Who would have thought that cow’s milk would ever become hip?
Milk sales in the United States had been declining for some 20 years when, in 1993, the California Milk Processor Board funded the “Got Milk?” advertising campaign. And the rest, as they say, is history.
By taking something as basic, ubiquitous and non-glamorous as milk and spending a lot of money to make it seem cool; by taking something that used to be embarrassing—the milk mustache—and putting it on the upper lips of the likes of Angelina Jolie, Venus and Serena Williams, Bart Simpson, Tiger Woods, Tom Brady and, yes, Britney Spears; by taking every mother’s admonition to “drink your milk” and translating it into the ultra-cool, semi-sinister sounding, now-trademarked slogan found on billboards, commercials and T-shirts, the “Got Milk?” campaign has reached the almost unattainable goal of being known by more than 90% of all Americans.
So successful is the “Got Milk?” campaign that many others have tried to copy it. Countless churches, for example, explain on their websites how one can “get” Jesus. There are “Got Jesus?” buttons, bumper stickers and T-shirts. And my favorite: gotJesus.net, an Internet service provider whose motto is “Witness without saying a WORD!” So, if your e-mail address is, say, Cathy Kay@gotJesus.net, “every time someone reads your email address they have to say the name JESUS.” (really)
Jesus email addresses aside, it seems to me that much of our worldview is built around a set of unspoken “Got Milk?”-type questions? “Got money?” our economy asks in a thousand different ways. “Got the latest techno-gadget? The hottest car? The biggest house? The coolest shoes? Got as much as you can get?”
Every time we turn on the TV or walk into a store or go to school or work we’re hit with unstated, subconscious, yet extremely powerful questions that tempt us to measure our self-worth on how much we have, questions implying that happiness or well-being or peace of mind has to do with something we can go out and get. Got enough stuff?—the ads ask. Got smarts?—our educational system asks. Got status? Got romance? Got the perfect family? Got the right kind of partner? Got a job? Got power? Got a life?
Even our churches fall prey to this. Got your act together?—our schedules ask. Got the right theology, the right belief system? Got gifts and time and energy? And the all-time, ecumenical, interfaith favorite: Got guilt?
Our lifestyles and maybe even our humanity protect us from uncomfortable feelings, from an awareness of any need that can’t be solved with a credit-card purchase. Instead of confronting the reasons for our fear, our insecurity, our loneliness, our emptiness, our confusion, depression, stress, grief, anxiety, and lack of meaning, we choose the easier paths of denial, delusion and self-reliance.
Nagged by a faint sense of dis-ease, the way of the world says, “Here, have some more of this; get some more of that; watch this; buy that; keep eating and drinking and tuning out and everything will be just fine.”
We’re tempted to use even our faith as a way of coping, to view God as little more than a path toward healing and wholeness, to reduce Jesus and his teachings to a social-justice program, to think of worship as a booster shot that gets us through the week. Church can become another thing we need to do, a good prayer life something else we’re supposed to have.
Then there is the Jesus approach, which focuses not on how much we have but on what we need to be in right relationship—with God, ourselves and one another. While political leaders and economic drivers say we must be strong and wealthy, the Jesus approach says the blessings go to those who are weak, real and vulnerable. The Gospels are full of accounts of Jesus approaching a blind or lame person and saying, “What do you need? What do you want me to do for you?” In the same way, Jesus wants to meet us where we are, look upon us with compassion, and say, “How are you doing? What do you need?”
Even now, Jesus says to us, often through the church, “Are you hurting? Are you tired? Are you hungry? What can I do for you? Got thirst? Got longing?”
Well, of course, we do.
But we’ve been conditioned to ignore our spiritual thirst, our inner longings—or to at least use stuff to make them go away. Given that, how do we acknowledge and address our spiritual needs? As a church, how do we respond to the spiritual longings of one another and our world?
I think today’s scripture lessons have something to say to us about our longings and how to handle them. In both readings we’ve got some thirsty people.
The Exodus reading tells the story of the Israelites, recently liberated from Pharaoh’s Egypt, led by Moses through the Sea of Reeds and now wandering in the desert and desperately needing water. They’ve argued; they’ve complained, they’ve threatened Moses. They are so thirsty and miserable that they begin to say that slavery in Egypt was better than freedom in the wilderness.
It would be easy to read this story as a cautionary tale of what spoiled brats we can be sometimes–complaining, blaming, and getting angry when we don’t have what we need or want. Beyond that, however, it seems to me that there is a trust issue here. You see, this is Round Two for the children of Israel. Just one chapter earlier, in Exodus 16, they were complaining and rebelling because they were hungry.
Well, you remember what happens: God hears the people’s complaints, and decides to provide the people with not one but two meals a day: Quails in the evening and, in the morning, a flaky, bread-like substance they called manna. This went on for 40 years.
Given this “bread from heaven” program, you’d think it might occur to the children of Israel to turn to God when they run out of water. Instead, they fall into their old pattern of complaining and blaming and testing God. God comes through for them once again—making water come out of a rock—but a pattern takes hold.
God’s people are forever forgetting about God; forgetting what God has already done for them; forgetting God’s promises to take care of them; failing to trust God with their needs; continuing to think that whatever situation they’re in is all about them. Sound familiar?
Like the Israelites, we sometimes fail to entrust our physical needs and spiritual longings to God. We make the common mistake of thinking we’re in charge, that it’s all up to us or the pastor or the Elected Leadership Team or “the church.” And so, even if we haven’t shared our needs or our longings, we may get angry or feel neglected or unsatisfied and so fed up that we finally just leave.
