Life-changing Water

 

Exodus 17:1-7 | Psalm 95 | Romans 5:1-11 | John 4:5-42

We know this Jesus showing up at the well, exhausted and parched, completely willing to take a shortcut. This human Jesus has dusty feet, sand and sweat in his eyes, hair, and beard, and the weight of the world heavy on his heart. It had to be a relief for the disciples to offer to run into town to find some food. “No, you go ahead. I’ll just wait here for you.” Haven’t we all said that, hoping for a bit of rest?

The woman at the well- acrylic, mix media- David Bondt, 2016

We know this woman at the well. She’s outcast but proud. Eloquent and intelligent. She knows her place in the margins of society and has crafted her armor well to handle the torment . . . the persistent sexism, discrimination, and oppression.

And we know the expected social script. Then as now, the script would have them ignore one another, pass each other by without interaction or engagement and look the other way. Jesus would rest. She would get her water–transactions complete without complication.

But Jesus has a way of complicating things.

He’s always writing a new script. Before we even know why, Jesus knows that this woman’s heart has been broken and a fortress built around it to protect her vulnerability. Before we even know that there’s a harvest ripe and ready, Jesus knows that this woman has the potential to sound the call that now is the time for the world to be turned upside down, for the world as we know it to give way, for all we’ve ever hoped for to be manifest. He knows the potential in each of us, and the necessity for each and every one of us to experience His transformational love so that we, too, can turn the world upside down.

In his commentary on The Gospel of John, William Barclay says,

“There are two revelations in Christianity: the revelation of God and the revelation of ourselves. We never really see ourselves until we see ourselves in the presence of Christ; and then we are appalled at the sight.”

Maybe this is one reason we get this reading of the woman at the well in the midst of Lent. How long can we carry on with our defenses up? It’s not that hard to do if we play along with society’s script, maintaining propriety and expectations. The majority of our society isn’t observing a holy Lent. The majority isn’t turning away from self-sufficiency, giving intentional thought toward dependency upon God. But we’ve already taken that precarious step out of the rut. When we got our crosses on Ash Wednesday, we reoriented ourselves, opening our awareness to seek with our heart, mind, and soul where God is in our lives. It’s a heart- and gut-wrenching revelation when we see that God isn’t manifest fully in our lives because of who we are. We are “appalled” because the truth is that we inhibit God from being revealed by the choices we make, but it’s our next step after our self-revelation that makes all the difference.

Our woman at the well carries herself in the heat of day to draw water. She responds to Jesus when he speaks to her; she even banters with him, gets a little sarcastic. As soon as Jesus indicates he knows the pain beneath her facade, the exchange becomes serious. Whereas the woman acted as if she had nothing more to lose, Jesus seemingly peels back her armor and holds a mirror to show her the wounds left by five husbands. Maybe they had died; maybe they had beaten her; maybe they had used her and left her. Maybe the man she was with now was nothing more to her than shelter and protection. His eyes see her as the wounded woman she is, as only the two of them fully know. By seeing her as a wounded child of God, Jesus reminds her of her humanity, her value and worth, the shreds of which she had to box up and stow away because to hold it close to the surface served as a reminder of her constant pain and put on display her vulnerability, her need for care and love and healing. Under that blazing noonday sun and in the clear gaze of Jesus, the woman discovers herself as God sees her. She stays with Jesus long enough to let her heart and mind open to the Truth before her, the Truth that is as available as the water from the well but even more abundant, more pure, and available to all–no well or bucket required for the living water Christ offers.

Barclay also says that “Christianity begins with a sense of sin. It begins with the sudden realization that life as we are living it will not do. We awake to ourselves and we awake to our need of God.”

Our sense of sin, however we express it, is us living our lives turned away from God, in a sense, leaving a stone covering the well of living water. The longer we leave it covered, the longer it accumulates layers of debris and excuses and rationalizations. The longer we let ourselves go without tasting the fresh, living water, the more we normalize our thirst and allow ourselves to be falsely satisfied with stagnant substitutes. The longer we go without sharing the truths behind our hurts and fears, the longer we isolate ourselves from everyone else lest they, too, inflict more wounds. In our pain and fear, we pile more dirt over the mound that we’re fairly certain is a deep dark hole we should be afraid of . . . because we’ve forgotten what living water is, what life it gives, and from whence it comes. We must remember the importance of sharing our stories so we don’t forget what is True.

Our greatest revelation and discovery is that

Jesus is who He is for us all.

