By AmbStew | Monday, March 20, 2017 | 8:33 AM
Sermon for March 19, 2017
A Living Water
Exod. 17:1-7; John 4: 1-42
Jesus Christ the living Word, fill these words with your Living Spirit. Amen.
Are You Dehydrated?
Imagine Utah. Rugged. Barren. Deserts. Mountains. Imagine Utah in the summer. Dry desert heat. Rattlesnakes. Imagine Utah in August. Arid, sunny, and hot. Imagine the family vacation in Arches National Park and an adventuresome husband and son who do not want to take the easy, well-traveled, trail to see the various and fanciful arches, but the "primitive trail." The sign even warns, "Primitive Trail." So now imagine four people from the South, with their individual 16 oz. bottles of water, heading out on the primitive trail around 10 AM on a sunny day in August in the desert, not too concerned because everyone knows out West the heat is "dry." Therefore, it cannot be as hot as "humid" heat. Right?
Now imagine four Southerners a couple of hours later, say high noon, in Utah, in the desert, in the "dry heat," with empty water bottles and no end in sight to the primitive trail. And no other people around, either, because they are all on the well-marked, easy trail. Yes, this is a true story, one of several adventures in the McMahan Family Vacation series. We were out in the desert in the main heat of the day for about four or five hours before we found civilization again. A 16 oz. water bottle does not go very far when a person is walking up and down hills, over rocks, in the dust, with NO shade--anywhere--and the temperature is in the high 90's. A Southerner quickly discovers that dry heat is just plain, hot, heat.
After a couple of hours had gone by and we hadn't seen a single person, I began imagining various scenarios. We would be discovered dried up somewhere a few days later. The vultures would find us before people ever did. I would be the first to go. I suspected that as thirsty as I was, as dizzy as I was getting, as fatigued as I felt, that the end was not too far off.
Of course, I was wrong. We did survive and return to water. Water had never tasted so good. Water had never felt so good. I have never appreciated water as much as I did that hot August day coming in from the Utah desert. All I could think of, all I wanted, was water. Water would save my life.
Water composes 2/3 of our body mass; without it, we do indeed begin to get dizzy and disoriented. Our chemical and mineral systems become imbalanced. We become lethargic. Eventually, we die. Studies say that most people walk around every day partly dehydrated, that very few of us get our eight glasses of water a day. The risk of dehydration rings true for our spiritual selves, as well. Our Gospel story involves water--spiritual water that keeps our spiritual lives, our souls, healthy and alive. Without spiritual water, our souls become confused, we become imbalanced, we dry out. Spiritually, we die. I would guess that most of us walk around every day partly dehydrated from lack of "living water." A sip every now and then from the water fountain just won’t do.
In today's gospel, Jesus sits down, in public, at noon, and asks a Samaritan, a centuries' old enemy of the Jews, and a woman, for a drink of water. As thirsty as he might be, his actions are beyond shocking. The Jews considered Samaritans a mixed race and thus unclean. A Jew would not give a Samaritan the time of day. Social mores prevented a Jewish man from speaking to a solitary woman alone in public. Jesus is sitting, which is the usual position of a teacher, a rabbi, instructing a foreign woman, which is why it is difficult to imagine who was more shocked—the woman or Jesus’ disciples when they came upon the sight. Yet Jesus discourses with this lone Samaritan woman about thirst and about water. He does not wander into Samaria by accident. He journeys there for relationship.
Consider further that this unnamed woman has no label, no title, nothing to mark her as anyone distinguished or important who Jesus might want to meet. Whatever the reasons, she has lived through five marriages, suggesting that her life has not been the easiest or the happiest. Now, we find her cohabitating with someone to whom she is not married. This unnamed woman is dehydrated, socially and spiritually. Yet she knows enough about her faith, about religion, to believe in a messiah, but what is more important to her is not who she worships, but where the proper place of worship is. She thirsts because she has had no real relationship with God.
