Two Sundays ago--which seems like a lot more than two weeks ago--we heard in the gospel of how Jesus fasted in the desert for forty days. And it’s Jesus’ time in the desert that becomes the prototype for our forty days of Lent. But Jesus’ forty days is itself modeled after the forty years that the Israelites spent in the desert. So I wanted to spend some time reflecting on the first reading from the book of Exodus that recounts the ups and downs of that journey.
First, a little context, because today’s reading begins in medias res. If you remember the whole story, the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt was a departure amid chaos. It followed on the heels of ten plagues that caused tremendous havoc and upheaval. After the death of the firstborn children in Egypt, pharaoh told the Israelites to leave at once. Scarcely any time to pack. No permissions were given to remain in Egypt. No time even to make a decent loaf of bread. (The unleavened bread that Jews eat at Passover and that we use for the Eucharist calls this to mind.) They left Egypt without being ready.
But God saw them through this passage. He parted the Red Sea for them, and they made it through just in time as the Egyptians were in pursuit. But lest they thought they were home free, that’s when the difficulties began to mount. Their food ran out, so God provided manna for them to eat. In today’s reading, the problem is a lack of water. They grumbled against Moses because they had no water, and they were stuck in the desert with no obvious destination in sight. And this was just the start of their forty-years’ journey in the desert.
It’s not hard to sympathize with the Israelites, is it? The events of the last couple weeks, and especially the last 4 or 5 days, have been unsettling, to put it mildly. Most students are leaving campus, or have already left. Barely any time to pack. Too little time to say goodbye to friends. Members of the class of 2020 all but deprived of their senior spring. And what makes it worse is that, like the Israelites passing through the Red Sea, we have hardly any idea of what the months ahead will look like. We’ve just landed in the desert, and what’s true of the Israelites might be true of us: We have no idea what lies ahead.
Even if we have plenty of water, we’re grappling with scarcity of other resources: Hand sanitizer, toilet paper, test kits. Who knows what we’ll run out of next?
In the case of the Israelites, God somehow provided for every stage of their journey, but in a way that forced them to acknowledge and accept their finitude. The manna that God rained down was sufficient, but never abundant. The water that Moses made to flow from the rock was enough to survive by, but not so plentiful that they would forget they were wandering in the desert.
Perhaps there’s a lesson in there for us. The days ahead may find us grumbling, or panicking, or crying. May we support one another in a spirit of solidarity, and may we be patient as we wait for God to provide in the extraordinary ways that he no doubt will.
That’s okay news, but it doesn’t seem to rise to the level of good, and we need some good news.
In the gospel, Jesus meets the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. She, too, is someone grappling with scarcity. From the well, she can draw enough water for a day. It keeps her alive, but also necessitates that she keep coming back. Sometimes it happens that our fixation on acquiring and enjoying the finite, created goods--whether those are luxuries or the bare necessities of life--can distract us from seeking after the far greater things that God wants for us. The Israelites wandering in the desert, looking for food and water, were barely cognizant of the liberty and the land to which God was bringing them. And the Samaritan woman’s pursuit of water from a well made her all but oblivious to the Son of God in her midst.
To the one struggling with scarce natural resources, Jesus comes with an offer of abundant supernatural resources.
whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst;
the water I shall give will become in him
a spring of water welling up to eternal life.
What he is offering is nothing less than the divine indwelling, the presence of God in the human soul. The more we come to desire this supernatural grace, the more disposed we are to receive it.
Maybe it’s hard to see why we should set our sights on something so invisible and ephemeral, when we have far more pressing things on our mind. It’s a fair question. I’d like to suggest that we’re in dire need of hope right now. Not just a natural hope that governments and institutions and systems will rise to the occasion in a time of crisis. We can hope for that. We should hope for that. But even more, we need hope that, no matter what happens, no matter how this unfolds, a God we cannot see is ready to provide what no government, institution, or system can, or would.
This hope will change our view of things. It will change how we act. It will change who we are. As Pope Benedict wrote, “The one who has hope lives differently; the one who hopes has been granted the gift of a new life.”
Hope will make us patient when there are times we have to wait. Hope will make us generous when our brothers and sisters around us are in need. Hope will make us calm even if chaos is closing in. Hope will help us see when everything looks dark.
This is what Jesus was ready to offer the Samaritan woman, and now, to us: a spring of water welling up to eternal life. Other wells will run dry, but this spring, if we allow it to flow, will sustain us. And sustained by that hope, maybe we can be the sort of people from which others draw strength, the strength that comes from God.