Gratitude is the dominant feeling I have toward my home congregation. Gratitude for its rich liturgy in which the Eucharist was celebrated weekly for as long as I can remember, gratitude that even as a child I was permitted to receive the sacrament, gratitude for its ecumenical openness, gratitude to have been exposed to listening prayer and stillness, gratitude for the pastoral care I received, gratitude that the congregation was not just a place I worshipped but that in many ways it was my first family.
But I suppose you cannot have everything. All of us carry within us contradictions, and the pastor of my youth was no different. Thankfully, what I remember in this regard is a shorter list than the one I just gave you. I remember that he withheld communion from a member of the congregation (who also happened to be his much younger cousin) simply for being gay. I had not yet figured out what answer I would give to the question of sexual orientation but regardless of the answer I might give one day, I knew that it was wrong to withhold the sacrament from anyone who earnestly desired it. The other strange thing I remember was when our pastor came back from a visit with Missouri Synod folk in Fort Wayne. It was obvious that the visit had impressed him, which was fine, but I remember that not long after this trip he mentioned in a sermon that if you prayed earnestly and sincerely, God would give you what you asked, even if it were a Cadillac.
It is peripheral to the story that my father did not think much of American luxury cars (my family had its hangups, too), what is important was that even as a teen I knew that God had not answered all my prayers, even those prayed with much sincerity. And maybe I also thought that perhaps God was merciful enough just to do things (on God’s terms, in God’s time), even without us first having to jump through the hoop of us mustering incredible amounts of piety.
And finally, it seemed such faith turned God into our errand boy, or genie, or something like that.
I never debated our pastor on it, but I remember this well.
Our story from the Book of Exodus is striking, not because of the miracle God provided when the Israelites were thirsty but because of the people’s quarreling. I am not suggesting that they were not thirsty, or that the wilderness is a fun place. The wilderness can only be a fun place for affluent 21st century Westerners who – lacking existential anxiety – seek adventure because they think they have everything else.
I am not trying to downplay the Israelites’ real need for water. But the story stands out because it follows immediately on the heels of God providing Manna and quails. It seems that the people have an exceedingly short memory. They have forgotten that the God who led them from slavery into freedom cares for them and will provide for them, and so they imagine not God’s goodness but their own death. It’s a bit self-centred, if you ask me.
Yet, if I am honest, I will say that I can relate to the people. Two weeks ago we bought a house. A week ago we put our house on the market. We have had plenty of showings, but no one has made an offer yet.
I worry and I lie awake at night.
I do not say to God or to Warren or Lorne, “Why did you bring us out of Abbotsford, to kill us and our children?” I don’t say it nor do I think it, but I can understand the peoples’ anxiety.
And perhaps you can think of times when you have been anxious or of things that make you anxious right now. Anxiety can make us panic, and in panic we forget God’s past faithfulness but only think of the present.
On the other hand, “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” Romans 5:3-5)
Paul suggests that having instant gratification is opposite to having character and opposite to learning to hope (hope is something we learn, it does not appear by magic). People of hope are not necessarily people who have everything, rather, lack appears a prerequisite for character and for hope.
Experience bears this to be true, which may explain the crisis of faith in the industrialized Western world, while people elsewhere, people who are suffering, see God not as a solution to be invoked, as the wand to be waved, or the genie to appear but as present in and with their problems. They can see that the crucified God is their God.
Don’t get me wrong: I want our house to sell at the best possible price (although I know that the prices are insane and we would all be better off if they were what they were 10 or 20 years ago). But whether God is real and whether God is my God and whether I have a future does not depend on what we get for our house or when we get it, as important as it is. That would be shallow. It would put God to the test. And putting anyone to the test is not usually a sign of a strong relationship.
Whether God is God depends not on my criteria, not on the hoops I construct to have God jump through. In fact, whether God is God is the wrong question. God is and whose who are in God have life.
That is the experience of the Samaritan woman. She in her neediness came face to face with God, and because of her neediness she was open to receiving God and receiving the truth that in Jesus God turns our reality of death into life. The desert becomes a blooming landscape, the dry land becomes fertile land, and our lives produce fruit of the Spirit.
For all this it is helpful to be people of memory. A people who remember God’s liberation from slavery, and who remember Manna and quails, so that even in a dry and barren land we would drink living water.