At the heart of this great continent stands a massive rock. It is over 500 million years old and it stood in majestic isolation from human contact until about 10,000 years ago, when the ancestors of the Pijantjatjara people appeared over the horizon of the vast plains and saw it for the first time. It is no wonder that, for them, it was immediately a place of deep sacred significance. Many of you will have visited it, and I have no doubt that something of that awe and wonder came over you. When the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge visit Uluru on their forthcoming tour, I understand they plan to walk around it. I wonder if they’ll have little George strapped in a royal back-pack? I’m glad they won’t be climbing it. The Pitjantjatjara respectfully ask that it not be climbed. It sits astride a sacred Dreaming track of powerful meaning, and to climb it is a sacrilege. Sadly, this means little to crowds of non-indigenous tourists, many of whom treat it with utter disrespect, or even worse. One day, I pray, climbing will be prohibited.
Such things had never occurred to me before I visited it some years back, but my fear of heights kept me on ground level, walking the track which the Royals will walk. Personally, I think it’s a more awesome encounter with the rock. And full of surprises. I was astonished to discover that, here and there at its base, the rock enfolds small shady canyons, where there are hidden pools of water, and even more astonishing, small trickling trails of water from above which, in the rainy seasons, turn into great waterfalls. I have brought a picture of one such Uluru waterfall, which you may like to see afterwards. If you do, today’s story from Exodus of the water from the rock may come into sharper focus (Exodus 17.1-7).
You can’t blame the Israelites for grumbling. Led away from their homes beside the mighty waters of the Nile in Egypt, Moses has landed them in the trackless desert with not a stream or pool in sight. Panic and anger set in, and Moses has a riot on his hands. The imagery of the story which follows is compelling. God hears Moses’s desperate cry and says: ‘Go on ahead of the people … 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.’
The situation is dire. The command is to keep going. The promise is that God is already there, up ahead, on the hard rock.
Now look at today’s Gospel story, one of the most profound and deeply theological stories in the New Testament (John 4.5-42). It is simply full of themes to explore, but I want to draw your attention to one aspect only. Jesus came to Sychar. ‘Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well.’ Almost certainly, I would think, on a large stone or rock. The Samaritan woman is nowhere in sight. He has come to the well ahead of her, and is already there, waiting for her to emerge from the barren desert of her troubled life.
Now turn to Paul’s epic letter to the Christians in Imperial Rome (Romans 5.1-11), where they huddle in fear of their lives, already experiencing discrimination, rejection and even imprisonment or death. Paul is trying to lift their sights to something which lies beyond their sufferings. He says, ‘ … we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand …’ Excuse me? What peace? What grace? we hear them mutter. We are desperate people. Don’t you see, says Paul, our faith doesn’t just consist in the promise of some ultimate glory or heaven when we die. Crazily enough, we even … boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us …’ Why does hope not disappoint us? (And the imagery here is quite stunning, and decidedly watery) ‘ …because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.’ Right here in our desert places.
People of faith aren’t protected from bad times. Being a Christian isn’t a pain-proof bunker. But of this we can be assured (and it is my own personal experience) that even in the heart of our bleak desert times, when we feel utterly bereft and helpless, the healing stream of living water is flowing from that great monolithic rock before us because God is already there, waiting for us to open our eyes and see the torrent of love which is the source of life on offer.
I don’t really have to say all this, I guess. I’m sure that most of you know it from your own experience – God’s grace and love surprisingly revealed at the heart of a desert in which you’ve found yourself. And it’s what our faith tells us. But we need to be very careful, I think, about speaking a message to those who are in the midst of suffering right now, and finding life a stony place. To tell them that their pain is only a passing phase and that God will fix it all, can be cruel, however well-meaning. It seems to me that the Word which emerges from our readings today is more like a gentle, sturdy encouragement, and it speaks to us all, whatever our situation: keep going, this is not all there is. Pools and streams and waterfalls are already there to be discovered in the shadow of the rock. God is way ahead of us. Even more astonishingly, employs ordinary folk like us to be the conduits of living water for people in dry and desperate places simply by our presence and our attention.
Strangely, the nearest interpretation of the Pitjantjatjara word ‘Uluru’ is ‘go’.
‘Go on ahead … I will be standing there in front of you on the rock …’
One description of Lent is keeping company with Jesus on his painful desert journey towards the cross. How good it is to pause as we go, and drink from living water.