Sunday, March 19, 2017

Sermon: "Spiritual Boot Camp: Hydrate" (John 4: 5-15)

Water is essential in any kind of boot camp exercise program. Your body needs water. Start drinking an hour before you exercise, and drink water while you exercise. Water is life.
The same is true when you are trying to grow spiritual muscles. Water - living water - is essential.
We think about water a lot here in California. It seems we either have not enough of it, or too much. Not much rain falls here along the coast, but if you drive east, past San Bernardino, you come to the highest mountains in southern California, mountains which catch the precipitation as the storm clouds move over the land. These mountains reach up to 11,500 feet at Mt. San Gorgonio. In the winter, snow falls on these mountains. In the spring, the snow melts, and flows into streams and creeks and seeps into the ground.
Loch Leven is our camp and conference center located at 4,000 feet just east of San Bernardino, at the base of Mt. San Gorgonio. It’s a low enough elevation that summer temperatures there are still quite warm. However, Mountain Home Creek flows through camp. The creek is lined on both sides by oak and pine trees that provide abundant shade along its banks.
The creek flows year-round, even in drought years. Without that creek, there would be little shade at Loch Leven, and no water to drink. The water that flows through that creek really is the life of the camp. Sitting by that creek, listening to the water gurgle and babble, watching bees hover near the berry bushes, is one of my favorite spots in the whole world to sit and be still and know the presence of God.
In northern California, there is a Disciples camp called the Community of the Great Commission. Before I came to Long Beach, I spent many weeks counseling and directing camps at CGC. (That’s what we called it; it’s a bit much to always be saying, “Community of the Great Commission.”)
Like Loch Leven, CGC is located at about 4,000 feet above sea level.
However, CGC is very different than Loch Leven. Instead of being in a canyon, with a stream flowing through it, CGC is located on a high, broad hill. It’s relatively flat, but the ground gently slopes downward in all directions from the center of camp.
There is no stream flowing through CGC. But the camp still needs water. So there is a well, and the well is deep. It reaches down nearly 1,000 feet to reach water. That water is pumped up to the surface, and used to cook meals, fill the swimming pool, quench the thirst of campers, and wash the dirt off their bodies.
At both Loch Leven and CGC, water is not taken for granted. If something happens to interrupt the supply of water, camp cannot take place. Once or twice I’ve been at camps where something happened to the water supply, and we were worried we might have to cancel camp and send campers home. When the water situation was particularly uncertain, we even told the campers: “If it’s yellow, let it mellow, but if it’s brown, flush it down.”
Fortunately, every time that’s happened while I was at camp, the situation was resolved… though I do remember being urged to conserve water, and once or twice not being able to use the pool because the little water that was available was needed for cooking and drinking.
Here in the city, we sometimes take our water for granted. Even during our recent record-breaking drought, when we were urged to conserve and cut water use, it never really seemed that we wouldn’t have clean drinking water whenever we turned on the tap.
I did, once, take a little tour of the water treatment facility at Reservoir Park, just two short blocks from my house. I learned about how some of the water we get comes from local groundwater, and how much of the rest comes from hundreds of miles away. One of the greatest fears emergency planners have is that some event, like an earthquake, will disrupt the flow of water from one part of the state to another, damaging the infrastructure that is used to transport water, leaving millions without access to safe, clean drinking water.
It reminds me of what I learned earning the Wilderness Survival Merit Badge in scouts, about how to find little bits of water in nature when you are desperate. We learned to dig a hole in the ground, place a cup or bowl in the bottom center of the hole, and cover the top of the hole with clear plastic. Place one small pebble in the center of the plastic, so that it pulls it down. The idea is that the sun will cause moisture in the ground to condense on the plastic, and the pebble pulling the plastic down will cause the water to slide down to the center and fall into the bowl.
Theoretically, it should work.
Anyway, my point is that water is life. We cannot live without water.
The Dakota and Lakota people of the northern plains have, in recent months, been fighting to protect the water on their native lands. The Dakota Access Pipeline is being built across their land. Federal law requires that the tribes be consulted, but the law has been ignored.
At one time, a route that took the pipeline near the city of Bismarck, North Dakota was considered, but it was rejected because that route posed a threat to Bismarck’s drinking water. So instead, the pipeline was routed through tribal lands, across sacred burial sites, and through the rivers and lakes that provide native people with their drinking water.
