Lent I: Seeking Life

water

Isaiah 55: 1-5 and John 4: The Woman at the Well

As children, we think it is fun to search for things.  Hide & Seek is an early favorite. Scavenger hunts create opportunities to find things in teams, and then there is the youth favorite – sardines.  In case you don’t know this game – one person hides and as the others find that person, they join them in the hiding place until the last person finds them.  It can get cozy – hence the name, Sardines.  All of these games have as their object to find something, or a variety of things, that are hidden or unavailable.

We want something more. From time to time in our lives, most of us find ourselves asking the question “Is this all there is?”  We want MORE – more significance, more understanding, more peace from the frenetic lifestyles we live. Even for people of deep faith there are moments when we find ourselves tired, sad and discouraged and wonder what the point of life is.

Chances are, the woman in the story went to the well because she needed water. Scholars have read into this fact all kinds of theories – you may have heard that she was embarrassed to be at the well, perhaps the other women were unkind – lots of theories.  We like to read into these stories, but we don’t know.  Maybe she was making soup and needed extra water. What we do know is that she showed up at the well when Jesus was there because she needed water. That is, after all, why anyone goes to a well. To get water.

But while she is there, things change for her.  At the start, there is quite a lot of separation between this woman and Jesus. Probably the gender barrier was the biggest one.  Jewish teachers weren’t supposed to talk with women at all. As in ever. Jewish men only were supposed to talk with the women in their family, and their fiancés after their engagement.  Yet Jesus asks her for water – putting her in the role of giver and power.   There is a racial barrier too – she’s a Samaritan – the result of Jews intermarrying with the people of the land. Samaritans were considered unclean because they intermarried.  Then there is a religious barrier. Samaritans didn’t worship in Jerusalem, at the temple, but on Mt.Gerizim. Jews considered this disrespectful to God and idolatrous. Three separate barriers prohibiting this woman and Jesus from having a meaningful conversation.

This story is important.  One clue is that it is the longest narrative conversation in the New Testament between Jesus and ANYONE. Another clue is that the Gospel of John describes her as a powerful witness – by the end of the story she has brought the whole town to hear Jesus, and Jesus stays an extra two days to teach them.

In the course of the conversation, Jesus changes the situation from distance to possibility.  At the start, he asks for something from her – something it is within her ability to give: water for a thirsty traveler. By the end, Jesus is offering her the gift of life-giving “water.” Truth about God and an opportunity to experience God’s presence.  Jesus is offering her MORE.  More than she had considered possible. She went to the well for water – and ran back to town, leaving her jar there at the well because she found MORE.

Where do we find the water of life?  This story suggests that Jesus enters into human life at the points of real need.  Jesus showed up at a well and had a conversation with a woman in which he demonstrated that he knew the situation of her life.  The conversation about her husbands may have been simply to let her know that the offer of living water was given to her specifically, in full knowledge of the reality of her life. She wasn’t a scholar – or a super-religious person.  She was an ordinary woman whose life hadn’t been easy – and Jesus offered her the water of life.

Unlike the woman in the story, most of us gathered her for worship this morning actually DO know who Jesus is.  We have heard or read some of the stories – at least the “G” rated ones that are chosen to be read on Sunday mornings.  Most of us have been baptized.  Many of us have joined a church at some point in our lives, hopefully with some kind of Confirmation or membership class involved.  Some of us even serve the church as ushers, counters, part of the choir, or work on a committee or two.  We have some understanding of who Jesus is.  And still, we want MORE.  We are looking for more than we have found so far.

Even we who gather here on Sunday mornings fairly regularly are weary.  Maybe even discouraged.  We wonder if we are really making a difference in anyone’s life.  We are pulled in so many directions that we fear that we’ve lost our center.  Our prayer lives dry up from time to time and we wonder what is wrong with us.  Even saints and mystics, and we don’t claim to be those most days, experienced what they called the “dark night of the soul.”  A sense of God’s absence that was profound and felt as a great loss.  Deserts in our prayer life, discouragement with the church – and we find ourselves longing for the water of life.

REAL problems show up when Living Water is not available.  We human beings have such a strong need for significance that if we can’t find it with LIVING Water, we turn to things that are not life-bringing.  It shows up in our garden-variety compensators: all of the indulgences that seem good when we begin using them – and seem to hold us captive in the end.  Many of us are distanced from loved ones, deeply in debt and addicted to a wide variety of things because of our longing for something more and not finding the living water.

