We are a thirsty people. Statistical evidence tells us that, even if theological evidence is harder to discern. Did you know that in 2004, the global consumption of bottled water was 154 billion liters (41 billion gallons)? That’s an increase of 57% from 1999. We’ve gotten thirstier. And that’s just bottled water; add in all the other bottled and nonbottled drinks, and we should be swimming in a variety of liquids all the time. Yet, we still find it within our capacity to consume all those drinks. We are thirsty.
There is medical research that tells us consumption of water is a good thing, thirsty or not. It is one of the pathways to health. So, drink up. Of course, it is more fundamental than that. Water is essential to life itself. What is that old quote? You can go nine days without food, but only three days without water? Something like that, anyway. Water is one of the most critical needs of human existence. It ranks right up there with air.
No wonder droughts scare us so much. Did you know that the governor of Utah calling for a prayer meeting across the state to end the drought that has plagued the southwest for years? To pray for rain. That’s desperate, in political circles anyway.
Some of us have trouble understanding such desperation, given the availability of so many things that can quench our thirst. Yet, we can see the political struggles that occur over the rights to clean drinking water. Even in our own country, there are debates about who owns the water. Those who live in the Great Lake States are looked upon in envy by those in the dry southwestern states. Those who argue the consequences of climate change tell us the situation will only get worse. A global crisis is looming, according to many reports over the past few years. Based on data from NASA, the World Health Organization, and other agencies, severe water shortages affecting at least 400 million people today will affect four billion people by 2050. Southwestern states such as Arizona will face other severe freshwater shortages by 2025.
We are thirsty. And we just might be getting thirstier. The concern you might be feeling right now because of some of that information makes it just a little easier to understand the reaction of the people of Israel in this week’s Hebrew Bible passage. Without that experiential background, we might just pass off the behavior in our story as more whining about a little bit of discomfort on the long camping trip. But in the right context, it becomes a matter of life and death
If the Exodus 17 story seems vaguely familiar, yet somewhat different from what you remember, it is possible that you are remembering a different incident. This was a recurring theme through the Exodus story. In fact, the last water and the rock event takes place in Numbers 20.
It makes sense, however, that the problem would arise more than once. They were wandering in a desert, after all. And who can pack enough water for all those people for forty years? So, it is no wonder that the lack of potable water would trouble them.
We don’t know where “Rephidim” is, though some have hazarded a guess or two over the years. But wherever it is, it is a dry place. Thus, the panic set in. Instead of a question, instead of a concern, verse 2 says they “quarreled with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink!’” What is hidden in the English translation is the level of this complaint. The word that is used in Hebrew is rib, which is to file a complaint. What happened was the people immediately called for Moses’s impeachment! Maybe they were just thirsty, or maybe it was left over from two chapters previously where there is the same problem, but it seems an excessive move. They issued an ultimatum: “Give us water or get out!” The water way or the highway! Then Moses yells at them and says that by challenging his leadership, they are actually challenging God! And how dare they distrust the one who rescued them from slavery? But then the people responded by saying, “You call this a rescue? You brought us out here to die! And our children and animals are dying too!!” Then Moses yells at God and says, “I’m in trouble here! What are you going to do about it?”
It is clear to see that when these essential needs are threatened, then trust collapses. The community begins to erode when survival is at stake. The evidence of this little scene says that no one acts terribly graciously in this midst of this crisis. The people threaten regime change, and the leader questions their right to complain. No one acts especially godly here. Well, no one but God, that is.
The God of the Hebrew Scriptures expresses a wide range of emotion toward God’s people. But in this story, there is an amazing tolerance. Normally, it is the people who stand before God. It is a sign of obedience and worship. We are called into God’s presence. But in this story, to show him where the water is, God says to Moses, “I will stand before you.” An amazing act, a humbling act for Moses, I would think. Because he, as the appointed representative of God, didn’t act with the same graciousness.
Did you ever do a kindness for someone and feel that the individual was not properly grateful? Did it make you less likely to help the next time around? When Jesus says, “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48), do you think he meant putting up with complaints and overreactions when people’s basic needs aren’t being met? Do you think he meant, “Give drink to the thirsty, regardless of how they respond”?