Pipelines like the one being constructed have ruptured and spilled oil countless times, even in the past few weeks and months. There is a very real danger that this pipeline will, at some point, also rupture, spilling oil right into the lakes and rivers. This is why the Standing Rock tribe is protesting the pipeline. They understand that water is life, and must be protected.
The prophet Ezekiel understood the sacredness of water. In the message he relayed from God, he said: “Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, but you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture? When you drink of clear water, must you foul the rest with your feet? And must my sheep eat what you have trodden with your feet, and drink what you have fouled with your feet?” [34.18-19]. Ezekiel’s greater concern was those who take and use resources for themselves, but deny access to necessary, life-giving resources for others.
Which is exactly what the oil companies, and our government, are doing. They are denying access to safe, clean water. At Standing Rock. In Flint. And in so many other places and in so many ways, they are putting profits over lives.
Today’s scripture story is about a Samaritan woman who came to a well to draw some water. She was thirsty. She came seeking water. She came seeking life.
In so many ways, she had been denied what she needed to live. Her very being, her very essence was deemed of no value. Just like many today, whose lives are not recognized as having value. Black lives. Transgender lives. Immigrant lives.
As we learn from the story, she was a Samaritan - and Jews did not talk with or acknowledge Samaritans. Samaritan lives did not matter. Samaritan lives had little value.
She was also, obviously, a woman - and women, in those days, could only speak publicly through their husbands. Women’s lives did not matter. Women’s lives had little value.
Perhaps for these reasons, this Samaritan woman had been through some difficult relationships, and had endured at least five marriages that did not last.
Scripture does not say whose fault it was that those marriages did not last. A lot of people throughout the centuries like to assume that it’s her fault. Why do they assume this? I don’t know. Maybe because she is a woman? Women are often blamed for things even when it’s not their fault, so who knows?
But what if it wasn’t her fault? Some years back, James Forbes - in one of the most memorable sermons I ever heard - redirected attention to the five husbands.
He said: Maybe husband number one got tired of her; She didn’t stay young forever, but that’s what he wanted. He only saw the surface beauty, and soon was ready to move on.
Maybe husband number two just wanted a trophy wife; someone to make him look good; and eventually, he found someone who could do that job better.
Maybe husband number three abused her; maybe he kicked her out, or maybe she got up the courage to leave him.
Maybe she stood up to husband number four, and he couldn’t get what he wanted from her.
Maybe husband number five thought he could change her; by husband number five, there was a rumor that she was a lesbian, but husband number five thought, well, she just hadn’t met the right man yet. Needless to say, that didn’t work out.
Each one of those husbands took a little bit of her life away, until now, when we see her, alone, at the well, desperately hoping there is still some life to be found that can save her. She’s so desperately thirsty; thirsty for water; thirsty for life.
Every place of worship should be a place where water is found. Every place of worship should be a place where life is found. Every place of worship should be a spring or a well where the life and the dignity of every person is recognized and affirmed.
The woman at the well, searching for water, searching for life: she is everywhere. There are so many in this world who are in the same situation. They go to church, but too often, water is denied. Life is denied.
So they leave the church.
Because too much of our spiritual water is polluted. If religion is used to exclude, that’s polluted water. If religion is used to benefit the rich at the expense of the poor, that’s polluted water. If religion blindly follows leaders who govern unjustly, who do not seek the welfare of all people and especially the poor, that’s polluted water.
It’s time to clean up the water. It’s time to invite those who are thirsty to drink the water, the pure water of life.
Here is your spiritual boot camp exercise for the week: drink water.
Skip the soda. Skip going through the coffee shop drive-thru. Skip bottled water, because it isn’t any better than tap water, and creates unnecessary plastic pollution.
This week...
Drink water, and remember that water is life.
Drink water, and remember those who are denied lifegiving water.
Drink water, and if you regularly spend money on drinks other than water, donate the money you save by not purchasing other drinks to an organization or ministry that provides life to others. Week of Compassion is the first thing that comes to mind, but there are other places where you could donate it. The Long Beach LGBT Center. An environmental organization. An organization focusing on women’s health. Our Disciples reconciliation ministry. Just to name a few life-giving organizations.

And with every glass of water you drink, give thanks to God, the source of water, the source of life.