Sunday, February 24, 2008

A Sermon for the Third Sunday of Lent

Preached at Grace and St. George’s, Sunday, 24 February, 2008, clocking in at an appalling eighteen minutes. Memo for next time - be shorter, much shorter.

Exodus 17:1-7, Psalm 95, Romans 5:1-11, John 4:5-42

Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” (John 4:13-14)

Our gospel story begins with a weary traveller under a hot noonday sun. Ask anyone whose been to the Middle East and they’ll tell you that the song about “only mad dogs and Englishman” going out in the noon day sun is true. Christie Blatchford, in her recent book about her time in Afghanistan, describes that sun as “relentless”. Even in the early morning, at 6am, she writes that when she got up “and opened the tent flap, the whiteness outside was so blinding I more often than not emerged in a stumble, as surely as if I were drunk” (p. 12). In this environment, water is literally the difference between life and death. Blatchford describes Canadian troops in Kandahar in July drinking up to eighteen litres of water a day. So when Jesus greets this Samaritan woman at the well and says “Give me a drink”, we can assume that he’s not making polite conversation. Both parties know the reality of physical thirst, the necessity of water to keep our bodies alive. But Jesus is also starting a conversation that will uncover the spiritual thirst of this woman, and this conversation will offer comfort to all of us who thirst for love and truth.

Why does Jesus find this woman at the well at noon. She should be there in the cool of the early morning or evening, sharing gossip and conversation with the otehr village women. Instead she has come alone, under a burning sun. The likely explanation for her isolation is because she is the village outcast, the object of gossip and scorn because of her five husbands and her current live-in partner. This woman is feeling the heat in many ways, under the noon day sun but also under the glare of social disapproval.

During their conversation, we see that Jesus knows her past, but he doesn’t treat her like an outcast. Moral condemnation is just one of the boundaries that Jesus ignores to have this conversation. He also sets aside the fact that she is a Samaritan. In those days, Jews and Samaritans were related but were estranged because of different religious beliefs, just as Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland are estranged, even though they are both Christian. Jesus also sets aside the fact that she is a woman, and unescorted, and according to “safe” practices they should not be having this conversation alone. Jesus knows all these things, but he sets them aside because he cares about this one person. He’s doing what comes naturally to a good shepherd. As Jesus said elsewhere, his business is with the one lost sheep, and not the ninety nine who are safe (Lk 15:3-7).

Jesus and the woman talk about water, but as with the conversation with Nicodemus we heard last week (John 3), we get the impression that the conversation works on two levels. There’s a literal level, the water from the well that quenches your thirst temporarily, and there’s a spiritual level of “living water” which is the gift of God. The woman hears Jesus mention “living water” but she’s still thinking literally, thinking about the burden of that heavy clay jog that she has to tote back home day after day. Perhaps jokingly, she says “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming back here to draw water” (Jn 4:15). Her tone is “yeah, right, like you have some magic water bucket or something”.

It’s only after the husband part of the conversation that the woman starts to let her guard down. Whoever this guy is, he has some kind of special ability to know all the secret details of her life. “You’re a prophet”, she concedes, but then tries to take shelter in the religious differences between Jews and Samaritans. As others have noted, her conversation sounds like the person you meet today who says “There are a lot of different religions with different takes on the truth, so I’ll just decide for myself what truth is”. However, Jesus doesn’t let her off the hook. “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (Jn 4:24). That’s a difficult line of dense Johnanine theology. Jesus is saying, I think, that “God is spirit but he is also real, God’s truth rises above all our ideas of the truth, and if you want to worship God, then you have to agree that his truth trumps our ideas of truth. Once again the woman tries to pull back, saying in effect that they can argue all they want, but only when the Messiah comes will we know who God is and what is real. Then Jesus points gently to himself, and says, “that person whom you’re looking for, the Messiah who will reveal everything, that would be me, the guy you’re talking to”.