Our “lesson” from this passage, as usual, has many layers. First of all, the passage loudly claims God will provide. And God provides, not because of the worthiness of the recipient, but because of the holiness of the giver. Secondly, as those who are called to represent God, how we respond to human need reflects not just on us, but on the God we proclaim. Our response is not just in the meeting of the need, but in the meeting of the need with grace and with love.
Then perhaps we might also see in this passage a subtle reminder of our own human need. We too are thirsty. We forget because we have what it takes to quench our thirst. We forget we are only a few days away from dying of thirst. We forget that God has provided, and it is up to us to be stewards of what God provides. And worst of all, because we can drink, we forget that there are many who daily die of thirst. We forget that we are all one family, as we are thirsty.
Maybe if we knew how to fill the emptiness, we wouldn’t be so frightened. Maybe if we knew how to resolve the loneliness, we wouldn’t feel so hollow. Maybe if we could find a way to fill the void that is darkness, we could see our way through again. Maybe, when we are so dry, we are parched, we could find something so we wouldn’t be so thirsty anymore.
We all have our thirsty days. Even Jesus had them. At least if John is right about the story that he tells in our Gospel text for this week. But the difference is, for Jesus, a thirsty day was an opportunity rather than a terror. It was a chance to give out of abundance, rather than a panic to fill an emptiness.
The woman at the well is one of the many nameless women in the Bible, without whom we would be even more lost than we are. Not that she is merely a literary device, a cipher for our needs. She was a flesh and blood person, because that is who Jesus came to save. Like us. Her need is our need, her thirst is our thirst; her fears, our fears.
Jesus comes across all the barriers that we have set up to keep him out. The scandal of this story is that Jesus would even talk to this woman, let alone want to love her. Wait, love her? Wasn’t this just about a drink of water on a hot and thirsty day? No, never. There is no “just” with Jesus. And there need be no “just” with us. Everything is deeper if we choose to let it be so. Everything is layered with meaning if we seek it. Every encounter - in the grocery store or sidewalk - is with a genuine human being with a story we may not know, indeed may never know, but can still honor if we choose. If we choose to see them as persons with a bucket and a thirst.
“Give me a drink,” he asked her. He asked her. Jesus doesn’t come and say, “Let me fix you.” He meets us in a shared need. He emptied himself so that he would know our emptiness. He succumbed to the ravages, the needs of the flesh so that he could find us in our need, in our thirsts. Then, faced with our shock, he says, “I can help you with your thirst as easily as you could have helped me with mine.”
But we are skeptical. “You don’t have a bucket,” we say. You don’t have what I need. You’ve got words and ideas; you’ve got emotions and philosophies. Thanks, but what I really need is some water. What I really need is what I can hold in my hand or put in my pocket. What I really need is recognition from people like me. What I really need is stuff I can get with my own bucket. So, thanks but no thanks.
And we drop our own bucket in the well and we drink. And we drop it again and we drink again. And drop and drink. Drop and drink. And still, we thirst. It isn’t enough. It is never enough. Is it? We thirst. We search. We settle for a while, but it is never enough.
Give me this water always. She didn’t know what he offered. Not really. She didn’t understand what he brought. All she knew was that there was something here that she wanted. Some whisper of hope. Some relieving of long-held pain. And she leaned toward it with a hand outstretched.
Jesus never seems to need a lot of response. A note of hope in the voice is enough. A willingness to see him as the source of that which will quench our thirsts. That’s all it takes, it seems. We don’t have to understand completely. We don’t have to write an essay on salvation theology. We don’t have to recite a complex creed or make a well-defined statement of faith. We don’t have to perform elaborate rituals or make sacrificial offerings. We just have to want it.
The question I heard asked some time ago that still echoes in my soul is this: “Jesus says if we drink of the water he offers us, we will never be thirsty. So, why are we still thirsty?”
Why do we still live in emptiness? Is it because we don’t ask? We think our own buckets are sufficient. Why do we not embrace the life that he offers? It can’t be that simple, can it? Just ask? Just want it, and he will give it? What’s the catch? Maybe we should just give it a try.
Give me this water always. Fill this emptiness. Chase away these shadows. Please. ... Please?