God is Present
Based on Exodus 17:1-7, Romans 5:1-11, John 4:7-15
In 2007 I was led to begin a year-long program of spiritual deepening through the Shalem Institute. I was feeling like I needed something I couldn’t find in books or in the activities I was engaged in at church. I had read intentionally and broadly of many spiritual authors, but I had this nagging feeling, this dis-ease, this notion that there was something missing in my spiritual life. A couple of people at my home congregation had begun training with Shalem to become contemplative group leaders and they encouraged me to look into this kind of training. I “felt” that I was searching for something more personal, however, and discovered that “something” in an exploration of spiritual contemplation through Shalem.
Classically, spiritual contemplation means cultivating within one’s-self an immediate open presence “in” the world; that is, being able to directly perceive and lovingly respond to life as it truly is. Perhaps the most approachable definition is simply being present to what is in every moment. In a Christian context, because we “live and move and have our being” in God (Acts 17:28), being present to things as they are involves encountering the Christ who “fills the whole creation” (Eph. 1:23). In other words, Christian contemplation means developing the perspective to see God in all things and all things in God. Brother Lawrence, a 17th century Carmelite friar, called it “the loving gaze which finds God everywhere.” It is the deep and abiding understanding that God is indeed present in all aspects of our lives and that there is no place that we can go that God is not already there (Ps 139).
Our scriptures for today reinforce this concept that God is indeed present in our world and in our lives. God tells Moses that God will be on the rock of Horeb when Moses strikes it, God is present in Jesus to the woman at the well, God is present in all of our suffering in order to transform it into hope which cannot disappoint. Before we go any further, let us acknowledge God’s presence with us today in prayer….
The Apostle Paul is continuing his rhetoric of how believers are saved by faith in a God who is present in their lives. The believers who have faith like Abraham have been justified – that is, they have been found innocent of their sins. This innocence and the forgiveness of sins is what returns the believers to right relationship (righteousness) with God and other humans. Paul writes in our scripture for today that being justified by faith, “…we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ…”. Because our sins have been forgiven, we can boast of our hope in sharing the glory of God and in our sufferings. Therefore, we understand that God is present in good times and bad and we understand that our suffering can be transformed into hope by the love of God poured into our hearts.
The Hebrews are getting ornery in their desert wanderings and they are taking their anxiety and discomfort out on Moses. They are not satisfied that God has already provided quail every evening and manna every morning – they are now thirsty and are wondering where they will get water. They complain to Moses, “…Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?…” Moses knows that they are really complaining about God’s treatment of them and so Moses asks God to help him lead God’s people. In verse six, God says to Moses, “…I will be standing 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….” Once again, the presence of God provides for the peoples’ needs.
A portion of the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well is our Gospel reading for today. Jesus was short-cutting through Samaria (normally off limits to Jews) and in the heat of the noon day sun, He rests by Jacob’s Well while the disciples head to the grocery store. A woman comes to the well to draw water when no one else is there. She does this because she is an outcast from society. She and Jesus strike up a dialogue about different kinds of water – that which comes from Jacob’s Well and “living” water (aka the Holy Spirit) which comes from God. Like Nicodemus last week, the woman is too literal for Jesus’ spiritual metaphors. She wants to never thirst again, both physically and spiritually, and Jesus shows her the way. He stays present with her as she works through her lack of understanding and because of His presence, she becomes an evangelist for Him.
I have found both for myself and for many faithful people, our discipleship has not included training in spiritual contemplation. Therefore, it is hard for us to develop the perspective to see God as present in every moment of our lives. We often don’t feel the presence of God in our daily devotions and prayers – even corporate worship, and we struggle to perceive God in our anxious and distracting world. The world keeps us so busy that we don’t spend the time in spiritual contemplation seeking out the God who is always near. So, how can we engage in this activity of seeking out our omnipresent God?
Earlier I mentioned Brother Lawrence, a man who lived through most of the 1600’s in France. He spent much of his adult life as a Carmelite friar, working in the monastery doing a variety of jobs. We know about this spiritual man through the writings of a contemporary of Brother Lawrence who befriended him and wrote down the Brother’s views on being present with God. Those writings were collected into a book entitled, “The Practice of the Presence of God” and it is a classic in spiritual contemplation. Some of Brother Lawrence’s insights are helpful as we seek the presence of God. Brother Lawrence’s epiphany came at age 18 as he gazed at a barren tree in winter and “knew” that one day soon leaves, blossoms and fruit would appear. This implanted the message of God’s great power and providence (the Almighty nature of God) which thereafter was in his life. One can see the truth of his “vision” all around us right now.
Brother Lawrence notes that “…all we have to do is to recognize God as being intimately present within us. Then we may speak directly to God
every time we need to ask for help, to know God’s will in moments of uncertainty, and to do whatever God wants us to do in a way that pleases God….” Recognizing God’s intimate presence with us requires emptying ourselves of anything which does not lead to God. Every time we go to do some task, at work or in other aspects of our lives, we need to offer our task to God before we start and thank God afterwards for the “privilege” of having the opportunity to do that task for God.
You say to me, “All we have to do is to recognize God as being deeply connected to me at all times…that’s ALL?!” I know, it seems impossible to do for you in this current moment of your life. There is coronavirus which has forced us all into “social distancing” and wreaked havoc on our calendars. You are left with time that you didn’t foresee…how will you spend it? You can wander around the news channels hearing the same anxiety-ridden trope 24 hours a day, from any perspective you choose. Alternatively, you can unplug from the internet and television, from social media, and other distractions and seek God. You can do this by going to Psalm 139, or 23 or 8, or any other and simply read it slowly. Read it and hear how it speaks to you – what words or feelings come up for you. In silence, stay with the words or feelings and ask God to lead you. Try it for 15 to 20 minutes every day…you’ll be delighted and refreshed by what happens.
This is how we find our true selves through spiritual contemplation…this realization that God is in everything we undertake, that no matter what happens in our lives God IS with us and within us! This is how our suffering can be transformed into hope which cannot disappoint (as Paul wrote). This is how a Samaritan woman who was in search of a relationship which could make her whole, was led by God’s grace to Jesus. This is how we can find a place in our lives which is the calm at the center of the storm, the peace that passes all understanding, the love which proves itself Almighty. The good news is that God IS present within and all around us at all times and that God is mightier than any virus or other cause of human suffering. To find this God, we need to empty ourselves of anything which does not lead us to God. Incredibly challenging but well worth the struggle. May you all find a way to open yourselves to the presence of God in your lives – I am here to help you on this journey. Amen and amen!