The sermon for week March 27, 2011
AT THE WELL, John 4:5-15
A few years ago I was in Chicago for a conference which took place at Fourth Presbyterian Church on Michigan Ave. The church is located across the street from the John Hancock building, one of the tallest buildings in the world. This area is also home to three high end, high rise shopping centers with anchor stores like Macy’s, Sakes Fifth Ave. and Neiman Marcus. Along the Michigan Ave. strip are also such specialty stores as Tiffanys, Brooks Brothers and Coach.
And right in the middle of it all is this Presbyterian Church, and right in the exterior center of the church building, facing the busy traffic of Michigan Ave., is a courtyard and right in the middle of that courtyard is a fountain.
At noon the quiet courtyard of Fourth Presbyterian Church would fill with people. They would sit on the small lawn and the ridge around the fountain, open their bags and unwrap their sandwiches and eat lunch. There were shoppers and clerks, business people from the nearby office buildings and homeless from the street. There were tourists and like myself conference attendees. There were families with small children and people who ate alone.
I particularly remember one of our conference speakers. Her name is Marva Dawn. She is crippled and nearly blind, but she is a prolific author and conference speaker. She had someone bring out a folding chair for her and there she sat near the fountain, by herself, the sun shining on her, eating her lunch and reading her Bible which laid open on her lap.
The magnet that drew all of us to this place was the fountain. Even with all the traffic and pedestrians on Michigan Ave. you could still hear the sound of the falling water. It wasn’t that the sound was louder, but it was as though the ear of your spirit attuned you to the sound.
I cannot think back on that scene, especially of Marva Dawn sitting there with her open bible, without at the same time thinking of Jesus sitting with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well in Samaria. Perhaps it was that was the passage Marva was reading, but whatever the passage, knowing she was in silent conversation with her Lord, as in one way or another we all are when we are drawn to a place of quiet rest, a place often of water, be it a fountain or a well, along the shore of the ocean or the edge of a river, a place where we can hear our yearnings, be they for love or friendship, peace within or peace without, or the yearning after God.
The psalmist says, “As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.” (42:1). We feel the yearning. We may not name it as Divine in origin, but nevertheless there is within us this yearning. Something there is within us that knows this longing. Whether we have a Bible in our hand or a sack lunch, whether we have descended in an elevator from the highest floor from our position of authority and prestige, or have stepped out of the shadows where we live on the streets, so we come, making our way to this place of the still or flowing water, where we can sit for awhile, the distractions muted, and the yearning listened too.
I am in love with the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well. At so many levels it teaches us that it is hard to find just one focus for a sermon. For instance, as I reflected on this passage I was drawn to Jesus humanity. Though we are quick to affirm Jesus humanity, as well as His Divinity, we still keep him a loth from the inevitable limitations of body and mind, like that of being tired.
Here, in this story, Jesus sits at the well, not for some greater purpose, but because he is tired. He is like us as we all are at times, exhausted. Then, when the woman appears he begins the conversation, not as we would expect, with gentleness, as Jesus meek and mild would do, but with a certain curtness. He says to the woman, “Give me to drink.” There is no “please,” as I am sure his mother must have taught him, “you ask politely”, but just as we sometimes do when we get home from work, and it has been a long day, we speak abruptly, not to command but because we are worn down, as happens to body and spirit encased in human form, and again from the cross in the words, “I thirst.”
And it must have been the same for the woman. She came to the well exhausted, worn out, a hard life. Jesus knew the meaning of that life because he had lived it in his own body and spirit, the same rejections, the same exhaustion, and this is why we listen to him, because he has been where we are at. He hears our lives as they are, including what exhaustion and hard times can not extinguish, the deep yearnings and longings that have not yielded to circumstances. So, on a lunch time break we make our way to a place apart and sit for awhile and the conversation begins, just as it did for Jesus and the woman of Samaria.
Across the street from the courtyard of the church I witnessed a very different scene. One afternoon I entered a shop at the base of the John Hancock building and when later, I sought to exit into the concourse of the building a policeman stopped me. He asked me for identification and then he searched my briefcase. A day later I was walking around the block and walked pass the entrance to a multi level parking lot. Two guards were using mirrors to check underneath every car that entered the parking lot.
Such are the scenes that increasingly are a part of our daily life. This is our broken world.
In the story of the Samaritan woman at the well we see that brokenness healed and her yearnings fulfilled. Here is how it is done, seeing through Jesus the pathway to living water which from when we drink we never need thirst again, the living water quenching the thirst of our longings.
First, there is the courage of openness. To help heal the brokenness of the world and to be responsive to our own deep yearnings of the heart and mind, we need to be open to alien worlds. There is always another border to be crossed, another bridge to walk over, another boundary to be erased. You need to do as Jesus did crossing into Samaria. Jesus entered a foreign land. He entered what was perceived as enemy territory.
