They say a human being can go for about three weeks without food, but can only go for about three days without water. If you’re ever in a situation in which food is in short supply you might be concerned, but were you in a situation where water is in short supply, you’d begin to despair.

Rev. Mark Schaefer
Cheltenham United Methodist Church
March 15, 2020
Part 3 in the series, “A Journey Through the Wilderness
Exodus 17:1–7; John 4:5–42

Perhaps for those of us who have grown up having water as close as the kitchen tap, it’s hard to imagine what real thirst is like. It’s hard to imagine places like the Holy Land that are entirely dependent on rain for agriculture.  It’s hard to imagine what it would be like, not to have water close at hand.

The desire for water is even greater than the desire for food. In fact, much of what we mistake for hunger is actually thirst. They say that if you’re hungry, have a glass of water. If you’re still hungry ten minutes later, then eat.

Water gives us not only our food, it gives us our life. In fact, life itself would not be possible without water. We’re about two-thirds water ourselves. The surface of our planet is 70% water.

People like living near water and vacationing near water: on lakes, on rivers, at the ocean. There’s something comforting about having water nearby, almost as if we recognize that deep primal need to satisfy our thirst. I always have water nearby whenever I step into the pulpit to preach. Whether I ever actually get dry mouth or not, whether I ever actually need it, it is a comfort for me to know it’s there.

Because when water is not around, circumstances are dire. And we can despair.


This theme of despair and thirst are themes found in the two scripture lessons that we heard this morning.

In the Exodus story, the children of Israel have been journeying on by stages since crossing the Red Sea and are deep into the Wilderness of Sin on the Sinai peninsula. They begin to gripe to Moses because there is no water to drink. After they’ve harassed Moses enough, he turns to God and laments, “What shall I do with this people?”

(As an aside, this text is frequently taught in seminary courses on what it’ll be like to be a pastor, when your congregation grumbles at you.)

God tells him to go on ahead and strike the rock at Horeb with the staff he used to part the sea and there water will come forth. He did so and the people had water.

The second is the story of Jesus at the well talking with the Samaritan woman. Jesus has taken a break from his journey and is sitting at Jacob’s well when a Samaritan woman appears, having come to get water. He asks her for a drink, which she finds curious since he is a Jew and she a Samaritan (Jews and Samaritans had strained relations ever since the time of the Babylonian Exile, both sharing some scripture in common, but Jews never accepting Samaritan religion as authentically Israelite.) He says to 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.”

This only confuses her more, and she responds, “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?”

To which Jesus replies, “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.”

Jesus and the Samaritan woman.
A miniature from the 12th-century Jruchi Gospels II MSS from Georgia, 12th C

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.”

They go on to have a longer exchange involving her marital status (complicated to say the least), what Jews and Samaritans know by faith or experience, the expectation of the Messiah and Jesus’ subsequent self-revelation, and culminating with the declaration that “Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, and then, after he stayed among them for two days: “And many more believed because of his word.”

Each of these stories is built around thirst—a thirst for water, for water that sustains. Especially, when we’re living in a dry, parched land. A wilderness. Especially when it feels we’ve lost our way in that wilderness.


We’ve been looking at wilderness experiences throughout Lent. We’ve looked at want. We’ve looked at fear. And today we look at the experience of hopelessness: it, too, is a wilderness experience.

And let’s not understate it: the wilderness of despair is one of the most troubling, if not the most troubling of the wilderness experiences.  For when we find ourselves struggling even to have hope, we can feel an incredible sense of alienation and isolation.  Hope is, after all, a powerful frame of mind that is capable of driving us to transcend challenge, overcome affliction, and to resist injustice.  In Greek mythology, when Pandora opens the box she had been warned not to open, all manner of evils are unleashed upon the world. After all the evils are released into the world, in Pandora’s Box it is discovered that Hope remains.

And so hope is a powerful force, driving individuals and whole societies to move forward in the face of incredible odds, spurred on by a belief that things can turn out as they should.  That there is a justice to the universe that can work itself out.

And that’s why the loss of hope, that deep feeling of despair, can be so overwhelming.  Hope already exists in a context of challenge—you recognize that the world is one way, but you hope that it will become another.  When you are left without hope, you are still in that context of challenge but without that sense of hopefulness that can overcome the realities of the world.

A life lived in hope is one that looks ahead to the horizon along a road lined with fresh blooms under a sunlit blue sky.  A life lived in despair is like beholding a bleak and barren landscape under an overcast sky.  In this wilderness there is no road ahead, no sense of where to go and how to get there.  It is as overwhelming a wilderness experience as we can find ourselves in.


