March 19, 2017 | John 4: 5-42 | Rev. Nancy Talbot–
Those of you who were here last Sunday or reflecting on the scripture passage for the week at home may notice some stark contrasts between last week’s story of Nicodemus and this week’s story of the woman at the well. In this year’s cycle of readings, the second and third Sundays in Lent juxtapose these two characters who are found only in the Gospel of John. The fact that the readings appear in the scriptures one right after the other indicates we are meant to notice the contrast in detail between them.
Nicodemus comes to Jesus under cover of darkness and fades into the night at the end of his conversation with Jesus. The Samaritan woman comes at noon in the full light of day. Nicodemus is a Pharisee, a Jew, an insider, highly educated and therefore a social elite. The woman is a Samaritan, a religious, social, and political outsider of no or little status. Nicodemus is stuck in the confines of his religious system, he can’t appropriate the idea that Jesus is sent by God. The woman is able to move outside the expectations of her religious tradition to engage Jesus in a theological debate that leads her to consider that in him is the fullness of God. Nicodemus leaves his conversation in doubt, the woman leaves the well witnessing to her entire community.
Nicodemus has a name, a job, a place of status in his community. He is a somebody. The woman who comes to the well, the equivalent of today’s office water cooler, at the height of day, all by herself, signifying she is an outsider in her own community, has no name. She, it seems, is a nobody, but this nobody is thirsty for a drink, a drink of living water.
Some of you were here three years ago during the season of Lent when we had an actual well here at the front of the sanctuary. For four of the six Sundays of the Lenten season we heard a different person preach on this story of the woman at the well. Our theme that year was “Come Drink Deep.” The first week everyone was asked to write on a paper rain drop something they were thirsting for.
What I remember about those paper raindrops was how many of them had words about love written on them: I am thirsty for love, for acceptance, for the ability to just be who I was created to be. I am thirsty for the kind of deep peace that comes from knowing I am loved for who I am. I am thirsty to be recognized as a somebody.
The desire for unconditional love is a thirst that cuts across every boundary: political, geographical, religious and cultural. We all crave love and affection. We literally need it to survive. One of the reasons we are so often left with a dry taste in our mouth is because we go looking to quench our thirst in tainted wells or at wells that at some point or another run dry because they are too shallow or they leave us wanting more of something that can never truly satisfy us.
When the Samaritan woman shows up mid-day at the well and Jesus asks her for a drink, one of the reasons she has nothing to give him is because her water jar is empty. But because she is empty she is open to being filled. Unlike Nicodemus who has a lot to lose through his encounter with Jesus, namely his place of status in the community, she has nothing to lose and everything to gain because she has already lost so much. She is poured out and so she has room to receive.
Listen to this prayer written by Macrina Wiederkehr and inspired by the story of the woman at the well:
“Jesus I come into the warmth of your presence knowing that you are the very emptiness of God. I come before you holding the water jar of my life. Your eyes meet mine and I know what I’d rather not know. I came to be filled but I am already full. I am too full. This is my sickness. I am full of things that crowd out your healing presence.
A holy knowing steals inside my heart and I see the painful truth. I don’t need more. I need less. I am too full. I am full of things that block out your golden grace. I am smothered by gods of my own creation. I am lost in the forest of my false self. I am full of my own opinions and narrow attitudes, full of fear, resentments, control, full of self-pity and arrogance.
Slowly this terrible truth pierces my heart. I am so full there is no room for you.”*
That’s the reality for lots of us isn’t it? We are so full there is no more room left. Our lives are busy with children and grandchildren, with work schedules and volunteer commitments let alone all the spiritual and emotional blocks Wiederkehr talks about in her prayer.
But others of us are so empty we are almost hollow inside. We’re lonely, we’re broken, we feel invisible, we’re longing for connection and we don’t know where or how to get what we need, to get filled up again.
What does it mean or what does it look like for us to be emptied out and filled back up again?
What does it mean when Jesus says to the Samaritan woman “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.” What does he mean when he says “the water that I give will become in you a spring of water gushing up to eternal life?”
The first thing it means is that whatever this living water is, it’s a gift. It’s not something we can go down to the store and buy or work hard to get or do something to deserve or be entitled to have. That’s a very counter cultural concept because we have all these adages about “nothing comes for free” and “it’s better to give than to receive.” Even Jesus closest followers, his disciples had a hard time understanding what it meant for him to have food that they didn’t have to work for which is why he says to them in this story “I have sent you to reap that for which you did not labor.”
