Metaphors of wilderness and deserts abound during Lent as we spend 40 days traveling in the wilderness with Jesus. So it’s not surprising when themes of being thirsty emerge too. My text from the prophet Isaiah begins by calling the thirsty to get a drink, and jumps off from there about all kinds of thirst.
Last September on a glorious sunny Friday, I hiked up Edmands Path in the White Mountains to the top of Mt. Eisenhower. Ike is the easiest of the Presidentials to climb, and I made great time hiking the 3 mile course. The weather even at the top of the mountain was spectacular, with temps in the high 50s to low 60s and tremendously blue skies. The other peaks over to Mt. Washington —Mts. Franklin and Monroe—looked like they were 300 yards off. I pulled out my map, saw that Monroe was only 1.2 miles away, and with plenty of daylight, I changed my initial plans and headed over.
Unfortunately, I had forgotten the three rules of mountaineering. “It’s always farther than it looks. It’s always higher than it looks. And it’s always harder than it looks.” Crawford Path, which leads to Monroe, runs along the ridge line, and I hiked along, up and over Franklin on toward my goal. As I neared Mt. Monroe, I was a secondary trail veer left with a sign to Mt. Monroe, however I could clearly see the mountain still in front of me to my right. This side trail head straight up an a boulder filled summit and certainly wasn’t Monroe. Trusting the sign, I took this path up. But as I continued to climb up, I couldn’t see a tail to Mt. Monroe except the one I had just left and this felt wrong and a bit exhausting so I headed back down to the trail juncture and resumed Crawford Path. After walking 10 minutes or so, I ran into some other hikers. I asked for clarification. “You need to take the path up and over ‘mini-Monroe,’” they told me, pointing to the high mound of boulders I had left, “and then when you come down the far side you’ll see the path up to Monroe.” It was getting warm.
I thanked them then headed back once more, making it up and over and then on to Monroe. Like it’s mini-me, it also has a large boulder field to work through as you ascend. I made it, and began retracing my steps on this now 9 mile hike.
I didn’t notice that I was running very low on water until I got back to Edmands Path with about 3 miles to go. I tried to get a drink from my camelback tube and got very little water. I immediately took my pack off to check; sure enough the reservoir was nearly empty. I can tell you that those three miles felt much much longer than they actually were as I tried desperately hard not to think about water which was nearly impossible to do; I’m not sure I’ve ever felt thirstier in my life.
Metaphors of water in the desert occur often in our Lenten readings in part because of the physical landscape of the Holy Lands. “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters,” the Lord declares. Come get water! Come to me, listen and live. The movement from actual refreshing water to the kind of water we need to sustain our lives happens swiftly. Isaiah knows the people of Judah understand being thirsty physically, the question becomes do they get it spiritually.
One of the hopes of a Lenten fast is that through it God will expose those areas in your life where you need God to act. By depriving ourselves physically, we expose a spiritual need. We get an honest glimpse of who we truly are, and we see how much we need God. How often sin quietly but devastatingly creeps into our lives. When things are going well and our physical needs are met, it’s hard to recognize this. But when we strip things away by fasting the truth becomes more apparent. We see how thirsty we really are.
“Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thought; let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.” It’s here that Isaiah gets to the heart of the matter, when he uncovers what it is we thirst for most of all: mercy.
This week I came across a book that is a transcript of an interview with Pope Francis titled The Name of God is Mercy. When asked to explain what mercy is, Francis responds, “Etymologically, ‘mercy’ derives from misericords, which means opening one’s heart to wretchedness. And immediately we go to the Lord: mercy is the divine attitude which embraces, it is God’a giving himself to us, accepting us, and bowing to forgive. Jesus said he came not for those who were good but for the sinners. He did not come for the healthy, who do not need the doctor, but for the sick. For this reason, we can say that mercy is God’s identity card.” I was struck by the beginning, his idea that mercy begins with opening our hearts to its wretchedness. We often don’t think of it in those terms, we don’t often see ourselves truthfully. Oh we’ll compare ourselves to others, noticing how we aren’t as bad as someone else. But that’s like saying we’re not really that thirsty as we cross the desert. It’s not being honest.
But interestingly, the Pope isn’t saying this in order to gain the upper hand, religiously speaking. This isn’t an attempt to present himself as far superior or of our need to make amends by giving money to the church. Rather it’s when we open our hearts up to an honest look that we can then be embraced by God. As soon as we look deeply and honestly at our condition, God comes offering to remove that wretchedness. God comes to us not concerned with what we uncover, but with such deep mercy that we immediately know deeply how much God loves us.
But the problem is that we don’t believe this. We do not accept for truth that God truly grants us mercy and forgiveness when we see the truth of who we are, our own sins and the many times we’ve failed. But God sees those things for they are: a great hinderance in our own lives weighing us down and keeping us from the life God so desperately wants for us. We cannot begin to fathom that God doesn’t want to rub our noses in our failings, to make us feel guilty for a long time. The opening of our hearts, the acknowledging and seeing ourselves as we truly are, that’s enough in God’s mind, because it shows that we cannot do it on our own. That we need God’s help.
The parable Jesus tells his disciples is an interesting one about this man and his barren fig tree. He makes the case that it’s just taking up space, that it’s not doing what it was created to do; it’s useless. But the gardener sees promise. “Let it be for one more year,” he says. “Let me aerate the soil and give it some fertilizer and see that it is given every opportunity to succeed. And if after a year of all that care it still can’t produce, so be it.” And how could that fig tree not flourish when given that much attention and care? If given water and fertilizer and better soil and attention from the gardener, of course it’ll bear fruit. It’ll thrive.
Just like us. Jesus wants to do the same for us. To give us care and mercy. To loosen up the soil in the garden of our lives, and pull out those things that choke life away from us. To give us water to quench our thirsts. To give us an opportunity to thrive and bear fruit for the kingdom.
But you may be stuck by that last line and thinking that your life would resemble the tree that’s dead, and it’s only a matter of time before it becomes clear to God too. You may have gotten hooked there and slid back into a familiar place of despair. And I want to tell you that God loves you, just as you are. God knows who you are and what you’ve done. God created you and is privy to your innermost thoughts. God isn’t worried about all of that stuff, you are. God just wants you to know of that deep love and mercy God has for you. God doesn’t want us coming to church to be so filled with guilt that we leave this place worse than when we came in; God wants to offer you water, refreshing, life-giving water.
God knows that by holding on to that sin, that wretchedness, is like walking another mile without water in your bottle. And God knows that when you look at that wretchedness in your heart honestly, opening your heart up to the truth and being disgusted by what you see, that God is already there offering you that mercy. God is raining down water to sustain you and bring life to those parched places. God has mercy and abundantly pardons, and you are never, ever outside the reach of God’s loving and merciful embrace. Open your heart up to the wonderful mercy of God.