Third Sunday of Lent — March 12, 2023

Teri McDowell Ott explores how we misdiagnose our spiritual thirst, wondering if we’ve been left to wander the wilderness of our lives alone and without resources.

Year A
Exodus 17:1-7, John 4:5-42

“You may be dehydrated right now but not know it.”

Bradley P. Holt begins his book Thirsty for God: A Brief History of Christian Spirituality with these words, explaining that the first signals our body gives us that we need water are not immediate and strong. We might feel uneasy or tired and head to the refrigerator for a snack when what we really need is a tall glass of water.

The same is true of our spiritual thirst, Holt continues. We may feel restless, anxious or depressed and try to satisfy our needs with retail therapy, a chocolate fix, or unhealthy intimate relationships when what we really need is to know that we are loved, that we belong, that we are not wandering the wilderness of our lives alone and without resources, that God is with us.

The lectionary passages of this third Sunday in Lent are characterized by people who thirst. In Exodus 17:1-7, the wilderness wandering Israelites have encamped in Rephidim, only to discover there is no water. “Is the Lord among us or not?” they ask. In John 4:5-42, Jesus meets a Samaritan woman at the well whose thirst for love and belonging was so intense she responds to Jesus’ offer of living water with an emphatic, “Sir, give me this water.”

Thirsty people sit in our church pews as well. Jeniah has had a reoccurrence of breast cancer. Her body is thirsty for healing; her heart is thirsty for hope. Doug knows his drinking has gotten out of control. His thirst for alcohol disguises the reasons he turned to drink in the first place — to escape the stress of his job, to numb the grief of his broken marriage. Anya’s a working mom of twin toddlers. Her social media algorithm knows her thirst, offering up life hacks and healthy, time-saving meals delivered to her door for a price she can’t afford. In the pulpit, Greg’s thirsty for a miracle, for God to show up and renew his pastoral vocation that has depleted him and dulled his faith. The consequences of our lives often leave us thirsty, questioning whether God is real — and if God’s promises include us.

In his Feasting on the Word commentary on Exodus 17, Frederick Niedner summarizes why the Israelites question whether God is traveling with them. All through the Exodus, Niedner writes, Moses had direct access to God and the people had access through Moses. In Exodus 17:1-7, God promises to stand in front of Moses as he strikes the rock at Horeb to miraculously produce water for the people. But later, in Exodus 32, after Moses converses with God on Mt. Sinai for 40 days and 40 nights, leaving the people’s doubt to grow in their absence, Aaron leads the people in creating and worshipping a new god, a golden calf.

God and Moses argue over how the people should be punished for this idolatrous sin. “At least one consequence,” Niedner writes, “is a new, seemingly permanent uncertainty over whether God will continue to travel with Israel.” Exodus 33 concludes with even Moses no longer having direct access to God. “You shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen,” God says to Moses in Exodus 33:23.

“Now,” Niedner writes, “Moses and Israel must look behind God, at the places where God has presumably stepped or visited, for signs of where God may dwell and what God might be doing in the world. All who have looked for God in the vagaries of history know the difficulties inherent in reading and understanding the ambiguities of ‘God’s backside.’”

You won’t find the word “Lent” in the Bible. The 40-day season has been marked by the church to encourage Christians to focus on their life of faith and honestly assess our relationship with God. Many Lenten rituals can and should be practiced alone — prayer, confession, fasting meditating on Scripture. These solitary practices are necessary to help us identify our true thirsts and how we have sought to satisfy them with that which is not from God. Then, each Sunday of Lent, we are invited to a mini-Easter, a break from our solitary wilderness wandering, a resurrection gathering, reminding us that we are not alone. We rub shoulders with people in the pews who understand how thirsty our lives can leave us. Gathered in Christ’s name, we also rub shoulders with the One who suffered as we suffer, the One who meets us at the well. In this communion, we are offered Christ’s living water. In this community, we are offered the hope that we are not alone. We are not wandering this wilderness of life without thirst-quenching resources.

Questions for reflection:

  1. What thoughts, ideas, images or feelings arise as you reflect on this week’s lectionary passages?
  2. When you are thirsty for water, what does that feel like? What signs of dehydration emerge for you?
  3. When you are thirsty for God, what does that feel like? What signs of spiritual dehydration emerge for you? What has helped quench this spiritual thirst in the past?

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