So Jesus takes the time to explain this living water to her, a Samaritan woman, in the noon heat of the day: "If you knew the generosity of God and who I am, you would be asking me for a drink. I would give you fresh, living water. . . Anyone who drinks this water will never thirst." Here again as in Exodus 17, water has a symbolic meaning. It
represents the life of the Spirit which comes through faith. Jesus first offers an outcast the gift of relationship. Then he offers living water--the Spirit of God.
What is this living water, the woman wants to know? Does it mean she won't have to come to the well anymore, to risk embarrassment, to wear herself out? If so, then she'll take it. So often we, as Christians, are ready to claim Christ if we can be assured our lives will be blessed, made easier, safer, somehow. But Christ did not come to take away challenges, but to water us from the inside, to change us and to empower us to live faithfully in all situations. His words are the water meant to seep into our souls.
God, Jesus tells the woman, is Spirit; he is not bound to any one place or any one people. She must indeed have been amazed at those words. Perhaps we are, too. God cannot be put in a box and labeled. God is Spirit. He isn't a mountain on which to worship or a holy city to be visited or even a church building to be preserved. He is not the Torah or the Book of Order. He is not a Pharisee or a preacher. He is Spirit, our spiritual life-source, our water. Without that relationship, just like the unnamed woman, we lose our direction. Without it, we become confused about life choices and priorities. Without it, our souls dry up and we lack passion, trust, and commitment. We become, instead, a parched, bitter, irritable, self-centered people rather like the Hebrews complaining to Moses and bickering with each other in their own dry desert.
Like the unnamed woman, we are all placed here for a reason and a purpose. Some of us may be parched this morning. Some of us may wonder why Jesus would want to speak to us. Some of us may wonder why Jesus would want a relationship with us. Surely he knows our secrets as well as he knows those of the woman. What is our response to his invitation to drink from the well? Are we astonished? Suspect? Humbled? Ashamed? Doubtful? Indifferent? Too busy to think about it? Too guilt-ridden to imagine it? Grateful? It is no coincidence that among the longest stories in the gospels that concern relationship and compassion are Luke’s rendition of the Good Samaritan and John’s rendition of this Samaritan woman. What do those stories tell us about Jesus’ desire for relationship with us and his compassion for us as we wander in the deserts of our own lives?
I have been told from time to time that Presbyterian pastors preach too much grace and not enough sin and judgment. But in an already fearful world, why do we need billboards on the Interstate that read, “Don’t make me come down there. –God.” In fact, God already did come down here, and it was not to frighten people into compliance; it was to love them into relationship. Because sin is real and so are its consequences, we need to be told, like the woman at the well, like her townspeople, that the Messiah knows us through and through and yet still desires us. The Messiah knows our past, our secrets, our present, and he still loves us. The Messiah wants nothing more than for us to accept that living water, the Spirit, and be changed by it. The Messiah wants relationship, for that is the life and call of baptismal people.
In this story, as in most of the gospels, Jesus comes to the rejected people, not the chosen ones; he invites a woman, not a man, into the life of the Spirit; he spends two entire days with the “enemy,” in their midst, sharing his good news with them. The Samaritan woman even receives a title. She is the first apostle in John’s gospel. Salvation may come from the Jews, through Jesus Christ, but the living water, the Spirit of God, is offered to everyone.
As you, brothers and sisters in Christ of First Presbyterian Church, travel through this time of transition with its own anxieties and questions, stay close to the well. Remember that Jesus offers the water that gives life to you and to this community. You needn't live in a state of dryness, of discouragement, or of anxiety, when you have the Word, the Sacraments, the Worship, the Scripture, each other, and your own prayer lives to nourish you. But as the saying goes, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink.” Like the Samaritan woman, may you be open to the invitation, seek that water, and then share it. May you, like the woman at the well, water each other, and the world, and be transformed into living springs.