March 12, 2023
“The LORD answered Moses,
‘Go over there in front of the people,
along with some of the elders of Israel,
holding in your hand, as you go,
the staff with which you struck the river.
I will be standing there in front of you on the rock in Horeb.
Strike the rock, and the water will flow from it
for the people to drink.’”
“Jesus answered and said to her,
‘If you knew the gift of God
and who is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’
you would have asked him
and he would have given you living water...
whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst;
the water I shall give will become in him
a spring of water welling up to eternal life.’”
In July, I will be joining some scouts and adult leaders from St. Pat’s Troop 380 for seven days of backpacking, or a trek, at the Philmont Scout Ranch in northern New Mexico. Opened in 1938, it is 140,177 acres of rugged mountain wilderness in the Sangre de Cristo (Blood of Christ) range of the Rocky Mountains that has provided over a million scouts with life changing experiences of backcountry trekking. 1992, as a program at the Air Force Academy, I spent three weeks at Philmont as a Ranger, including a 10 day backpacking trek for training and guiding three crews for the beginning of their own treks. As a priest, I went back for a week of training for religious organizations that sponsor Scout troops and, as Vocation Director for the Archdiocese of Louisville, to visit one of our seminarians who was doing as summer placement with the chaplain program. Later, I joined a special program for Catholic scouts called the St. George Trek as the adult advisor for a crew of 10 boys on another 10 day trek. The Ranger song that I memorized as a cadet starts with the line, “I want to go back to Philmont.” As you drive away from Philmont, the lore goes, and if you look back over your left shoulder at an arrowhead shaped rock formation, you will one day return.
Philmont is an arid environment and water is a precious commodity. Most camps in the backcountry have some water source nearby, but the last night of the St. George Trek was at a dry campsite, meaning we had to pack in enough water for two days. We ran low, and our last day was hot with the sun beating down as we headed into base camp. It is one of two times in my life that I have been seriously dehydrated. The first time, I hallucinated people dancing in a campfire, but that’s a different story. This time, at Mass after we reached base camp in the outdoor chapel, I briefly fainted and, at dinner, thew up twice. I know we cannot survive physically without water. We also cannot survive spiritually without God’s life giving water.
Jesus promises this life giving water. It is an unending spring within us welling up to eternal life. It is the gift of the Spirit of God’s love, given in baptism and sealed in confirmation. In this Lent, may Jesus, the new Moses, take his staff and strike our hearts of stone. May the love of God spring up within each of us and all of us, as at Massah and Meribah, to quench our thirst. Nothing else can fill our longing for God. All of our substitutes (and you know them in your own life) only leave us thirsting again. Only God quenches our thirst. God alone.