This Sunday, we hear two stories about thirst.
In the first reading from Exodus 17:1-7, the Israelites are stricken with thirst in the wilderness and complain violently to Moses, blaming God (and Moses, as God’s spokesman) for their plight. God responds by providing water from a rock that Moses strikes with his staff. In the gospel, from John 4:5-42, we hear a story that starts with Jesus admitting his thirst, and asking for a drink from a Samaritan woman he encounters at Jacob’s Well. This request initiates a conversation that leads to a multitude from an entire Samaritan town to believe in Jesus as Messiah. In doing so, these Samaritans thereby have their thirst quenched with living water, even as Jesus’s own people have trouble recognizing him as the fulfillment of prophecy.
The reading from Exodus this week is one of an Old Testament genre called “murmuring stories.” These are stories in which the people “murmur”—in our text, it is rendered as “quarreled,” but it seems that misses the flavor. “Murmuring against” someone is so much more suggestive of that tendency we all have to mutter just audibly enough to be heard, that passive-aggressive tactic that allows one to later deny that one has said anything at all.
Murmuring of this type is filled with negativity, ingratitude, a simmering resentment and discontent. Here are the Israelites, freed from slavery in Egypt, moaning about how their every need isn’t being taken care of while they are traveling back to their homeland. And rather than take steps to care for each other, the people dare to blame God for their predicament, rather than remember that God is alongside them and all of us in our trials in the wilderness.
Last week we heard the magnificent, sweeping promise of John 3:16-17—
“For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only Son,
so that everyone who believes in him may not perish
but may have eternal life.
Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world
to condemn the world,
but in order that the world might be saved
In going from talking to the powerful and respected Nicodemus in the dead of the night to talking to an outcast, unnamed woman, cast aside by at least five husbands, Jesus proves that he is sent to bring his good news to the entire world, indeed, without respect to barriers of race, ethnicity, privilege, gender, or status.
And as fears of the COVID-19 pandemic spread in our own time, we hear stories right now of people hoarding supplies and in some infamous cases, refusing to self-quarantine. We see churches determined to remain beacons of faith while taking pro-active steps to keep parishioners safe. Should we cancel worship services? Should we discontinue the use of the common cup at the Eucharist?
Buried within our readings for this coming Sunday are stories that can lead us to re-examine the power of faith in each other, and the power of community to open our hearts to receive testimony to the truth, to the hope that is fed and watered by caring for one another, rather than the panic spread by rumors. What a different story it would have been in Exodus if the people had remembered how far they had come, and seen the strength that came from being molded as a people even during times of trial and searching. What a different story it would have been in John’s gospel if the woman would have shunned Jesus’s request rather than be awed and amazed by Jesus’s openness to bringing the gospel to her, and his admission that he needed something from her?
As our readings this Sunday remind us, this is also a time for us to come together—to check on our neighbors, to show consideration for those who are vulnerable, to make sure people who become ill or who are at risk are supported rather than viewed with fear or suspicion. For too long, our hearts and the hearts of those around us have been waiting to be satisfied with the water of compassion, generosity, and true community. Our witness to the love of Christ begins here.
The Rev. Leslie Scoopmire is a writer, musician, and a priest in the Diocese of Missouri. She is priest-in-charge of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Ellisville, MO. She posts daily prayers at her blog Abiding In Hope, and collects spiritual writings and images at Poems, Psalms, and Prayers.