There once was a town high in the Alps that straddled the banks of a beautiful stream. The stream was fed by springs that were old as the earth and deep as the sea.
The water was clear like crystal. Children laughed and played beside it, swans and geese swam on it. You could see the rocks and the sand and the rainbow trout that swarmed at the bottom of the stream.
High in the hills, far beyond anyone’s sight, lived an old man who served as Keeper of the Springs. He had been hired so long ago that now no one could remember a time when he wasn’t there. He would travel from one spring to another in the hills, removing branches or fallen leaves or debris that might pollute the water. But his work was unseen.
One year the town council decided they had better things to do with their money. No one supervised the old man anyway. They had roads to repair and taxes to collect and services to offer, and giving money to an unseen stream-cleaner had become a luxury they could no longer afford.
So the old man left his post. High in the mountains, the springs went untended; twigs and branches and worse muddied the liquid flow.
Mud and silt compacted the creek bed; farm wastes turned parts of the stream into stagnant bogs.
For a time no one in the village noticed. But after a while, the water was not the same. It began to look brackish. The swans flew away to live elsewhere. The water no longer had a crisp scent that drew children to play by it. Some people in the town began to grow ill. All noticed the loss of sparkling beauty that used to flow between the banks of the streams that fed the town. The life of the village depended on the stream, and the life of the streams depended on the keeper.
The city council reconvened, the money was found, the old man was rehired. After yet another time, the springs were cleaned, the stream was pure, children played again on its banks, illness was replaced by health, the swans came home, and the village came back to life. (– John Ortberg in “Soul Keeping”)
Water is a beautiful thing, isn’t it? Adults are made sixty percent water.
We bathe or shower in it (hopefully).
We brush our teeth with it.
We feed our plants and water our crops with it.
We play in it at the lake, the river, the pool, and the ocean.
We drink it.
But sometimes, we can become so used to its properties, and its goodness, that we lose sight of how important it is.
Like when the water supply becomes tainted by outside forces.
Like when a drought comes, and suddenly we are aware that we are stuck, dry, parched.
Like when we experience dehydration, and suddenly, our thirst is overwhelming.
In our scripture from John 4, Jesus arrives after a long trip, under pressure from the government who want him to stop preaching and rallying people. He’s thirsty, tired, and hot. Jesus is ground down by the trip, and arrives in the heat of the day in enemy territory – alone and unable to get a drink. Jesus is at a well, but he has no way to access the water.
And then a Samaritan woman showed up. Now, some of you may remember Samaria from the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus is Jewish, and believes God should be worshipped one way; Samaritans believed another way. Their religious differences had made them bitter enemies, even though they were all descended from the same ancestors.
Jesus is tired, thirsty… and in the middle of a battlefield for first century B.C. Hatfields and McCoys. But he asks the woman for a drink.
Now to be clear: the woman knows he’s an enemy. The woman knows culturally a man and a woman encountering each other in public are supposed to avert their eyes and keep walking.
But Jesus isn’t worried about any of that. Jesus wants to get to the point. Jesus says: “if you knew who I was, I could give you so much more than water.”
And then there’s her reply: “You have nothing to draw water with!”
The Samaritan woman is pragmatic, realistic. She can see the heat of the day. She can see the friction of their cultures. She knows the danger involved in their interaction.
And yet, Jesus sees the bigger picture. Jesus sees that something else is going on. Jesus is a “me too” person – we’re in this together.
Jesus tells the Samaritan woman that everyone who drinks water – H2O – will be thirsty again – but that the water he provides will lead them on to eternal life. That the water will never run out.
We know that Jesus wasn’t talking about the combination of hydrogen and oxygen, that Jesus was talking about a relationship, an eternal one, between God and humankind.
But before the woman can understand that, Jesus knows she must move past where she’s stuck, where she thinks she has to be. I encourage you to read through the rest of the chapter to see how Jesus challenges the way that the woman is living. She’s in her sixth relationship – bouncing from lover to lover to find her purpose and why she matters.
And Jesus shows up in the midst of her “stuff” and says: God wants to have an eternal relationship with you. Sometimes we fail to see these moments because we’re stuck in our perspective and understanding – and we try to force God into that perspective, too.
In the Second World War, a group of soldiers was fighting in the rural countryside of France. During an intense battle, one of the American soldiers was killed. His comrades did not want to leave his body on the battlefield and decided to give him a Christian burial. They remembered a church a few miles behind the front lines whose grounds included a small cemetery surrounded by a white fence. After receiving permission to take their friend’s body to the cemetery, they set out for the church, arriving just before sunset.
A priest, his bent-over back and frail body betraying his many years, responded to their knocking. His face, deeply wrinkled and tan, was the home of two fierce eyes that flashed with wisdom and passion.
“Our friend was killed in battle,” they blurted out, “and we wanted to give him a church burial.”
Apparently the priest understood what they were asking, although he spoke in very broken English. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but we can bury only those of the same faith here.”
Weary after many months of wars, the soldiers simply turned to walk away. “But,” the old priest called after them, “you can bury him outside the fence.”
Cynical and exhausted, the soldiers dug a grave and buried their friend just outside the white fence. They finished after nightfall.
