There's a reusable bottle of water on my desk. I'm 12 paces away from a sink where I can refill that bottle anytime I want. Another 12 paces, and I'm in the bathroom, where I can return that water (and other stuff) to the earth in a way that won't harm anyone by tainting the water supply nor offend anyone by lingering beyond a simple flush. Although I'm not good at taking care of my yard (just ask my neighbors), I could water it anytime I want. Water is not an issue for me.
My parents are in the process of building a house in rural North Carolina. In the next week or two, a well will be dug. Since you pay by the foot, we are all hoping and praying that clean, potable water will be struck before the drill goes down too far, and we hope that when water is found it is plentiful enough to provide water for a shower, a dishwasher, and a washing machine all at the same time. It's the first time anyone in our family has worried about water, but we all still know that it's a "rich man's worry"--fleeting and ultimately easy to overcome if you throw enough money at the problem.
Jesus lived in a time and place when/where water wasn't so easy to come by. Civilizations were built in places where water could be found. No water? No community. In arid places, wells were sources of life. Long journeys through the wilderness were calculated ventures in which water was the critical limiting factor. I'm reminded of pilgrims to Burning Man--a radical experiment in art and community that takes place in the Navada desert every summer--who have to take all the water they will need for a week with them.
Thirst is something they knew well. It's something I hardly know. I've been thirsty a time or two--not just needing a glass of water but dying for any liquid. But those moments are pretty rare in my life. I have the luxury of water. So, in this Sunday's lessons, when Exodus speaks of the people of Israel being thirsty in the Wilderness of Sin and when Jesus encounters a Samaritan woman at the well, I know I'm missing something.
What's the clearest, boldest, most powerful expression of longing in our culture? Is it the desperate desire for companionship? Is it the need for warmth after a harsh winter? Is it the "are we there yet?" coming from the back seat? What is it that resonates in our culture in the way that thirst was a central part of Jesus' life?
Thirst means longing, desperation, agony, discomfort, disability, irritability, lifelessness, emptiness, weakness, sickness, misery.
Water means refreshment, lifegivingness, comfort, relief, salvation, miracle, power, sustenance, strength, ability, hope.
What's the parallel in our culture? The point of these passages, of course, is that God is our salvation. He provides for our deepest, most desperate need. How do we say that in the 21st century? I'm still looking for an answer. I'm preaching on Sunday and hope God's word will still ring true in a culture where limitless water is only a few steps away.