Relinquishment (Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 95; John 4:7-15,27-30,39-42)
I remember being raised in Wisconsin towns full of church folks for whom Lent was a time of sombre self-denial to commemorate the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness. I remember a few talks with my friends in school who would tell, with obvious forethought, what they were “giving up” for Lent. I almost always ended up feeling rather left out in all that because, being a Baptist, we didn’t observe Lent in that way, or really very much at all. I felt as if I didn’t even know what a “good thing” to give up at Lent might be. It was a great disappointment to me to learn that it didn’t count if you gave up something you didn’t like, like head-cheese or scrapple, it had to be something good. In my adult years, I’ve simply learned to be mostly quiet about it when I’m with my Lutheran, Catholic, Methodist, and Episcopal friends. I have come to believe, however, that what they were talking about, relinquishment, is an important piece of discipleship. But it has to be something we love.
I’m sure that the Israelites in our story from Exodus 17, had they observed Lent, would have given up life in the wilderness if they’d been able to. Unfortunately, that would fall under that rule that said you couldn’t give up something you hated. And they hated the wilderness. They must have hated it right away because, at this point, they really hadn’t been in it for long. In this story, they had relatively recently been slaves in one of the most highly developed societies in the world. In Egypt, the Pharaoh had held them as slaves, while at the same time providing just enough for them to survive predictably. He gave them food, water and a structured life, just as long as they understood that they didn’t count for anything except to provide for him and the empire and those on the inside.
They’d just experienced the exodus, the “going out” and so had relinquished slavery. They had longed for freedom, and do you think it’s possible that they thought that this was all there was to it? It seems that they were discovering that, although getting free meant being out from under the rod of slavery, being free, being out of Egypt, relinquishing, Egypt, meant being in the wilderness. That’s an important piece of the story. We all experience times in which our lives seem like a wilderness, where it’s hard to know where we are, and hard to find how to live, and the chaos seems unlivable. But, hear this, wilderness isn’t a punishment. The wilderness is what it’s like after relinquishing Egypt – on the other side of slavery. Wilderness is a place where travelers learn the joys and the costs of being free from Pharaoh.
In these old stories of the wilderness, “later Israel,” remembered that while they were learning to be free there, it was a time full of what the Bible calls by a special word that occurs only in Exodus and Numbers for “griping” or “snarking” in the wilderness. It’s “murmuring.” This is not the first, nor the last time these freed slaves murmured in the wilderness. But simply to murmur and nothing more showed that they had confused the basic realities of freedom with punishment. And they murmured, “What did we do to have this coming?” Living in the wilderness is only a punishment if, at least deep down, we choose (or wish for) the certainties of slavery in Egypt over freedom in the place where we are learning to handle it, the wilderness. Perhaps the first requirement of freedom is learning to live in and with the chaos of the wilderness. Don’t relinquish Egypt if you cannot cope with the disorderliness of freedom.
Now, these stories in the Old Testament were not remembered so that the next time an actual group of Israelites wandered through an actual desert, they’d be smarter and just ask God, who could, then just give them everything, thus assuming the role of Pharaoh, and enslaving them again. These stories were remembered so that God’s people in later years (down to today) could take these old, old stories as reminders for their own experiences as they wandered through political, economic, and religious wilderness, brought on by their existence in the world in which they were trying to live. We who consider the God of Moses – and, of course, that’s the God of Jesus, too – to be God, need to understand that the wilderness is not the place God puts us to punish us, but is the place that being free puts us as the place where we learn relinquishment of Pharaoh’s Egypt, and learn freedom in Christ.
Israel’s journey through the wilderness is said to be “by stages,” which means by traveling awhile, then camping awhile. The wilderness is a place full of campsites, where we can stop, rest, think, reflect and learn together. It’s a place we can find spiritual sustenance by depending on “water from the rock” that God provides, without expecting that God will, then, do everything for us. I’m constantly surprised how many folk (at least to listen to their prayers) want God to keep them from every bit of wilderness that exists out there, as if God were Pharaoh. Pharaohs are only for slavery. In such a place as this spot today, we are camping together, being built up for the journey and the work of freedom.
Whatever else the wilderness is, it is a place to relinquish Pharaoh and Egypt, whatever that is for us. We can let go of dependence on the neatness and changelessness of Pharaoh’s provision, provision that requires that we buy into the proposition that what we’re good for is production, and what makes us count is the “use” to which we can be put rather than that we’re each valuable because we are made in God’s image, no matter what our economic position or social place. The wilderness teaches us values different from Pharaoh’s: depending on one another and on God, love for one another and for God, treating others as treasures in themselves. Lent is a good time for “giving up” – for relinquishing – all that Pharaoh and Egypt have come to stand for in our stories.
