"Is the Lord among us or not?" This is what the Israelites ask Moses in this morning’s reading from the Old Testament. It is easy to understand why. Only part way into the Exodus journey out of Egypt, they find themselves in a desert without water. The adults are thirsty. The children and the animals are dying. They are beginning to question whether coming out of Egypt was such a good idea in the first place. True, they had been slaves back there, but at least they had had enough to eat and drink. They now question their leader’s judgment and competence. Moses, in turn, goes to God and asks for some help.
"Is the Lord among us or not” is not a stupid or faithless question. It is asked by anyone who is up against the trials and chances of life. I have asked that question myself at times, and I will bet that on occasion you have, too.
This past year I have become an evangelist for a great little book called The Memory Chalet, written by the British historian Tony Judt and published after his death from ALS (Lou Gherig’s disease) last year. Tony Judt was a brilliant political and historical thinker—best known as the author of two books, Postwar and Ill Fares the Land-- who grew up a Jew in England and taught in America. He contracted a particularly virulent form of ALS a few years ago and spent the last couple years of his life as he says “effectively quadriplegic,” confined to his bed and wheelchair. To keep his mind occupied during the long agonizing nights, he composed the several chapters of his autobiography one at a time in his head and then dictated them in the morning.
In The Memory Chalet Tony Judt describes the experience of being strapped in to bed, as he says, “trussed, myopic, and motionless like a modern-day mummy, alone in my corporeal prison, accompanied for the rest of the night only by my thoughts.” He cannot turn, scratch, or reposition himself. But as he begins to find a new use for this forced confinement, certain compensations do appear. As he tells us,
. . . I am occasionally astonished, when I reflect upon the matter, at how readily I seem to get through, night after night, week after week, month after month, what was once an almost insufferable nocturnal ordeal. I wake up in exactly the position, frame of mind, and state of suspended despair with which I went to bed—which in the circumstances might be thought a considerable achievement. [Tony Judt, “Night”, The Memory Chalet, p. 19]
Because “the satisfactions of compensation are notoriously fleeting,” Tony Judt does not want to romanticize his situation. As he says, “There is no saving grace in being confined to an iron suit, cold and unforgiving . . . Loss is loss, and nothing is gained by calling it by a nicer name. My nights are intriguing; but I could do without them.”
"Is the Lord among us or not?" A question asked by the Israelites, no doubt asked in the night by a British Jew suffering from ALS, asked by countless people in the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the ongoing nuclear crisis there, and the persistence of bloodshed and tyranny in the Middle East. The Bible’s answer to this question, "Is the Lord among us or not?", appears in God’s swift response in our reading from Exodus [17.1-7] as Moses strikes the rock and water gushes forth to slake the Israelites’ thirst. That’s good news for them back in Bible times, but what about us? What about those suffering from pernicious diseases or natural disasters today? "Is the Lord among us or not?" And if so, how do we know?
Some version of that question is on the mind of the Samaritan woman who encounters Jesus at the well in this morning’s Gospel. This story from John’s Gospel takes place in the region of Samaria, the present-day West Bank, an area inhabited by the Samaritans, a people ethnically Jewish who had deal-breaking differences with the main line of the Jewish tradition over ritual and scripture. The Jews considered Samaritans unclean. That’s why the title of Luke’s parable, “The Good Samaritan,” is supposed to sound like a contradiction in terms.
What ties these two Bible readings this morning together is, of course, the image of water. In the Exodus reading, water gushes from the rock to quench the thirst of people in the desert. In the Gospel passage, Jesus offers the Samaritan woman not only regular water, but living water. "Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life." [John 4.13-14] In the alternating drought-flood climate of the Holy Land, water was of central importance. Water made life possible. It also could threaten to wipe it out. Jesus offers a symbolic kind of water that would be abundant but not superfluous, a source of life constant and ongoing and safe.