It is Jesus’ immeasurably powerful love that strips away the layers of guilt and shame until He sees the naked truth of the sinners we have been because we projected our selfish judgment onto God. We feel awful for what we’ve done, and rather than turn with penitent hearts to God, we run away, ashamed and afraid. Who but Jesus can seen us in our brokenness and say, “I know. Come to me. See for yourself that you are forgiven.” It’s that transformative experience of grace, of mercy, of forgiveness, of unconditional love that blasts away a lifetime of wrongdoing so that the living water can spring forth and rejuvenate our parched souls.

Jesus had to go through Samaria, and he sat by the well because he was tired. And everything he did was according to God’s will. Touching one life at a time was the way in which to reach thousands. Only when we’ve experienced God’s grace can we bear witness to God’s power. We don’t evangelize by shoving our experience of Christ’s salvation into another person’s heart or by pounding Bible verses into another person’s head. We reveal to them our personal transformation. The Samaritan woman who had gone out of her way not to encroach upon others in the town now goes running into their midst, proclaiming to all to “come and see!” the one who knew her heart, the one who very well could be the Messiah. What a vivid image of evangelism.

How are we like the woman at the well? Where were we when Jesus broke down our defenses, and we realized that we couldn’t do this thing called life on our own any more? Maybe it was a definitive moment in our life, and like a born-again Christian in prison, we can testify to giving everything to God in complete surrender. But maybe our life fully lived in Christ is a slowly dawning revelation. Maybe our life of faith has given way more and more to the realization of the grandeur of God in all of Creation, and each day takes us deeper into our existing relationships, where it’s more about God’s will than our will.

Because it is more about God’s will than our will.

As Christians, we sign up to proclaim the transformative love of Christ for all the world. We sign up to stay woke, and when we fall asleep or fall into ignorance or complacency, we get back up again however many times it takes. It’s uncomfortable when our world gets turned upside down, when revelations give us new or renewed responsibilities, and when we are to be the Body of Christ in the world. It’s okay to be uncomfortable or tired. Sit. Have a rest. Drink up that living water, and then go tell the story about how it changed your life.

 

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Thirsty

A Sermon preached at Christ Church, Episcopal on March 23, 2014.

The Scripture texts for the 3rd Sunday of Lent, Year A:

Exodus 17:1-7 | Psalm 95 | Romans 5:1-11 | John 4:5-42

Here we are in the midst of Lent, and I don’t know about you, but I am still very aware of what I have given up for Lent and what I’ve taken on. Contrary to what many might think, seminary isn’t the most conducive environment to take care of one’s self. My discipline this Lent has been to give up something that isn’t good for me (Diet Dr. Pepper) and to take on an awareness of what I am putting into my body in both quantity and quality. Like any resolution I’ve ever made, I am not completely successful, but in this third week, I realize that my awareness is growing, and my desire to do this has become not only for myself but also for my family. I want to be around for them as long as possible, and I want my kids to have healthy attitudes and practices around one of the most basic aspects of our human life. There is also a clarity of well-being that comes with treating one’s body well, as a creature of God. I can’t help but think that this clarity swirls around an increased awareness of my appreciation and love for God and desire to do God’s work. So, maybe my very temporal, seemingly superficial disciplines this Lent do have a spiritual nature, a deeper meaning.

What if what we’re really giving up in Lent is our oblivion? Letting go of our favorite temptations, we take off the blinders that allow us to sink into ruts and dim the Light that is the wisdom of Spirit, the love of God. We take this journey into the wilderness together, though we are all at different levels of understanding, different levels of awareness of God in our lives. We do this year after year because we are human, and while it is inevitable that we will sin, sometimes we turn farther away from God than we care to admit. In our blindness we might echo the Israelites’ cry, “Is the Lord among us or not?” Today I ask, where are we in our awareness now?

Are we standing at the well, bantering with Jesus in cynicism, defensive by nature to protect our inward vulnerability or seeking temporary fulfillment to keep our greatest desire out of consciousness?

The unnamed woman in today’s gospel went to the well for the very earthly, practical purpose of drawing water. It was routine for her. As unusual as it was that she went at noon to a well away from the town, it’s still an ordinary day until this strange Jewish man speaks to her. In their exchange, I can imagine the woman’s sarcastic playfulness or mockery at the one who travels through the desert without a way to collect water.

