Sweet Water From The Rock
| Exodus 17:1-7
|Sun, September 29, 1996
Rev. Ed Searcy
|The ad must be a decade old now ... but it might as well have been made yesterday. It was short ... only fifteen seconds long. Nonetheless, the plot worked ... and the product sold. The scene opened on a hot beach. Through a series of short, tightly edited shots we see that everyone there is scorching - the young mother and her baby, the old couple sitting in chairs, the teens playing volleyball, the young lovers on the bench, the children building sand castles, the man reading a book. In five seconds the scene has been set. Then the plot thickens. One of the teens opens a cooler and pulls out a bottle of pop ... a cold, wet bottle of Seven-Up. Still everything is parched, boiling, unbearable. Until she opens the cap. At that instant showers begin to fall ... a gentle summer rain that invigorates everyone on the beach. Within seconds everyone is smiling, dancing, drinking 7-Up. As the drama comes to a close we see that they are no longer in isolation from one another, separated by age or social status. Through the power of a bottle of 7-Up not only has their physical thirst been quenched but so has their longing for community. It all seems a little ridiculous when you stop to think about it. So much power in a bottle. But the formula must work. Why else would the multinational manufacturer of a brown, caffeinated drink describe it as "The Real Thing" and sellit by “teaching the world to sing in perfect harmony"? Why else would so many of us buy all those bottles of 'pure, mountain fresh, glacier fed, sparkling, artesian, spring water'? Why? Because we hope that it will quench the thirst that water from the tap can't touch. And never mind products that we drink. It is true also of things we eat and wear and drive. All of them come with promises to do more than feed, cover and move us. All of them come with the mirage of uenching our thirst for love and health and happiness.
Surely we know better than that by now. Surely we now that our society doth protest too much ... that its claims of water here,water there is really an admission of 'water, water everywhere but not a drop to drink'! Thirst is everywhere we look. When we make the short trip over to the Purdy Pavilion at the UBC Hospital this afternoon we will see it in the eyes of the elderly residents. Cut off from home, from health, from the life they have known ... thirsty for life, for music, for hope. And when Gerald begins to play the old tunes from memory you can see it in their eyes and hear it in their voices. It is as if they are drinking from the ancient well. You might expect it there ... but don't miss the thirst across the path at the UBC Student Health
Services. When Audrey Fell retired from there last Spring she spoke of her frustration at the cut-backs that continue to reduce the nursing staff. "You see", she said, "they can still manage to dispense the meds to the students. That's not the problem. The problem is that many of the students are not suffering from physical ailments ... they are struggling to cope with loneliness and depression. What they need is someone who will take an interest in them, someone who will care for them. It isn't the pills
that do the work ... it is the human care". The thirst is all around us. Bob Smith speaks painfully over coffee this week of the continual increase in violence at Main and Hastings where First United Church stands. As the city pushes its dispossessed into an ever shrinking ghetto the pain is magnified. Four violent deaths in the last two weeks, Bob reports. Four violent deaths
of people who are a part of the First Church circle. Three of the four from the native ommunity. At the funeral of one, a fight breaks out between two drunks. Bob Smith, the Right Reverend former Moderator of the United Church, assumes the ministerial role that he now unwillingly accepts most every day - that of bouncer. Thirst is not limited to the old or to the young or to the poor. It is everywhere. In the introduction to this year's CBC Massey Lectures, economist Robert Theolbald writes: "Reading the last ten Massey lectures is a sobering experience. A single dominant message emerges, expressed in a number of very different voices and styles: Western societies are failing to cope with the challenges of our times, and the
possibility of collapse is very real within the lifetimes of most of us today ... The real issue today is whether we can act as though what we do will make a difference." And the story of the Exodus says: "From the wilderness ... the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages". Not just a few ... but the whole congregation find themselves in the wilderness ... with no water.
It should come as no surprise when the people call on their leaders to find drinking water. They call on the elected leaders, the forecasters and intelligentsia ... and they call on the religious leaders, too. In short, they call on Moses who is all of these wrapped up in one. Moses, who promised safe passage to a land of milk and honey. When that passage leads them to a desert like this he gets an ear full. All he has to do is listen to the hot-line shows to know that what the pollsters tell him is true. The
people are murmuring. Their hearts are hardening ... their necks are stiffening ... their heels, dug in. We know what that is like. We, too, murmur under our breath. See how easily even the kindest of hearts harden. Notice how quickly our own thirst closes us off from the thirst of others. It is as obvious as commitments made at the font ... commitments to "support and
uphold" the precious infant as she thirsts for the love of God. Commitments that bump up against our own deep longing to be graced. "Six Sundays in the church school? I'm sorry, I don't think so. I just don't have the resources, the time, the energy ... surely there is someone else." We wish it were otherwise, we wish we had it in us. But here we sit, isolated from one another, focussed on our bone-dry soul. The thirst is not only out there ... the thirst is in here. It is the thirst Moses himself shares. Moses, at his wits end, wondering how to find water for the people in what appears to be God forsaken wilderness.