This week I had the privilege of eavesdropping on a conversation between two of our staff, Marcus and Wade. They were talking about their shared experience of going through surgery for the treatment of cancer. Both of them have been recipients of the generosity of this congregation along with family and friends beyond this place. They were discussing how hard it has been for them to open their hands and simply receive the gifts they have been offered.
I’m sure that’s because they are both hard wired for giving. One of the ways we drain ourselves by giving and giving and giving. But sometimes we get tapped out by illness or tragedy or other circumstances beyond our control and we have no alternative but to receive. What’s hard for many of us when that happens, especially if we are givers, is that it puts us in a position of weakness and dependency. When we’ve spent our whole lives being schooled in the value of independence and self-sufficiency or knowing the blessing of giving rather than receiving, having the tables turned on us can be very challenging. Yet is one of the only ways we come to understand what the apostle Paul talks about when he says that in our weakness we are strong. It’s in our weakness we get emptied out to the point of dependency and we learn a greater trust. We find a deeper well, a greater source than our own ability to keep it all going.
But I also want to say a word of caution about being dependent on the generosity of others. Most of you will know the term co-dependency. Co-dependency happens when an unhealthy pattern develops around relationships in which one person’s needs get met through the other’s dependency on them and the other person’s needs get met by needing the other person. I’m talking about relationships of give and take in which neither party has a strong sense of their independent selves, when we don’t know who we would be if we weren’t caring for or depending on that other person. Sometimes there can be an addictive habit thrown in there that fuels the dependency making the situation very unhealthy indeed.
Opening ourselves up to receiving is not about falling into the role of the victim or setting others up to be our messiah. It’s about a deep and life-giving trust and awareness of the blessings that surround us all the time not just when we feel like we are needy and the invitation to drink them in regularly.
At the end of the story of the woman at the well, the woman leaves her water jar and goes back to the city. She invites others to come and see for themselves what she has seen. It’s as if she no longer needs a jar to carry the living water because she becomes a vessel of that water herself. And when people come to the well, they believe in Jesus, not because of what she has told them but because of what they see and hear and receive for themselves.
I think that’s what Jesus means when he says “the water that I give will become in you a spring of gushing water.” It means that no matter how full or how empty we become, there is a source of living water that dwells within each one of us. So even when we are completely alone we never need to be lonely, because there is living water coursing through our veins, pumping through our hearts. One of the best ways to access that life-giving water within us is to be quiet enough and still enough to divine that it is there.
If you have ever seen a water diviner at work, someone who uses rods or sticks to “divine” or douse where water is underground, you know it takes a great deal of focus and concentration. When someone is first starting to learn how to douse they always do it in a remote location to remove all distraction. When they get the feel of it they can do it in busier places, but to begin with they do it in places of quiet. They hold the sticks in what I have heard one person has described as a very counterintuitive way. When they set their intention on finding what they want the stick in their hands will indicate where the water is to be found by pointing downwards. What I’ve also learned about divining rods is that if the stick comes across something manmade underground, a foreign object like a metal pipe, it will fly up in opposite direction, sometimes smacking people right in the face.
In her book on the spiritual life, Margaret Silf talks about the inner compass each of us has to help us discern between those things in our life that are truly life-giving and those that are obstacles or blocks to us having the fullness of life God intends for us. It’s kind of like having an internal divining rod. The more we are in tune with our inner life, the more we are able to tap into what is life giving, and the more easily we recognize when we are going to get smacked in the face by something that is going to tap us out.
I want to end this morning with a different prayer by Macrina Wiederkehr also based on the story of the woman at the well:
“What makes this world so lovely is that somewhere it hides a well. Something lovely there is about a well so deep unpiped and real, filled with buckets and buckets of that life-giving drink. A faucet will do in a hurry, but what makes the world so lovely is that somewhere it hides a well!
Sometimes people are like wells deep and real, natural (unpiped) life-giving, calm and cool, refreshing. They bring out what is best in you. They are like fountains of pure joy. They make you want to sing, or maybe dance. They encourage you to laugh even, when things get rough. And maybe that’s why things never stay rough once you’ve found a well.
Some experiences are like wells too. People create them. They are life-giving happenings. They are redeeming experiences. They are wells, wells of wonder, wells of hope. When you find a well and you will some day. Drink deeply of the gift within. And then maybe soon you’ll discover that you’ve become what you’ve received, and then you’ll be a well for others to find.”
At the heart of our Lenten journey is an invitation for us to be emptied out of anything and everything that keeps us from becoming a vessel for sacred life. It’s about tapping in to the very source of life itself, becoming a well for others, and drawing forth from them the same sweet water that flows through us all.
*Seasons of your Heart, Prayers and Reflections, Macrina Wiederkehr, HarperSanFrancisco, 1991.