When the Samaritan woman and Jesus get into an exchange about this living water, the woman turns the conversation to the differences between Samaritans and Jews—we say our mountain is holy, you say your Temple is holy. Jesus answers her by saying, “. . . the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth." In other words, says Jesus, our ethnic and religious differences really don’t matter. “The hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.” [John 4. 21-23]
"Is the Lord among us or not?" Moses answers that question from Jewish people by striking a rock and producing physical water. Jesus answers that question from a Samaritan woman by offering living water. All of us seek assurance of God’s continuing presence with us. For Moses the evidence of God’s presence is to point somewhere else. For Jesus the proof of God’s presence points to a miraculous gift. Both Jews and Samaritans looked to the Messiah, the anointed one, the Christ, the King, as the final assurance of God being with us. When the Samaritan woman mentions the Messiah, Jesus replies, "I am he, the one who is speaking to you."
What’s important for us to see is the way Jesus here opens up the whole question of God’s presence with us. Like the Israelites in the desert, the Samaritan woman suffered. They suffered a literal thirst, she a spiritual one. But the answer to both of their sufferings is the gift, not of a magic cure, but of personal power, of what we might call agency. This is what Moses and Jesus mean when they tell us God is present. God gives the Israelites water by empowering Moses to find it. Jesus gives the Samaritan woman living water by showing her that God meets her where she really is. Jesus’s display of knowledge of her personal history with the five husbands is not a parlor trick. It is a way of saying, “I know you. I accept you. I love you. And I offer you this water as who you are where you are here and now. You don’t have to go to a special place or become a different kind of person to get it. Here it is now. Take it. Whoever you are, wherever you are. It’s for you.”
One of the things you learn either studying theology or simply by living awhile is that suffering—figured in these stories as thirst, in our news accounts as death and dislocation in earthquake, flood, and war, in Tony Judt’s memoir as a struggle with a crippling disease—suffering is a constant in human experience. We are fragile, finite, beings. We are subject to forces larger than ourselves. The childlike part of us wants to believe in a God who can magically make suffering, pain, and loss go away. That childlike fantasy of a divine magician bears no resemblance to the God we meet in the Bible. That God feels our suffering as keenly as we do. And that God offers us healing and hope in what we call in Hebrew, “Shalom”: Peace, Justice, Healing, Community, Home. Shalom is the earthly water that gushed from Moses’s rock, the living water that Jesus offered the Samaritan woman at the well. In the Bible, water always stands for life, hope, and renewal. The depth and power and blessedness of life are available to you here, now, no questions asked.
From my description of it, you might think that Tony Judt’s The Memory Chalet would be a book about pain and sorrow and loss. In fact it’s exactly the opposite—funny, joyful, passionate, wistful, angry at times, a fully-alive account of what it was like to grow up as a Jew in England, ride trains all day as a young boy, get educated at Cambridge and in Paris, lived through the political and personal turmoil of student riots in France, social change in Eastern Europe, and late-life struggles with cancer and ALS. All through the memoir, Tony Judt tells us of a lifelong love for railroads and trains, and that story and that love sustain him as he lies still at night in the dark.
Toward the end of The Memory Chalet, Tony Judt describes a particular place that has meant so much to him, the tiny Swiss village of Mürren. As he describes it, we discover that he has found Shalom when he thinks of it. God has not miraculously cured him in the night. His newfound knowledge has not balanced out the real losses he has felt. But he has discovered an abiding presence that, for us followers of Jesus is just exactly like that living water on offer to the woman at the well. Here is how Tony Judt describes it:
Most places hold mixed memories. . . . How I remember them varies with my mood. But Mürren never changes. Nothing ever went wrong there.
There is a path of sorts that accompanies Mürren’s pocket railway. Halfway along, a little café—the only stop on the line—serves the usual run of Swiss wayside fare. Ahead, the mountain falls steeply away into the rift valley below. Behind, you can clamber up to the summer barns with the cows and goats and shepherds. Or you can just wait for the next train: punctual, predictable, and precise to the second. Nothing happens: it is the happiest place in the world. We cannot choose where we start out in life, but we may finish where we will. I know where I shall be: going nowhere in particular on that little train, forever and ever. [“Magic Mountains”, The Memory Chalet, p. 226]
"Is the Lord among us or not?" Moses found God’s water in a rock; the Samaritan woman in the person of Jesus; a bed-bound writer in images of a perfect place; you and I in table fellowship with each other and the crucified and risen Jesus. This Lent, let us take God’s living water, offered freely to all, wherever we may find it. Amen.