March 12, 2023 Sermon: The Water Locks of Life

By Rev. Renee Mackey

I fulfilled one of my dreams a few months ago and went part-way through the Panama Canal ending in Gatun Lake and then exiting through the locks again back the way we came. It was an amazing experience. A simple idea really: raise the water level to join the Atlantic and Pacific oceans so boats could traverse from one to the other instead of sailing around the Cape Horn in Chili, South America.

The idea surfaced as early as 1514 and later explored by the Spanish crown in 1779. The U.S. became involved in 1846 with a series of treaties between the U.S. and Columbia. The French also made an attempt. Then in 1903, the U.S. received a 10 mile wide strip of land from one ocean to the other. On August 15, 1914 the freighter Ancon, officially crossed the interoceanic Canal. Today, a heavy loaded ship takes about 8-10 hours to go through the Canal. The three locks: Gatun Locks, Pedro Miguel Locks and Miraflores Locks operate 24 hours a day 265 days a year. Mules originally pulled the boats through the locks to keep them centered. Now that task is completed by electric trains that are attached by cables to the ships.

The locks remind me of two aspects of life: the spiritual and the physical that God wants to connect to make us whole. This flow of water is like our faith journey, full of ups and downs and doors that open and close. It is the Holy Spirit acting as the “mule” that pulls us through.

In our gospel reading today, a woman goes to Jacob’s well to draw water, just an ordinary, daily task never knowing her life was about to change with a man she met. In our Old Testament reading, we find the Israelites traveling to the Promised Land but before they could get to their destination they had to learn a few lessons of faith. They never foresaw how their trust in God had to be stretched and tested.

We too run into situations in life that test our faith and place us in situations we do not expect. This stretching, this test of faith forever leaves us changed. The Panama Canal-water lifts up a vessel and sets it down again in a different spot, just like us. The ship operates under its own power but is propelled forward joining two oceans. We also operate under our own power but are held in place by the mules. We are caught in a chamber of water that tests our resolve. But with each closing of the door of the lock, we move closer to our destination.

Sometimes we complain like the Israelites. The nation was now in the wilderness of Sin and camped at Rephidim. One problem soon became clear: there was no water. “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” (Ex. 17: 3) They wanted to trust; they wanted to believe that the Lord was in their midst taking care of them. They wanted to be free from bondage, but the survival instinct was strong. God places us in situations where we have a difficult time believing we are in the right place and that God has not left us alone. We start out our faith journey and then hit an obstacle that tests our faith. It’s like we’re in the first chamber of locks in the Canal and we hit the door that leads to the next but the doors remain closed. We then cry out to the living God and ask for help just like Moses. “What shall I do with these people?” (Ex. 17: 4)

It is that complaint; that cry; which helps us come to understand both our dependance on God and our limitations. The Israelites could not take are of their own needs and neither can we. But in our independent society where we are taught to find our own solutions to problems we encounter, we find ourselves at a door that seems immovable. Trust in God takes courage; taking a risk that God is there; and humbling ourselves takes spiritual muscles.

Then God tests our faith to see if we really trust. The Lord told Moses to go ahead of the people and to take some elders with him, along with the staff with which he stuck the Nile River and go to Mt. Horeb. “I will be there.” Then strike the rock and water will flow. We learn to take those first steps of faith and follow where God leads and obey even if we hesitate or are unsure of the outcome. Sometimes we engage in meaningful dialogue like the woman at the well. She was simply going about her everyday chores. She had to wait for a time when no Jewish women were there but she was not to communicate or be in contact with them. It was a lonely life; to be isolated from society. She lived in Sychar in Samaria where Jacob had lived and given the land to this son Joseph. There she went to draw water for the day at the same time Jesus stopped to rest from his travels. It was about noon we are told. The disciples had gone to the city to buy food. As he saw the woman, he did not turn away as was common practice but instead made a simple request. “Give me a drink” (Jon. 1: 7)  She was shocked and taken back for men did not speak to Samaritans.

She then enters into an amazing dialogue with Jesus. Back and forth they go. Jesus talks about living water and she talks about physical water. It’s like they are on two different oceans. But Jesus finds a way to lead her toward the doors that will unlock her understanding. “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life (Jn. 4: 13-14)  Now she wants some of this different kind of water.

But Jesus is not finished. As he reveals to her parts of her life that probably not everyone knew, she begins to realize he is a prophet. The dialogue shifts to worship in Jerusalem via worship in Samaria. “The hour is coming when worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth…” (Jn. 4: 23). She understands this as a future prophecy. Jesus then identifies himself as the Messiah (Jn. 4: 26)

The disciples do not understand Jesus disregard for cultural norms when they return from their errand. But the woman has been changed. She runs home and tells her story and many follow her to Jesus and believe. Sometimes we too share our experiences with our friends and neighbors like the woman at the well.

Faith is an organic thing like water. It flows; it moves; it goes up and down; it brings life; it unleashes power. We cannot live without water; physically or spiritually. We often think in terms of two different worlds: one physical and one spiritual like two oceans. But God wants to connect them and make us whole. For that to happen, we must go through the locks.

In complaining, we realize our limitations. We are unhappy with our present situation and long for resolution which doesn’t seem to come. Some of our conclusions/assumptions need to be changed. In intellectual dialogue, we wrestle with the choices we have made and with the status quo. We long to make a difference in our world but do not know how or where to begin. Some of our conclusions/assumptions need to be changed.

Christ is in the changing business. He wants to take our limitations and our intellectual curiosity to help us drink from the living water. He takes our assumptions and conclusions and gently but firmly lifts us into the next chamber of water and then the next and the next until the water has transformed us. Our doubts and fears have drowned and been replaced by trust and faith. This faith process takes time and energy but God never gives up on us. God continually pushes us along just like those mules in the locks, keeping us centered so we don’t get off course.

As the ship passed through the last lock, I looked back at where we had been and now where we were. The ship seemed the same but somehow everything was now different. We had been tossed up and down; gone through three sets of locks and come out unharmed. Just like you and me. God gives us this living water from a rock or a well and when we have the courage to drink it, the living water changes us from the inside out. We may look the same to others, but inside we know things are now different.

If you find yourself in the locks of life today, know that God has not abandoned you. Know that the testing of your faith will strengthen you. Someday you’ll be able to look back and see how far you’ve come.

ABOUT RENEE: “I was born and raised in the Midwest and taught school in Denver, Colorado where I earned a Master’s Degree in Library Science. God then called me into ministry first as a Ruling Elder and then as a Teaching Elder. I served three churches, one in Iowa and two in Maryland. I received my Doctor of Ministry Degree from Austin Theological Presbyterian Seminary and served Baltimore Presbytery as Moderator. I was honored to represent the Presbytery at the 221 st General Assembly as commissioner and am now serving as the Ministry Group Convener Chair and moderator for the Harundale session. It is a joy to worship with you this morning.”