Sunday, April 3, 2011

A Deeper Well

Haven't posted in a while for a gazillion reasons. Miss you all, and hope you'll come to visit Tiny Church if you're around.

Sermon, Sunday, April 3, 2011
by Katie Mulligan

Scripture Readings: Exodus:1-7 and John 4:5-15

I have a fantasy about these two texts: I wonder what happened to the Samaritan woman after she found that living water? Jesus moves on, as he always does, to the next great thing, but what happened to that Samaritan woman? I wonder if she thought about her life like the Israelites did--separated into two parts, before and after she met Jesus? Before and after she was liberated from a complicated web of ties and bonds? Before and after she found living water? Just a fantasy, we don't know, but I’m willing to bet that on some days after that encounter with Jesus that she found herself aggravated beyond words. I bet she found herself downright angry and bitter with God. I suspect there were many days in the years to come after that day at the well that the Samaritan woman thirsted and could not find the water—days when she said to herself, “Why did you bring me out of Egypt only to kill me with thirst in the wilderness. Better to have stayed where I was—at least there I could slake my thirst from the well.”

The Israelites were a difficult bunch in the wilderness—you can imagine it, can’t you? A great mass of people wandering a dry land, not knowing exactly where they were going or where their next meal would come from? They were a people displaced from all they had known except each other, and after a while all that togetherness without a clear map of the future got to them. It made them quarrelsome and difficult. It made them regret leaving Egypt—it made them regret choosing hope and possibility over the security of being bound to a land in slavery. The Israelites wandered the wilderness for forty years, but it only took a few weeks to miss the security of their former life. Fifteen days they wandered before complaining to Moses about not having food. So Moses went to the Lord and got them some food. They wandered again until they had no water, and forgetting about all the blessings that had come before, they moaned and groaned again, this time for water. “Did you bring us out of Egypt only to kill us with thirst in the desert??”

We are modern readers of this story, modern readers living in the U.S., modern readers living in an affluent part of the U.S. where cheap, clean water flows freely out of our pipes—we use water for everything, and we do it without thinking. 10 gallons for taking a shower. 10 gallons for washing the dishes. 40 gallons to wash the clothes. 2 gallons to brush our teeth. 5 gallons every time we flush a toilet—maybe more depending on the toilet. A dripping faucet will use 2,700 gallons in a year. Watering a lawn, 180 gallons, more or less, depending on the lawn. We are careless users of water. Here in New Jersey it seems like the water just bubbles up out of the ground. I planted bulbs one year and didn’t have to water them at all. Rain fell from the sky, and snow melted, and anyway we lived near the canal and the soil rarely dried out. Perhaps it was like that living along the Nile—we forget how important water is to our lives until we do not have it.

I lived in Santa Barbara while growing up, and there was a time when we didn’t have state water—a time when all of our water came from mountain reservoirs and several wells. Pictures of my hometown often look lush and green and beautiful, but we only got 10 inches of rain per year on average. And we had a lot of years when we didn’t even get that much, and had to draw down the reservoirs to dangerous levels. In our drought years our community became resourceful. We passed ordinances that said you couldn’t water your lawn except at night. No washing your car. We began to landscape with drought tolerant plants—plants that had always grown in this area like ceanothus shrubs. I miss my ceanothus shrubs with their dark green leaves and long purple flowers—they were beautiful, and they could survive a drought for many years.

Our little town decided to offer a toilet rebate to convince people to replace their old toilets with a low flow version. For a limited time, if you brought in your old toilet you could get a rebate that covered the cost of the new toilet. My dad was so excited he brought my sister and I with us to the hardware store—he suggested we try sitting on them to make sure they were comfortable. I was in jr. high at the time and was willing to die of thirst before I did that.

We were so desperate for water as a community that there was a building moratorium—no new housing without a water meter, and only a few water meters granted per year. We built a desalinization plant. And just about the time that plant began to produce water, we purchased state water and completed the pipeline to fill our main reservoir. And we conveniently forgot that we were stealing water from Northern California. We did not pay any attention to the environmental degradation our water use caused to the mountains up north. And it didn’t matter much to us that the water was taken without consent—the massive populations of Southen California voted in state water projects against the desires of Northern California counties. Northern California tried to split off from the rest of the state, but we would not let them. We were very thirsty.

When we are thirsty, we will do about anything for water. And it doesn’t take long to get thirsty—a few days without drinking water and our bodies begin to shut down. When we are thirsty, we will do about anything for water.

The Israelites, finding themselves camped in a place with no water, figured they were done for. You can’t go long without water. And the weakest die off first. This makes for desperate people, and Moses knew it. People who are thirsty become quarrelsome and difficult. They long for the days when they had water. They long for the days when they didn’t have to think about it. And they worry they are going to die in a matter of days. They worry they will watch their children and elders wither away from thirst. Thirst makes people difficult and dangerous.