But sometimes it gets even worse. Right now, in this country, we have people so longing for connection that they are joining hate groups to provide them with an identity and a group.  This week, in Parkland Florida, we saw the tragic results of a young man longing for infamy.  In one of his comments online, he said, “I’m gonna be a professional school shooter.” He liked the hate rhetoric of the far right.  He had aspirations of buying an AR-15 assault rifle from the time that he was fourteen.  And this week he did it. Mental illness is a terrible thing – but there are a lot of people with mental illness who never turn to violence. Can we say that?  There are kids who cut themselves because they are in pain who never think about assault weapons. But all of these signs are cries for help – cries of desperate souls in need of something.  Something. Something. MORE.

When Jesus was walking the earth, there came a time when the crowds were upset by the things he said and did.  In the narrative, this comes just after the Feeding of the 5000 – plus women and children – Jesus walking on water, and teaching about the Bread of Life – that he is the bread of life. It was hard to understand — so the crowds, and the big group of disciples voted with their feet and left.  Jesus turned to the TWELVE and asked them if they were leaving too.

66 Because of what Jesus said, many of his disciples turned their backs on him and stopped following him. 67 Jesus then asked his twelve disciples if they were going to leave him. 68 Simon Peter answered, “Lord, there is no one else that we can go to! Your words give eternal life. 69 We have faith in you, and we are sure that you are God’s Holy One.”  John 6: 66-68

Where else would we go?  You are the one with words that give eternal life.

Can I get a witness? This story has a stunning ending.  Not just the water jar left behind, although it offers a powerful visual symbol of the ending.  The woman runs back to her community, shares her experience and her questions – and invites everyone to “Come and see.”  In case you weren’t aware, “Come and see” is a powerful and repeated invitation to discipleship in the Gospel of John.  We don’t always notice the repeated themes and phrases in John or the rich symbolism because even if we followed the lectionary, John is broken up in the readings.  It is complex and intense.  But Google and you will find at least 4 and possibly 5 times this phrase is mentioned.  There are more times when the invitation amounts to “Come and see,” but the wording is a bit different.

The woman also shared her uncertainty, “Could he be the Messiah?”  Even when she is unsure, she is talking about this conversation with Jesus.  And the community comes out to hear Jesus.  FOR TWO DAYS. Everyone in the story received MORE from Jesus than they had expected.

Meeting people where they are with openness to new possibilities, including real questions, may be the best witness of all.  This is a lesson that we can learn from the Black Church.  It began in hiding, offering words of encouragement and God’s desire for freedom to slaves in separate meetings. They read the story of Exodus, which was forbidden to be shared with slaves because it put God clearly on the side of the oppressed. The church asked questions about the troubles of the world, even when it didn’t have answers. And prayed together for those who were hurting, even while finding ways to get them on the Underground Railroad.  They didn’t have all of the answers, but shared the story anyway.

Harriet Tubman: “I said to the Lord, I’m going to hold steady on to you, and I know you will see me through.”

Are you with me church?  Claiming to have all of the answers, setting our beliefs in a rigid line, may not be the best way to reach people for Jesus.  People want Living, fresh water – not the kind that has been sitting in a cistern for months, or even years.  Some of us decide what we believe in our childhood and never take those thoughts out to re-examine them.  God’s still working in the world!  God’s still working in our lives!  Living water, life-giving water just doesn’t stand still!  Do you want the life-giving stuff or the stuff that’s been sitting on the shelf for years?

Jesus needs a witness. A bunch of them.  Folks who will share the story of their experience with the life-giving power of Jesus – questions and all!  Are we ready church?  Tell me you are ready!

That invitation to “Come and See,” to share in LIVING WATER is for us as well. The story draws us in.  That’s what these narratives in John tend to do. For people longing for more, wanting the Water of Life, we have an opportunity. And we have an invitation to be the witnesses – to share the story – to say, “Come and See…” because there is life here. 

PRAY: Lord, some of us are dry… Some of us have kept the water in the jar so long it’s not living anymore… some of us are afraid to admit we don’t have the answers…

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