Sunday, February 24, 2008

(Lent 3) At the well without a bucket

Exodus 17:1-7; John 4:5-42

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This morning the scriptures have opened up two stories for us.
Very similar stories,
in that they’re both about thirsty people who needed water.
But very different stories, in almost every other way.
Different as night and day.

Biblical stories like these have enough power in the telling of them.
I could just leave them alone, let them speak on their own terms.
There’s certainly nothing I can add.
They are the word of the Lord to us. Thanks be to God.
So my role as preacher this morning,
as it is most times I preach, as a matter of fact,
is not to say anything new or original.
It is merely to shine a light, as it were, on these stories.
To prompt us to see the treasures there to be discovered.
To encourage us to sharpen our perception.

The first story is from Exodus 17.
On this occasion,
the whole people of Israel were tired and hot and thirsty.
With good reason.
They were in the desert.
They were carrying all their earthly belongings,
setting up camp every night,
packing up every morning.
They had been doing it for a couple weeks already.
The kids were getting whiny and irritable.
That’s not in the text.
But as one who personally has been on some
2-week camping trips with kids,
I think I’m on solid ground assuming it.
The donkeys were probably getting more stubborn.
And nearly every adult’s nerves were getting frayed.
What Moses had on his hands here,
was over a million people, who literally,
were not happy campers.
We can understand that.
It’s what happens when you’re tired, hot, and thirsty.

But on the other hand,
when you take into account the events of the last couple weeks,
it’s a little harder to excuse their whining.
They had just been delivered from 400+ years
of back-breaking slavery in Egypt.
They were freed by the mighty hand of God.
When they got stuck between the Red Sea, and Pharoah’s army,
God acted, to part the waters of the Red Sea so they could cross.
Soon after, when they got to a spring where the water was bitter,
God acted, through the hand of Moses, to turn the bitter into sweet.
And a few days later they finished the last of their traveling food,
and were getting hungry,
so every day since then, God acted,
by raining down bread and meat from heaven,
in the form of manna and quail.
With one miracle after another,
they saw God’s mighty hand reach out to them,
and in a demonstration of amazing
love, compassion, and deliverance.
God met their every need.
Whatever their need, God responded.
Every time.

But in today’s story, they apparently were suffering
short-term memory loss.
They forgot God acted, just a few weeks ago,
to deliver them out of slavery.
They forgot God acted to get them across the sea.
They forgot God acted to sweeten the water.
They forgot God acted to send food from the sky.
They forgot God acted.
Now when they were hot and thirsty,
with no water in sight,
they had no God-memory to draw on,
no confidence in the one who acts to deliver.
In other words, no faith.

A crowd formed and they went to confront Moses.
This was not a well-thought-out, and well-led,
rational grievance procedure.
They were a mob.
They were hopping mad.
And they were out to get Moses,
the very leader who had been instrumental
in getting God to rescue them every time so far.
They charged Moses with intentionally bringing them out of Egypt
in order to kill them and their children and livestock.
They were so angry they were about to stone Moses to death.
They were inflamed.
They were demanding their rights.
They were insisting that their needs get met
right here, right now, or else.

Which, fortunately for them—and fortunately for Moses—
is what happened.
God told Moses to go to a certain rock,
and strike it with his stick,
and a spring of fresh water came from it.
Even in the face of their bitter, selfish, demanding behavior,
God rescued them once again.
And apparently, no thanks from the people.

That’s the first story.
This next one unfolds quite a bit differently.
In this story, it was Jesus who was hot, tired, and thirsty.
And that fact alone merits some reflection.

Because, we don’t often think of Jesus in terms of his
very real, very physical, and very human needs.
We know all about this story
of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well.
We heard it ever since we heard Bible stories.
And we usually assume that this was simply a divine appointment
God set it up especially, for Jesus to dispense heavenly wisdom
to a certain Samaritan woman,
and thereby leave an eternal spiritual lesson for all of us
who would read this story, even 2,000 years later.
Well, looking back, we could certainly say it was divinely appointed,
and there are spiritual lessons to be learned.
But the story itself is not quite so lofty.
It’s a very earthy story.

Jesus was hot, and tired, and thirsty.
When he and his disciples got into Samaria,
the disciples went on into the city to buy food.
Jesus stayed by the well.
Because he heard the voice of God to stay there,
because a Samaritan woman would be coming along?
It’s certainly possible. But I doubt it.
I think the reason was pretty simple.
Jesus stayed by the well because he was physically exhausted.
John tells us in v. 6 that Jesus was “tired out by his journey.”
He was probably huffing and puffing, and a little wobbly on his feet.
So he said to his disciples,
“You go get the food. I can’t take another step.”
Not to be irreverent,
but let’s be realistic.
The disciples were probably more physically fit than Jesus!
At least four of them grew up as hard-working fisherman.
Jesus grew up sitting at the foot of a rabbi, studying Torah,
and maybe helping his dad out in the shop.
I doubt he could keep pace
with his rugged and brawny disciples from Galilee.
So he stayed by the well.
Alone. Hot. Tired.
And no bucket to dip water.

So when the Samaritan woman came along,
I’m sure Jesus wasn’t thinking,
“Now, here’s an opportunity to teach a valuable spiritual lesson.”
He was thinking,
“Finally, somebody with a bucket.”
So, out of a purely physical need, he asked,
“Will you give me a drink?”
Simple, straightforward. “Will you give me a drink?”

Except, it wasn’t simple at all, really.
And Jesus knew it.
Jesus knew full well all the social, spiritual, and moral implications
of speaking to this Samaritan woman.
But Jesus had a need.
And even before the woman came to the well,
Jesus made a deliberate choice
to cross some major social and religious barriers.
Most self-respecting Jews would never be caught in Samaria
to begin with.
Samaritans were worse than heathens.
They were the descendants of Jews who married Gentiles.
They were half-breed Jews.
Jews gone bad.
Jews who flouted the law of Moses.
True Jews like Jesus would have gone far out of their way
to avoid ending up where Jesus ended up.

