March 19, 2017

John 4:5-42

[based on a sermon series in “A Preacher’s Guide to Lectionary Sermon Series, WJK, 2016]
I was at a church meeting a while ago and during the devotions, read from the fourth chapter of John’s gospel, a woman sitting nearby pulled out the now ubiquitous nalgene bottle and took a big long swig. These water bottles, or those like them, are everywhere. Perhaps the stories of thirst that we read today have been taken to heart and we have all concluded to keep ourselves hydrated. In reality I think that we have finally come to see plain old water as a vast improvement over alternatives to drink. If it’s good water.

The need for clean drinking water is not something new. Back in the 1990’s Becky and I hosted a missionary to India while he was on home leave. He spoke at our church, and others, and stayed at our house. Before he left, I ask him, ‘what will you miss the most about the states when you return to India?’ He paused and said, ‘the only thing, is the ability to turn on the tap and get a safe, cool, glass of water.’

You probably don’t realize that in a file folder at my home office I have a license for Water Production for the state of Michigan. So when the issue with the water in Flint Michigan hit the news, I realized that it was not the product of shoddy management or even infrastructure. The problem was money and politics. In the United States of America there is no reason why anyone should not have clean, safe, drinking water.

A friend of mine was a missionary in Botswana. He ran a home and school for the children of native ministers. He once told me that their biggest struggle was clean water. I told him of my engineering background and public works experience and explained that digging a well, even in primitive conditions, was not only possible but could be done if we could raise the money. He told me, ‘money is not the problem.’ Once the well is in place it becomes a political issue, a financial issue, and the local militia will take it over and control who gets water and how much. If only there were stones today we could break for streams of living water!

We are utterly dependent upon water. Water comforts and cleanses, as well as destroys by its abundance or scarcity. We demonstrate that value by carrying around our own ‘reverse osmosis water’ in those plastic bottles. When it is hot, when we are exerting ourselves, we need to stay hydrated or our efforts in the task at hand may be compromised.

On this Sunday in lent we might notice that hydration does not only occur in the physiological sense, in the organic sense. There is a spiritual hydration that is an essential part of our Christian life. In today’s readings the people and then Jesus are simply thirsty. They ask for water. It is a reasonable request. The Hebrew people point out that they need water, which invites Moses into a conversation with God that creates from despair, water from a stone.

Jesus’ offering of water to this woman is chock full of political and social intrigue. She is of the wrong nationality, the wrong gender, and because of when and where Jesus encounters her, probably a woman who the other women shame. I do not think that Jesus is telling her that if she changes her ways that there is grace and forgiveness. I don’t think that’s it at all. I don’t think Jesus even needs to forgive her. Rather, I think he calls her not to repentance but to life-giving faith. I believe he is accepting her where she is at and inviting her to a deeper sense of God’s presence in her life.

Do you realize, that in John’s Gospel Jesus talks to the woman at the well longer than he speaks to the entirety of the crowds who come to see him? More verses of conversation occur here than in all of his speaking to the disciples! This stranger, this outsider, this woman gets more of a private audience with Jesus than with any other folk in the whole gospel. Jesus reaches out to her and offers her one of the basic necessities of life.

I like that. Perhaps next book I’ll be reading is the popular Lemony Snicket series by Daniel Handler. I decided that after I read this quote from one of the books: “Someone feeling wronged is like someone feeling thirsty. Don’t tell them they aren’t. Sit with them and have a drink.” One thing to try this Lent is to offer some hydration to another.

Eugene Petersen translates part of this passage this way: “…the time is coming,” Jesus says, “it has, in fact, come–when what you’re called will not matter and where you go to worship will not matter. It’s who you are and the way you live that count before God. Your worship must engage your spirit in the pursuit of truth. That’s the kind of people God is out looking for: those who are simply and honestly themselves before God in their worship. God is sheer being itself–Spirit. Those who worship God must do it out of their very being, their spirits, their true selves, in adoration” (The Message).

This woman, out of a keen understanding of her own need and a marvelous openness to Jesus and all that he offers, asks, “Sir, give me this water!” Then Jesus shows her, in an interesting way, just how powerful he is. He tells her that he knows her, really knows all about her and her life. He doesn’t judge her or tell her that she’s welcome to the living water so that she can change her sinful ways. What he is doing is accepting her and calling her to discipleship.

We can learn from this. For one thing, we are reminded not to react like the other disciples. John, as narrator, gives voice to their unspoken thoughts: “Why are you speaking with her?” Too often these thoughts roll through our minds. Yes, Jesus, we know you love all people, but surely you don’t mean people like that!

We might also recognize that even today there are still people at the well in the midday heat, those written off by society, looking in from the outside. The gospel drives us toward them with a word of hope that transcends race, gender, nationality, marital status, and anything else the world would use to separate us. In Christ, all such division is transcended and healed. We are sent to those who yearn to have their long thirst satisfied.

So keep yourselves hydrated brothers and sisters so that you don’t fade while you are out in the heat of the day, doing this challenging work. May we be bold–fearless–in feeding hungry hearts and quenching thirsty spirits while sharing and caring for one another’s basic needs. We are all thirsty people. May your heart be broken open by God rather than hardened by this world, so that you may pour out prodigal, quenching love without fear of being emptied. Amen.