Sunday, February 18, 2018
Sacred Thirst Sermon Series, Week 1
Scripture: Psalm 42:1-5 & John 4:5-15
Rev. Troy Hauser Brydon
Craig Barnes is now the President of Princeton Seminary, but before that he served as a pastor in several larger Presbyterian congregations. Early in my pastoral career, I had a chance to meet him, and since getting to know him, I’ve been impressed with his pastoral instincts, his gifts as a preacher, and his skills as an administrator. Barnes has authored several books. In one of them, Sacred Thirst, he writes about the deep spiritual longing we all have, the restlessness in all of our hearts that only finds its rest in the God we have met in Jesus Christ.
In this month’s Tidings I shared one of Barnes’ stories from Sacred Thirst, and I start off our Lenten series today with that same story as a way of framing the worshipful work we’ll be doing together between now and Easter. Barnes had received a cancer diagnosis at the same time David, the 29-year-old son of another pastor in the church, had received a cancer diagnosis. They went to treatments together. They talked. They prayed. Others prayed with and for them.
Barnes got better. David did not.
Barnes presided at David’s funeral. In his words, “It was one of the hardest funerals I’ve ever performed, not only because I was so full of grief but also because I was so terribly confused. Even while I was conducting the service, my mind was being bombarded by questions. They came at me more quickly than I could bring to mind answers from my theological training. Did our prayers make any difference, or had God already decided to take David’s life and spare mine?
“It is only a short step from questions such as these to beginning to think that our prayers are useless….So during the days before and after David’s funeral I prayed only because I was supposed to and because it was my job to lead the congregation in prayer, but not because I believed it was effective.”
As he reflected upon this time of spiritual distress – a desert time if you will – Barnes gained some perspective on the purpose and power of prayer, sharing this with all of us. “When we believe our prayer life has dried up, there is only one thing to do: Pray about it. There simply is no alternative but to remain in the desert places when we are led there, including waiting out the long dry spells when we are doing nothing but wandering around in the wilderness of our own prayers. There is no easy way out. It always feels as though we are wasting time in the wilderness. At no time is this more true than when we have entered a desert in our prayer life. But God brought us into this place for a reason – the same reason we are always led into the wilderness to learn that our thirst is for a God we do not control.
“So we pray through our desert journey.”
That’s precisely what our pastoral challenge to you is this Lent: How do we equip ourselves for the desert journey? What are the tools helpful in connecting us to God – the source of life, the source of living water?
The story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well gives us such a compelling picture of how Jesus meets us in the desert of our longings. John tells this story of Jesus doing so many unexpected things – all with the intent of connecting with this woman who is an outsider on so many levels.
Jesus is traveling from Galilee in the north to Judea in the south. Samaria was in between those two places. Even though going through Samaria was the most direct route, most Jews in that time would have gone around Samaria adding several days to their journey. Why? For centuries there was enmity between Jews and Samaritans. They shared some common heritage, but the Samaritans had married people who were not Jewish and did not believe that true worship happened in Jerusalem.
So Jesus goes to an unexpected place and at an unexpected time – noon. Few drew water at that time of day. First, it was the hottest time of day. Second, they typically drew water twice a day – in the morning and the evening. Clearly, this woman does not want the attention of those around her while she goes to the town’s well. Likely she was the subject of the locals’ gossip at the well, since she couldn’t seem to keep a husband. Jesus wants to encounter this unexpected woman at this unexpected place and unexpected time. And he breaks all sorts of social norms to be here – he a Jewish rabbi meeting alone with a woman whose life has left her as an outsider to her community. He even shows up at a well with no way to draw water, so clearly his purpose was not solely about satisfying his own thirst.
Loneliness drives so many to seek happiness in the wrong places, doesn’t it? The desire to make connections with others or the fallout of brokenness or loneliness is really at the root of so much of our society, whether it is using social media, using drugs, or the constant barrage of media in our lives. I think we’re seeking something, but perhaps we’re looking in the wrong places. Craig Barnes points out that, “One of the driving motivations behind the current fascination with spirituality is the felt need to find something, or someone, to do more than numb the sadness. We want it to go away. But nothing we have picked up in the desert so far can do this for us – not all the materialism that abounds in our society, not all of our lofty achievements, not even our healthy marriages. One of the greatest stresses on marriage is that we ask it to do more than it’s capable of doing. No human being can take away sadness. Not the spouse you have. Not the one you wish you had. A nagging sense of lonely sadness is a spiritual problem that requires a spiritual response.”
Yes, this woman at the well had physical and emotional baggage that needs attention, but Jesus knows that the root of her sadness is a spiritual issue that needed a spiritual response. We have to infer a lot about this woman, but one thing is crystal clear as she talks to Jesus – this woman knows some theology. Maybe it’s all her lonely trips to the well, but she has taken the time to ponder spiritual matters. She knows about a promised Messiah; she knows about the conflict between Samaritans and Jews. As one scholar comments, “The town long since wrote her off as a bad sort of person, but inside her skin beat the heart of someone thirsty for God.”
