Sermon for the Third Sunday of Lent, March 23, 2014. Delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, St. Mark’s Church, East Longmeadow, MA.
Exodus 17:1-7 Romans 5:1-11 Psalm 95 John 4:5-42
Give us water to drink
It is a pleasure to be here this morning and to join you in worship and prayer. As you probably know, I am the diocese’s new Missioner for Creation Care, and I’ve been asked to reflect on how Christian faith connects with caring for the world that God made. I couldn’t have picked better readings than the ones our lectionary gives us today, for they are all about water, literal and spiritual. What could be more basic than water?
Water is what the Israelites in the desert were thirsting for, in a story that is told in Exodus, in today’s psalm, and in the Book of Numbers. Moses successfully led his people out of slavery in Egypt – which was all well and good – but here they were now, wandering in remote wilderness, with the sun beating down, everything dry as a bone, and not a drop to drink. As we heard in this morning’s first reading, the people complained to Moses, and they quarreled and pleaded with him, saying, “Give us water to drink.” If any of you have hiked a long distance and found yourself short of water, you can imagine what that was like – the dry mouth and parched lips, the flagging energy and rising anxiety, the perhaps desperate concern for your children and for anyone who is elderly, sick, or weak. Water is what drew the Samaritan woman to the well, where she encountered Jesus and where they launched into the long and many-faceted conversation that we heard in today’s Gospel passage from John.
Everyone needs water – what Nature Conservancy calls “that strange drinkable liquid that is not coffee or alcohol.” Water is what runs in our veins, what fills our lakes and rivers and seas, what covers 70% of the surface of the planet. Everything runs on water – our bodies, our farms, our power plants and cities and economies. Water is essential for life, yet because clean, fresh water is so rare, almost 2 billion people worldwide have no access to it. Yesterday we observed World Water Day, an annual event dedicated to the global effort to conserve water and to protect water supplies.
Today’s readings lift up the preciousness of literal water, but they also lift up another kind of water – what we might call the water of the Spirit, that unending flow of divine love that is symbolized in the image of Moses striking the rock with his staff and releasing a flow of water, and that Jesus in today’s Gospel describes as “a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (John 4:14). God’s love is like water. Sometimes divine love pours down like a gentle rain that comes from above, softening our hardened hearts and refreshing our desert places. And sometimes divine love springs up from within like a fountain, or flows through us like a river, so that we discover, as St. Paul puts it in today’s reading from Romans, that “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Romans 5:5).
Finding that flow of living water, both literal and spiritual – that’s the theme of our readings today, and that’s the theme that confronts anyone who looks closely at the state of the world today. Whether we are keenly aware of it, or able only to glimpse it out of the corner of our eye, to some degree all of us are conscious that the web of life on our blue planet is unraveling. We live in an unprecedented moment in human history. In just 200 years, human beings have burned so much coal, gas, and oil, and pumped so much heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the air that atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide are higher today than they have been for at least 800,000 years. As I heard a climate scientist remark last year, “We are breathing from an atmosphere that none of our ancestors would recognize.”
By now we know that climate change is not a future threat – in fact, it is not a threat at all. It is our reality. As environmentalist Bill McKibben has written, “We’ve changed the planet, changed it in large and fundamental ways… Our old familiar globe is suddenly melting, drying, acidifying, flooding, and burning in ways that no human has ever seen.”
That process is accelerating, and climate scientists are increasingly alarmed that many people don’t yet understand the urgency of the situation. On Monday the American Association for the Advancement of Science released a report for the American public that summarizes the science. The report – which is readily available online – says: “We are at risk of pushing our climate system toward abrupt, unpredictable, and potentially irreversible changes with highly damaging impacts. Earth’s climate is on a path to warm beyond the range of what has been experienced over the past millions of years… The sooner we act, the lower the risk and cost… By making informed choices now, we can reduce risks for future generations and ourselves, and help communities adapt to climate change.”
Some people tell me that climate change is a partisan political issue and that polite people shouldn’t talk about it in church. But I have to say: as I see it, the Church was made for a time like this. Now is the time for us to proclaim our faith that God created our beautiful and precious world, that God delights in it, and rejoices in it, and declares it “very good” (Genesis 1:31). Now is the time for us to bear witness to our faith that the Earth is the Lord’s, for, as we heard in today’s psalm, “in [God’s] hands are the caverns of the earth, and the heights of the hills are [God’s] also. The sea is [God’s], for [God] made it, and [God’s] hands have molded the dry land” (Psalm 95:4-5). God loved the world into being and entrusted it to our care (Genesis 1:26, 2:15), and to ruin that world – to scorch it, pollute it, and push it toward catastrophic climate disruption – grieves God’s heart and dishonors our Creator. Now is the time for us to tap into those springs of living water that well up within us through the power of the crucified and risen Christ, for that is how you and I will find the courage to face the challenges ahead and to take wise and effective action.
What can we do as individuals? Maybe we recycle more, drive less, and quit using bottled water. Maybe we eat local, organic foods and support our local farms and land trusts. Maybe we install insulation, turn down the heat, use AC in moderation – hey, you know the drill.
What might we do as a church? How is St. Mark’s called to be a leader in this town and in this diocese? From speaking with your rector, I know that you’ve worked to install energy-efficient LED lights, to carry out energy audits of the heating and lighting, and to invite parishioners to sign up with Viridian for electricity that comes from the clean, safe, renewable power of wind and sun, and that gives the church a steady income stream. I know you’re exploring the possibility of installing solar panels on the roof, and I’d be thrilled to come back sometime and to see those panels blessed. What else could you do? We’ll talk about that at the forum after the second service, but for now I’ll simply say: imagine a church in which every aspect of its life, from its preaching and worship services to its adult education and Sunday School, from its prayers to its public advocacy, grasps the urgency of protecting life as it has evolved on this planet.
Working to stabilize the climate begins at home, in our congregations and places of work, but it can’t end there. The scope and speed of the climate crisis require action on a much broader scale. We need to make it politically possible to do what is scientifically necessary. We need to push our political leaders to get this country and other countries on track to bring down the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million, the uppermost level that many scientists say is safe for life as we know it to continue on this planet. What is the level today? 400 — and climbing. There is work to be done.
The good news is that we have an opportunity every day to bear witness to the God who loved us, and all creation, into being, and whose love is always being poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. It is you for whom Christ came into the world, you for whom he died, you whom he now would fill with the living water of his presence. In a few moments we will share the bread and wine of the Eucharist, given to us by God in Christ with such tenderness and at such great cost. We will gather at that holy table, as we always do, so that everything in us and around us can be lifted up and blessed – not only the bread and the wine, but also we ourselves, and the whole creation, every leaf of it, and every speck of sand. Sharing the Eucharist helps us to perceive, at last, not only our own belovedness, our own blessedness in God, but also the fact that everyone is beloved, all beings are blessed. Everyone and everything is part of a sacred whole, and all living things are kin. In the strength of the blessed and broken bread, and of the blessed and poured-out wine, we dare to hope that human beings will respond with grateful hearts and come to treat the world not as an object to exploit, but as a gift to receive, as something perishable and precious. We dare to hope that we human beings will become at last who we were made to be, a blessing on the earth.