Water for our deepest thirst

This was a sermon in two parts; part 1 before the Prayer of Confession at the beginning of the service, part 2 during the usual time after the scripture readings.

I.

After having already received blow after blow of bad news, Job saw yet one more messenger come in, who spoke to him these words: “Your sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their eldest brother’s house, and suddenly a great wind came across the desert, struck the four corners of the house, and it fell on the young people, and they are dead; I alone have escaped to tell you.” Then Job arose, tore his robe, shaved his head, and fell on the ground.[1]

The earliest account in Scripture of someone tearing their clothes as an expression of great sorrow is in the story of Joseph. You remember, his brothers were jealous and wanted to kill him; while they were discussing his fate, he was picked up by a passing caravan who took him to Egypt and sold him. The brothers didn’t know what to tell their father, so they took Joseph’s robe, killed a goat, and dipped the robe in blood. They had the bloody coat taken to their father who recognized it, and said, “It is my son’s robe! A wild animal has devoured him; Joseph is without doubt torn to pieces.” Then Jacob tore his garments, and put on sackcloth, and mourned for his son many days.[2]

The tearing of fabric is a powerful symbol of forceful disruption, of all the ways in which death thrusts itself into our relationships, violently tearing apart what God in life and love has joined together. The symbol speaks not just in personal terms; we also talk about “the torn fabric of society” to speak of an underlying unity in our life together that has been fractured.

As part of our prayer of confession this morning, we will adapt the ancient practice of tearing one’s clothes in sorrow. We will tear off strips of fabric from a large piece of cloth while we name some of the things that tear the fabric of life, the life God intends. I say we, and what I mean is, some of us will do this on behalf of all of us. I ask eight of you to come to the microphone. Each of you will say one line from the prayer we offer today, and each of you will tear one strip of fabric from the purple cloth.

II.

“Remember the long way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart,” we read in Deuteronomy.[3] Remembering the wilderness years has been essential for God’s people in order to remember who they are and who their God is.

The testimony of the witnesses about those years is consistent.

“We failed the wilderness test,” they tell us. “What was in our heart was doubt, despair, fear and grumbling. We were a people of little faith, little hope, little love.”

The testimony of the witnesses is consistent. “We failed the test,” they declare in the Scriptures, and they didn’t edit the desert scenes to make themselves look a little better. They didn’t cut the grumbling, the quarreling and complaining. “We forgot what God had done,” they wrote in Psalm 78, “we forgot the miracles the Lord had shown us, who divided the sea and let us pass through it and made the waters stand like a heap; who led us in the daytime with a cloud, and all night long with fiery light; who split rocks open in the wilderness, and gave us drink abundantly as from the deep, making streams come out of the rock and causing waters to flow down like rivers.”[4]

“We failed the test,” I hear the wilderness wanderers say, “but the promises of God were still new to us then and we had everything to learn. What did we learn, you ask? We learned to sing of the faithfulness of God.” The witnesses sing and tell of God’s faithfulness so that every new generation would “put their trust in God … and not be like their ancestors, a stubborn and rebellious generation, a generation whose heart was not steadfast, and whose spirit was not faithful to God.”[5]

Every generation of Israel’s parents and teachers, beginning with the wilderness wanderers, passed on the stories to their children and grandchildren. They urged them to remember, but they didn’t tell them, “The way we did it back in the day is the way it’s done. Now it’s your turn to learn and do the same.” No, their testimony points in a very different direction:

We have failed again and again in our life as God’s people, but God has been faithful and true all the way. We failed to remember God’s promise and the commandments of life, but God remembered us. We failed the wilderness test, but through our failure we learned to sing of the faithfulness of God.

Complaining is a defining theme of the wilderness wandering stories. Trapped between the sea and Pharaoh’s soldiers, the people said to Moses, not without a dose of dark humor, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt?”[6] Yet soon they marveled as God made a way out of no way.

Then at Marah, they couldn’t drink the water, because it was bitter, and the people complained to Moses, “What shall we drink?”[7] And God showed Moses a piece of wood to sweeten the water.

Then they ran out of food, and again they complained, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”[8] And the Lord gave them quail and manna to eat.

Then the water gave out altogether and the people quarreled with Moses, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst? Give us water to drink.”[9]

Israel’s testimony was born in a long struggle against oppression, against hunger and thirst, against fear and despair, a long struggle for a life of righteousness in covenant with God. Israel’s trust in God was not a given – it was found at the bottom of all they could imagine, at the end of their strength, and at the very edge of what they could bear: nothing left to lean on but the promise of God.

Go on ahead, God said to Moses, and take the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.

“God never failed us,” the wilderness wanderers told their children, and every generation of pilgrims in a barren land after them told the next generation,

We escaped from the house of slavery. We had food to eat and water to quench our thirst. None had too much and no one had too little. God was faithful, and we learned to be faithful to each other. Not that we never failed each other again, God knows we did, but in the wilderness we began to drink God’s word like our life depended on it, and God’s word has sustained us ever since. Moses called the place Massah and Meribah, test and argument. He could have called it Hashem-amin, the Lord is faithful, but perhaps he still had to discover that himself then.

The witnesses speak to us in hope that we too will discover what they discovered: God is faithful. The word of God is water for our deepest thirst.

In Psalm 95 they almost shout, “O that today you would listen to God’s voice!” And in the lines that follow, they recall what they heard God say,

Do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah,
as on the day at Massah in the wilderness,
when your ancestors tested me,
and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work.
For forty years I loathed that generation
and said, “They are a people whose hearts go astray,
and they do not regard my ways.[10]

The practices and disciplines of Lent, the things we choose to do or not to do during the Forty Days of W.I.L.D., help us recognize ourselves among the people whose hearts go astray, in whose hearts is little faith, little hope, little love, and who harden their hearts so that the water for our deepest thirst doesn’t soak in, but runs off like rain on a windshield.

At the beginning of the service we made our confession by tearing fabric. In sorrow, we named some of the things that rend the fabric of life God intends, and by naming them we also affirmed that we want our lives to be woven into God’s vision of life.

“Rend your hearts and not your clothing,” God says to us through the prophet Joel.[11] Let the act of ripping cloth in sorrow and grief over life’s brokenness be the prelude of your return to the Lord, your God, who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.

Rend your hearts, so that through that crack we can really look at ourselves.

Rend your hearts, and lay bare under God’s merciful gaze the sinful, selfish, and destructive compulsions we cannot master.

Rend your hearts, because God will not despise a broken and contrite heart, but enter with healing mercy.

Rend your hearts in order to hear that echo of so many torn lives… so that indifference does not leave us inert.

Rend your hearts so that you can love with the love with which we are loved.

Rend your hearts to let your lives be remade in the image of Christ and woven into God’s vision of life.[12]

 

[1] Job 1:18-20

[2] Genesis 37; see also Joshua 7:6-7 (defeat in battle) and Judges 11:32-35 (horror of recognition), just two of many other examples. To this day, the tearing of clothes is part of Jewish mourning rituals http://www.jewish-funeral-guide.com/tradition/rending-customs.htm

[3] Deuteronomy 8:2

[4] See Psalm 78:11-16

[5] Psalm 78:7-8

[6] Exodus 14:11-12

[7] Exodus 15:23-24

[8] Exodus 16:2-3

[9] Exodus 17:3

[10] Psalm 95:7-10

[11] Joel 2:12-13

[12] Inspired by the 2013 Lenten message by Cardinal Bergoglio of Buenos Aires (now Pope Francis) https://zenit.org/articles/cardinal-bergoglio-s-lenten-message-for-buenos-aires/

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