First this morning, I have to recognize the irony that two out of three of our scripture readings are about living water in the same week that we emptied the baptismal font as a precaution against the coronavirus.
Perhaps that irony shouldn’t be surprising. It always amazes me how often the readings scheduled for a particular Sunday, a schedule set decades ago, speak to what is currently going on in our community or world.
I began the week excited to see that our gospel reading is the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well. It’s one of my favorite stories, and I love to preach on it. In fact, my sermon on it was almost finished.
But in the last couple of days I kept going back to our reading from Exodus, and the question the Israelites have for Moses: “Is the Lord among us or not?”
Is the Lord among us or not?
That is the question, isn’t it?
The Israelites are a community on the move. They have been redeemed from slavery in Egypt and are moving towards God’s assurance of abundance and freedom in that long-promised land.
But right now they are stuck in the “in between times” — redemption is becoming a distant memory and the promise of the future seems far away. That euphoria they felt when they escaped from slavery has given way to the numbing reality of life in the wilderness, a place where food and water are scarce, where life is uncertain.
Suddenly, the memories of slavery in Egypt are not so bad.
“Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” they demand of Moses.
They may have been slaves in Egypt, but at least they had food and water. In retrospect, that may not have been so bad.
The Israelites are in crisis. The supports and structures of the life they’ve always known have disappeared.
Is the Lord among us or not?
The unrest of the people becomes so great that Moses fears for his life. “Hey, help me out here!” he cries to God.
In response, God directs Moses to act in ways that seem ridiculous – to take his stick and strike a specific rock. How in the world is this going to solve the problem of no water?
But Moses does as commanded. He takes his staff and strikes the rock.
And from the rock water flows. The people drink and are satisfied, at least for now.
As Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann says, “Moses obeys. God delivers. Water comes; the people drink. The crisis is averted.
“It is a situation in which God sustains life, but in precarious, anxiety-producing ways that require deep trust.”
It is no accident that we hear this story during Lent, those 40 days of repentance and discipline that prepare us for Easter.
The wilderness is a common theme for Lent. We begin this season each year with the story of Jesus being driven by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness alone, where he goes without food and water for 40 days, then faces a series of great temptations.
The Israelites end up spending 40 years in the wilderness before they finally arrive at the Promised Land. They, too, undergo temptations, the greatest of which is to believe that God is not among them, that they must turn to other gods for protection and sustenance.
I can’t think of a better metaphor for our situation this Lent than the wilderness.
Wilderness is not only a place, it can also be a state of mind, a time where it can be difficult to sort out perceptions and reality, where nothing seems certain.
The wilderness is a place where our illusions that we are in control are stripped bare, where the structures and routines that form and support our lives are suddenly gone. It’s a place of uncertainty and chaos, where anxiety abounds.
Especially in this last week, as one by one businesses, events, schools, and even churches have cancelled or closed, as the stock market has tanked, as shelves of toilet paper have been depleted, and as anxieties rise, the question is asked:
Is the Lord among us or not?
Although we may wish we had a leader who could take her stick and hit it against the rock and stop the coronavirus, or at least give us an immediate vaccine, that is not going to happen.
But if we can put aside our anxieties and fears and look around us, there is plenty of evidence that God is among us.
The Lord is among us in exhausted health care workers tending to the sick around the clock and around the world, and scientists frantically working long hours in labs trying to create a vaccine.
The Lord is among us with public health workers who present us with facts, calmly tell us the best ways to stay safe, and what to do if we become ill.
The Lord is among us in those who are working to ensure that students whose schools are closed will still get food to eat.
The Lord is among us when 19-year-old NBA phenom Zion Williamson announces he will pay the salaries of hourly workers at the now-shuttered New Orleans basketball arena for the next month.
God is with us in the thousands of workers who are stocking shelves, keeping stores open, cleaning buildings, and responding to emergencies.
The Lord is among us in the little ways we show kindness to one another – checking up on our neighbors and parishioners, running errands for those who cannot leave the house, comforting those who are afraid.
The Lord is among us when Italians on lockdown open their apartment windows and sing to one another, and when we are able through the God-given miracle of technology to share in those moments.
The Lord is among us when we refuse to give in to xenophobia, the temptation to blame this virus on “foreigners” or people who are not like us.
Experts who deal in knowledge and facts tell us that there is no miracle, that this is our current reality, that lives and livelihoods will be lost.
We know we will be tested in ways we have not been before, that we will be called to examine our lives in new ways, forced to rethink the way we do things – even how we are the church in the event we cannot physically come together.
This is life in the wilderness, life when the illusion that we are in control is stripped away.
We have no idea how long this wilderness will last. But as people of faith we cling to the truth that even in times like these God is among us, showing up in ways that may seem as ludicrous as getting water from a stone – granting us wisdom, granting us courage for the living of these days.