So Jesus addresses this spiritual longing by offering her “living water.” I love her reaction to him. With eyebrows raised, she points out that he doesn’t even have a bucket to retrieve actual water. This woman is a fighter. She wonders, what kind of spiritual mumbo-jumbo is this? For a person in that part of the world in that time, “living water” meant free-flowing water, like a stream or a river. In arid places like Samaria and Judea, water is precious and used judiciously. Wherever one can access water that is free-flowing, one has found a way of sustaining life. Jesus pushes this way beyond the important access to healthy water into God’s spiritual work in the physical world. He says, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (v. 13-14).
So, here we are 2000 years after this scene. Most of us have heard these words before. Some of us have given them serious thought several times in our lives. We are in church because we know this is where living water is found – or at least we hope so! What does this have to do with our sacred thirst?
Like Craig Barnes’ story about praying through the desert times earlier, we all come to periods of dryness in our lives, and there are steps we can take to push through the dryness into the fertile ground of relationship with God. These are spiritual disciplines. This Lent we are going to focus on four specific practices of faith that help us stay connected to the One who offers living water springing up to eternal life. Over the coming month we are going to think about prayer, meditation, fasting, and study as specific, actionable, and personal spiritual disciplines that are accessible to any who would create the space in his or her life to practice them. “Knowing about Jesus is not the same as knowing him,” Barnes writes. “This form of disciple making is something like falling in love with someone, then spending the rest of one’s life reading his or her résumé. This approach will never satisfy the thirsty people in our churches.”
This Lent we want you to experience satisfaction for your spiritual thirsts, and so we will preach and teach on these things, and we’ll even give a little space to try them out in worship, hoping you take time to do them on your own.
Over my career as a pastor, I have done a fair amount of premarital counseling. I have enjoyed working with these couples heading towards a lifelong covenanted relationship, but I often find myself needing to pull them back towards the basics. One thing I remind them is that relationships are holy work. Usually engaged couples are all lovey-dovey and head-over-heels for each other, but time, stress, and normalcy happen to them, and they stop tending to the relationship. I find myself urging couples to keep dating each other after they get married because that type of activity tends to the fires of the relationship. That relates well to how we relate to God. We have to tend to the fires of that relationship too. “Remember your first love” is what Paul reminds early Christians. The spiritual disciplines are more logs on the fire of faith.
Another thing that I remind couples is that we’re physical, emotional, and spiritual beings. Like a three-legged stool, we need to be strong in all these areas to be functional. In our world we’re good at tending to the physical – eat right, exercise, get enough sleep, and so on. That kind of messaging is everywhere, and we even teach our classes on health and nutrition starting in grade school. We’re even getting good at tending to the emotional side of this. We encourage people to see counselors. We want to talk about our feelings. We’re aware that we are emotional beings. But the spiritual? We don’t know what to do about that, so we do nothing. When I do premarital counseling, I use a survey that gives me a glimpse into the relationship of the couple. I cannot tell you how many times I have done that, and the couple excels at communication, conflict resolution, shared experiences, and lifestyle. Can you guess where they almost all struggle? Spiritual expectations. They don’t talk about them. They haven’t worked on them. They figure they’ll happen when they have kids. (Interestingly, the other topic they struggle with is financial management, but that’s because, like faith, most haven’t accessed the tools to help them do well in that area. We’ll be talking about that a lot more later this spring.)
Our three-legged stools have become two-legged, which makes them pretty flimsy. This Lent, we’re going to work on that third leg – the spiritual, through giving you the tools to strengthen and deepen your spiritual walk. I really hope you’ll take this Lenten journey through the disciplines seriously because it will be life-giving for you individually and for this church as a whole. Disciplines are not downers or dull. Rather, “Joy is the keynote of all the Disciplines. The purpose of the Disciplines is liberation from the stifling slavery to self-interest and fear,” writes Richard Foster. “God has given us the Disciplines of the spiritual life as a means of receiving his grace. The Disciplines allow us to place ourselves before God so that he can transform us.”
As you journey through Lent this year, I pray you open your life wide to what God has on offer for you. Every time I open my life wide to God I know that God gives me far more than I ever expected. I also have known plenty of periods of dryness. As a matter of fact, I am trying to emerge from one right now. But in this season of dryness, I am putting myself in the position to receive from God’s bounty. Craig Barnes felt the same in that season where prayer felt hollow, but he persisted. “Like a stream flowing through the desert, so does the Holy Spirit flow from the Father and the Son into our lives, carrying us, sometimes gently, sometimes in a torrent, but always home to God. We can find this sacred river. But not unless we enter the silent desert.”
This Lent we enter the desert together, trusting that God will fill our sacred thirst.
 Barnes, Craig. Sacred Thirst: Meeting God in the Desert of Our Longings. 55-56.
 ibid. 19.
 Barnes, 28.
 Foster, Richard. Celebration of Discipline. 2.
 ibid. 7.
 Barnes, 14.