Sunday, March 19, 2017

Sermon for III Lent

St Christopher's, Rantoul--John 43:5-42, Exodus 17:1-7

I would suspect that most of you here are not so young that you can’t remember the three Indiana Jones movies from the 80s. Some time ago I found myself watching, on television, the last of the three, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.  It's the one where Indiana Jones and his father join in the same search that lies behind the legend of King Arthur: the quest for the Holy Graal, the chalice used by our Lord at the Last Supper. The final approach to the cave where the Holy Graal had lain hidden for the past several centuries required the seeker to solve a complex riddle. Only by successfully solving this riddle could he avoid falling victim to a series of deadly booby-traps.

What a wonderful metaphor this is for the way most people—including most Christians—conceive of their relationship with God. Much of the time we behave as though God's grace—God's favor, God's benevolent disposition towards us—is like the Holy Graal—the object of a quest, the reward for solving a riddle. This is a false and dangerous misconception, but it is so deeply ingrained in the way we think and feel that, try as we might, we don't let go of it very easily. It’s the default mode of our imaginations, the way we're naturally inclined. 

There is, of course, a perversion of the gospel in the opposite direction. I don't think this tendency is as common as the one we've just been talking about, but it's equally dangerous. In this view, God's grace is not like the Holy Graal, a reward for great effort, but like the beads, doubloons, cups, and other trinkets that are thrown from a Mardi Gras float down in New Orleans. God doles out his grace whimsically and capriciously. If I happen to be standing where some of it falls, then “lucky me.” But I just have to take it when it comes; I can't plan on it or count on it.

The problem with either of these theologies is that they describe a God who isn't there when you need him! When adversity strikes—and let's face it, we live most our lives in some form, some degree, of adversity—when adversity strikes, we want to know where God is!  We need his grace and favor. But if God's grace and favor is something we need to jump through 99 hoops to earn, and we've only jumped through 98, we've got a problem. And if God's grace is just scattered randomly, we've also got a problem. 

We've got the same problem that the people of Israel had when they'd been in the desert for a little while, and the supply of water that they'd carried with them in their flight from slavery in Egypt began to give out. They were hot. They were thirsty. Their lips were beginning to crack. The children were starting to complain, and the sheep and goats were getting antsy. They were fearful, and they grumbled. One can certainly understand their feelings. Water is something so basic that we take it for granted ... until, that is, we have to do without it. Then we get real grumpy real fast.

Jesus walked into a Samaritan village one day and sent his disciples off to run some errands. It was warm, and he was tired and thirsty. He made his way over to a well, and asked the woman he saw there for a drink. Now, even if you didn't pay attention to this story when it was read from St John's gospel a few minutes ago, you probably noticed that it was long. And if you did pay attention, you noticed that it was complex, a conversation that changes directions several times. It's an incredibly rich narrative, a veritable goldmine of insight into the nature of the gospel and God's ways with humankind. And the bottom line of this rich and complex dialogue is that God's grace is as ubiquitous to our spirits as water is to our bodies. 

I love that word —“ubiquitous.” It's one of those words that was never on my high school English vocabulary lists, so I made it into adult life and earned two college degrees without ever really knowing what it meant. I finally looked it up! It means “ever-present,” something we're always running into, something that's so much a part of the fabric of our lives that we take it for granted.

Water is ubiquitous. Thirst is a powerful sensation, more powerful even than hunger, because we can survive without food a lot longer than we can without water. But when we're thirsty, water quenches that thirst completely and nothing quenches thirst like water. Water is basic. Spiritual thirst is also a powerful sensation, and the living water of God's grace is ubiquitously present to quench that thirst. 

Water is not only useful when we're thirsty, but also when we're dirty. It washes away that which is not permanently a part of us and exposes that which is. Sometimes it lets us know just how much dirt was there that we weren't even aware of. Have you ever used a carpet cleaner, and been horrified by the opaque blackness of the water when you dump it at the end of the job? I've thought, “I knew the carpet was dirty, but I really had no idea!” 

The living water of God's grace does the same thing. It not only washes our sins away, but it exposes them in the process, letting us know just how serious they are. In the course of their conversation, Jesus tells the Samaritan woman to go get her husband. She replies that she has no husband, and he says, “I know—you’ve had five husbands, but the man you're with now isn't one of them!” God's ubiquitous grace gently calls us to face and deal with those issues in our lives, those barriers of our own making, that are separating us from his love. 

Water also renews us emotionally. The people of Israel were not only thirsty and dirty in the desert. They were frightened and despondent. When Moses struck that rock with his staff, and streams of water gushed out of it, my bet is that they not only drank from it and washed themselves in it, but that they played in it, laughed in it, splashed around in it. The water from the rock raised their morale and lifted their spirits. It gave them the emotional strength to continue their journey. 

The living water of God's ubiquitous grace gives us the spiritual strength to continue our journeys. It renews our hope. It gives us the confidence that, even in the middle of our troubles, even in the midst of adversity, God is present, aware of our needs and faithful in meeting them.

Finally, water sustains our lives. You know, our bodies—all living things, for that matter— are mostly water, aren't they?  Compare in your mind's eye the relative sizes of a grape and a raisin, or a plum and a prune, and you'll see the difference that water makes. In order to sustain the life of the body, we need to drink water frequently and abundantly. The same applies to the life of the spirit. 

When the Samaritan woman went and told her friends and family about her conversation with Jesus, St John tells us that many of them “believed in him because of the woman's testimony...”. Eventually, they went right to the source and met Jesus himself, and their faith was confirmed: “...we have heard for ourselves,” they said, “and we know that this is truly the savior of the world.” They had tasted the living water for themselves, and they knew that it would be available frequently and abundantly to sustain their lives of faith not only on that day, but through all their days.

When we encounter Jesus, and recognize him as the source of our lives, we tap into the stream of God's ubiquitous grace of which the water from Moses' rock is a wonderful foreshadowing. Then we know God's grace to be not like the Holy Graal, something we must solve a riddle to get. We know God's favor to be not like Mardi Gras beads, something that we may, but probably will not, be lucky enough to be standing under when it falls. Rather, we know God's benevolent disposition towards us to be like water: ubiquitous, all around us, impossible to escape from. Then, when we enter the desert of adversity, whether it's the adversity of a flat tire or the adversity of a terminal illness, we will know that God has not abandoned us, and will be with us as we pass through it until we reach the oasis on the other side. And while we're there in the oasis of prosperity and peace, we'll know that that too is none other than the product of God's ubiquitous grace, the living water that quenches our thirst, exposes and rinses away our sin, lifts our spirits, and sustains our lives. We will know that, in adversity and in prosperity, our lives are hid with God in Christ, and that all will be well. Amen.

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