Perhaps we might consider that as we think about this Samaritan woman who met Jesus at the well. This well was a place where the ancestor Jacob had watered himself and his family and his flocks. For thousands of years this well had provided water. But getting water from a well is tedious business. Walking from your home to the well is not so bad, but coming home with a full bucket or urn of water is no easy task. In a dry place you walk carefully so as not to spill any of that precious liquid. And you go every day to get the water your family will need to see you through. And sometimes, if it’s dry, the well dries up too. All it takes is one bully to keep you from the well that morning to disrupt your life and make you desperate. The woman at the well surely knew what it was to go without water: death.

So as she was going about her business that day, drawing water into her bucket, along comes Jesus to say, “Give me a drink.” She was astonished because Samaritans and Jews did not associate if they could help it—you might remember the Good Samaritan story in which the Samaritan, who normally could be expected to stay far away from the fallen Jewish man, turns out to be the hero of the story. And here again a Samaritan finds herself at the center of the Jesus story—on the wrong side of the ethnic tracks, mingling with a stranger of dubious ancestry, sharing water with someone who surely should not have asked her for water.

And then Jesus tells her there is something more important than fresh water from a well. He says there is living water—water that you can drink and then never thirst again. This living water will become a fountain within one’s body and spirit gushing up to eternal life. This water will satisfy for all eternity. This water will see Christ’s people through the drought.

The woman is incredulous, but game—give me some of that living water, good Sir! That I might never have to come back to this well again! Christ goes on to talk about eternal life, and then he goes on from the well with his disciples, leaving the woman behind to ponder his words. Leaving me behind to ponder his words too, I suppose. Perhaps the woman, like me, is not fully convinced. I’d bet that the woman had to keep coming back to that well. Eternal life is all well and good, but a body thirsts after a few days. Our spirits may gush springs of living water, but our bodies will die without fresh water. I wonder what happened to that woman from Samaria after Jesus moved on to the next thing?

A long time ago I worked as a youth director in a church. I had a tendency to be a bit idealistic about things—a tendency I haven’t yet outgrown, I’m afraid. One day I pulled the pastor aside to complain about something at the church (I have long since forgotten what, but we all have our complaints, don’t we?). I reminded him of some scripture and said something like, “Well Jesus said such and such.” And I guess I must have exasperated him a bit, because my pastor said, “Yeah, and Jesus lived til he was 33 and then died, leaving us to figure out the rest of it. He didn’t have to live with the consequences of those words—the rest of us still have to survive past 33.” I am reminded of this every time I read this story—that moment when we find living water is a beautiful moment. And the Spirit can, and surely does, sustain us through many thirsty times. But even in the midst of our faith and earnest efforts toward living a Christian life, sometimes the well runs dry, and we thirst. When we are thirsty, we will do about anything for water.

When we are spiritually thirsty, we will do about anything for living water, for something to slake the thirst in our souls. This Lenten period I have been fasting a bit. And it’s brought me to face some of my own demons a bit. Perhaps you have had this experience? I decided to give up meat and dairy, but that does not mean that meat and dairy have magically disappeared from my life. The children are still eating how they have been. My friends still eat meat and dairy when we go out. The first week of Lent I had a gardenburger and my friend Martha had a pulled pork sandwich. I still love her dearly, but my soul thirsted for that pulled pork sandwich.

What I have discovered is that there are all kinds of thirsts in this life. We long for ways to soothe our thirsty souls, and we reach for anything we can find to do it. Food, television, the internet, books, extra stuff we don’t need, people who are not good for us, alcohol, drugs of all sorts, exercise, the magic pill advertised on QVC or late night channel surfing. Some of us find refuge in sleep—we do almost anything to avoid feeling the thirst in our souls. Because thirsty people will do about anything for water.

I wonder about that Samaritan woman, how she was after Jesus left? I wonder if she threw out the eight husbands and lived on her own a while. Perhaps she moved closer to the well where she could ponder Jesus’ words better. Perhaps she kept those eight men, however they were arranged in her life. Maybe she brought back the message of something more, something deeper, something more water than water. Or, maybe she filled up her bucket, wiped the dust off her brow, and wandered back home to live out her remaining days as she had lived out the first ones. Scripture leaves us with frustratingly little detail about the individual lives of those who came into contact with Jesus.

But we are left with a more pressing question; what is it that we will do after our own encouter with Jesus? How will we live out our days now that we know there is living water? How will we manage our fresh water as individuals, as municipalities, as a country in this world? We are called to a deep reflection on the same question the Samaritan woman asked, "What is this living water, and how do I get it?" If we truly believe the well is deeper than Jacob's fresh water well--if there is indeed something more important than life itself, how are we changed? What new commitments might we make if we are not afraid of our thirst? Most of us have lived past 33--we have quarreled with and tested the Lord. We have asked the question, "Is the Lord among us or not?" And if we believe the answer is yes, then let us drink deeply of the Spirit and live beyond our fears.

(A shout out to my old L.O.G. buddies--pretty sure it was Tiffany that used this for a talk song)

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