy One meets the need, responds to the request, and simply takes the test.
Are you with us, God, or not? Both these texts present tests to God where there is really only one question. Are you with us, my people, and me? In both, we observe God taking the test without affront. God knows they are going to pass the test…and the testing leads to trusting. Faith asks us to believe in what we cannot observe, but trust is built by experience. Jesus does not ask his disciples to believe in him, he asks them to walk with him without knowing the ultimate destination but to trust him as guide.
Jesus does not call the Samaritan woman to follow him on his journey but he meets her on hers. He reveals himself to her in ways we will only see him do with his disciples toward the end of his earthly ministry. She becomes one of the first to proclaim the good news as she brings the community she now reclaims back to him and they are transformed. “They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.” (John 4:42)
In the same way, the people that Moses leads to follow the Holy One need a faith and a trust based on their own experiences and observations of a God who is with them even when the water runs dry and the smooth ways become rough.
Many of us have found life to be a trust walk. Whether our vision is impaired artificially or not, we don’t always know where we are going. The future is uncertain, and the road unclear. Our lives are challenging, confounding, and confusing. The road is hard, with sharp turns, and steep steps. We, like the sojourners in the Exodus narrative, may have the same fundamental question: Is the Holy One with us or not? Is the Creator still about the work of creating around us and in us? Is the Protector still our protection? Is the Provider still providing?
Does our Help still part Red Seas and make ways in the wilderness? Holy One, are you with us or not? Can we trust you? Give us water.
Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent
The 33rd General Synod adopted a Resolution to Recognize the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024). As part of its implementation, Sermon and Weekly Seeds offers Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent related to the season or overall theme for additional consideration in sermon preparation and for individual and congregational study.
The Negro Speaks of Rivers
— Langston Hughes
I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset.
I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
For Further Reflection
“The ocean makes me feel really small and it makes me put my whole life into perspective… it humbles you and makes you feel almost like you’ve been baptized. I feel born again when I get out of the ocean.” ― Beyoncé Knowles
“You never really know what’s coming. A small wave, or maybe a big one. All you can really do is hope that when it comes, you can surf over it, instead of drown in its monstrosity.” ― Alysha Speer
“Water does not resist. Water flows. When you plunge your hand into it, all you feel is a caress. Water is not a solid wall, it will not stop you. But water always goes where it wants to go, and nothing in the end can stand against it. Water is patient. Dripping water wears away a stone. Remember that, my child. Remember you are half water. If you can’t go through an obstacle, go around it. Water does.” ― Margaret Atwood
Dozeman, Thomas B. “Exodus.” Gale A. Yee, Ed. Fortress Commentary on the Bible: Two Volume Set. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014.
Fretheim, Terence E. Exodus: Interpretation. Louisville: John Knox Press, 2010.
Suggested Congregational Response to the Reflection
Engage the gathered assembly in Join the Movement’s Courageous Conversations: A Lenten Antiracism Journey
A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.
Exodus 17:1-7 • Psalm 95 • Romans 5:1-11 • John 4:5-42
Find the full text here: https://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=26