In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Things transatlantic are on my mind at the moment. Last Wednesday morning our Cathedral choir, together with a large number of cathedral staff and Chapter members bisected the starry Atlantic night en route to California and the Choir Tour which has been in the planning now for over a year and has finally come to fruition. Although of course by the bemusing miracle of time zones when I got a text message from Andrea to say that they had landed at about 2:30 in the morning on Thursday of last week, for them it was only early evening and they had another several hours of rigorous immigration checks and so on to endure. So far our choir have sung a concert at Stanford Memorial Church, undertaken an exchange with Stamford chamber chorale, sung Choral Evensong in Carmel by the Sea, visited what is reputedly one of the world’s finest aquariums (or is that aquaria?), and although they will all be snoozing in their beds at this hour, their Sunday engagement is to sing the choral Eucharist in Stanford Memorial Church before singing a concert in Saratoga. They are working enormously hard, they are having a great time, and I have made sure that they know how proud of them we are.
We of course are delighted that the Charpentier Consort are here to sing our services this weekend, and we rejoice that the tradition of choral music remains strong and healthy in this country and across the world. Praise God for voices uplifted in song.
But when I read today’s readings another transatlantic thing popped into my mind. Emma and I are huge fans of the West Wing, which many of you may recall is an episodic drama based on the regime of a Democratic president of the United States in the late 1990s. There’s an episode which I recalled as I read the story of the Israelites wandering in the wilderness of Sin and making their way to Rephadim, and complaining about the lack of water.
The president is discussing with his advisers a conflict in the Middle East, and he says: “my daughter had a teacher named Mister Pordy who had no interest in nuance. He asked why there is always conflict in the Middle East. My daughter raised her hand and said, “It’s a centuries-old religious conflict involving land and suspicion and culture.” “Wrong”, Mister Pordy said. “It’s because it’s incredibly hot and there’s no water.”
It’s incredibly hot, and there’s no water.
There’s a reason why water features so heavily in the biblical narratives. Those of us who have been coming to the Lent course on Wednesday evenings have been thinking with the Chancellor about the make-up and shape of the Bible. You know, how all the different books relate to each other and the chronology, what is history, what is metaphor, prophecy, myth and so on. What is absolutely undeniable is that the story of our salvation is played out in a part of the world that is “incredibly hot, and there’s no water.” Or rather, there is water, but it is located in specific places, jealously guarded, fought over, and probably the most precious commodity that exists.
And so water takes on, alongside its literal importance for the “whole congregation of the Israelites” who would become the Jewish people, throughout their history, a metaphorical and symbolic importance which we inherit in the Christian tradition as well. You need only glance at our font as you move to coffee after the service this morning and gaze at the flowing water pouring abundantly from the four arms of the cross to see that symbol in action, in sacramental form.
Some of you will remember the great floods of 2007. I was a curate in Gloucester during that time and some 200 houses or so in my parish were under water. We lost our electricity for something like 48 hours, but we lost our water for over two weeks. Now we were blessed by having local territorial Army units who train for this kind of thing all the time, and within hours of the water supply drying up there were bowsers on most street corners which were replenished through the day and the night with clean fresh water from somewhere outside the flooding zone. We had to potter down to the bowsers with our kettles and buckets and what-not, but it was actually fine of course. But what was interesting was the panic. The sense of helplessness and desperation was palpable even in a reasonably middle-class white-collar suburb in leafy Gloucestershire. They say don’t they that any community is only 3 square meals away from anarchy. Certainly that experience in 2007, gosh it’s 10 years ago now isn’t it, was a reminder of how fragile what we might want to call “civilisation” is, and also how much we take for granted the very basic things of life like water.
Why is there always conflict in the Middle East? It’s because it’s very hot, and there’s no water.
There are a number of biblical passages traditionally read during Lent. We’ve heard one of them, on which I preached two weeks ago, which of course is the temptation in the wilderness. In a fortnight we will hear another of the great passages, it’s an incredibly long gospel reading, so you have to pray for the crucifer that Sunday, the raising of Lazarus from the dead. Today’s readings formed the third of this famous triad. The woman at the well (itself of course a story of conflict and disagreement between the Samaritans and the Jews who we learn “do not share things” with each other), and the journey of the people of Israel through the wilderness and the miraculous provision of water in the desert.
There’s a reason why we hear these passages in Lent. Actually there are lots of reasons. One is because of course the symbol of water is very closely linked to baptism. And members of this congregation, and across the diocese are preparing to be baptised here in the candlelit darkness of Easter morning. There are a least two other reasons though. One is practical and one is spiritual. Actually, what I just said is not true. They’re both spiritual reasons, but one is about how we live out our faith externally and the other is more about how we resource it internally.
The second reason, which I’ll come on to in a minute, is about prayer. But I think it is really important for us to remember that at least part of this talk about water, as I’ve implied from my reference to the West Wing quotation, is really not metaphorical or symbolic. It is achingly, vitally practical. There are people all across the world right now, today, this minute, who are dying of thirst, or who are dying because the water that they are drinking is filthy and polluted and toxic. I remember what it was like having to ration clean water for a few days in Gloucester. It seems to me it is our Christian obligation to engage with the fact that our brothers and sisters live such very different lives to us that they are dying of thirst, and seek to do what we can to engage in social and environmental change which can alleviate supporting imbalance in the world’s resources. The Community Forum of this Cathedral, the body that represents you the congregation, has on several occasions in the past decade directed some of our charitable giving to Water Aid which is a charity that exists exactly for this reason. If you’re following the diocesan Pray booklets resources this Lent then you will know that every day there is an action that we are encouraged to undertake, and some of them are very, very practical and have to do with thinking about where some of our charitable giving is directed, and how we interact with simple things of life like water.
But prayer is part of this too. When we fail to pray, our lives dry up. We become barren, lifeless, and even on occasion poisonous or toxic. The other reason this passage is set for Lent is to remind us that we are created to be recipients of, and channels of, living water. There is something of faith here, something asking us whether we are ready to strike the rock and to expect living water to pour out. Will you do that this week? Will you grasp for the sort of faith that believes that God will pour into your life, into our community, into the world love and grace and hope and peace as abundantly as the water pours from the arms of the font?
Why is there conflict in our world? It is because it is very hot and there’s no water. Take up the challenge to do something practical about that this week, and to re-focus your prayers towards a world into which living water flows.