Sunday, March 27, 2011

Living Water

Third Sunday in Lent (Year A)
Exodus 17.1-7; Psalm 95; Romans 5.1-11; John 4.5-42
Sunday, March 27, 2011 – St. Joseph of Arimathea, Yucca Valley

Those of us living in the Southwest, and particularly those of you who live in the middle of the desert, know the importance of water. Water is absolutely necessary for life. Prior to birth we are formed in and surrounded by water, which nourishes, nurtures, and protects us. After we are born, we require water on a regular basis to survive. In fact, depending on specific conditions, a healthy person can survive up to eight weeks without food, while that same person can only survive three to five days without water.

Good old H2O serves a number of useful purposes, including cleaning and providing cooling and comfort. In addition, we know that water has the potential to wield a great deal of power. It can be the source of great energy, such as when used to operate old-fashioned mills or to generate energy via hydroelectric dams. And we see the power of water in nature, such as the way the water of the Colorado River has eroded the Arizona desert over millions of years to create the Grand Canyon.

And sadly, we know of the destructive potential of water, as well. We see it every year as rainstorms flood parts of our country, destroying homes and crops. In our own area, we see flooding and mudslides due to heavy rains, washing out roads and destroying homes and businesses. And of course, who of us have not been moved by the images of the tsunami in northeastern Japan two weeks ago, as walls of water up to 35 feet high swept up to six miles inland, wiping out everything in their path – whole villages and cities, crop fields, killing over 10,000 people and causing $300 billion in damages.

Water is so necessary to our existence, but also can be so dangerous to our fragile lives. It’s a delicate balance that we humans must negotiate. Perhaps that’s why we find stories about water in today’s scripture lessons – in both the Old Testament and the Gospel – stories that examine the importance of water in our lives, not just physically, but also spiritually; stories that look at the power of water from a different perspective.

Today’s readings certainly address the physical need for water. In Exodus, we have the Israelites grumbling about the lack of water and demanding that Moses provide for their thirst. They are concerned for themselves, their children, and their livestock – that if they are not given water soon, they will perish in the wilderness. So Moses goes to God who provides water for his people. And in John, we have Jesus traveling across the desert at mid-day. Tired out, he stops by a well while his disciples continue on in search of food. Thirsty after a long morning’s journey, he asks a local woman for some water. The physical need for water is readily apparent in both readings.

What may be a little less apparent is the spiritual power of the water in these two stories. In fact, in Exodus, the story itself contains no direct indication. But if we look back at the previous actions of the Israelites, we can see it. Here in Chapter 17 the Israelites are demanding water. But this is not the first time they have made such demands of Moses and of God. Two chapters previous, right after the Israelites had crossed the Red Sea and celebrated their escape from the Egyptians, they immediately began grumbling that they had no water to drink. So at the waters of Marah, Moses threw a piece of wood into the pool of bitter water and it became sweet so that they could drink of it. Then in Chapter 16, the Israelites grumbled about needing food. So God gave them manna from heaven to eat. Here in the space of three chapters, which covers the span of a couple of months, the Israelites have grumbled about lack of water twice and the lack of food once. And every time, God has provided for them.

I think what was really going on was not so much physical thirst or hunger. Yes, that was real, but I think it was only the presenting issue. I think what was really going on was that the Israelites were unsure of God’s devotion to them. Yes, he had liberated them from Egypt, but now he did not appear to be around. They craved not so much water or food, but assurance that God was with them, in their midst, caring for them and protecting them. It’s easy to see that God is with us when we have what we need or want. But in times of scarcity, it is harder to see that God is present. So to ease their uncertainty they insisted on signs, tangible things like food and water, which became symbols of a spiritual need – a symbol of God’s presence, care, and protection of his people. The expression of tangible physical need thereby becomes an expression of spiritual need.

The physical-spiritual connection and the spiritual implications of water in the lesson from John are more apparent. And it becomes somewhat apparent to the Samaritan woman, thanks to the extended interaction she has with Jesus. As the woman is talking about water from Jacob’s well and the physical need for water, Jesus is talking about living water – that which nourishes not one’s physical life, but rather one’s spiritual life. In the course of that engagement, she comes to realize that he is the long-awaited Messiah – the one who does not just provide living water, but is the source of living water.

Now no detailed explanation is given regarding the exact nature of “living water.” The term is only used in this passage in John and one other equally cryptic reference in John chapter 7. The only thing we know, and probably all we really need to know, is what Jesus himself tells us – “The water that I . . . give will become . . . a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” – the new and eternal life that we are promised through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Not only is this new and eternal life symbolized by water, but the sacramental sign of that promise is water itself – the waters of baptism. The way we receive living water is through baptism.

What I love about this story is the interplay between Jesus and the Samaritan woman, in how they deal with the various aspects of water. It’s not so much what they say, but how they need each other. This demonstrates a central truth about our lives of faith and the interconnection between the physical and the spiritual. There is a certain paradox that the Samaritan woman thinks Jesus needs what only she can provide – water from the well; whereas in reality, she is the one who needs what only he can provide – eternal life. But the truth is that they need each other. In the encounter at the well, Jesus needs the woman to have his human needs met. He has no means of getting water to satisfy his physical thirst, so he needs her and her bucket. And the woman needs Jesus to have her spiritual needs met. There is this marvelous synchronicity between physical and spiritual, that wonderfully illustrates the true nature of our faith – a faith where human and divine are united in Christ, where physical and spiritual are integral parts of who we are as followers of Christ.

We need Jesus to have our spiritual needs met. And Jesus still needs us to have his human needs met. No, this side of the Resurrection, Jesus does not need us to meet such physical needs as satisfying thirst or hunger. But he does need us to provide the human, the physical connection, to the world – connecting what he has to offer spiritually with the physicality of human existence, for which his gift is graciously offered. We talk about us being the Body of Christ, and that is quite literally true. Christ relies on us to do the physical, the human, part of his ministry. In demonstrating this, the Gospel story also shows that Jesus can and does need all of us. Jesus can and does use all of us, no matter who we are.

That’s what he does with the Samaritan woman. From where Jesus was standing, she was the epitome of being an outsider, a nobody. For starters, Jesus was Jewish and she was a Samaritan. The two religious groups disagreed on a number of things and both taught that it was wrong to have any contact with the other. Then add the fact that she was a woman, someone who had no real social standing. And then there was her questionable reputation, having been married five times and now living with a man who was not her husband. In fact, she was probably even ostracized by her own people. Normally women went out to the well in the early morning hours when it was still cool to get the water for the day. They went together for protection, but also as a time for the women to catch up with their friends. The fact that this woman was out mid-day alone indicates she was probably not accepted by the other women in the village. So she was a real nobody. But despite all of that, despite knowing what type of person she was, Jesus did not shun her. He did not turn her away.

In fact, quite the opposite. She was a newcomer to the faith. Jesus was willing to explain things to her, to help her understand what he was saying. He nurtured her. He never judged her, only loved her. And in the process, he made her an apostle – a missionary sent out to proclaim the truth she had witnessed and experienced in Jesus. She was sent back to her own village by Jesus to testify to who he is – the Messiah. In fact, she may have been the first apostle outside of the Twelve – at least as recorded by John.

Jesus stepped across many lines to talk with her – gender, religious, cultural, moral. He stepped across many lines to make her an apostle and to use her for his own purposes – connecting what he had to offer spiritually with the physicality of human existence – extending that gift of living water, of new life, to outsiders. He steps across those same lines to extend the gift of living water to each of us. And he steps across those same lines to use each of us to meet his human needs in the world around us – to help him provide living water to all who thirst for it.

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