So we start with a conversation about thirst and water, a conversation between two people who shouldn’t be talking to one another. In this conversation, we learn that spiritual thirst is different from physical thirst. We see many examples of spiritual thirst in the woman’s life. Spiritual thirst is isolation and condemnation that keep people apart. It is the guilt and shame that comes from the deserts we make of our lives. It is doubting that anything is really true, and muddling along in the dark hoping that one day, maybe, God might show himself.
The spiritual thirst quencher is Jesus. Jesus is a real Messiah who is willing to talk with the person that everyone else is happy to ignore. Jesus is the Messiah who offers an alternative to moral shame and condemnation. Jesus offers God’s love and forgiveness and new life, reviving a parched soul and giving new life. Later in John’s gospel, Jesus will say, “If anyone thirst, let that person come to me and drink. He who believes in me, out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water (John 7:37-38). Jesus started by asking for a drink of earthly water, but he gave the woman a spiritual drink that she didn’t expect. She discovered that God was real, God knows exactly who she is, and still loves her. Her parched heart is now flowing with water and she reaches out to others, running back to the village to tell the people who shunned her about Jesus. When she runs back to town, John tells us, in a small but important detail, that she leaves her water jar behind. The suggestion is that she’s found the water that really counts. She’s been freed of carrying that old heavy jug, all by herself in the hot sun, and given a new life that she can share with others. John tells us that Jesus stayed in the village for several days, where the woman is now part of a community that nows Jesus is the saviour of the world.

When I go out into the world, I see a lot of people carrying water with them. Go to any public place and you’ll see people walking around with water bottles. You see the disposable kind, you see sports bottles or those clear, coloured, hard plastic ones that young people tuck into their backpacks. Perhaps these people are so active that they need to be constantly drinking. (As a runner I certainly understand the need to keep hydrated.) But is it also possible that these ever-present water bottles signal some kind of crisis? Isn’t it ironic that so many people know the value of physical water, but so many people lack spiritual water?
This week I came across two examples of people suffering from spiritual thirst. One was about an internet dating service, RRSP, which caters to middle-aged woman who are no longer content living “in an arid (emphasis mine) marriage or partnership”. The reporter interviewed a Rutgers professor of anthropology who thinks that as people live longer, our needs for intimacy and love become greater than established, conventional relationships can meet. The fact that half a million women are members of this site suggest that the professor is on to something, though as the reporter notes, not all these stories end happily:
"D", who is 55, has been complaining to me for years about her husband's addiction to the remote control, which he uses to watch sport, accompanied by beer, while turning his double chin into a triple chin. Last year she went out and had an affair with a Latin lover. (That turned out to be a disaster, but this column is about needs, not ends.)

A second article spoke to the same phenomenon of unmet needs. The US Centre for Disease Control has released a study showing that the suicide rate for middle-aged people has increased dramatically in recent years, by a 20% increase for people from 45 to 54, and a 30% increase for women in this age group. By contrast, the group most worried about, teenagers, has seen an increase of only 2%, while the suicide rate of seniors has actually declined. The article says that the question of “why thousands of men and women have crossed the line between enduring life’s burdens and surrendering to them is a painful question for their loved ones. But for officials, it is a surprising and baffling public health mystery”. Statistics are always open to debate, but it’s tempting to conclude, as the article suggests, that for baby boomers, used to a lifetime of self-gratification, middle-age and the challenges it can pose to health, family, and career, spiritual thirst can be fatal.

Experts and news stories tell us that the future will be fraught with debates and struggles over the earth’s resources of fresh water. We need to deal with this, but as churches we need also need to address the spiritual water crisis by offer our thirst-quenching Saviour. “If anyone thirst, let that person come to me and drink. He who believes in me, out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water (John 7:37-38). In Jesus time, “living water” meant flowing water, like a stream or a spring. As I finish this sermon, I think of the spring of clean water that bubbles beside St. George’s, one of the two churches of our parish. Old-timers tell me about the old tin cup that was beside the spring, there for anyone who wanted a refreshing drink. What a wonderful image for the role of the church in a thirsty world!

Today’s gospel calls us to be unashamed about our good news, that Jesus, and only Jesus, is the Saviour of the World. We need to be clear about saying this, and we need to be alert to the people we know who are thirsty. Our church community must always be a place where Christ is real, where his truth is listened to, and where all who wish to drink are welcomed. Our drinks take many forms, the spring outside, the warmth and community of a coffee hour, cool lemonade on a summer day, but always the living water of the Holy Spirit that can quench the deepest thirst and bring life to the driest soul. We who have been given life by that Spirit are called to share it, as the woman at the well did.

In the eastern church, the woman at the well is known today as Photini or Svetlana. The name means “equal to the apostles” and was given to her because she went to her village and through her story convinced many that Jesus was the Messiah. She could not have told her story if she hadn’t first found the courage to look into herself, and open her greatest needs and thirsts to the living water of Jesus. May we have the same courage to open our greatest needs to Christ, and to invite others to come and drink the living waters that have saved our lives. Amen.

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Mad Padre

Mad Padre
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