In the wilderness

In the wilderness

Third Sunday of Lent

Readings: Exodus 17. 1-7; Psalm 95; Romans 5. 1-11; John 4. 5-42 (view all)

I don’t know whether you are like me, but it it often when my life is too full, rather than too empty, that I feel most spiritually dry.

When my diary becomes one long stream of appointments and meetings, and I find myself running constantly from one thing to the next, that’s when so often I run out of space to pray and to think things through. When I forget to take time first thing in the morning for silence, and as a result begin to feel like things are coming off the rails.

This week in our Lent groups, we were discussing the ‘wilderness experiences’ in our lives, times of pain and uncertainty. But what struck me in conversation with my wife Amy is that, while so often we consider the wilderness to be a bleak and empty place, in today’s world our ‘wilderness experiences’ so often come in times of stress and busyness.

Either way, as we consider today’s readings, I wonder what we can learn about living in the wilderness of life, and how to be sustained spiritually in the midst of difficult times?

Given the times in which we are currently living, with the spread of the Coronavirus, and the increasing concern it brings, this is perhaps a very timely theme to explore together.

For the Israelites in our Old Testament reading, the wilderness is not just an emotional or spiritual place, but a very real and physical reality. Having left Egypt in the Exodus, they now find themselves in an in between place, between the old and the new.

They rejoiced when God saved them from Pharaoh and their Egyptian slave masters. But they now find themselves wondering if they would have been better off staying there, rather than having to face the difficult reality of life in the desert. They are parched and thirsty, and desperate for water to drink.

And it is in these conditions that they are tempted to turn against both God, and Moses as God’s messenger. Our Psalm writes that in this wilderness, they hardened their hearts, and as a result closed their ears to God.

They found themselves asking, ‘Is God really with us? Is God really on our side? Can we really trust God to sustain us?’

But experiencing the wilderness also presents us with another option, albeit a much more difficult one. Rather than hardening our hearts, we can choose to soften them. Rather than turning to other sources for sustenance, we can choose to push further into our relationship with God.

It is this root, which Paul tells the first Roman Christians, is the root towards spiritual growth. This is Paul at his most emotive and most poetic. ‘Suffering’, he tells them, ‘produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into out hearts through the Holy Spirit.’

For Paul, enduring the wilderness is not about hardening ourselves, toughening up physically and emotionally so that we can survive hardship on our own. So that we can be independent and self-sufficient.

Instead, the wilderness is a place to soften ourselves. To trust in God’s promise that something new — a place of healing and transformation — does lie at the end of the wilderness. And allow Christ, who has walked this path before us, to draw us once again into the life of God.

This is the living water, which Jesus promises the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. A spring of water poured into us by the Spirit, welling up to eternal life.

This is living water to sustain us in eternity, but also to enable us to experience life in all its fullness in the present, now. And it is living water which is both given for our benefit, and intended to overflow into the lives of those around us, as we minister to them in the same way that Christ ministers to us.

This is important because experiencing the wilderness can very often lead us into a scarcity mentality. When resources are few, whether physical or spiritual, whether its toilet roll or time to serve others, as human beings we have a tendency to panic. To stockpile for ourselves.

But the spiritual food and drink which Christ offers don’t work like this. It is actually in giving away to others, that we receive enough for ourselves. In serving others, that we encounter others willing to serve us.

Jesus teaches his confused disciples, ‘I have food to eat that you do not know about… My food is to do the will of him who sent me.’ And the same is true for us. It is when we do God’s will by serving others in the church and the community, that we ourselves are able to grow to greater spiritual maturity.

So, as we gather in such a troubling and uncertain time, how can we respond not by hardening our hearts, but softening ourselves to receive and share God’s love?

Rather than panicking or seeking to endure on our own, will we respond calmly by listening carefully to advice given and taking the necessary precautions for ourselves and others?

Rather than focussing on ourselves and our immediate needs, will we offer support and care to those around us, especially those who are most vulnerable?

In a time when we are unable to express our Christian love through physical proximity, will we choose to make all the more effort to express our compassion from a distance — checking on those around us, praying for them, and serving them as we are able?

Although only a passing encounter, Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman is profound in its depth and meaning. In a town where she was ignored, where people probably went out of their way not to notice her, Jesus sees and values her for who she is.

The US Theologian, Anna Carter Florence, writes this about their encounter:

Being seen. It’s a powerful thing. To know that another human being has truly seen you, understood you, received you for who you really are: That is pure grace. It is being seen. Most of us would do anything for it.

Today, God sees you.

In the midst of all that is going on in the world, God sees you.

When you feel ignored, unnoticed, uncared for, God sees you.

Now, knowing you are seen and loved by God, who is the person around you that God is calling you to notice?