SERMON PREACHED BY THE REV’D SAMUEL L. WOOD AT THE CHURCH OF THE ADVENT,
THE THIRD SUNDAY IN LENT, MARCH 27, 2011

As one of my Lenten disciplines this year I intend, God willing, to go dark on the internet and all social media this week.  That will be harder than I’d like to admit, not least because I use the internet for a lot of the information I get from day to day whether it’s through news sites or weblogs, or increasingly via Twitter.  Just this week I ran across something our own Rachael Ringenberg posted on her weblog she calls “Erstwhile & Dear”[1] where she asked a question that intrigued me:  “Why do we all want posters about Japan’s tragedy?”  I followed Rachael’s link to an article by Rob Walker on Slate.com called “You Say You’re Concerned About Japan: Do you have the T-shirt to prove it?”[2]  Walker was picking up on an interesting new phenomenon where companies sell T-shirts and posters, many of them variations on a theme of the Japanese flag with the iconic red sun right in the center, usually shot through with squiggly lines like a seismometer makes during an earthquake, and then the company gives some or all the proceeds to “help Japan rise from the rubble.”  What I find so interesting about the phenomenon, though, isn’t that companies are leveraging products to fund relief efforts, or that there are some people who suggest that as the country with the 3rd largest GNP Japan doesn’t really need all the help we’re sending them anyway (an argument I don’t find persuasive, by the way); I’m intrigued by how desperately we seem to want to chip in our own small way.  Walker quotes the website for one of the companies selling posters: 

We felt a helplessness that compelled us to do something . . . .  Uh, welcome to the herd . . . .  Normally it is a great challenge to persuade people to “do something” about the world’s many ills and injustices.  In scenarios like the Japan crises, though, many people are anxious to feel like they’re contributing to any solution or form of relief, no persuasion from a T-shirt required.

I wonder whether this phenomenon has less to do with Japan than it has to do with us, something about with our sense of our own significance.  Staring into our TVs at this immense horror that just goes on and on, we’re struck by our smallness.  Unable to physically reach out and comfort someone, we text “Japan” to 75057 on our cell phones and pledge $10.  We know it’s not much, but in the face of disaster, we want to feel like we can do something. 

You might say we are thirsty to be able to do something that matters to people in a crisis half a world away.  Today’s texts are about thirst - about the physical thirst Israel had in the wilderness, camped at Rephidim with no water to drink, and about existential thirst, the spiritual thirst of a woman who asks Jesus about “living water” she can’t draw from any well.  God made us thirsty.  Our bodies are literally made of water, so we have a deeper, more immediate need for water than even for food. 

When Jesus meets a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well in today’s gospel, he says “If you knew who I am, who is asking you for water, you would ask me and I can give you “living water.”  (John 4.10)  What’s that about?  “Living water” was a common enough term at the time.  It just meant “flowing water” or “spring water,” not still water from a well or cistern.[3]  But in Jesus’ hands, it’s more than that.  He says: “Whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again.  The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”  (John 4.14) This was water that didn’t just sustain life until you could find more water; it gave a new kind of life where you would never be thirsty again.  Obviously, Jesus wasn’t talking about actual water , so what was Jesus saying we are so thirsty for?

This story shows us we are thirsty for two things:  (1) For the pursuit of God; and (2) for the gaze of God.  First, the pursuit of GodIt was about the sixth hour.  A woman from Samaria came to draw water.  Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.”  (John 4.6b-7)  Think how remarkable those few words would’ve been when this story was first told.  Even speaking to this woman was a scandal; Jesus was crossing every cultural, social, moral and religious boundary of the day.  First, the cultural boundary.  We didn’t read verse 27, but it says when the disciples came back “they marveled that he was talking with a woman.”  Not “a Samaritan woman” but “a woman.”  Jewish holy men didn’t just strike up conversations with women who weren’t their wives on the street; they never would’ve allowed themselves to be alone with a woman.[4]  Jesus crossed a cultural gender boundary to be with her.  And she was a Samaritan; to the Jews, that meant she was a half-breed, not of pure blood.  The Samaritans were heretics to the Jews because they thought they were the true heirs of Abraham and that their version of the Torah was the right one, even though it said God had commanded Moses to build an altar on Mt. Gerazim, not Mt. Ebal as the Jews believed.  The Samaritans even built a temple on Mt. Gerazim and the Jews went and destroyed it.  So Jesus crossed a racial and religious boundary to be with her.  And he crossed a moral boundary.  Why do you think she went to the well “at about the sixth hour”?  The sixth hour was about 12 noon.  But this is the Middle East - everybody knows it’s hot as blazes at noon, and that’s why everyone drew water in the early morning or the evening when the sun wasn’t directly overhead.  This woman knew that, too.  In fact, it’s precisely why she went at noon because she wanted to be alone.  As we’ll see in a second, there were some definite moral issues with this woman, and everyone would’ve known her family history, so she didn’t want them to see her.  But that didn’t stop Jesus.  He crossed cultural boundaries, he crossed racial boundaries, he even crossed moral boundaries to be with her.  And even though she didn’t know it, that’s what she had been thirsty for all the time.  That’s what we’re all thirsty for.  We want to be pursued, to know someone loves us enough to surmount whatever obstacles stand in the way to be with us.

