“Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again; but whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst; the water I shall give will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4:13-14)
In a post on the CTA 20/30 site last week, Justin Sengstock, a blogger-colleague (blogleague?) of mine, reflected on Lent in high school days of yore, when he treated the penitential season as a “competitive sport.” He told of going without food between meals every day, complete with pounding headaches and an ill-placed sense of accomplishment.
Justin is not alone. I’ve tried various innovations of Lenten piety. One year, fresh off of three earned Middle Eastern history credits, I did a Ramadan-esque fast of waiting until sundown to eat (at which point I ended up making up for lost time). Even as recently as this past Ash Wednesday, I elected to limit myself to bread and water for the day. It turns out that it’s hard to adequately perform a high-stress teaching job when my own body is yelling at me to stop starving myself.
I kind of missed the point. And that’s why the readings this week appear during the season of Lent, because a lot of us miss the point. Mortification of the body for mortification’s sake is not really fasting. It becomes either an obsessive-compulsive Christianity that frets over a self-imposed process or the hypocritical “look at me!” Christianity that Jesus warns us about in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:16-18).
Have you ever noticed that no (sane) religious authority insists that its followers fast from water? Water is not a luxury (nor should it be), and it is suicide to go without it. Those in the ancient Middle East were keen to the many dangers of even one day without hydration. The only time that eschewing water carries any spiritual weight is when one sacrifices to save another. Otherwise, if you’re thirsty, drink, and don’t feel guilty about it!
Water – and the need for it – is the theme of this weekend’s readings. In Exodus, the Israelites are threatening mutiny in the desert because they don’t trust God to provide it, even though they had only recently witnessed a series of miracles on their behalf. God instructs Moses to strike a rock with his staff, causing water to flow out. God provides the water that the Israelites need, but their lack of faith ultimately causes them to spend 40 years wandering through a desert area the size of West Virginia (Numbers 32:13).
In John’s gospel, Jesus, who is physically thirsty at the time, uses the imagery of a well to describe the life-giving water that God provides. A Samaritan woman who is spiritually thirsty presses Jesus to teach her about this water, and both engage in a conversation that breaks through two significant first-century social barriers: gender and ethnicity.
We need the “spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:14) more than we need dihydrogen monoxide. But it is in pursuing the things of this world that we do not need that we find our souls parched, and that is where Lenten sacrifice comes in.
I have found that the act of giving up something that I want for Lent, and then wishing I could have it, does not constitute a real Lenten sacrifice. If I abstain from drinking soda, but spend the whole time thinking about how much I miss the fizz, then my attention is on soda, not God and my sacrifice is for naught. The end result will be my pounding a two-liter on Easter and getting right back into a bad habit.
This year, I modified my approach. I picked out the things in my life that have no utilitarian purpose, yet seem to demand my consumption and do some level of harm. I gave up soda, snack foods and alcohol because they have done a number on my body over the years. I gave up Facebook because I have wasted way too much time on that site. Every time I have thought about how much I miss these things, my second thought is how much better off I am without them. And that is when the thirst for righteousness returns (Matthew 5:6) and I can pursue the prayer and almsgiving that accompany me on my Lenten journey.
Nota bene: In the meantime, physical thirst is very real for a lot of people. Check out what Charity : Water has been doing to change that.
Post scriptum: Today is World Water Day!