February 27, 2005
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture Readings

Exodus 17:1-7

From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”

John 4:5-15
So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” Jesus said to her, “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.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”

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Sermon: Quenching that Thirst

How many here have read the tales of Amelia Bedelia? They’re very funny because she takes everything anyone takes literally – to the point of absurdity. For example, in Amelia Bedelia Goes Camping:
“Hurry up, Amelia Bedelia,” called Mr. Rogers
”I’m coming, I’m coming,” said Amelia Bedelia.
”Did we get everything?” asked Mr. Rogers.
“I would say so,” said Amelia Bedelia.
”Good,” said Mr. Rogers. “It’s time to hit the road.”
”Hit the road?” asked Amelia Bedelia.
”All right” She picked up a stick. And Amelia Bedelia hit the road.

This kind of literal misinterpretation and the need for subsequent explanation is part of the narrative technique of the Gospel writer John.

Nicodemus is told he must be born again and asks, “How can I enter my mother’s womb a second time?”

The woman at the well is told that if she asks she will have a spring of water welling up within and will never be thirsty. She replies that she’d like to be spared the task of coming to the well to draw water.

In these any many other instances, Jesus says something with a meaning on one level, but people’s take it too literally and their understanding remains on a different level.

So we know it’s not literally food or drink that Jesus is speaking about – so what then is it?

Sometimes I feel I have a thirst for things simply to make sense – especially when dealing with big bureaucracies like corporations or my health insurance company. Nothing infuriates me more than coming up against policies and procedures that make no sense. When I’m stuck in one of those phone menu systems that try and anticipate everything you might want to ask but never quite seem to get around to it – press 96 to hear your new balance – I sometimes start shouting into the phone – give me the person whose job it is to make sense – what number do I press for that!!!

I fear that someday a white van will pull up to my house and they’ll take me away for a long stay at a secure facility. Maybe with intense therapy I will discover the real needs that I’m failing to address that are at the root of my impatience and anger.

Psychologists, I expect, actually do spend a lot of time on just such issues. And I think they tend to take a slightly different tack than spiritual teachers because they focus on a process more than an end result. You have different schools of though about how people work through a set of needs from somebody like Abraham Maslow and his hierarchy of needs to Erik Erickson and his developmental tasks.

Maslow said that we have certain basic needs and when they are met we can move on to higher needs.
* At the base is physiological needs. Food, shelter, warmth. Things needed for basic survival.
* Next are safety needs. Order, predicability, rules, laws, backup plans, security.
* Next are love and belonging needs. Having friends, people you can rely on, people you can talk to about anything at all. Feeling loved, and being accepted.
* Esteem needs. Reputation, pride, achievement. Your image as others see you.
Finally, at the top is self-actualization – when a person can embrace the realities of the world (including themselves) rather than denying or avoiding them; they are spontaneous with ideas and actions, creative, interested in solving problems; often the problems of others. They feel a closeness to other people and appreciate life in general. They have a self-created system of morality. They judge others objectively rather than with prejudice.

You can see Maslow’s hierarchy in the story we read this morning from Exodus. The people of Israel thirst for freedom, but when they get out into the desert and they have no water, they are quickly willing to turn around and give up their freedom to have that basic physiological need met. But Moses counsels them otherwise and encourages them to trust in the Lord and move forward.

Now Erik Erickson would have appreciated that counsel, because he felt the primary human need was for trust. At each stage in life, Erickson felt there was a critical task that needed completion, and if it was not finished, it skewered all the development that followed. It’s sort of like the construction a building – if the foundation is not finished, the whole house will be off kilter and in danger. You may add beautiful windows and then wonder why the glass keeps breaking, but the problem is not with the windows but with an unsure foundation.
As an infant, the first need is to learn Trust, then as you grow to the teen years you work through these needs Autonomy, Initiative, a sense of Competence, and a clear Identity. In young adult hood you need to find Intimacy, then a capacity for Caring, then Integrity, and finally Wisdom. Each need builds upon the one before, and so to understand what people really thirst for, you’d have to understand their stage in life and their success in resolving the crises that have come before.

Not all psychologists have such an elaborate scheme. Carl Jung in his book Modern Man in Search of a Soul wrote: Among all my patients in the second half of life – over 35- there has not been one whose problem in the last resort was not that of finding a religious outlook on life. It is safe to say that everyone of them fell ill because he had lost that which the living religions of every age have given to their followers – love, faith, hope, and understanding.

You can count on Jung to bridge the gap, if there is one, between psychology and religion. I said before that psychologists tend to look at the process of life and spiritual teachers tend to look at the goals, and so when it comes to describing the thirst that Jesus speaks of, they are less likely to take a developmental approach and more likely to offer a single answer. However, there is no single single answer.

In a NY Times article I read yesterday there was this section of boldface headline – “Why do I write? It’s not that I want people to think I am smart, or even that I am a good writer. I write because I want to end my loneliness.”

There were spiritual teachers among the native Americans who would have firmly endorsed this insight as describing the primary thirst of our souls. According to these teachers each person is a spiritual being, powerful beyond imagination, who has been limited and placed upon this earth to touch, experience, and learn. There is only one thing that all people possess equally – this is their loneliness. No two people on the face of this earth are alike in any one thing except for their loneliness. This is the cause of our growing, but it is also the cause of our wars. Love, hate, greed, and generosity are all rooted within our loneliness, within our desire to be needed and loved.

I think if you were to ask most people about the primary thirst of the soul, you would get the answer of love. And certainly you could find many texts in the scriptures to support that answer. But there are other texts that broaden our thinking and keep our answer from being too self centered.

Think, for example of the famous words of the beatitutdes:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

A thirst for Righteousness, Jesus says, is blessed, and it will be fulfilled. Righteousness reaches out beyond the self – righteousness is a condition of justice in society, of protection for those whose rights are in danger, of right relations between ourselves, our neighbor, and our God. Righteousness might imply doing the right thing even if it threatens some of our basic needs on the Maslow scale – our well being, our security. Isn’t that what Jesus did when he took on the cross – he thirsted for righteousness more than life itself.

Well, maybe at this point I’m confusing the issue. But I think of what Thomas Merton said: In the progress toward religious understanding, one does not go from answer to answer but from question to question. One’s questions are answered, not by clear, definitive answers, but by more pertinent and more crucial questions.

The question of the true thirst of our soul is one we must each answer for ourselves. In some ways it does depend upon our stage in life, our responsibilities and commitments to others, the valleys and hills we traveled, the dark places we’ve experienced and the joys as well. If your thirst is for certainty and a single simple answer to this question, then I’m afraid you will find this sermon less than satisfying. But if you are willing to hear an invitation to take a step back and look at your life to understand what drives you and what needs you come to his place to meet, then I hope I’ve given you something to chew on.

In the end, since we are here in this house of prayer, I do believe we all thirst for a connection with the one who created and sustains us, a thirst so well expressed in a familiar psalm, which I invite you to pray with me – Let us pray:

Psalm 42 As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God? Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.

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