Are you thirsty? Most of us here are probably fortunate enough not to have experienced parching thirst, that desert, no water around for miles, tongue swelling kind of thirst. I have had times when I’ve been thirsty, sure: dehydration headaches, which are always self-inflicted, and never for a lack of access to water. And I remember as a kid, coming in after running around outside, panting, trying to catch my breath while I sucked down a glass of water. But thirst? Body draining, mind numbing, soul sapping thirst? Fortunately not…
To live in a time and place of relative comfort can make it difficult to connect with the lessons of Scripture. It can be hard to get into the mindset of the original audiences of these texts. When we read Isaiah’s words of comfort, of God’s constant presence, they might have meaning for us, but probably not in the same physical way that they did to the people who first heard them. Their nation had been assaulted on all sides, ultimately defeated, and they are being taken into exile. They will be dragged across rivers and deserts, from their homes in Israel and Judah and off into foreign Babylon.
Now, let’s remember: the promises that came to Abraham and his descendants were about a homeland. When the people were in captivity, it was to that place that Moses led them. Lowly David had risen to be king, united their northern and southern kingdoms into a formidable nation, and had elevated a new capital in Jerusalem. This land was to be theirs, a sign of God’s covenant with them. And now they are being taken from it?
It does not take a leap of the imagination to understand why people might lose faith in the face of such dispossession, convinced that this is God’s judgment against them. And let’s not water it down: the prophets make it clear that their captivity is a direct result of going astray. Their relative comfort has made them soft. They have taken their blessings for granted. They don’t live in a way that befits God’s people. In short, they may have never known thirst, but they will soon be parched.
All of this is merely the backdrop for our lesson this morning from Isaiah, which was meant for those about to be taken into exile. And what is so striking about it is that Isaiah goes to pains to let them know that their defeat and exile is not evidence of God’s desertion. Instead, it is a time to be reminded of God’s abiding presence that goes far beyond any national aspirations or boundaries. Yes, they will be marched across rivers; but, “I will be with you,” God says. And yes, they will be driven across deserts, as though walking through fire; but, “you will not be burned,” God says.
Nations will rise and fall…fortunes will come and go…there will be feast, and there will be famine…but come what may, the presence of the living God will always endure.
I don’t know if any of this connects with you today. I don’t know if you’re feeling more thirsty or sated in your life these days. We are wrapping up a very successful capital campaign here at OPC, one that has generated an amazing response of your gifts, your time, and your energy. We have just come through the Christmas season as well, with its own emotional touchstones. We have turned the calendar on a new year, having defied the odds and avoided yet another predicted apocalypse. It is an exciting time, a good time, a time for celebration…and yet, I know all too well how quickly these kinds of successes can fade. Family tragedies enter the picture. National grief breaks our hearts. The future becomes unclear. There is illness, there is pain, there is disruption. Life, in short, is messy.
There are many ways in which the life of faith is told most clearly in our baptism. A few of you were old enough to remember being baptized, and I’m willing to bet that it was a spiritual high point for you. And yet, that peak eventually fades into the distance. Or maybe you were too young to remember it for yourselves, but your parents remembered it for you; it was their own height, an emotional moment frozen in time. And that, too, eventually drifts away. Life in Christ is rarely one peak after another; in fact, life itself is never that. There are valleys, there are pits, there are stray paths and there are aimless wanderings.
In short, we may not know physical thirst, but I am willing to bet that each one of us knows it spiritually. Maybe you feel this way now. There are times when we are simply going through the motions. We pass the peace because the bulletin says to. We come to Sunday School because we always have. We pledge and give because the announcements let us know that it is time to do so. We serve because our names are in the schedule. There are times we do this when doubt is stronger than faith. There are times we do this when it seems that evil has the upper hand. There are times we do this when we are worn out, wrung dry, numb…
The paradox, though, is that these moments can be gifts. They can serve as reminders not to take what we have for granted. They can connect us, even if momentarily, with those ancient exiles stuck in deserts of wandering. They can help us remember those who are constantly in need, dedicating ourselves to making the world a better place, for their sake, as well as for God’s. And they can nudge us into places of thirst, where we can choose hope over fear that our cup will, again, overflow…maybe not yet, but it will.
These are the moments, I believe, when we can gain strength from the fact that even Jesus needed such reminders. Even he needed to be baptized, for the waters to wash him clean after weeks in the desert. Even he needed the skies to split open, and for the light to shine upon him again. Even he needed for the voice to descend, to tell him that he was loved, and that God was pleased.
When we come to the table today, I invite you to come as parched souls, thirsting not simply for the water that sustains physical life, but for living water that sustains our very being. Take your time; don’t hurry. Pause as you take the bread and the cup, letting it fill you like never before.
And when you leave today, do the same when you reach the font that stands at the entrance. Touch your fingers to the water. Dip your hand in. Let it drip from your forehead and run down your arm. Feel the waters washing everything else away. And when this feeling fades, do it again, and again, and again, until your cup overflows with life-giving grace, extending from your very essence and out into a dry and weary world!