In speaking to her, Jesus ignores social barriers. A Jewish man, especially a teacher, did not speak to a woman in public; some wouldn’t even look at a woman in public. What is more, they are in Samaria. The mutual resentment between the Samaritans and Jews is epic. As if this weren’t enough to impart the significance of Jesus’s radical action, this woman has been married five times, though we know not why. But we know the customs of her time were complex and treated women as property. What reason does she have for thinking that Jesus is any different than any other man she has encountered? She has her ways of survival, and thus she engages in one of the longest conversations with Jesus that is recorded in the Gospels. Jesus doesn’t let her stay at a surface level for long. She truly doesn’t know who she is dealing with.

Consider again our own awareness. Are we wide-eyed with sudden realization that we are incredibly thirsty for the wellspring of eternal life in love and Spirit?

Jesus needed to quench his parched mouth and lips from the noonday sun along his hasty journey to Galilee. The woman had the means to quench bodily thirst, and she doesn’t turn away from Jesus, who acknowledges and recognizes her. What the woman did not know was that she, too, was thirsty. The misunderstanding and banter regarding the well and living water turned into the woman requesting water from Jesus, and when Jesus gets personal, her demeanor turns serious at the realization of how important this moment is. Whatever her past and present situation, Jesus knows the woman’s heart, as he does everyone’s. Her story is not ours to know at its greatest depth, nor is it for us to judge. This Samaritan woman doesn’t turn away from the Light of Christ that illumines all her shadows. As Jesus speaks, she becomes aware of something she lacks. She now knows deeply that she needs that which Jesus reveals to her—the living water. She also turns the conversation toward her people, their worship. Suddenly, she embodies an eager, child-like faith that yearns to learn, to know. The Samaritans expected the Messiah to come as a teacher, after all. It is in her openness to receive that Christ reveals himself.

So what was it that flipped the switch for her, drawing back the veil of sarcasm and wit that had probably served her well throughout her life? Was it one thing? Jesus spoke to her, and in speaking, acknowledged her presence, her humanity. Jesus was honest with her, both about who she was and who he was. He revealed to her the truth about who she was so that she could fully know herself and her true need for God. He doesn’t ask her to take the water, she has a personal revelation and asks for the water herself. Knowing herself, she is open to knowing more about God.

We ask ourselves: Do we know who Jesus is, and being so filled with awe and wonder and amazement, do we run out to tell others what we have found?

The woman doesn’t just learn of her need for eternal life in Spirit. She also learns that Jesus is who he says he is. She says he is prophet and Messiah or Christ. He affirms her statements, and he has told her that true worship is different from what she has known before. He is making proclamations before her, saying among other things that the presence of God isn’t confined in one place. Then the disciples appear on the scene, returned from fetching food or supplies from the town. The woman is so focused on what Jesus has revealed to her, that she leaves her jug. Her focus at this moment is no longer on the well-water but on the living water of Christ.

I imagine her running to the city to rouse the town’s folks, boldly and loudly witnessing about the one who has told her everything she has ever done. “He can’t be the Messiah, can he?” she asks. Meanwhile the disciples are with Jesus, worrying about whether or not he’s had anything to eat, but they don’t question his actions, perhaps getting used to his unorthodox ways by this point. I can’t help but think about Jesus waxing poetic here, a calm in the midst of the storm, knowing what the woman is spreading and biding time until the townspeople arrive. Jesus is doing exactly what God means to do, from the moment Jesus chose the path through Samaria through the days he spent with them. The woman, too, is participating in Spirit, though her belief is still taking shape.

Do we doubt ourselves, our knowing?

We don’t have a response to the woman’s question about whether or not Jesus is the Messiah. He has told her he is, but has the full revelation and belief taken place, or is she still wondering? We are told that through her testimony, many more came to Jesus, and so this one woman’s testimony opened a way for others. Her invitation to “come and see” for themselves paved their path to Christ. Like John the Baptist decreased so that Christ would increase, so, too, does the woman decrease as the direct experience of Christ, the Savior of the world, increases. Her story fades into the background.

In our season of Lent, we are asked to consider our worldly ways, to think about giving up something that distracts us from realizing who Christ is for us. Like the earliest Christians who had to fast in their 40-day-long preparation for baptism, we are asked to realize our thirst for the living water, to recognize our need for God. For with every choice we make, we are given the opportunity to go with the will of God or against it. The woman at the well did not have to respond to Jesus. She certainly did not have to run into town and witness to others.

So, what do we need to give up to see the Lord among us, to awaken full awareness? What can we take on to show ourselves and others that God is creator, redeemer, sustainer?

