The Sacrament of Our Longing – Br. James Koester

Exodus 17: 1 – 7

There hadn’t been anyone there. At least there hadn’t been anyone there when I looked out the window as the coach pulled to the side of the road and slowed to a stop. There hadn’t been anyone there, as all 30 of us got off to stretch our legs. But suddenly people began to emerge from the barren landscape. At first, it was a young boy, and then a couple of other children. One or two adults came into view. Soon the whole community was there. Fires were laid. Tea was made. Various goods for sale were displayed on blankets spread out on the ground. As we drank our tea, we were invited to buy what was being offered for sale. If I remember correctly, I did but something, but now can’t remember what it was.

I was in the wilderness. It was the fall of 1998 and I had gone with a group of pilgrims from St. George’s College, Jerusalem, to Egypt. We had spent a few days in Cairo, and then made our way to St. Antony’s Monastery, the home of a thriving community of Coptic monks located in the place where monasticism began with St. Antony. We where now in the Sinai on our way to St. Catherine’s Monastery, located at the foot of the mountain where tradition tells us that Moses encountered the Burning Bush[1], and then later received the Ten Commandments[2], and where Elijah had heard the still small voice and knew it to be God.[3]

Just as you would imagine, the landscape was barren and harsh, especially when the sun was at its height. Rocky outcrops seemed to be everywhere, and while there was evidence of plant life, it seemed mostly to be scrub, not much good for anything. But somehow, somewhere, this community of people seemed to make a living, tending their flocks, and no doubt doing what they were doing that day when I met them: appearing out of no where to offer strangers tea, and an opportunity to buy a few souvenirs. Clearly, they lived somewhere, but there was no evidence of village, or camp. There was certainly no sign of water.   

I can’t imagine that things have changed much, not so much between 1998 and today, although that’s probably true, but between 1998 and the day the people of Israel arrived in a place much like the one in which I found myself that day.

We know from earlier in Exodus that people lived in the Sinai wilderness at the time of Moses. It was to Midian, just beyond Sinai that Moses fled after he had killed the Egyptian.[4] It was in the Sinai that Moses earned a living tending his father-in-law’s sheep.[5] Then as now, water was scarce, and shepherds, not unlike modern pilgrim guides, would need to know where water could be found so that life could be sustained.

And that is where we find ourselves today. The People of Israel have fled a life of slavery in Egypt. They have followed Moses, the experienced shepherd into the wilderness. And they find themselves running out of water. From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink.[6] And they complained. Indeed, they complained bitterly, so much so that the place became known as Massah and Meribah, which means test and quarrel, for it is there that God’s people tested and quarreled, not simply with Moses, but with God. And no wonder, for we know that people can live without food for three or four weeks, but without water for just three or four days. Without water the Israelites would be near death. [The] people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?”[7]

Now, I don’t for a minute want to suggest that our situation is exactly parallel. We have not just escaped from slavery. And yet, like the People of Israel, we find ourselves in a wilderness. The landscape at the moment seems especially dry and particularly barren. We are hungry. We are thirsty. Yes, perhaps we are not about to die, but none the less we are longing, and like the Israelites, we look back towards Egypt and long to return. How many of us have not longed to return to what once was? We long to return to January. But like the Israelites, we cannot go back, in either time or space. And so, camping here, between what was and what will be, we long for water.

Many, including many we know, long for the Sacrament. They long for the food and drink which sustains their souls. They long for a sense of wider belonging, in a community of faith. They long to know, and be known, in a place that is larger than themselves, or the work that they do each day on Zoom, or at the kitchen table. They long to see, and taste, and touch the things of God, in a physical, tangible, enfleshed way. Many, including many we know, long for the water the gives life.

On the other hand, we long for them. We long for the nourishment of their fellowship, and to be reminded in a tangible way that the fellowship of the faith is larger than this circle of Brothers. We long to know again, as our Rule reminds us, the gift of friendship with women, [which Jesus knew]; [for] without it we run the risk of spiritual and personal impoverishment. [8] We long to slip through the camera lens, or this mic on the ambo, and greet those who cannot now be with us, in person. Like so many, we Brothers also long for the water that gives life.

Right now, when we cannot share the Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood beyond this circle of Brothers, it is in the sacrament of our longing that Christ makes himself known, and unites us one to another in his Body. The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.[9] Because there is one longing, we who are many are one body.

It is our longing for water that unites us to Jesus on the cross. I am thirsty.[10] It is our longing for water that unites us to the woman of Samaria. Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty….[11] It is our longing for water that unites us to the Psalmist. As the deer longs for the water-brooks, so longs my soul for you, O God.[12] It is our longing for water that unites us to the People of Israel wandering in the wilderness. Give us water to drink.[13] It is our longing for water that unites us one to another, throughout time and space, and brings us to our knees. Thy kingdom come.

The posture of God’s people from time immemorial, is a posture of longing, not so much for what was, but for what will be. It is in this posture of longing, that we find blessing. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst…, for they will be filled.[14]

It is not God’s nature to abandon. Even on the cross, even in that moment of despair, my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?[15] God did not abandon the Son. Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.[16] Even in that moment of bitter complaint, God did not abandon the people God had claimed for his own. The Lord said to Moses, ‘Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.’[17]

This is a time of particular longing, as we all long for the water of life. As hot and dusty, and as miserable as we all may be, God will not abandon us, for it is not God’s nature to abandon. We may not be united, as we once were, in the Sacrament of the Eucharist. But we are united in the sacrament of our longing. We may not be united, as we once were, in the fellowship of physical community, but we are united in the community of our longing. And God’s promise to the longing people of God, is that God is Emmanuel, God with us, even, and perhaps especially when we long. Give us water to drink. Thy kingdom come. Blessed are those who thirst … for they will be filled.

Lectionary Year and Proper: Proper 21A
Solemnity or Major Feast Day: The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

[1] Exodus 3: 1ff

[2] Exodus 19ff

[3] 1 Kings 19: 11ff

[4] Exodus 2: 11ff

[5] Exodus 3: 1ff

[6] Exodus 17: 1

[7] Exodus 17: 3

[8] SSJE, Rule of Life, The Graces of Friendship, chapter 42, page 85

[9] I Corinthians 10: 16 – 17

[10] John 19. 28

[11] John 4: 15

[12] Psalm 42

[13] Exodus 17: 2

[14] Matthew 5: 6

[15] Mark 15: 34

[16] Luke 23: 46

[17] Exodus 17: 5 – 6

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  1. Cristina milne on October 1, 2020 at 18:55

    Thank you Br. James for your caring and very powerful meditation.
    God our Father bless you and the Brothers.

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