But we don’t just want to be pursued, we want to be known.  That’s the second point, the gaze of GodJesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come here.”  The woman answered him, “I have no husband.”  Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband.” (John 4.16-18)  There is something about us human beings - we want people to see us, to really be known by someone else.  Two examples from my family:  One of my kids, I think it was Ellie when she was really little, would sometimes come into a room where the grown-ups were talking about something, and if we didn’t give her our attention fast enough, she would ball up her little fists and yell “See me!”  The other example is one I often share during pre-marital counseling.  Something surprised me after I had been married to Renee’ for a while.  You know, when you get married, you don’t really have secrets anymore, and all the little things you’ve kept hidden about yourself come out.  But as little things about me trickled out to Renee’ during the first year or so of our marriage (I won’t tell you what they are, so don’t ask me), I realized one day:  She’s still here.  She knows me now, and she isn’t going anywhere.  And that blew me away.  My soul had been thirsty for someone to really see me, to know me to my core, and I hadn’t even known it. 

Jesus makes what seems to be a non sequitur in his conversation with the woman.  She asks him for water, and he says “Go, get your husband.”  Notice he didn’t condemn her.  And it wasn’t a non sequitur.  Jesus was placing his finger on the rawest place in her heart, saying for her to taste the true water, she had to see that she’d been dipping into the wrong stream for far too long.  She had become a “serial monogamist,” but maybe we’ve become dependent on our careers to quench our thirst.  On our family, our financial security, our academic pedigree, our good works or philanthropy for places like Japan, our you-fill-in-the-blank.  Those are the things we think make us matter.  But they aren’t real water.  To be seen and known and not condemned but loved by God; that’s what our souls are thirsty for. 

In The Weight of Glory, C. S. Lewis writes about what it means to be seen and loved by God:

It is written that we shall “stand before” Him, shall appear, shall be inspected.  The promise of glory is the promise, almost incredible and only possible by the work of Christ, that some of us, that any of us who really chooses, shall actually survive that examination, shall find approval, shall please God.  To please God . . . to be a real ingredient in the divine happiness . . . to be loved by God, not merely pitied, but delighted in as an artist delights in his work or a father in a son - it seems impossible, a weight or burden of glory which our thoughts can hardly sustain.  But so it is.[5]

 One last quick point:  Something remarkable happened to the woman after she met Jesus.  Did you catch it?  Many Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He told me all that I ever did.’”  (John 4.39)  The woman who had come to the well in the heat of the day to avoid the accusing gaze of the crowd, ran straight to that crowd and told them about Jesus.  That’s the working definition of a disciple, if you ask me.  And it’s the last thing I think our souls thirst after.  It’s why we’re so moved to contribute to Japan and Haiti and all these places we’ll probably never see.  We want to do something.  We are, in a word, hard-wired for mission.  So go and do good works - give to Japan (our community group is), sponsor someone in the Walk for Hunger, bake bread for the poor with the St. Elisabeth’s Guild, sign up for the Advent Meal Rota, get involved in the mission work of this parish.  And, like the woman at the well, go out and tell people about this Jesus you’ve met, a man who knows everything you’ve ever done, and still crossed every last boundary, even death, to be with you. 

In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.


[1] Rachel Ringenberg, “LAX Land” at http://erstwhiledear.wordpress.com/2011/03/24/lax-land/ (last visited 24 March 2011).

[2] Rob Walker, “You Say You’re Concerned About Japan: Do you have the T-shirt to prove it?” on http://www.slate.com/id/2288882/pagenum/all/ (last visited 24 March 2011).

[3] George R. Beasley-Murray, John, WBC 36 (Waco, Tex.: Word, 1987): 60.

[4] Tom Wright, John for Everyone: Part 1, Chapters 1-10 (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 2004): 40-41.

[5] C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2001): 38-39.