Today the lectionary gives us two stories about water. The first set in the Sinai desert where the Hebrews found themselves exhausted, thirsty, and more than a little bit feisty and quarrelsome demanding water from Moses and from God; the second set at a well in a Samaritan village where Jesus, “tired out by his journey” (Jn 4:6, NRSV), encountered a lone woman and asked her for a drink.
I sometimes think that we take the biblical metaphor water way too lightly. We live in a world which is water-abundant. Here in NE Ohio we are surrounded by the stuff! There’s that big lake up to the north of us; there are rivers and streams running nearby; and I’ll bet most of us live in neighborhoods where some of our neighbors have ponds in their back yards. There’s water everywhere.
Even in the sorts of desert places I lived as a young adult along the Southern California coast there is an abundance of water. There’s all that salt water in the ocean, of course, but that won’t sustain human life. What there is is water brought in by aqueduct from the Sacramento River or piped in from the Colorado River; without that Los Angeles and Orange and San Diego Counties could not sustain the populations that presently live there.
Get out of those artificial oases, however, and life in southern California is pretty precarious. When I was in college in San Diego, my friends and I used to hike either the Anzo-Borrego Desert or the Agua Tibia Wilderness Area on over-night excursions pretty frequently. We would have to carry our water because there are no rivers or ponds or springs in either area; with desert back-packing, you have to figure on at least one gallon per day per person on the trail. Water weighs about 8-1/2 pounds per gallon, so that single item takes up a good deal of your backpack capacity and your weight limit for a hike! (Of course, as you use it, your pack gets lighter quite fast, so there is that to be thankful for.) You really learn to appreciate just how important and how precious water is doing desert back-packing.
These days, on my days away from the office, I don’t do any back-packing. On my typical day off, what I do is laundry. I usually do three and sometimes four loads of laundry …
We have an old-fashioned, fairly standard top loading clothes washer, the kind with a vertical-axis drum and a central agitator. I looked this up, so I know that design hasn’t changed much since General Electric introduced such washers in 1947. A typical vertical-axis washer consumes about 45 gallons of water per load, although newer models of the sort have reduced the water usage to less than 40 gallons per load. That means that every day off, when I do my three or four loads of laundry, I use somewhere between 120 to 180 gallons of water. That might be enough water for one person to live in the desert on our back-packing ration for 17 to 26 weeks, between a third and a half of a year. But, in fact, it’s not enough! The World Health Organization estimates that the minimum basic water requirement for a human being is 20 liters (that’s about five gallons) of water every day to maintain basic health and hygiene.
When I think about our Old Testament story this morning and Moses striking the rock at God’s command, providing water for the Hebrews. There must have been a lot of water . . . Earlier in the Book of Exodus we are told that the number of people who left Egypt was “about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides women and children.” That must mean there were nearly 2,000,000 people wandering around the Sinai desert; they would have need 10,000,000 gallons of water just to let each of them have the minimum WHO amount of five gallons for one day! And I use 180 gallons in one day doing laundry. We take water so much for granted that, as a biblical metaphor for the loving grace of God, it becomes (pardon the pun) rather diluted!
We also treat water differently than did the people of the Bible. Jesus is out walking the countryside, traveling through Samaritan territory where, frankly, he is a foreigner. He comes to the community well at Shechem, a well given to following generations of both Jews and Samaritans by their claimed common ancestor Jacob, a well from which anyone may draw water. Water was necessary for life and when it was present it was available to all who needed it. That’s the way it was in the Nevada desert where I grew up.
Las Vegas in those days drew no water from the Colorado River; all of its water came from artesian springs in the Las Vegas valley. Everyone in town got their water piped into their homes from those springs, at almost no cost. You paid for the pipes, but water usage was unmetered; you used as much as you wanted. Until just two years ago that’s the way it was in Reno, Nevada, where water is drawn from the Tahoe-Truckee watershed. Pretty surprising that in the desert water would be unlimited and practically free of charge: “Use as much as you need!”
Unfortunately, that’s no longer our attitude. You may recall a few years ago when Peter Brabeck of Nestlé got into some political hot water (another pun, forgive me) for suggesting that there is no human right to water, that water is simply another foodstuff to be commodified and monetized. His comments kicked off quite a debate, but let’s be honest: Mr. Brabeck was doing nothing more than giving voice to the attitudes of a society were millions, if not billions, of consumers purchase and consume water in little plastic bottles even when they have free-flowing water from the taps in their own homes (water which, frankly, they also pay for).
We simply do not have the same appreciation of and attitude toward water that the people of the Bible had. We wastefully regard it as something to be taken for granted, and yet we charge people for it. They recognized it as scarce but absolutely necessary for life, and so they made it freely available to any who needed it. If we are to understand its importance as a biblical metaphor for the grace of God, we must abandon our attitudes and adopt theirs. We need to relearn the lesson my back-packing buddies and I learned by carrying water with us on those hikes into the desert; we need to know what the biblical peoples knew, that water is precious!
Of course, we do know that! We know that we can’t survive without water . . . waste it as we may, sell it in supermarkets as we do . . . we know at some gut level that this plain, clear liquid is essential to life. So when Moses strikes the rock at Horeb and through the grace of God water gushes out to quench the thirst of those 600,000 men and their wives and their children, when Jesus quenches his thirst and then offers the woman living water that will assuage her thirst for eternity, we get it.
We get it when we sing that great old revival hymn and envision the water mingled with blood flowing from the side of the Rock of Ages, the double cure of sin, cleansing us from sin’s guilt and power. We get it when we sing that wonderful Welsh anthem beseeching great Jehovah to guide us through the barren land and “open . . . the crystal fountain from whence the healing stream doth flow.” We get it; we know that that is precisely what Paul is talking about when he writes to the Romans about “God’s love . . . poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit” so that we may “boast in our sufferings [whatever they may be], knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.” We get it!
So, let us pray for the courage and wherewithal to also share it. Even as we get it, let us pray that it will, indeed, “become in [us] a spring of water gushing up to eternal life;” let us pray that it will be for us as Jesus cried out in the streets of Jerusalem on the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.'” We get it; let us pray for the endurance and character and hope to share it.
Let us pray:
Around the well of your grace, O God,
are those who thirst for friendship and love;
Help us to offer them
the living water of community and connectedness;
Around the well of your life, O God,
are those who thirst for joy and safety;
Help us to offer them
the living water of playfulness and protection;
Around the well of your mercy, O God,
are those who thirst for wholeness and peace;
Help us to offer them
the living water of comfort, healing and welcome;
Around the well of your presence, O God,
are those who thirst for meaning and connection;
Help us to offer them
the living water of service and worship;
May the life we have found in you,
be the gift we share
with all who hunger and thirst,
with all who are outcast and rejected,
with all who have too little or too much,
with all who are wounded or ashamed,
and, through us, may this corner of the world overflow
with your living water.
In Jesus’ Name,
A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Third Sunday in Lent, March 19, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.
(The lessons for the day are from the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A: Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 95; Romans 5:1-11; and St. John 4:5-42. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)
Click on footnote numbers to link back to associated text.
 Exodus 12:37 (NIV)
 Rock of Ages, Episcopal Church Hymnal 1980, Hymn No. 685
 Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah, Episcopal Church Hymnal 1980, Hymn No. 690
 Romans 5:4-5 (NRSV)
 John 4:14 (NRSV)
 John 7:37-38 (NRSV)