3rd Sunday of Lent – The Desert and Our Thirst

3rd Sunday of Lent (A – Scrutinies) – March 7, 2021

St. Mary – Derby, KS

Exodus 17:3-7; Psalm 95:1-2, 6-9; Romans 5:1-2, 5-8; John 4:5-42

Entering the Wilderness

All during Lent, we are preparing to enter into and renew the life that flows from Jesus, to be filled with that life, to have that life coursing through us. Because (without backing this statement up right now) that is what we need. And even though it is freely given to us, it doesn’t come without cost.

For instance, last week we heard about Jesus’ transfiguration. But right before the scene of the Transfiguration, Jesus predicted that he would “suffer, be rejected…and be killed” (Mark 8:31). There is a cost. And then, as if that wasn’t enough, he said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me” (Mark 8:34-35). But then he immediately goes up the mountain and is transfigured. And what we see in his transfiguration, what we see in that event, is the veil pulled back (apokalypsis). We see what’s really going on, what’s happening in Jesus. We see that there is a radiant life coursing through him.

This is the life God is promising to us! He is promising us that radiant life, new life, “transfigured” life. And not just one day when we die, but now, even now. We can have that radiant life of Jesus pumping through us, the life of the Spirit radiating from us. This is that life that flows from Jesus, the life that can fill us, that we can have coursing through us, too.

I owe this reference to Clint Gifford. He reminded me of this great story from the Desert Fathers. 

“Abba Lot went to Abba Joseph and said to him, ‘Abba, as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?’ [And that’s us. We do our “Lent stuff,” fast some, pray some.] Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands toward heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, ‘If you will, you can become all flame’” (The Sayings of the Desert Fathers).

In this story, we have a “transfiguration” moment. The veil is pulled back, and Abba Lot is able to see the fire, the radiant life, coursing through Abba Joseph. Abba Lot is doing good things, but he doesn’t have this fire, this radiance.

So the question is: How do we get that? How do we enter into that? And again, just like Jesus, we’re going to have to enter into “suffering, rejection, death”; “denial of self, taking up the cross, following” him on this path. The “practice run” for this, if you will, the “test run” the “trial run”? Entering the desert, the wilderness. (It’s not a coincidence that the Desert Fathers were literally out in the desert.) Lent, at its foundation, is entering into the “desert,” into the “wilderness.” We all know about Jesus entering the desert for forty days and forty nights. But, that’s something we need as well.

Avoiding the Desert Wilderness

We like to avoid the desert…at all costs! And yeah, we like to avoid “doing things” for Lent. We don’t want to fast or give alms or pray—yeah, that’s one thing. But I’m talking about the desert. Lent isn’t, “Here are forty days to get yourself spiritually strong, to work on virtues, to go to confession for vices, to be a better version of you.” Barf. My. Brains. Out.

In scripture (and in reality), the desert, the wilderness is a place of death, of suffering. In the desert, you’re going to die: there’s no water, no shelter, nobody. It’s just a place to die. And if we’re forced into the desert, we immediately begin to look for ways to escape it. We look for shade, for shelter, for food, for water—especially for water. We looks for ways to escape the desert, for ways to survive and take care of ourselves. We “thirst and look for water wherever [we] think [we] will find it” (Origen, Homilies on Genesis 13). What are we doing? We’re avoiding it. We are avoiding the inevitable “death” of the desert.

We want to avoid that! We get a little uncomfortable, and we immediately want to get out of there. That’s our first reading: “In their thirst for water, the people grumbled. ‘Why did you ever make us leave Egypt?’” (Exodus 17:3). Just think about that. Moses just took these people out of slavery, but now they’re in the desert. And the first thing they want to do when they get a little thirsty? Go back to slavery! That’s what I’m talking about. Even when we know that we’re going to go right back into our own personal “slavery,” we try to avoid the desert, the wilderness.

The “Wells” We Drink From: Numbing Ourselves to Our True Thirst

What does this look like for us, though? It does not mean you gave up chocolate for Lent, but you ate some chocolate, and now you need to go to confession for that. No. Think of it this way, ask yourself: “What do I do when I’m bored? And what do I do to keep myself from feeling that?” That is us avoiding the desert. We enter into the desert, and immediately we start looking for shade and water, because we don’t want to feel the desert, we’re afraid we may not make it our of the desert alive.

This season of Lent is not about adding all of these disciplines into your life for forty days so that you can kick a habit, lose a few pounds, pray more. It’s not about having discipline for discipline’s sake. Some people beat themselves up with fasting and stuff, just to see if they can do it. That’s not entering the desert or the wilderness.

Lent is entering into that place that you are afraid to go, because if you go there you may not come back. Again, back to the question: the desert is that place where you are bored, and instead of pulling out your phone to start scrolling to numb yourself out from that feeling, you don’t. The desert is entering into that place of boredom, or hurt, or shame; it’s entering into that memory or anger or weakness. It’s when we engage that desert place, it’s when we begin to feel that “thirst” that we often start looking for ways to numb ourselves out, to look for “water.” When you truly enter into that and then allow the Lord to meet you in that desert, in that place where you can’t provide for yourself, where if you were left there you would suffer and die—that’s when true healing and renewal and (dare I say) resurrection can happen. But what do we do instead? We start feeling the twinge of discomfort, that “thirst” and we short circuit the process: we pull out our phone, we turn to food and drink, we numb out somehow. And when we do that, we also short circuit the Lord being able to enter in and quench the thirst we feel.

The Samaritan Woman and Her Well

The story of the Samaritan woman is very famous, and you could spend days or weeks with this passage alone. But for our purposes today, look at what she was doing. She comes to draw water every day; every day coming to quench her thirst (which is fine, people drank water back then, too). And Jesus says, “Whoever drinks this water is always going to be thirsty for more.” But what does Jesus point out? What is he really saying? She has been quenching her thirst with all of these different men; five different husbands, plus the one she’s with now.

We do the exact same things. We draw water every day from our “wells.” For some of us it is alcohol or drugs or pornography; for others, it is wealth and power and the desire for other’s respect; for others it is guarding our time, or preserving the life we want by not having more children. We thirst and look for water wherever we think we can find it. We dig these “wells,” we will take anything we can to help us feel better—but in the end it doesn’t satisfy.

It is beside our well, the well we have dug out in our desert, that the Lord waits for us. And it’s there—and only there—that the Lord offers us water that will quench our thirst forever, that will give us “eternal life,” the life of the age to come: the life that comes through Jesus to us, the life we saw in his Transfiguration. That’s what we need. That’s what will quench the thirst you feel.

It’s Not Something We Thirst For, but Someone

We search for an Exceptional Presence…exceptional, because it is so ordinary and natural—and that never happens, we never seem to meet someone like that! But when we do, everything changes. If we encountered someone like that, everything would change.

That Presence, that Person is waiting for us beside the well we have dug in our own desert. The hard work of life, the hard work of Lent isn’t making sure you don’t eat chocolate, it’s not about trying to fix things or develop good habits. The hard work of life and Lent is entering into the desert, going to your well that leaves you thirsty, and to encounter the One waiting for you there.

At your well is where you will find the One upon whom the Spirit of the Lord rests. The One the Spirit of the Lord has anointed to bring good tidings to the afflicted, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to captives, the opening of prisons to those held bound (c.f., Isaiah 61:1). That is the same One we encounter and receive today, who gives his life to us freely. The Spring of Living Water.

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