During Lent, God calls us to the desert and we go. We become like the Israelites in today’s first reading from Exodus, called and saved by God from slavery in Egypt, brought safely through the Red Sea, and now wandering in the desert for forty years (although for us, it’s only forty days). Our salvation may not be from slavery, but we still claim that salvation as ours and we often use terms related to slavery to describe our salvation: freedom from addiction, from slavery to sin, from bondage to a world that wants us to worship money, power, and false gods.
Christians have loved deserts, real and symbolic. We have preserved sayings of various desert fathers and mothers from the early centuries of the church in Northern Africa. We want to follow in the footsteps of Jesus himself. So we manufacture our own deserts: giving up some sort of food here, contributing more money there, adding some prayer to the whole. Each of these becomes one way of paring our lives to essentials, so that we can see God.
Yet today’s scriptures suggest for us that the thing we think we are doing in the desert – the spiritual preparation we are doing to receive God – might not in fact be the thing we are doing.
Consider that first reading from Exodus. The people are in the desert crying for water – as any rational person might do. Moses finally gives the people water to drink, by God’s own hand, but not without chiding them first: “[Moses] called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?’” Though we might have sympathy for them, those Israelites at Meribah and Massah go on to live in infamy, examples of people who do not follow God.
Today’s psalm, Psalm 95, gives a searing comment on those Israelites:
Do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah,
as on the day at Massah in the wilderness,
when your ancestors tested me,
and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work.
For forty years I loathed that generation
and said, ‘They are a people whose hearts go astray,
and they do not regard my ways.
So I swore in my anger,
they shall not enter into my rest.’
This is a psalm that, today, monks and others who pray the Liturgy of the Hours encounter several times a week, as the first psalm to be prayed in the morning. It is meant to be an invitation to daily prayer, and also a cautionary tale. Do not harden your hearts against God, like those ancient Israelites did in the desert – even though they had seen God’s work!
One problem with the ancient Israelites is that they had already seen God’s work – and yet did not believe God would save them. Their immediate need – the water – doesn’t matter. They had no faith that God would provide.
In a way, it can seem like we’re doing the exact opposite of them in our Lenten wanderings. We strip ourselves bare and expect God to be there. We have faith – don’t we? Yet isn’t our certainty about God’s presence in our own miniature deserts matching the kind of certain insistence that the Israelites had as they complained about their desert existence? They want to control their desert experiences, and so do we.
After all, won’t we be returning from the desert back to the same eating, giving, and praying patterns we had before Lent? Aren’t we, in fact, relishing that fact? All the chocolate we’ll eat at Easter, all the Coca Cola we’ll drink, all the stuff we’ll get to do once Lent ends? Maybe we, too, want to return to Egypt, partly because we don’t see what was so wrong about Egypt. How much do we really want to be in the desert?
That’s the tricky thing about deserts. They also produce illusions. Whole cities, camels, ships, and water can appear on a desert’s horizon, and yet not be there. The things we think the desert can give to us might not be the things God wants to give us. How much do we really want God’s transformation? How much will we give over our whole lives, and not just our chocolate and pocket money, to God?
Today’s gospel gives us a sense of the kind of change that is possible. In John 4:5-42, we hear the story of Jesus at the well with the Samaritan woman. It is important, when reading this scripture, to remember that men would not have tended to speak with unmarried women to whom they were unrelated. It is also important to recall that the Samaritans were unloved, and considered illegitimate Jews. Samaritans were people who had intermarried with conquering nations over the centuries (a common way for nations to deal with their enemies): Assyria, and Assyria’s allies, Cutha, Ava, Hamath, and Sepharvaim.
The woman’s five husbands are symbolic of the many different conquering nations that intermarried with the Jewish people residing in Samaria. The one who is not the woman’s husband, and who cares little for her, is Rome. Despite the history and context, Jesus offers the Samaritan woman the same salvation he brings to the Jews: to her, he is the Messiah, and he gives her living water. The Samaritan woman is overjoyed, tells her neighbors, and becomes one of the many people who spreads the gospel in that region.
Jesus’ disciples, on the other hand, are quite put out. While they say nothing to him, they are still feeling grumbly. Just as in the first reading, where God exclaims that the Israelites had seen his work, here Jesus reminds his disciples: here is the harvest! You think we are waiting, but you have already seen it. God’s way is not their way, and if they are giving their lives over to God, they will see something much different than they anticipate.
God will transform us and our relationships. If we are attentive to the stirrings of God, perhaps we shall find ourselves eating dinner with people we never would have expected, finding bonds of friendship with people who are of other political persuasions than us (especially in today’s climate), and seeking less to return to our pre-Lenten Egypts than to find a new way of post-resurrection Easter.
This will take time, probably more time then our observance of Lent will be. Carlo Carretto was a modern day father of the desert, and in his book Letters from the Desert, he wrote:
God does not hurry over things; time is his, not mine. And I, little creature, a man, have been called to be transformed into God by sharing his life. And what transforms me is the charity which he pours into my heart.
As we journey through the middle of Lent, may we be open to the ways God transforms our lives and hearts in the desert.
Image Credit: George Steinmetz