We can see this way of “reading” the wilderness experience right in the Bible itself, when, hundreds of years later, this story of physical thirst and relinquishment of Egypt was translated into Israel’s worship and liturgy in Psalm 95. Here the psalmist transformed the physical water of the Sinai desert into spiritual water – God’s sustenance and care (which is also how we read the Sinai story). This song of worship reminded God’s people first, that “water” has its source in God, our Rock of salvation (a reference to Exodus 17). Psalm 95 centres not in the experience of human thirst (physical or spiritual), but in the experience of God as the Source of spiritual sustenance.
To put it another way, God is the source of grace and love that can flow into our lives like water in the desert. God is, to use the words of the hymn we sang before the sermon, the “fountainhead” of all spiritual presence and experience. Here this morning, we are reminded of this point, not the least because, we have been refreshed by God many times, and revived many times by the presence of the Almighty. God is water in the wilderness. In worship, we are, symbolically, relinquishing Egypt and its values, and entering into freedom.
I’d also like to think of our Gospel story today as one that speaks of relinquishment. The story begins with Jesus returning home to Galilee from Judea where he’d been baptized and had met with Nicodemus in Jerusalem. Verse 4 says “But he had to go through Samaria.” Now, we tend to read such statements without thinking much about them. If we look at a map, pretty much the straightest journey from Judea to Galilee did go through Samaria, but it is not geographically necessary, and it is not a geographical necessity that is spoken of here. The word that is used here is often used when something is “necessary” in the plan of God. God’s necessity here was to show people who follow Jesus that God’s plan is for us to relinquish our tendency to divide the world into “us” and “them,” especially in the name of God. Of course, the particular “us” in this story were Jews, and the particular “them” were Samaritans. We have found many “them’s” since, of course.
The Samaritans were, at least partially, descended from people who were imported into the old northern kingdom of Israel by the Assyrians, after they removed its Hebrew inhabitants in 721 BCE. In due course, these folk inter-married with the remaining Israelites, and over the years developed their own place of worship on Mt. Gerizim, accepted only the first five books of the Bible, in their own translation and with their own interpretations that suited their own tastes (sounds like much Christian denominationalism) The Hebrew name translated “Samaritan” is Shomerim, and that name, though it sounds a little like Samaria, is a different word, that means “keepers.” The Samaritans considered themselves the “keepers” of the true faith, as, of course, did the Jews (and as, of course, do Christians, Muslims, and many others). Not surprisingly, with such surety about who were the keepers of truth there developed great hatred between the Samaritans and the Jews.
OK, so here is Jesus, a Jewish male, who goes into the land of the Samaritans, goes to the Samaritan city of Sychar, and sits down by a well, without a vessel with which to get water. In this thirsty man who was, at the same time, the source of living water, we find a further pattern for relinquishment. The location of Sychar is unknown, though it’s said to be near Jacob’s Well, which was near to the ancient city of Shechem (though Shechem itself was in ruins in Jesus’ day). Jesus sat and waited for a Samaritan to show up.
Now, unsurprisingly in that day, the Samaritan that showed up was a woman, so that, to be faithful to God’s necessity, Jesus had to relinquish the rule that said that said a man couldn’t speak with a woman in public and vice versa. Jesus said: “Give me a drink.” The woman knew that she shouldn’t be speaking to him, for more than one reason: “How is it that you, a Jew, ask me, a Samaritan for a drink?” It was all wrong. There was the man- woman thing, there was the Jew-Samaritan thing, there was the thing about sharing drinking vessels with unclean people (which Samaritans were to Jews and vice versa). But Jesus responded to none of that, but engaged in conversation: “If you knew who it was asking you for water, you’d ask him for living water.” That engagement worked: “How can you provide living water, since you have no vessel with which to draw it? Maybe you think you’re better than our ancestor Jacob who gave us this well”? (Religious intolerance rears its ugly head.)
Jesus says, “If you had this living water, you’d never be thirsty again.” We can get carried away by the dialogue (as many writers and preachers have been), but the bottom line is surely that Jesus’ offer of living water to a Samaritan woman is relinquishment of another “them” and “us” category. The discussion of “your mountain” and “ours” for worship comes out to mean that, although our worship seems local and parochial in its particularity, true worship is in the realm of “spirit and truth” (or spiritual truth or truthful spirituality) that transcends these altogether. And so, we may worship together wherever we are (even in the wilderness). And, for a little while, this kind of inclusive outreach works with Samaritans within this woman’s influence.
This story, like the Exodus one, was not told so that the next time particular Jews were thirsty they could go find some Samaritan woman and have a talk. This ancient witness testifies to us what we need to do to fulfill God’s necessity. We need to understand that our living in the wilderness of learning freedom in Christ is a continual exercise of relinquishment of what is narrow and parochial, both of which are but remnants of Pharaoh’s slavery that has held us bound for too long. May we enjoy a Lenten journey through wilderness places and celebrate the experience of relinquishment , and may it bring us together.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.