(a sermon for August 23, 2015, the 13th Sunday after Pentecost; sixth in a series, based on John 4:5-26)
Last week I began the message by talking about a couple of the, shall we say, more “unique” weddings I’ve been a part of over the years. However, what I didn’t talk about, and what a couple of you asked me about afterward, was how weddings like that come to be in the first place! Well, I can tell you that where I’m involved, at least, that whole process starts when I first sit down with the couple who want to be married and ask them to tell me “in 25 words or less” what kind of wedding ceremony they’re looking for.
It seems like a small question; but in fact, quite often the answers I get end up telling me a great deal not only about what we’re getting into with the wedding, but also about the couple getting married! For instance, some want everything about the service to be traditional, right down to the “let them speak now or else forever hold their peace” part; while others insist on things being decidedly non-traditional both in language and in form. There are couples who are very intent on having their vows to be personal and unique to them, some have very specific ideas about the music (my favorite was the bride and groom who wanted the song “Achy-Breaky Heart” as their Wedding Processional, and who were highly offended when I thought they were joking), others want to make sure certain family members are involved in some way, or that there’s a particular prayer or reading included that has come to mean something special to them. And then, of course, there are a few who say it all in just three words: short and sweet!
What’s interesting, though, are the surprising number of couples who when asked this question will look at each other for a long, awkward moment and then, slightly embarrassed, reply that they don’t really know what they’re looking for in a wedding! And when this happens, I always tell them the same thing: to not worry, because what we’ll be doing is working together to create the wedding they’ve always dreamed of, even if they didn’t know they were dreaming of it!
And actually, isn’t that a pretty good parable for life itself? After all, there are so many people who spend the better part of their lives dreaming of something … and yet aren’t really aware that they’re dreaming of it! That’s not to say most of us don’t have this idea that there’s something out there that at least ought to give our lives a sense of wholeness and purpose with a little bit of joy on the side, because I dare say we do; the question always seems to be, what is it? To put this in the language of this morning’s gospel reading, we’re a people who thirst for that which will bring us satisfaction and fulfillment; the problem is that most of us don’t realize just how very thirsty we are, and really have little idea what exactly it is that we’re thirsting for!
Not that we don’t try to quench that thirst as we go along, and by any means possible. There are in fact a number of wells from which you and I draw regularly, in the hope that we might find what it is that we think we need. Some of us draw from the well of materialism, spending our living (literally and figuratively) at the mall in an effort to buy some satisfaction; a lot of us draw from the well of human achievement, trying to pile up success after success in order of find fulfillment; and then there are too many of us who dip into the well of human relationship, moving from person to person in the quest for understanding and acceptance and love. It all seems very good and very appealing, but inevitably credit cards get maxed out, fame is fleeting, and all shallow relationships tend to reveal is a lack of depth; and in the end, for all the water we’ve drawn out of these wells what we’re left with are parched throats and empty lives.
Ultimately, what we need is something more than anything the world can offer us, something we intrinsically know inside ourselves but cannot seem to name; we’re thirsting for something that will keep us satisfied and keep us from ever being “thirsty” again. You see, beloved, what we want – what we need (!) – whether we know it or not, is God. And more than mere platitude, this is the nature of our very humanity; it’s in our DNA: we are born with a thirst for something deep and eternal, and we cry out along with the psalmist that “as a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.” (Ps. 42:1) On our journey of life and faith, each one of us needs water to quench that thirst; we need “living water” but what we soon discover is the only one who will draw that kind of water for us is Jesus.
Which brings us to our text for this morning, the story of Jesus’ encounter “along the way” with the so-called “Woman at the Well.” Actually, “a woman of Samaria,” and it’s important to note here that she’d come to the well in the midst of the midday heat not looking for anything else but… water! Not living water, certainly, nor anything else out of the ordinary; simply some water for drinking, cooking and cleaning.
And yet, it was an odd time for her to be at the well, as most of the women in that village would go to draw water early in the morning; but then again, this particular woman wasn’t like the others. You see, what we know about this “woman at the well” is that she was different; different as in outcast from polite society, different as in knowing that wherever you go and whatever you do people are going to notice, and not in a good way. This was a woman who knew what it was like to be gossiped about; to be degraded and dismissed by all those around; to always have this awful, aching feeling of lifelessness and an empty heart.
But on this day she wasn’t looking for answers or even relief; all she wanted was the water! And so she couldn’t have anticipated this conversation with a stranger who not only seemed to know everything she’d ever done, but also seemed to understand what it was she really needed; but because Jesus spoke to her that day, everything changed forever.