It is the thirst for God, the living water, that we so frequently displace. We turn to our temptations and seek fleshly fulfillment however we can find it. A comforting meal, the latest gadget, the newest clothes, a drink. We justify ourselves with various rationalizations—that we deserve it, that it’s for someone else, that we’re doing a good thing. For the moment, maybe, but for eternity? Like Jesus waiting for the Samaritans to come and see for themselves, God is ever-present, waiting for us to realize that God is here all along. We’ve just been drawing stagnant water from the wrong well. In our haste and blindness, we’ve missed the cues to attend to our souls and to seek out the living water that is Christ.

Opening our lives to awareness of God’s eternal presence hinges on something critical. It hinges on our choosing to live spiritually, being fed by the living water while doing God’s work. Yes, we need food and water to thrive physically—preferably healthy foods in sensible portions. But our true, whole well-being also depends upon our conscious living as one created, redeemed, and sustained by God. How we do this exactly will depend on the various gifts we were given when we first partook of the living water in our baptism, but it will ring of compassion and truth.

If we lose our way in the wilderness, become dehydrated and blind, surrounded by darkness, the presence of God is still here. Our awareness of God’s presence does not affect God’s eternal presence: unconditional love is patient and enduring like that. We journey together through this season, looking to rekindle for ourselves and for each other the new believer’s enthusiasm of that first taste of soul-quenching love.

 

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Mere Vessels Are We

A part of the sermon from Sunday keeps coming to mind.  Being the sort to acknowledge that which seems persistent, whether it be a child or a hunch, I’ll give it some attention and see what comes from it.  Plus, we’re due for a little dose of spirituality.

It’s the story of the Samaritan woman at the well that sticks most, in particular the part where, after her conversation with Jesus, she rushes into town, leaving her water jug at the well.  Our priest brought forth the imagery that no longer does this woman have a thirst for water; she has been filled herself with the Living Water of Christ.  This marginalized woman is the vessel.

Now, I have to give the disclaimer that I do not read the Bible as literally as some.  In fact, I haven’t read the whole thing through cover to cover.   My relationship to the Bible is a special, sacred, literary relationship.  I enjoy many of the stories in the Bible as invitations to further thought, glimpses into the mystery of Divine Love, Spirit and the potential of man and suggestive commentary about our suffering.  Sometimes, however, little images from a part of the whole can be influential — such as this woman at the well.

This woman, this EveryWoman, knows her status in society, and she does not deny it, even to this stranger.  She becomes filled with Jesus’ “Living Water,” seeming to forget her earthly purpose at the well.  She is a vessel of God’s Love and Acceptance, a vessel of Christ’s words and teachings.  With no pretense or shame, she can run into the crowd of townspeople, whom she had avoided by going to the well at high-sun, and proclaim the Messiah.

Every woman is very like any daughter, wife, partner, mother, sinner, dreamer.  Chances are, like her, we’ve done things that we’re not proud of but that we might own up to given the chance.  But chances are, too, that we come to the well already overflowing, trying to fill that which we know is already full.  We’re hungry, but there’s not room; we’re thirsty, but there’s no place for water.

I read a lovely book one summer called Everyday Sacred.  In it, the author professes her passion for bowls, empty bowls.  Why?  Because a bowl can be filled.  It goes back to the story of the monk serving his teacher more tea, though the cup is overflowing.  If you think you know, your mind is already too full.  How can you learn more if there’s no room?  How can you understand if your heart is already set?

We are meant to be the bowl, the tea cup, the vessel.  This story of Jesus talking to the outcast woman is just his way of emptying her mind, our minds — no social boundaries.  She has no husband — no illusions.  She has no jug — no attachments.  We are what we are, and things are what they are.  As we presume she and the disciples saw it, Jesus was all they needed to thrive spiritually.  If you could understand that, you were at once empty and fulfilled.

How does this apply today?  It’s all the same, except now we have even more jugs to carry, each to be filled from different wells.  Perhaps it’s good to keep refilling them, so long as the water is new and fresh and continues to nurture self and others.  But when we just fill and fill and fill, there’s a drainage issue.  We also need to be able to stand alone at the edge of the lake or ocean and realize that no vessel is big enough to encompass that which surpasses all understanding.  Our one vessel holds one drop of something greater.

We are no greater and no less than this Samaritan woman.  We can only hope that we would find ourselves empty at the well so that we might be filled, our thirsts quenched.

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