The next morning, the entire unit was ordered to move on, and the group raced back to the little church for one final goodbye to their friend. When they arrived, they couldn’t find the gravesite. Tired and confused, they knocked on the door of the church. They asked the priest if he knew where they had buried their friend. “It was dark last night and we were exhausted. We must have been disoriented.”
A smile flashed across the old priest’s face. “After you left last night, I could not sleep, so I went out early this morning and I moved the fence.”–Mike Yaconelli, “Messy Spirituality”
Jesus shows up and moves the fence.
He tells this Samaritan woman – who his disciples don’t even understand why he would bother talking to her because she’s unimportant, because she’s a woman, because she doesn’t believe the right things – that God wants to forgive her sins and fulfill her life in the here and now. He tells her she can be in.
All because Jesus was thirsty – and tired – and showed up in the middle of the day when no one expected it.
This woman arrived expecting one thing – that she would draw some water from the well and go back to the daily grind. Jesus showed up and offered her so much more.
And I believe that’s what God offers us today.
I’m aware as I meet with people in our community and as I watch the news that there’s an expectation about how the world works. There are things happening here and around the world that we don’t like, but it can sometimes feel like it’s all too overwhelming, like what could we possibly do about it?
And then Jesus shows up thirsty – and meets a stranger – and everything changes. And I wonder, what would happen if we went out of our church into the community this week, and met strangers, and offered them something better? What if we offered people more than what the media has to say about us – as a church, as business people, as public safety representatives, as people in whatever label others might stick us in – like Jew or Samaritan – and said instead:
“God loves you – and knows you. God wants to have a relationship with you and take care of your heart.”
Would that make any difference?
In John 4:39-41, it says that “Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He told me everything I ever did.’ So when the Samaritans came to him, they urged him to stay with them, and he stayed two days. And because of his words many more became believers.”
All because Jesus showed up thirsty for water.
All because the Samaritan woman showed up thirsty for more in life.
Think about a time you were hungry – or thirsty. How did you satisfy it? Did it last?
I know the worst time to go grocery shopping is when I’m hungry. I return home having satisfied the grocery list, but I’ve also bought things that I don’t need and that aren’t good for me. My hunger wants to be satisfied by short cuts, with carbs and sugar, rather than the long term satisfaction of protein and vitamins.
When I get too thirsty, I have to admit that sometimes I stand in front of the fridge, door hanging open in the summer. I’m so thirsty that I don’t know what I want to drink. I should drink water. It’s what’s best for you – remember, 60% of your body? – but it would be easier to grab a Coke, or a Hi-C. That’s the problem with our thirst – we sometimes try to fill it with all of the wrong things.
And yet, whenever I drink that other stuff… I always end up thirsty again.
So let’s recap: There’s a woman who has been trying to heal a hurt, fill a hole, satisfy a need, and she’s tried it with relationships that can’t satisfy her. Jesus shows up, trying to take a break, and rest. The woman’s need exceeds Jesus’ pursuit of solitude. Jesus offers this outcast woman the good news of salvation through gentle confrontation, and images she can understand, inviting her into an “insider” relationship with God. The woman embraces this good news, and recognizing she has crossed a line into true freedom, her first move is to go and share it with everyone who will listen. Her newfound freedom makes her want to share that freedom with others.
It’s actually the freedom from those things that we’re told will satisfy us … like the Samaritan woman’s pursuit of ‘just the right relationship.’
Or like the way that we pursue money to power to careers to drugs to “stuff”…The way we make ourselves busy – even if it’s just with Pokemon Go – to ignore the things we should be invested in…
Jesus shows up and says, “Let’s get real. Let’s be truly here. Let’s be in relationship.”
The truth is that God already knows our hopes and our dreams, our fears and our worries, our sins and our failures.
Jesus shows up and says, “you are known to God, and loved.”
Jesus shows up and says, “you don’t need to have it all together.”
Jesus shows up and says, “it’s not too late to repent of our homophobic, racist, classicist, denominational, misogynistic ostracization of whoever we deem to be ‘other.'”
Jesus shows up and says, “I will be with you.”
Jesus shows up and says, “You are forgiven.”
In The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, C.S. Lewis uses the analogy of a boy who becomes a dragon to explain how God cuts through all of the other stuff to find us. The boy’s name is Eustace, and the important thing to note here is that Eustace cannot change himself back. He tries to reveal his true self, but he’s stuck. He tears at the scales of his dragon covering, but he can’t undo his transformation. He knows who he was, but he can’t be restored.
Of course, Aslan arrives and Aslan, as Jesus, offers this boy/dragon a chance to change, but in the process, he will have to tear off the scales. Eustace says, “The first tear he made was so deep, that I thought it had gone right into my heart. When he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’d ever felt.”
Aslan could help Eustace; Jesus could help the woman. Aslan reminded Eustace that he was a boy, not a dragon. Jesus reminded the woman that she was loved by God, that she was not the “woman who had six husbands” or “rejected” or however her community had come to identify her. She was a child of God.
Friends, today I pray that you would let the living water wash over you. That you would remember your baptism where you were claimed by God, cleaned up and made whole. God loves you – and wants to have a relationship with you – because you matter. It doesn’t matter where you thought the fence was before.
God has a way of moving the fence. Amen.