“Give me a drink,” Jesus says, and what follows is one of the longest dialogues that we have in the gospels. Now, the fact that they are having this conversation at all is amazing in and of itself, since Jesus is a Jew and the woman is a Samaritan, and as John is quick to point out, Jews and Samaritans “don’t share things in common;” but that’s only one boundary that Jesus tears down. Jesus immediately starts talking about “the gift of God,” and who it was asking her for drink, and how he could give her “living water,” which would “become in [her] a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” What’s fascinating about all this is that even as Jesus is speaking, the woman is still assuming that he’s simply referring to another well somewhere, a fresh spring hole in which to draw water; but of course, what Jesus is referring to is something much more personal than that; something greater and deeper than she could even begin to understand or even articulate!
I love the fact that there’s even a touch of humor in this conversation; you know, that whole exchange about her having no husband, when in reality she’s had five and then there’s another besides? You’ve got to imagine that she’s winking at Jesus when she answers him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet!” And all through this talk she’s thinking, who is this man, and what is he talking about? How does he know so much about me? But make no mistake; Jesus’ words have already had a profound effect on her; in fact, if you read on from where we left off this morning, what you find is that she’s starting to see that perhaps there is… more; more to be desired and sought after in life, more that offers true satisfaction and fulfillment than she’d ever imagined before. She ends up telling everyone about this man Jesus, and in the process she asks this question, which is actually more of a statement : “He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”
The thing you’ve always dreamed about, but just didn’t know you were dreaming about it.
That “one thing” which you were looking for but never really had the sense that you ought to be seeking it out.
The great question you need to have answered, but which you’ve never asked.
The water that will satisfy your thirst so that you’ll never be thirsty again, though you never actually realized how thirsty you were!
That’s not only her story, friends, but ours as well; and the good news is that the same kind of “refreshment” that was offered to the woman at the well can be ours as well; through Jesus, who comes to meet us where we are; who reaches out to us (even though we feel like we haven’t deserved it, or earned it, or are “good enough” for it), and does so that we might truly have what it is we truly need.
And if you’re looking for a word to describe that, I would suggest to you that the word is “grace.”
It is by grace – yes, amazing grace that God extends through Jesus Christ – that we are offered up the experience of the divine in every step we take, in every word and thought that’s shared, in every step along our journey. As we drink from this living water that Christ provides – that is, when we begin to let our lives be fueled and nourished by that which God provides – that is when we begin to get a true sense of everything we’ve always known we wanted for our ourselves and our world; that’s when you and I begin to make the connections of meaning between all the seemingly disparate parts of our lives and living; and that’s when we begin to experience what we’ve always dreamed of: a life girded on the joy of love manifest in our hearts through Jesus Christ, that we might overflow with life full, abundant and eternal.
This is grace, and by definition, a gift, freely given; and the best part is all we have to do is accept it for what it is, and the rest will follow!
Since this seems to be the day I’m returning to earlier sermon illustrations (!), you might also recall the story I told a few weeks ago of a fence we built around the house where we used to live. Well, here’s the rest of the story: when we were in the process of digging deep holes in which to sink the fence posts, with just about every hole we dug we struck water, and a lot of it; it was practically gushing out of the holes, which was surprising to us because our property was on a hillside and our yard never seemed particularly wet! We just could never figure out where all that water was coming from.
However, a couple of months later, we had occasion to view a 100 plus year-old map of our neighborhood, and what we discovered is that our house had been built on what used to be a huge apple orchard; and also that back then there had been a bubbling brook flowing right through our back yard! Apparently at some point, the water table had shifted and the brook had dried up; but the water was still there. Even though we couldn’t see it, there had ever and always been this cool, clear and life giving water flowing beneath our feet; we just never knew it!
God’s intent is always to quench our deepest thirst; and the spring of living water that he provides has always been there; even when we don’t see it. Even in our rush to find something else to satisfy our yearning, even as we move desperately from once source of “fulfillment” to the next, even as we lament the lack of any kind of fresh water whatsoever in our lives, in fact, God is still there, waiting patiently, ever and always ready to quench our thirst with the living water that’s been there all along. And we know it’s true, because even now, there’s Jesus, standing there at the edge of this deep, bubbling spring, dipper in hand and ready to give us a drink.
Thanks be to God who even now, calls us to the well so that we may drink fully and deeply.
Amen and AMEN!
c. 2015 Rev. Michael W. Lowry