No wonder that the place is named 'Massah' and 'Meribah - 'Trial' and 'Quarrel'. The original twin cities! You would have thought that the Chamber of Commerce would have seen to it that this desert oasis came to be known as "Sweet Water" or "Living Streams". Instead the signs outside town say: "Welcome to Trial - Living here is an ordeal" and "Quarrel - Home of fighting fair". Now the rest of the Bible is pretty clear. These names have a purpose. They stand as a reminder so that every time you drive through town you can tell the children in the back seat the story ... the story of how their great-great
grandparents’ generation hadn't quit their grouching and complaining. Because of that, so the story went, they never got to set foot in the Promised Land. This was a not so subtle reminder to the kids in the back seat to quit their own murmuring right now. Which all sounds perfectly logical except for the fact that God never once mentions the complaining. No ... according
to the story, when Moses passes on news of the grumbling over water-rations, God responds. There is no penitence called for, no stern lecture. Instead, God says that water is as near at hand as the rod which they used to separate the waters of the sea. In fact, water is just below the surface within the rock on which Moses' stands. The plot sounds a little like Dorothy's predicament in the Wizard of Oz. She cannot find the promised land of home for the life of her ... when, to her great surprise, it is as near as her own ruby slippers. Here is the real problem with murmuring and complaining, with stiff-necks and hard hearts. We may have good reason for our complaints ... but that chorus of murmurs can close our hearts to the sound of water, trickling up out of the rock.
It is a sound that, by the grace of God, I heard the other evening. We were sitting at Presbytery in the newly dedicated sanctuary of Trinity United and St. Mark's Anglican in Kitsilano. Like this chapel, it is quite an inspiring space. As you enter, you pass by a large concrete font in the shape of a 'stone' out of which runs a constant stream of water. Throughout our meal
and worship and business you could hear the gentle sound of water running. It was when I saw the sign on the wall that reads "fountain switch" that I started to murmur against God. A voice within me started to groan about the barrenness of the institutional church. But then something happened. Maria spoke. Maria who has been living with her five children in the Trinity-St. Mark's church building for over nine months now. She sought sanctuary there when she was ordered deported to El Salvador. Maria spoke simply and powerfully. She thanked us and asked for our help. Suddenly the water trickling up out of the font sounded beautiful and good. Later in the evening the room fell silent again. Joanna spoke. Joanna works at First United Church, operating the WISH centre ... a drop-in for women who work the streets. She spoke of the addictions and of the brutality, of the place of prostitutes at the very bottom of the social ladder. She spoke of the simple hospitality of providing meals and a safe place to talk. Bob Smith called out: "How big is your food budget, Joanna". "$250 a month", she answered. "And how many do you serve". "Well", she replied, "we make 750 meals a month". Now the trickle of water began to sound like a flowing stream to me. Driving home I found myself no longer murmuring but instead amazed at the places where water had been found ... amazed, too, that a refugee named Maria and a lay woman named Joanna had discovered its source.
Like Moses, they discovered that the water is right under our noses. Last summer Jim Love became the VST gardener. One of his first acts was to bring back to life the little fountain that sits outside my office. Now the barren echoes of the courtyard resound once again to the sounds of living water. Soon people emerged from the dining room and library to eat and talk and
read. That reborn fountain has become, for me, a parable for the church ...a parable of hope that the ancient spring that seemed to have run dry is once again breaking through the cracks of our lives, creating a community of refreshment. You don't have to look far to see what I mean. Newcomers to this congregation are always surprised to learn that it hasn't always been
like this here ... that not that many years ago the congregation was thirsting for vitality and new life. In tracing the steps of the journey from those days to these days it is impossible to find the one decision, the one move that caused the living waters to spill out. But anyone who comes here can sense that the waters are splashing around ... refreshing lives and hearts. Or at least they are for now. There is no guarantee, of course, that the initial burst of enthusiasm will continue. Soon the water may
dry up once again. Unless ... unless we learn from Maria and Joanna where to look ... and from Henri, too. This past week saw the sudden death of a Roman Catholic priest named Henri Nouwen whose life and writings have spoken to the hearts of Christians from every denominational camp. God's healing, Henri insisted, is to be found in the places of our wounding. Instead of running from places of pain in search of miracle cures, Nouwen called on the church to be a people who pay
attention to wounds ... our own and the worlds. Here, he said, is where the living water springs forth. Here is where the Messiah is to be found. Here, in the places of our deepest thirst, is where God's new creation is taking form. Here.