“…How is it that some of us feel helped and others do not? Our lessons suggest that the answer has a great deal to do with the level of our trust in God.” Photo: Shutterstock
Water is something we cannot live without. Human life depends on having enough water in our bodies, enough water to drink. We need water to replenish, renew and refresh us, especially when we are thirsty, tired and dry. If you have ever lived in a hot desert climate like the American Southwest, you know that it is easy to become dehydrated without even realizing it. People carry bottles of water with them, which they drink throughout the day, to avoid feeling dizzy, weary or faint.
Imagine what it would be like not to have the water you need. That was the situation of the Jewish people as they traveled out of Egypt into the Promised Land through the Sinai Peninsula. It was a rocky, barren, arid region in which food and water were hard to come by. Thirst became a steady companion. People began to feel depression and anxiety and resentment. They thought they were leaving Egypt for a better life, but they found themselves dying of thirst in a desert. Where was God anyway?
The Samaritan woman whom Jesus encountered had a jar that she had to go and fill at the public well every time she needed water for anything. It was an endless, tiresome chore, but no more tiresome and discouraging than her life. She had five husbands and was now living with a man who was not her husband. Had the others died, or had her relationships with them just not worked out? It doesn’t matter. Whatever the circumstances, she had come to a point of profound skepticism about life’s promise for her. She felt that there was something wrong with her or wrong with men or wrong with life or wrong with God or a combination of all those things. She was unhappy, unhopeful and untrusting.
If you are battered enough, discouraged enough, disappointed enough, frustrated enough, you begin to give up hope that anything good will come of your life. You go through the routine of living without really living. Everything seems pointless. Nothing seems to matter. It’s a kind of drought of the soul, a sort of “so what?” attitude about life that nothing really counts.
This metaphor of desert and drought will speak to some of us more than others. Some of us may not feel we are traveling through a desert, but we are not flourishing either. We are getting by as best we can, doing as well as we can. We are surviving in the desert but not really thriving, and it bothers us. Something is missing in our lives.
Yet others of us are indeed in the desert where there is not enough water. The things that we are doing day after day are not bearing fruit. The personal relationships that define our lives are more problematical than pleasurable. They are characterized more by conflict than by harmony. Physically, emotionally and spiritually we are more down than up. God seems more remote than near, like the man I once visited to offer communion. He was wracked with pain, the cancer had long since gotten the best of him, and his days were dwindling to precious few. “Would you like to share in communion?” I asked him. Bitterness tinged his voice as he replied, “Not after what God has done to me!” Here was a man in the wilderness who knew life only as bleak and desolate and dry. Maybe you can appreciate what that man was going through, because you’ve been there.
Shakespeare wrote, “Never morning wore to evening but some heart did break.” That time will come for each of us at some point in our lives. The stories of the Israelites and the woman at the well are told in order to help us believe that, when we find ourselves in dry places, God sees, God cares, God responds.
The Israelites were weary and angry with thirst, and God gave them water. A woman’s life had been battered by one loss after another, and in Jesus she found a depth of acceptance and affirmation and care which restored her soul. Apparently, God shows his love best when we go through our worst.
A book that has meant so much to me through the years is The Diary of a Country Priest by Georges Bernanos. It is the story of a young priest carrying on his ministry in a difficult country parish with its full share of conflicts, betrayals, sins, failures, victories, and virtues – the stuff of life. In summing up his difficulties (his sense of failing people and his Lord at the end) and in taking everything into consideration (his people’s failures and sins as well as his own), the country priest concludes his diary with these words: “Grace is everywhere.”
Some of you know what that means. You know it to be true. You have received and continue to receive, grace upon grace in countless and varied ways. You have cast your burdens upon the Lord. You have experienced God’s sustaining power. You have asked for a drink, and the rock has opened for you in the desert.
Others of you are saying to yourself, “This has not been my experience. I have prayed earnestly but no rocks have opened for me. My life seems dry and barren, and I often wonder, ‘Where is God?'”
If God helps us through the deserts of our lives, how is it that some of us feel helped and others do not? Our lessons suggest that the answer has a great deal to do with the level of our trust in God. We are like that man who fell over the edge of the cliff and managed to grab with both hands a root sticking out of the side of the cliff. Dangling there, he looked up and shouted, “Help! Is there anybody up there?” A strong voice came from a cloud above the cliff. “Yes, I am here, my son. Trust me and let go of the root.” There was a moment of silence, and then the man shouted, “Is there anybody else up there?”
It is true that some things need to be seen in order to be believed. It is also true that some things must be believed in order to be seen. The gracious care of God is one of those things. Those who can testify to the reality of that grace are people who have let go, people who have trusted themselves, their pains, their perplexities, their weariness, their skepticism, their grief, their loneliness to God. And they have found that the water God has given them in Jesus has become in them a spring of water welling to eternal life.
When William Butler Yeats died, his friend W.H. Auden wrote: “In the desert of the heart, let the healing fountain start to flow.”
It can happen and will happen, if we are willing to give up control over ourselves – willing to let life be life as it ebbs and flows, and less anxious about whether we are getting our way or not, or getting what we want or not. It means opening yourself to the possibilities of God, letting God seep through your life, renew and refresh your soul. God comes to you, as Thomas Merton put it, “selling nothing, judging nobody” – and in the process you find healing, wholeness and hope for your life.
Dr. Bernard Nathanson died last month. Canadians probably would not know who he is. The best way to describe him is to say that Bernard Nathanson was the Henry Morgenthaler of the United States. He ran the largest abortion facility in the Western world, personally performing over 5,000 abortions, and presiding over 60,000 of them as director of the clinic.
Though his public life was stellar, his personal life was a failure. He was living in a desert of unhappiness, an atheist, divorced three times, and admitted performing an illegal abortion on his girlfriend in the 1960s. Despite being a leading figure in the abortion movement, he struggled with the meaning of his life and work. Despite the praise of his colleagues, his life felt dry, arid and parched.
Nathanson stopped performing abortions in the late 1970s, and eventually became a strong opponent of abortion, even making one of the most widely seen films on the subject.
At an international symposium in 1994, Bernard Nathanson was scheduled to speak about chemical abortion, but at the last minute decided to share his spiritual journey. He had been on a long road from Egypt to the Promised Land, still walking in the wilderness.
At the end of his talk, though, he said he was standing on the brink of conversion to Christianity. The room exploded with cheers.
In 1996, he was baptized in a private ceremony at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York by Cardinal John O’Connor. That same year he went on to write his bestselling autobiography, The Hand of God.
The diocese of Brooklyn’s newspaper, The Tablet, reported that a week before his death, his friend Father Frank Paone visited him in the hospital. Nathanson turned to the priest and said that he hoped God could forgive him. Father Paone replied, “Dr. Nathanson, God already has.”
To know that you are forgiven?that you are never out of the reach of God, that God’s grace is greater than your guilt, that God loves you always and forever – that’s the peace which comes to us when we put our trust in God. God will lead us through the dry places of our lives where our thirst will be quenched and our souls refreshed by the living water of his love.
Grace is everywhere.
— The Rev. Dr. Gary Nicolosi is the rector at St. James Westminster Anglican Church in London, Ont.