Sunday, March 03, 2013


Sermon preached in the Church of All Saints, New Eltham
at Parish Mass on March 3rd, 2013

O God, you are my God; eagerly I seek you;
my soul thirsts for you, my flesh faints for you,
as in a barren and dry land where there is no water.


I’m fascinated by ponds.  There’s something alluring about them whatever their shape or size, from ones as big as the Serpentine to the little one I had dug in my back garden when I lived in Romford.  I can spend ages looking into their murky depths and wondering what lies deep in the heart of the waters.  But better still is sitting by the ocean – just … watching. 

Water fascinates most of us, maybe because we have a primordial memory of life emerging from the seas or because of the fact that life still comes into being surrounded by water.  Or because most of our bodies are made up of the stuff.  So the opening of today’s first reading from the Prophet Isaiah is likely to speak to many of us: ‘Come, all who are thirsty, come to the water!’  Maybe such a call in our rain-sodden climate lacks something of the resonance it would have for people in hotter lands but we are still have a physical, emotional – and spiritual - need of water. 

The passage was written when the Israelites were refugees in the desert-bound land of what is now Iraq, and that invitation to feast on free food and drink would have played in their memory of the country they once inhabited.  Like all refugees, they would have longed for all that had sustained them.  But Isaiah’s words are also a wake-up call to something far deeper than having plenty to eat and drink for he goes on to add: ‘Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near.’  It’s part of a wider call to the Israelites that they return to their relationship with God, the source of life.  Three chapters on Isaiah continues this call to return to living in close relationship with God and speaks of the way this must be associated with practising justice for all.  He says that if they seek the Lord and his ways then they will be:
‘like a well-watered garden,
like a spring whose water never run dry.’ (58:11)

Elsewhere in the bible people are invited to uncover their own ‘springs of living water’, a theme taken up by St. John at the story of the encounter between Jesus and the unnamed woman of Samaria whom he encounters at a well.  During their pointed exchange, Jesus declares that: ‘no one who drinks the water that I shall give will ever be thirsty again: the water I shall give will become a spring of water, welling up for eternal life.’ (Jn. 4:14)

Now all this is highly symbolic, but all of us have the ability to be life-giving: we can be, as it were, a spring of water for others.  I guess we’ve all had the experience of being with people we find really refreshing, who seem to have a secret source of life.  And of being with those who drain us, who seem shrivelled up and barren.  In those words to the Samaritan woman, Jesus points to the way that within each of us is the entrance to life in all its fullness, to the spring of living water, water for the benefit of all. 

There’s something very powerful in the symbolism of the Well: that small opening in the earth that plumbs into the darkness and enables us to draw life from the depths.  It’s symbolic of our hidden life with God who is the ultimate source of those ‘waters of life.’  When trying to talk about the ways in which we can develop this hidden life with God, the great Carmelite, St. Teresa of Avila, compared it to how a garden is watered.  Teresa noted that (in her day) there were four ways to do that.  You can draw it up from a well by hand; by the use of a pump; by a stream flowing through the garden – or by waiting for rain to water a garden.  And she went on, in her classic Autobiography, to explain how all these methods apply to the life of prayer. 

All of us have the means of drawing from our well.  We can ‘let down’ the bucket into the depths of our being by turning our inner eye – our awareness, our attention – to rest on the world within.  Like the person who, coming to the edge of a well, pauses, rests their arms on its sill and gazes into the cool depths, listening for the sounds, smelling the coolness and looking to see if they can find the bottom, the heart of prayer concerns desiring to seek God in the depths of our being.  St. Teresa realised this takes time and effort: drawing from a well is not as easy as waiting for it to rain, but if the rains don’t come or the streams dry up (metaphorically speaking) the well can be the only way to find life-giving water.  The trouble, of course, is that many have given up bothering to nourish their inner life which, as a consequence, has shrivelled.  Like some seed that has fallen in the desert it can never die, but it can lie dormant and useless for many years.  But, with only a little watering, it can come alive.

Lent is a time to tend the garden of our life with God.  The desert into which Jesus was driven, the inhospitable place where the Israelites lived as refugees, all remind us of our need to nurture our life with God.  Jesus sometimes used images of hidden things to speak about relationship with God: a treasure buried in a field; yeast hidden in dough; a mustard seed.  Once we are acknowledge the hidden presence of God we can try, for a few minutes each day, to imagine ourselves sitting by a well and turning our inner eye to the depths of our being where God dwells. 
Today’s Gradual Psalm touches on this deep need:
O God, you are my God; eagerly I seek you;
my soul thirsts for you, my flesh faints for you,
 as in a barren and dry land where there is no water.

The psalmist uses images of thirst and hunger and tells us that our deepest need is for a relationship with God who can quench our thirst and satisfy our hunger.  For God has placed within each of us a desire that only God can only be satisfy.  As another psalm expresses:
Deep calls to deep in the thunder of your waterfalls… (Ps. 42: 8)

I am glad that you are re-introducing the psalms for these are rightly called the ‘prayer-book of the Bible’.  Reciting or singing them in a reflective way can open that yearning for God which underlies each of them.  And it’s from the ground of our entire human experience that the psalms arise, not just from the ‘holy’ parts.  Grief, anger, frustration, joy, longing, fear – all this, and more, is the ground out of which the psalmist’s prayer springs.  Generations of Jews and Christians have used them as a means, not just of giving expression to their own feelings, but of recognising that the whole of life needs to be opened to God.  So try meditating on some verses from that psalm (63).  Let its words speak into your heart:
Therefore I have gazed upon you in your holy place,
that I might behold your power and glory.

Our society is full of people whose hunger and thirst is never satisfied and who search for something that will fulfil their deepest need.  But the only way we will be satisfied in the deepest part of our being, that part which is hungry and thirsty for Life in all its fullness, is to spend time, each day, just seeking to listen to the voice of God’s loving call to us.   ‘Come, all who are thirsty, come to the water.  Why spend … your labour for that which does not satisfy?  Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so you may live.’ (Is. 55: 2,3)

As we continue to journey with the Lord in the barren wilderness of Lent try turning your attention to your need for living water and seek to find that place of hidden springs within you so that, when Easter comes, you will know the life of God flowing through you.

So to end there’s a little poem by R. S. Thomas I’d like to share with you as a parting gift:

Some ask the world
            and are diminished
in the receiving
of it.  You gave me

only this small pool
that the more I drink
from, the more overflows
            me with sourceless light.

No comments: