August 4, 2019
Rev. Dr. Margaret McCray
John 4:1-30, 39-42
Over the years in my ministry of pastoral counseling I have come to know that I have to make a connection with the person or persons I am working with and that happens as a connection, a feeling, not something that evolves our of thinking. It may be a word they use, a story they tell, an emotion, a look or a feeling they show…. some vulnerability they are bold to share with me…. And suddenly I can feel the switch, the connection. Suddenly I truly care about them. It is not a thought. It is a feeling and I am engaged in a totally new way that feels authentic and real. Now, this is my experience. I don’t know what has to happen for them to decide to stay in the relationship and have the courage to be honest and open. But from my own experience of being the client, I know I have to a feel not so much a switch, but a relaxation, a feeling of trust that allows me to let go, to be vulnerable and dare to share my deepest feelings.
That move to connection, from thinking to feeling, is happening in this story of the woman at the well. Jesus is alone, tired and thirsty after a long walk, sitting beside a well with no way to draw water. She is a woman. She has no name in this story. She is alone. She has a reputation in her village that she has learned to live with. She knows she cannot join the camaraderie of the other women when they come to the well in the cool of the morning to draw water for the day. She has to wait and come on her own when the sun is hottest.
So what are their thoughts, these two people, when they find themselves alone together? Typically, a man from the village in this situation would likely demand that she give him a drink, perhaps show some contempt and then walk away. She would refill her bucket and leave without having said a word. But Jesus, who is a stranger in Samaria, and tired and thirsty, says, (and I imagine that he says it kindly), “Give me a drink.” This startles the woman as she can tell that he is not a Samaritan like herself but a Jew, likely from Jerusalem, and Samaritans and Jews from the South consider themselves if not enemies then at the very least, unfriendly.
Jesus did not see an enemy. I would guess he saw something that suggested she was sad and lonely. But this was on the level of thinking not connection. Perhaps that is why he chose to be open to her in his thirst, and then go even further in his self-revelation by hinting at his identity when he says “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him and he would have given you living water…” He goes on to say “those who drink of the water I will give them will never be thirsty.” It is perhaps at this point that the social barrier of only thinking about their encounter has shifted to a level of connection and honest self-disclosure. He is not talking down to her, he is inviting her into conversation, and she feels safe enough to respond to him in more than a perfunctory way. When she does not feel judged, she is drawn to share her reality with him. Jesus reveals that he knows more about her life than she is telling him, but he does not admonish or shame her. Remarkably, he makes her the recipient of his most powerful truth, telling her that it is not important on what mountain you worship God because “God is Spirit and those who worship God, worship in Spirit and in truth.” She responds to this by proclaiming her belief in the coming of the Messiah, and Jesus says to her “I am he.”
This is an intimate, soul searching, self-revealing conversation for both of them. Rather than judgment, the woman has found acceptance; rather than debasement she has experienced engagement; rather than dismissal she feels called to be a disciple herself, and she goes back to her village to share what she has heard and seen. She is changed by her encounter with Jesus in such a way that the villagers do not turn away from her, as no doubt they usually did. Instead, they listen to her and believe her. They come to meet Jesus for themselves and invite him to stay with them. This encounter at the well has brought forth truth and kindness, hospitality, forgiveness and hope.
This story about Jesus and the woman at the well is not about living water, it is Living Water. Living Water is the Spirit of God that connects us to one another, and to the earth and all that is on the earth. Jesus carries Living Water within himself and he brings forth the Living Water from within the Samaritan woman and she is transformed. Living Water is the Spirit of God, manifested in her and in us and in all creation. Jesus, in the days and years of his ministry, addresses and calls out this Living Water from all the created life he encounters: the storm he quiets, the fish he calls to the nets, the disciples he calls to join him, the multitude he feeds, the children he blesses, the people he heals, those he admonishes for their self-serving religious piety, even those crucified beside him. Some hear him and respond; some do not. And it all begins with water…
“In the beginning” there was “the deep” and God hovered over the deep waters and divided them and made the heavens and the earth, the sun and the moon, all creatures and plants and humankind. The story of creation is the story of diversity, emerging from the depths of water, water God has made alive… Living Water. All the ways we differ from one another as human beings, all the ways we are not like plants or animals and they are not like us, all the ways we are each uniquely ourself—in all these differences – we share a common Ground of Being – that is, God Within Us. Whether we tell the story in scripture, or in myth, or in scientific theory, the reality is the same. As one scientist put it, “ God is in every atom released in the Big Bang.”
God is not just above and around us. God is immanent. God is here, right here. In you and in me. God permeates our being. I was reminded recently that Jews do not speak the Holy name of God, but they breathe it: Yah (in) Weh (out).
The stories of the Hebrew testament, the Psalms, the Newer Testament, and the words and actions of Jesus make this very clear: that God is compassion and love, truth and justice… God is all the nouns in our opening hymn: light and breath, cloud and dove….God is black and brown, male and female, trans and queer; God is Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu; God is mountain and river, lamb and lion, tree and rose, earth and water. Living Water is the Spirit of God in the grocery store clerk, in the refugee fleeing violence, in the 14 year old in a body he feels is not his true self, in the black mother trying to find a job so she can feed her family, in the CEO of a huge corporation, in a man or woman running for President. God is the Spirit of our true self, always within us, and ready when we are ready, to be used in a thirsty and hurting world.
Notice that the Living Water of the Spirit of God is revealed most dramatically in community. Our relationships with others are often the occasions when we are called to find our best self. Yet, it can be hard to find our best self, our Living Water, when we are trying to relate to someone we disagree with, or do not understand, or feel different than. Like the encounter of Jesus and the Samaritan woman, we feel awkward, as though it would be easier to nod politely and move on. We do too much moving on. We are afraid or nervous or uncomfortable, and we walk around the pool of Living Water right there within us, and miss the opportunity for the connection that opens up our heart, that might open the heart of another, and leave us feeling the clean refreshment of the Spirit of God between us. Our world is dying of thirst for such conversations and connections.
I finished this sermon yesterday before hearing about another mass shooting in El Paso. And I woke up to read about another one early today in Dayton, Ohio. I wondered if I should rewrite, refocus what I planned to say but I realized it was more important than ever to talk about Living Water. We live in a parched and thirsty world.
Barry Lopez, in his new book Horizon, writes, “Are we not bound to learn how to speak to one another ?… we must cooperate with one another or die.” And in a radio interview he said that after his recent diagnosis of cancer, and I quote “I imagined in everybody I passed there was some story that they carried in them that would break your heart. So how could you have the temerity to approach that person and say “here’s what’s wrong with you.” Barry Lopez is talking about the Spirit of God, the Living Water that connects each of us to all creation. Many of us feel overwhelmed by what we believe we cannot change, but we are renewed and moved to action by our encounters with others, maybe especially with strangers.
Nature is another place where many of us find renewal of the Spirit of God within us. Away from work and worry and the busyness that consumes us, we are open to not thinking about God so much as feeling God…. in the woods, in streams and lakes, in a garden, on a trail, on a mountain, in the beauty of the desert. I’m reminded of the solar eclipse two summers ago. People gathered in large open areas, on blankets, sharing food, making conversation with strangers, while they waited as the moon slowly moved across the sky. As the moon crossed the path of the sun and the eclipse was total, people were hushed and moved, some wept, some felt a connection to the heavens and earth, and some would say they experienced the Spirit of God. Afterwards many were eager to find out when and where they could have this experience again.
For years, when I was growing up, my father was a physician in a large rural farming community in Kansas. I remember him saying more than once in my childhood that every time he delivered a baby he believed in God. This had a profound effect on me and I’ve never forgotten it. It was my own interest in the birthing process, teaching Lamaze classes and accompanying parents in labor and even delivery, that I discovered my call to ministry. Those of you who watch Call the Midwife on public television might understand how a birth can amaze and humble us. Every newborn is a miracle, a bundle of innocence created from the Living Water of God’s Spirit, and dependent on the love and care of well-meaning human parents. When this sacred creation, this miracle, is placed in our arms, we cradle the Living Water of the Spirit of God, and everything is pure and everything is possible.
We don’t have to see an eclipse or deliver babies to feel and know this Spirit of God. That Spirit resides within us, within you and me, and is as close as our breath. We are God’s Living Water and our world is dying of thirst. I ask you as I ask myself: Where can I pour out the God within me? How can I be in community with others? How can we together, with God’s help, heal our Earth and the people on it, so we might be the beloved, diverse, and loving community that was God’s intent in dividing the Waters of Creation?
Living Water is eternally available to drink – and to push the metaphor even further – to bathe in, swim in, play in and share with all those around us . Find the place for you to pour it out, for the thirsty and the weary.
Sounds more like poetry than a sermon- but perhaps that is the point. How else can we say what can’t be put into words, but must be felt and shared with others?
Is someone thirsty? You have a well of Living Water to offer them.
Thanks be to God!