1 Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. 2 Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. 3 Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live. I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David. 4 See, I made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander for the peoples. 5 See, you shall call nations that you do not know, and nations that do not know you shall run to you, because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has glorified you. 6 Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; 7 let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. 8 For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. 9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.
It all started in the summer of 2017. Four women, Natalie Hoffman, Oona Holcomb, Madeline Huse, and Zaachila Orozco-McCormick, all volunteers with a humanitarian aid organization called No More Deaths, drove into the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, and left behind jugs of water and canned food for migrants. That day, they were followed by a U.S. Border Patrol officer, arrested, and charged with entering the wildlife refuge without a permit and with “abandonment of property.”
After a three-day bench trial at a federal court in Tucson, the four women were found guilty on misdemeanor charges of “Operating a Motor Vehicle in a Wilderness Area” and “Abandonment of Property.” They were told that each could face up to six months in federal prison; at the sentencing early this month, they instead received relatively minor sentences of 15 months of probation and a $250 fine.
The Cabeza Prieta Refuge is located in southwestern Arizona in the United States, along 56 miles of the Mexico–United States border. Located within the Yuma Desert, a lower-elevation section of the Sonoran Desert, the refuge was originally established in 1939 to protect desert bighorn sheep; in addition, the area is an active corridor for illegal entry and smuggling into the U.S. The Trump administration has tightened rules against leaving food, water, and clothing in areas such as Cabeza Prieta even if meant to save lives.
Since 2017 the skeletal remains of at least forty people have been found here, migrants crossing who died due to lack of water and/or from extreme temperatures. The verdict against the humanitarian aid volunteers has touched off a debate about moral authority. At their sentencing, the defendants argued that, even though they acted without having obtained permits, they were on a sacred mission of saving human lives. Catherine Gaffney, a long time No More Deaths volunteer, stated: “This verdict challenges not only No More Deaths volunteers, but people of conscience throughout the country. If giving water to someone dying of thirst is illegal, what humanity is left in the law of this country?”
In powerful contrast, the first lesson for the Third Sunday in Lent from Isaiah 55 proclaims: Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food (verses 1-2).
These words from Second Isaiah are addressed to elite Israelites who had been forcibly deported to Babylon when Jerusalem had been destroyed. Even though they continued to long for their destroyed homes, these elites also had learned to assimilate to the Babylonian empire. The entire lesson (plus the four concluding verses, which are not included in the lectionary reading) is God’s invitation for the elite Israelites to make a choice: Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live. I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David. … For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD (verses 3, 8).
God implores the elite Israelites to recommit themselves to God’s everlasting covenant, for their thoughts and their ways have been hijacked by the thoughts and ways of the Babylonians. By asking them to return home, God calls them to disassociate themselves from the empire.
Walter Brueggemann suggests that there are powerful parallels between the split loyalty of the elite Israelites and our contemporary conflict between the values of God and those of the “empire” of Donald Trump: “Both market ideology and the National Security State are given cover by the claims of US exceptionalism that boldly offers theological assurance as the chosen of God. … All of that, whether in despair or in pride, bets everything on the imperial wonder of the United States, thus not very different from that of ancient Babylon.”
The statement made by the No More Deaths volunteer (“If giving water to someone dying of thirst is illegal, what humanity is left in the law of this country?”) lays bare our dilemma. Even though we are aware of God’s generous invitation that goes out to “everyone who thirsts,” we continue to subscribe to the values of an empire that uses its power to decide who deserves to drink.
Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” (Luke 4:5-8) The second of Jesus’ temptations is all about splitting our loyalty: The devil suggests to Jesus that he can have everything, if only he agrees to cheat a little by worshiping the devil on the side.
We live in a “give in” culture: Give in and go along, we are told, join the pack and don’t make anything too difficult—and little by little our God-given humanity slips through our fingers. The season of Lent, forty days like Jesus’ forty days in the desert, gives us an opportunity to reflect on our lives and discern where we are going. Ours is a time of cheapening and thinning and forgetting and accommodating, until our power to be freely and faithfully human seems too difficult and too demanding. The church is the place where we reflect on and decide to be differently human, truly human.
The subtext of this lesson on God’s generous invitation is that we all suffer from spiritual thirst until we return to God. “Thou hast made us for thyself, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee,” said Augustine in his Confessions. God calls us into covenant to be fulfilled and completely satisfied by God.
I heard this story of about an old Sufi dervish who set out to make the Great Pilgrimage to Mecca.
It was a difficult journey under any conditions, but in this year it was unusually demanding. The large crowd with which he traveled crowded him off the road, and the path was rough and uneven. As the sun beat down on the old man’s head relentlessly, he said to himself, “I must stop for a while.” So he lay down by the side of the road, just outside of Mecca. He was soon fast asleep.
But then he felt someone shaking him awake. “Sufi, get up,” a stranger shouted. His voice was not kind; his hand was not gentle. “Some Sufi you are,” the stranger went on. “You’re a disgrace!” The dervish somehow realized the man shouting at him was an imam. Now he circled around the old man, flailing his hands and shaking his head.
“How dare you lie down at the time for prayer,” he screamed. “And look at you: your head is turned to the West and your feet are pointed toward God in the holy shrine.” The old Sufi stirred a bit, opened one eye, looked at the man, and smiled. “Well, sir, I thank you for your concern,” he said.
Then, as a mischievous grin came over his face, he said, “Before I go back to sleep, I ask that you correct my terrible mistake.” As the imam looked puzzled, the dervish concluded, “Kindly turn my feet in some direction where they are not pointing at God!”
If we truly believe that: that there is no direction that doesn’t point at God, then we must resolve our split loyalty and become ambassadors of God’s values. The thirsty world around us needs our witness.
We are called to proclaim God’s word in such a way that we offer a nourishing alternative to the scarcity that all too often is dished up by our capitalistic, technologically-obsessed, and media-saturated society. As the People of God we are called to proclaim a new world order, one characterized by abundance and joy, by justice and lovingkindness, without any restrictions, without any boundaries.
And now at length discerning the evil that we do
Behold us, Lord, returning with hope and trust, to you.
In haste you come to meet us and home rejoicing bring,
In gladness there to greet us, with calf and robe and ring.
O Lord of all the living, both banished and restored,
Compassionate, forgiving, and ever-caring Lord,
Grant now that our transgressing, our faithlessness may cease,
Stretch out your hand of blessing, in pardon and in peace.