The story of the Samaritan woman offers additional insights to our “Got Thirst?” problem. This poor woman has been marginalized, rejected and oppressed for so long—by the Jews and by the people of her own village—that she can no longer bear the pain of being in touch with her personal needs and tender feelings.
When Jesus speaks to her of living water, her first response comes not from her heart but from what today we would call the left side of her brain—the practical, task-oriented, life-is-hard-and-I-just-need-to-get-by side. If Jesus could give her some of this water he’s talking about, the kind that would keep her from ever getting thirsty again, she wouldn’t have to come draw water from the well in the middles of the day.
I say this not to pass judgment on the Samaritan woman—on the contrary, she is one of the unsung heroes of the Gospels: the first real evangelist and the first person to whom Jesus reveals himself, as well as the partner in Jesus’ longest recorded conversation. The point is not what the Samaritan woman does and says in response to Jesus’ offer of living water, but how we so often do the same thing.
Life is hard; we’re busy; we’ve got bills to pay and children to feed and doctor’s appointments to make and church meetings to attend and . . . Hey, sorry Jesus, I just don’t have time for this spirituality stuff. And besides, I’m afraid that if I stopped and sat still long enough to pray I’d realize that I’m unhappy or burned out or not really sure where my life is going—and God knows I can’t handle that. I have too many people depending on me. I have to just keep on keeping on.
And so we’ve still got thirst.
But there’s more to the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well. There she is—thirsty and needy and, as if she isn’t in enough trouble, now talking to a Jewish man. If he can’t solve her problems on the spot she really needs to get going and why should she expect anything good from him anyway?
And so she proceeds to employ another one of our favorite coping mechanisms, another way we protect ourselves from the truth of our inner longings and spiritual needs: She distances herself from Jesus by highlighting their differences. Even after Jesus begins to engage with her heart, even after he brings her shame into the light of his love, she is wary—and so she changes the subject away from her life to . . . theology, of all things, asking Jesus about a key tension between Jews and Samaritans, their differing views on the proper place to worship.
Sound familiar? How often, when the subject matter hits a little too close to home, when a scripture passage or a sermon or a prayer or a song brings up uncomfortable feelings, longings or thirst, do we hide behind theology? We’re pretty good at sharing our complaints about the Bible, our uncertainty over just who Jesus really was and is, how we feel about having communion every Sunday, and—oh, good grief—doesn’t that person speaking during Joys & Concerns know to keep it to one minute? All of that is fine, of course, but we need to be careful about using it to drive a wedge between ourselves and God or other people.
I don’t know about you, but I have to plead guilty to using all three of these tactics at one time or another—and sometimes all at once. I fail to trust God, to seek God’s guidance and to expect God’s blessings—and so I sometimes get angry and tired and irritable because I have tried and failed—again—to do it all on my own.
And then there are those times when Jesus is sitting right there, offering me more than I could have dreamed of, longing to quench my thirst and touch my aching heart—but I can’t be bothered. I’m too busy, too scared, too out of touch with myself to let God’s love touch me. Or I’m feeling too wounded or skeptical to let Jesus reach me.
And, on the third point, I’ll confess that I’m less likely to distance myself by tearing down the scriptures or discounting Jesus than I am to simply shut down in the wake of such remarks. Or, here’s another good one, I may focus on the social-justice aspects of our faith instead of the spiritual, needy, inner-longing parts.
Indeed, I was tempted to do just that with the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman. After all, it is a moving and powerful example of Jesus the rule-breaker and reconciler, always engaging the outcast, reaching out to the marginalized and, in so doing, treating them as fully human, utterly worthy, inherently lovable children of God.
But while some congregations need to be stretched to see the socio-political implications of what Jesus is doing in this story, other churches may need to be encouraged, to be given permission, to come back to the basics—the spiritual.
After all, what is more basic than thirst—and hunger? . . . Not just the spiritual kind, but also the physical. Certainly Jesus addressed and sought to fill both kinds of hunger and thirst—changing water to wine, feeding thousands with a few fishes and loaves, offering bread and wine as a sacramental way of remembering him. Certainly Jesus knew both hunger and thirst—after he has fasted for 40 days and 40 nights, he is tempted to turn stones into bread; and among those last words he uttered on the cross were these: “I thirst.”
So I ask you this morning: Got thirst? What are you longing for? What are your deepest needs?
The good news is that despite the Israelites’ lack of trust, God came through. Despite the Samaritan woman’s edginess, Jesus hung in there with her—revealing herself to her and loving her for who she was. The good news is that God wants to come through for us; Jesus longs to give us the water we’re so thirsty for.
I challenge all of us to get in touch with our longings and needs and entrust them to God. Let us be like the Samaritan woman, who was so overcome with gratitude for Jesus’ radical hospitality and healing words that she left her water jar—her responsibilities and busy-ness—and ran to town to spread the good news.
May we all drop our defenses, let down our guards, and let Jesus satisfy our thirst with living water. And may we be living reminders of the fountain of living water that is available to us all, as expressed in this poem by Denise Levertov:
Don’t say, don’t say there is no water
To solace the dryness at our hearts.
I have seen
The fountain springing out of the rock wall
And you drinking there. And I too
Before your eyes
Found footholds and climbed
to drink the cool water.
The woman of that place, shading her eyes,
Frowned as she watched—but not because
she grudged the water,
Only because she was waiting
to see we drank our fill and were
Don’t say, don’t say there is no water.
That fountain is there among its scalloped
green and gray stones,
It is still there and always there<
with its quiet song and strange power
to spring in us,
up and out through the rock.