There are many important things to consider when taking a long-distance bike trip. One of the most important, though often not the one that first comes to mind, is water. Because, you need to drink a lot of water when you are biking, but water is heavy and every extra bottle you carry takes up space and is that much more weight that you have to peddle over the next hill. So, it becomes a balancing act to figure out how frequently you can reasonably expect to find water on the trip and how many bottles of water you need to carry you between.
I learned this because a few years ago I planned a three-week bike-packing trip up the coast of New England, from the New York/Connecticut border to scenic twin cities of Calais, ME and St. Stephen NB. I got pretty good at finding places where I could fill up my water bottles—you never pass up an opportunity. Gas stations were reliably friendly about letting me use a sink, and on one particularly hot day, I found reprieve in a florist shop, where a somewhat surprised employee kindly showed me to the back sinks where they watered their floral arrangements.
There was one particularly empty stretch of road that I remember very clearly. I was in the middle of nowhere, the last town well behind me and the next one still a ways ahead. As the miles passed by, I grew keenly aware that I had seen no gas stations. I wasn’t out of water yet, but I knew I was starting to get low. I kept my eyes on the road in the distance, hoping to catch a glimpse of somewhere I could fill up. I started eyeing the scummy water in the roadside ditch, wondering if I was going to have to break out the water treatment chemicals I had packed for just such a moment as this.
Then, suddenly, a break in the trees revealed a driveway to a small church. I have no idea what community it served, as I had seen no homes for quite a while, but I pulled in, hoping I might get lucky and find a water spigot somewhere on the building. Instead, I found two women tending the garden by the front doors of the church. I introduced myself to them and asked if I might get some water from their church, and they warmly showed me to a sink where I had my fill of some of the best tasting water I have ever had.
As I thanked them, got back on my bike, and headed out on my way again, I had the distinct and unshakeable feeling that I had just walked into a tableau, a scene waiting to happen. It was as though I had stepped into a painting of the woman at the well, waiting for Christ to arrive. As I left them, it was like they went back to their readiness, poised, for the story to begin.
It makes me appreciate the thirst that is woven through our scripture readings this morning. I feel for the Israelites, wandering through the desert wilderness, growing more and more desperate for their next drink of water. I can understand how the sun felt on the woman’s skin as she reached into the well in the full heat of the day and the cool sound of dripping water that promised her relief. I can imagine the exhaustion, the dryness of the throat, and the thirst that Jesus felt as he rested by the well after a long journey.
I think you know that feeling too. That weariness that goes through the whole of your body. The dryness of the tongue in your mouth. And how good it feels when you at last drink the water, the way that it cools and enlivens, the relief it brings.
But then, the Israelites weren’t really complaining about just the water. They were questioning this whole endeavor and wondering if it had been such a good idea to leave Egypt, even if they had been enslaved there. They were afraid, they were tired, and they were filled with doubt.
And the woman at the well wasn’t just looking for water. We know from her words that she was a woman of faith and that she was waiting for the coming of the promised messiah. While she waited for the saviour, she had endured much in her life. As she went to fill her water jug, she longed for something more.
And it wasn’t thirst for water that brought Jesus to that well. Yes, he and the disciples had travelled far and had stopped here on their way from Judea to Galilee, but that is a bit like traveling from Vancouver to Burnaby and stopping in North Vancouver on your way. He sought out this well.
I wonder how Jesus was feeling. His ministry had started with a bit of a bang. After the wedding at Cana, where he turned water into wine, Jesus had descended upon the temple marketplace, overturning tables and making a whip to drive out the vendors and the money changers. People had begun flocking to his teachings and marveling at his signs and his disciples had begun baptizing new followers. In fact, it was precisely because the religious leaders had begun taking notice of his growing following that Jesus had decided to go to Galilee. But first, this side trek into the mountains to this well.
I wonder what he was feeling. Was he worried about attracting the attention of the religious leaders? Was he feeling excited or frustrated by the reception he was receiving among the people? Was he starting to sense the magnitude of what he was undertaking? Was he just tired that day at the well, or was he feeling a sense of doubt?
Maybe a week later on my bike trip, I was making my way down the coast of Maine, and I was tired. The endless hills along my route were wearing me down. The endless hours alone on my bike left me plenty of time for conversations with myself, trips down forgotten lanes of memory which was nice, but even an introvert such as myself has limits and all that time alone left space for questions and self-doubt to grow. I was no longer thirsty for water, the interminable fog of coastal Maine meant that I was absorbing as much water through my skin as I was drinking.
As I rode up to the house of the couple who had agreed to let me camp in their yard for the night, I was questioning whether I could finish the trip and was feeling pretty depressed. After going through my nightly maintenance routine on my bike and eating a meal in town, I fell asleep in my tent reading a Stephen King novel (it is Maine after all, you are legally required to read a Stephen King novel).
In the morning, the couple invited me in to have breakfast with them, and together we shared a meal and shared stories. They showed me the wall of photos of all the cyclists who had camped at their house over the years. I shared that I was feeling low and really worn out on this portion of my trip and the husband shared a story of a similar experience he had on his own cross country bike trip years ago and how he had been able to push through it with the help of a kind family that had welcomed him into their home on his trip. There at the kitchen table, they welcomed me in and quenched a thirst that no amount of water could have ever done.
As I left that morning on my bike, I felt refreshed. The endless hills were still before me and the fog that couldn’t quite decide if it was a mist still softened the world all around me, but my spirit was full. I won’t say it was all easy sailing from there, because it wasn’t. But that couple in Freeport, ME is the reason I was able to complete my journey.
My friends, we have all found ourselves in wilderness places, where we feel alone, questioning, and ready to give up. Perhaps it was while wandering in the actual wilderness like the Israelites, or while navigating your way on a bike. Or perhaps it was while navigating the stresses of school and degrees, or a difficult time in your career, or a strained place in a relationship. Perhaps it is at the hands of a relentless medical condition that refuses to give you a break, or in the hard labour of raising children and caring for them as they grow and mature.
That desert wilderness is the place where we feel defeated, where hope wanes. I had a conversation recently with a person dealing with family estrangement, and they reflected that they had at one point held out hope for reconciliation and rebuilding, but now they were no longer sure it would happen. Now they could no longer find hope. Now they were worried that the breaks in relationship ran too deep to be repaired. And it was breaking their heart.
By whatever road leads us to it, when we find ourselves standing before the well, thirsting for a water that can quench the longing within us, we will find God there waiting for us. That is the good news in both of these readings from scripture this morning. The Israelites were questioning whether God was with them in this new and strange place where they felt lost and alone, until God was revealed in the torrent of living water that gushed forth from the rock that Moses struck and flowed until all of Israel had their fill.
The woman at the well had been waiting for so long for the coming of the saviour and she had endured so much, until she arrived at the well that day and met Christ, face-to-face. Jesus’ spirit was hungry as he started his early ministry, until he too arrived at the well that day and met the woman, who fed him with a spiritual food that confounded the disciples. And I met God in a loving couple when I arrived at that well at a kitchen table in Maine, and was filled for the journey ahead.
I wonder where you have met God at the well in your life? Because God does meet us there. God meets us in the desert wilderness where we feel defeated and no longer can find the strength to keep going. And God offers to us there the living water to quench the deep thirst within us. It is the water that heals the spirit and fills the soul. It is the water that strengthens us for the labour still before us. It is the water that assures us that God is with us. Even here in this great wilderness. God is with us, and we are never alone. God is with us, and gives us the strength to meet the days before us, one step at a time.
Preached by the Rev. Adam Yates