Not only did Jesus and his disciples go through Samaria,
Jesus stopped at the only well near the city,
a place where he surely knew that very soon
he would have a personal encounter with someone from town.
He would have to speak to a Samaritan,
something most Jews would never do.
And not only that, but since men rarely drew water,
this person would likely be a woman,
another taboo for a Jewish man.
Jesus knew all of this full well.
But...he had a profound need. A need for a drink.

So when, inevitably, a Samaritan woman approached with her jar,
Jesus asks...sincerely, “Will you give me a drink?”
Now, you have to understand.
Not only was he speaking to a Samaritan woman,
he was placing himself in a position of dependance on her.
He was making himself vulnerable.
Plain and simple, he needed her,
and he didn’t think twice about telling her –
“I’m tired. I’m weak. I need your help.”
His act of vulnerability was so remarkable
that it stunned the Samaritan woman,
and it rendered Jesus’ disciples speechless,
after they got back from the food market.
This may be the only place in the Bible where the writer
makes a point of telling us what the characters in the story
did not say.
John says in v. 27 that when the disciples came back,
they did not say, “What do you want?” or,
“Why are you speaking with her?”
They did not ask the obvious questions.
They were speechless.

So, that’s the second story.
There’s lots more to it we could explore.
But I want to stop there.
Let’s think for a bit about these two stories
and the different ways people responded to thirst.

In both cases, the need for water was real. It was desperate.
Physical health and well-being were at stake.

When Jesus needed water,
he openly acknowledged his weakness and need,
even when it meant asking a favor from a social outcast.
He was willing to be completely vulnerable,
in recognition of his need.
When the mob went to Moses,
they were thinking about their rights.
They went to their leader (and in essence to God),
and issued demands. “You owe it to us.
We have a right to have our needs met.
So do it now, our pay the price.”

Like Jesus, the people of Israel were in a position
of complete dependence on their provider, Yahweh.
Their position required a relationship of trust.
Their provider had already proved to be trustworthy,
again and again.
But rather than wait in trust and in faith,
they issued demands.
When Jesus stooped to ask for help from the Samaritan woman,
he was offering dignity and worth to an outcast –
rejected by her own townspeople, no doubt,
having been five-times married,
and now living with a man she wasn’t married to.
Which could explain her being at the well at high noon,
rather than joining the other women of the town,
in their important daily morning social gathering at the well.

When Jesus asked for help, he was building a relationship,
building up the helper.
When the Israelites went to Moses,
they trampled on a relationship,
tried to stone their helper.

In Jesus’ request for help,
he helped to lift up, and give worth to another.
In the Israelites’ request for help,
they insulted and accused and threatened.

It takes a lot of courage to ask for water
the way Jesus asked for water.
It’s something people don’t do real often, or real well.
Especially us industrious, hard-working,
and enterprising Mennonites.

But we have lots of thirsty people among us.
Lots of people longing for something they don’t have.
I know that,
because I have heard some of you express that thirst.
I also know it, because it’s my own story.
I thirst. Often. And repeatedly.
And I know how hard it is to ask someone else for a drink.
It’s easier to make demands of God,
than to do like Jesus did,
and put myself in a vulnerable position
especially to those who ought to be looking to me for help.
A good pastor leads others to the water.

I need to remember what the good teacher did in Samaria.
He sat by the well, and waited.
Our Lord, willing to be helpless,
willing to take help from whoever would offer.

I know I’m not alone in being slow to make my needs known.
It is the human condition.
There are many thirsty people here today, I imagine,
who’ve not yet had the courage
to turn toward someone with a water jug,
and say, “Will you help me...and give me a drink?”
Maybe we’re afraid they’ll think ill of us,
think we’re less spiritual,
if we can’t carry our own water jug.
Or maybe we look down on them,
thinking we are above asking help of someone like them.
Whatever the reason,
we choose not to ask,
and we lose an opportunity to be refreshed.

This morning we’re going to practice asking for help.
If you are tired, if you are parched,
if you have a longing to be refreshed by God’s Spirit,
and you are willing to openly express that need,
you are invited to come to the water this morning.

But you will notice, if you’re observant,
that the well here at Park View is missing something.
This is like the well Jesus encountered at Samaria.
There is water here, but no way to drink it.
There are full pitchers,
but no cups to bring the water to your mouth.

Jesus took a risk when he sat down by the well and waited.
He had no assurance of who might come
and be willing give him, a Jewish man alone in Samaria, a drink.
If you want to drink from the water this morning,
you also will need to take a risk.
You’ll need to come to where the water is, and simply wait,
not knowing who will help, or when help will come.

Then, if anyone here is so led to be the Samaritan helper,
you may go and fetch a cup, from the small table on either side,
and go to the one waiting,
and pour water into the cup,
offering it in the name of Jesus.

Anyone is welcome to come,
no matter what the source of your thirst may be.
If you are a thirsty soul, come to the water.

Whether you stand waiting at the well,
or whether you come to give a drink,
is no indicator of spiritual maturity.
It’s simply an indicator of who is thirsty this morning,
and who is available to serve.

So come as you are led.
There might be multiple persons waiting at the well.
If the one you went to serve has already been given water,
give the water to someone else.
You don’t even have to know the person waiting by the water.
Jesus and the woman were total strangers.
Yet one could serve the other.

So here we are, at the community well this morning.
Come and be refreshed by the cool water of God’s people.
Even more, be refreshed by the Spirit of God, the living water,
as it is shared with us by our sisters and brothers.

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