In the summer of 2009, I decided to drive across the country for my summer vacation.  On this trip, I was going to visit the eight remaining states out of the lower forty-eight that I had yet to visit.  In order to do this, my drive to San Francisco would take a decidedly southwestern route traveling through Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, to California, and swinging through Nevada, Utah, and Colorado on the way back.

There were a number of things I learned on this trip.  First: gas stations do not come every 10 miles like they do on the east coast.  Or sometimes even every 100 miles (I found that out the hard way).  I learned that the desert plays tricks on you and storms you think are right next to you are many, many miles away.  I learned just how much of this country is desert.  It was astonishing, actually, to realize that the forested part of the country that I had grown up with and was so familiar with was by far the minority of the topography of the nation.  In fact, from the Texas panhandle through New Mexico, Arizona, and southern California through Barstowe up into the Valley is all desert.  Over 1,500 miles of desert country.

In the Bible, we hear a lot of talk of the wilderness.  Whether it’s the Sinai desert or the Judean desert or the Negev desert, there are frequent references to the wilderness in the scripture. And while for many of us, “wilderness” conjures up images of forested land (at least for me who grew up not far from the Adirondack wilderness), in the Bible the same word—מדבר midbar—means “desert” and connotes an uninhabited place.  In the New Testament, the Greek word that is translated as “desert” or “wilderness” is ἐρημος erēmos and means a “desolate place”, a “lonely” place, a “waste”.

A Joshua Tree. (I listened to the U2 album of the same name the day before driving through Arizona)
A Joshua Tree in the Mojave Desert

And this brings me to the most important thing I learned on my trip through the desert southwest. Perhaps the most surprising thing that I learned on that trip is how much life is in the desert. The word desert conjures up images of lifelessness and sterility.  Of an arid, trackless waste, with no water and no hope.  But it is not so.  The desert is full of life.  In fact, even in the midst of these arid stretches that go on for thousands of miles, the ground is covered with plant and animal life.  The photo that we’re using as the background for this series is of a Joshua tree in the Mojave Desert in Southern California. In both cases, it is clear that the desert is not a lifeless place, but a place in which life can be found.  Oh, these landscapes are not as lush as the forests of the east or the Pacific Northwest; they are not the grass covered plains of the Midwest or the teeming bayous of the Gulf Coast; but there is life there nonetheless.  And it is a resilient kind of life; plants that can handle difficult conditions, with little water and harsh sun.  Tenacious forms of life that cling to the rocks and do not let go. Anyone who has ever seen the series Planet Earth knows how much life there is even in the desert.

Even where the land thirsts, there is life. There is hope.


But there is an even more hopeful note.

We’re in an anxious time right now as a nation and as a world. We can feel like we’ve entered a wilderness of great uncertainty. A virus unknown to the world mere months ago is wreaking havoc on our shared life, our economic life, our communities, our health, our feelings of well-being. Every day the numbers of infected go up and it is easy to despair. In the movies, they always produce the cure within a few days. But here, we wait, anxious and wondering. It’s not hard for people to begin to despair. It’s not hard for people to wonder, as the Israelites did, if we’ve been brought into this wilderness to perish. When will we be led out of this wilderness into safety?

But, the Israelites were grumbling for water and Moses struck the rock and water issued forth where God had gone before them. Right there in the desert. The Samaritan woman has a lengthy conversation with Jesus about living water, while he sits at the well right there. The God we seek is not removed from the wilderness; the God we seek for our hope and deliverance is in the wilderness alongside us.

Even in the barren wildernesses of our lives, there is life.  Even in the midst of our most despairing times and those moments when we feel that all hope is lost, God is nevertheless present, and planting in the rough and resilient scrub brush the seeds of hope.

In the Exodus, the Children of Israel wander for forty years in the wilderness, but it is in the wilderness that they encounter God most powerfully, because ours is a wilderness God.  Ours is a God of the lonely places, the waste, the desert.  Ours is a God who is present and at work even in the midst of despair, even in the midst of a bleak and ruined landscape, there God is.

We may be in a wilderness of despair, feeling that there is no hope, that we are empty and without resource. But it is in those places that we can still find life and hope.  The hope that will deliver us from the wilderness of despair can be found even in the most arid desert.  There it clings, tenaciously to the rock.  There it grows, in the arid soil, holding on even as the sun bears relentlessly down upon it, waiting to bloom again.

There water springs from the rock to quench a thirsty people, struggling to find hope. There Christ sits beside the well and offers himself, as living waters to nourish us our whole lives long.


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 4:5–42

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.”

Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”

Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” They left the city and were on their way to him.

Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?” Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”

Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”

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