To the devote Judean and Galilean, Samaria was an alien land, unclean, of a mixed race, practicing a different religious truth. Rather than travel through Samaria, the shortest distance between Judaea and Galilee, the Judeans and Galileans would walk around Samaria. Jesus passed through. Where others saw borders, Jesus saw a road.
A part of the tension in our world is caused because we have restricted God’s ability to answer our prayers. We yearn for peace but we still insist upon a world of “us” and “them.” To respond to Jesus’ offer of Living Water, however, always there must exist in the back of our mind the possibility that God might break through and bring healing or justice or peace in the least likely place or people we would image. You cannot predict God and that is exactly what we do when we see others as our enemy or set boundaries and borders or see others as our enemy without hope of reconciliation.
You don’t know where the winds of God might blow, witness the populist uprising in Egypt. Not even the CIA was able to predict this swell of longing that burst forth in a quest for freedom that had lost all fear. Father Bascik of Corpus Christi parish in Toledo says that we must always be on ontological outlook, by that he means an openness of spirit that accepts that God might work anywhere to bring God’s justice and kingdom to fruition, even in enemy territory, or those with whom we deem unlikely to associate.
Then Jesus makes it personal by engaging the Samaritan woman in conversation, crossing not only nationalistic but gender boundaries, doing two things at once that were for bidden, talking to a Samaritan and talking to a woman. So, in our hearts we feel the yearning for companionship or friendship. We are lonely. It is God speaking to us in our loneliness and we respond by praying, God, give me a friend, but then we can’t imagine that it might be our boss or our employee, or someone more highly or less educated than ourselves, or someone of a different economic status, or of another race, or gay if we are straight or straight if we are gay, or Buddhist, or Muslim. We restrict God by our lack of imagination.
I had a church member sitting in my office. He was wealthy, a leading entrepreneur in our city. Our worlds were vastly different in every way, including age and politics. I took a call while we were meeting. It was a devastating call and affected me deeply, but when I got off the phone and tried to return to our meeting, he said to me, “David, we can do that later. You look like you could use a drink. Let me take you for a drink,” and that is what we did in the middle of the afternoon, and for a little while, from worlds apart, we sat together, and though I was his pastor he became my pastor. You have to allow that God is working everywhere, and as in the wilderness wanderings, can bring water even from a rock.
Secondly, persevere until at last there is a break through to honesty and acceptance. At first there seemed to be no hope in the conversation that transpired between Jesus and the Samaritan woman. Everything Jesus said, she took another way. They had different world views, the suspicions of centuries, but then, because they stayed there together, in a sense endured, the moment of truth came.
She said, she did not have a husband. Jesus said, “You are right. You have had five husbands and the man you are living with now is not your husband.” Wow, but what is important to know is that there was no judgment in Jesus’ words. He wasn’t condemning her. He wasn’t accusing her. He was offering her an invitation to honesty. For the first time her life was laid bare, but rather than rejection, she found acceptance, her yearning fulfilled, the Living Water received.
Jesus always sits beside us in that way. One of the meditative practices I have used is to image myself sitting on a stone bench by the water’s edge and I see Jesus coming toward me and he takes a place beside me and we sit there together and though not a word is spoken I begin to feel his full acceptance and as we linger, there by the water’s edge, my thirst is quenched, not from the lake, but the Christ who in His full acceptance gives me the Living Water.
Sometimes as we are truly present to one another and all the barriers of age and gender and religion and race and national boundaries recede, this is what we give one another. God works through us to offer the same Living Water that alone can quench the yearnings of a thirsty soul.
I emailed a friend of mine and asked him what he took from the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well. He wrote back and said, Dusty Springfield’s, “The Look of Love.”
The look of love
Is in your eyes
The look your heart can’t disguise
The look of love
Is saying so much more
Than just words could ever say
And what my heart has heard
Well, it takes my breath away.
We all yearn for that love and what Jesus tells us in this story if we just let go, and let the barriers fall and remain persistent when we seem as nations or individuals to talk passed one another, the breakthrough will occur and we will drink of the Living Water.
In one last desperate attempt to resist, and we all resist because always the Gospel just seems to good to be true, the woman says to Jesus but we are of different religions. Jesus says, the time is coming and is already here when it won’t matter, all the differences that keep us apart, because we will all worship in spirit and in truth. That spirit is the look of love we see in Jesus that knows no boundaries and once we have experienced it, we know what we have found, and we sing the refrain from the Look of Love, not as a plea but as a confession of faith and trust:
Don’t ever go
Don’t ever go
Don’t ever g0.
It happened at Jacob’s well in Samaria, it draws us to a fountain on Michigan Ave: by the still or running water, the yearning and the promise, “Drink and you will thirst no more.”