A sermon based on Exodus 17: 1-7
In a number of different contexts, I have been encouraging people to practice an ancient Christian tradition: lectio divina, or ‘holy reading’.
You take a passage of scripture and work through four steps with it. Here’s how I have described the steps:
Lectio Divina is a slow, contemplative praying of the scriptures. It helps us to listen deeply for God in the scriptures and engages us in conversation with the living God.
Lectio — Read the scripture passage (or a portion of it, if it is long) slowly, preferably out loud. Do this several times (at least three times). Pay attention to the words or phrases or images that speak to you. Some unexpected word or phrase may emerge as you repeatedly read the passage.
Meditatio — Meditate on the word or phrase that has drawn your attention as you read through the passage in the lectio stage. What thoughts, hopes, memories, desires, concerns, ideas come to mind?
Oratio — Pray the word(s) or phrase(s) that you have been meditating on. Enter into an unhurried, loving conversation with God. Interact with God as you would with one whom you know loves and accepts you. Offer to God the experiences that emerged in your meditation. Let the words or phrases from the scripture text speak to those experiences, with God’s healing grace.
Contemplatio—Rest in God’s presence, allowing yourself to receive God’s transforming love.
For many people, this is a different way of engaging the scriptures. As with any new skill or habit, people can feel uncomfortable with it. They tend to say, “I don’t get it”, or “I am not getting anything out of it”. When someone is learning to play the piano, it takes some time before they actually ‘hear the music’. When someone is first training to run in a long distance race, it takes some time before they find the rhythm. You learn to dance, to paint, to play baseball by making your way through a time period when you feel awkward.
Generally, we have been used to reading a passage of scripture in order to understand it. You ask, “What does this tell me about God or about Jesus or about how I should live the Christian life?” Some people get more serious about studying the Bible and seek to understand the historical background of a passage. What was the culture like when the story was happening? What did the words mean originally?
Other people, using the scriptures in their daily devotions, may approach a passage asking, “What does this tell me about prayer? about how I should treat my neighbour?” They stand back from the passage and figure out how it applies to their lives.
Many people have found these approaches helpful. However, a lot of people could not see how the Bible applied to their lives. There were some passages they just could not understand, no matter how much background information they got. Eventually, they gave up reading the Bible altogether.
Lectio divina does not invite you to understand the Bible. It invites you to stand under it. It says, “Do not step back from the scripture; step into it.” In lectio divina, you do not go to the scriptures to find out about God. You got to the scripture to encounter the living God, who is waiting to meet you there.
I encourage people to develop this practice because I am convinced that people do not first of all need to know more about God. They need first and foremost to know God. Years ago, I was at a workshop where the instructor asked someone, “Do you know the Shepherd’s Psalm?” The participant answered, “Yes, and I know the Shepherd too.”
We have thirsty souls: souls that are parched for the living God. Do you know what a thirsty soul feels like? When our throats are thirsty, they are dry and scratchy. When a soul is thirsty, it can feel like that deep yearning that hovers in the background of a busy life: a yearning that, when you stop long enough to attend to it asks, “Is this all there is?”
A thirsty soul can feel like a deep loneliness that does not go away, even when you have lots of family and friends.
In today’s Bible story, thirsty souls showed up in the midst of a crisis about having no water in a desert. The people were afraid and angry and feeling powerless. They turned on Moses because they needed someone to blame.
They turned to Moses, because that’s what we often do with our thirsty souls. We look for someone or something to fill the emptiness or to stop the loneliness. We think that it is someone or something that we are yearning for.
One of the elemental lessons to learn in your spiritual journey is that your deepest yearning, your deepest thirst is for the living God.
Somehow Moses knew that. When the people started complaining to him, he knew that he could not give them what they wanted. he know that only God could do that. So, he turned to god. He prayed a direct, honest prayer. He does not begin with polite or vaguely religious words. He launches into prayer: “What can I do with these people? Any minute now, they are going to kill me!” In other words, “This is your problem, God! Do something!”
Sometimes our prayers don’t go very deep because we are too polite with God. We only bring the surface stuff into our conversation with God — the places where we are still in control; the places where we still retain the illusion that we are in control. It is harder to trust God with the ugly parts of our life, with the broken places in our souls.
Even after God provides water for the people, Moses call the location “the place of quarrelling; the place of complaint”. This, too, is part of the journey. There will be places and times when our thirsty souls cry out, quarrelling with others, complaining about what we do not have. This story signals that even our quarrelling and complaining are invitations to encounter God. Even our brokenness and yearning and emptiness are invitations to place our whole lives in God’s hands.
Interestingly, when God answered Moses’ prayer, God provided water but, more importantly, God provides God’s own presence: “Go to the rock that you will strike with a rock and water will come out AND I will be standing there in front of you.”
God is not just ‘there’ to meet your needs and to answer your prayers. God is standing there in front of you, longing to enter into relationship with you; yearning to be in communion with you. In every part of your life, God is reaching out to be with you and to share God’s great love and grace and transforming power with you.
Do you believe that?
Brennan Manning was an author and public speaker who, often, would invite people to trust that deep love of God and to enter into it. In one talk, he says, “In the forty-eight years since I was first ambushed by Jesus in a little chapel in the Allegheny Mountains in western Pennsylvania, and then, in the literally thousands of hours of prayer and meditation, silence and solitude over those years, I am now utterly convinced that on judgement day, the Lord Jesus is going to ask us one and only one question: “Did you believe that I loved you, that I desired you; that I waited for you day after day; that is desired to hear your voice?” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pQi_IDV2bgM)
Do you believe that? That is what your soul is thirsty for. Jesus offers you himself — living water to quench your thirst. That is the invitation the lectio divina offers: an invitation into the heart of God’s love and God’s great longing for you.