Saturday, February 23, 2008

Finding the Living Water

John 4:5-42

There are all kinds of communication barriers out there, with language barriers among the biggest and most difficult to get around. He speaks Spanish; she doesn't. How do you communicate? But there are other kinds of barriers that inhibit communication. There are, for instance, generational differences, which can cause major headaches. If you read Zits, you know that this is true. Each generation has its own dialect, and if you’re not hip to the lingo, you’ll likely miss something in a conversation.
Although we don’t always think about it, there are also theological barriers that get in the way of our sharing our faith with others. Sometimes our religious lingo – you know, words like Trinity, grace, atonement, Eucharist – gets in the way. They may be important terms and doctrines, but they’re often meaningless to people on the outside. And so we have to stop and explain what we mean.

If you read the gospels closely, you’ll discover that Jesus often dealt with communication barriers. This is especially true in the Gospel of John, where John often pictures Jesus confounding his conversation partners with irony and double meanings. In John, at least, all of this seems to be intentional. But whether intentional or not, it always seems like Jesus has to explain himself.
John 4 reminds us of how difficult it can be to share our faith with others. Too often our conversation partners aren’t on the same page.
I. The Beginnings of a Conversation and the Breaking of Barriers
In this passage Jesus runs into a Samaritan woman getting water at a well, and he ends up having a theological conversation with her. But this discussion gets hung up on a series of communication barriers. In part that’s due to the fact that Jews and Samaritans didn’t talk to each other. As we all know, mistrust can mess up our conversations. And that’s what happens here.

The conversation begins when Jesus goes up to this woman and asks her for a drink of water. This simple request leads to further discussion – something that normally didn’t happen. That’s probably whey his request takes her by surprise. Jews don’t talk to Samaritans and men don’t talk to women – you see the barriers that are present. Some are tribal some are gender-related, and others are theological.
Despite the awkwardness of the situation, Jesus reaches across the barrier and engages her in a conversation. He doesn’t let tradition and custom deter him, and that’s the way it is with God. We build fences and make boxes, but God can’t be hemmed in. What God does is break through our barriers and helps us see the world in a new way. In other words, God breaks through our stereotypes. In the end, because Jesus challenges the stereotype, the woman becomes a disciple and an evangelist.
II. The Offer of Living Water
Although the story begins with a simple request for a cup of water, it turns into a theological discussion. The subject is living water. Of course, in the beginning, she takes this literally, and gets mixed up. She’s talking physical, and he’s talking spiritual – something that often happens in John. The discussion seems to get hung up on the question of whether Jesus is bigger and better than Jacob, the one legend said gave the people of Sychar this well. And so, again we see the tribal rivalries at play.

But the most important question has to do with the meaning of living water. What she heard was "clear running water." She thought that Jesus knew of a kind of water that would whet her thirst for ever. One drink and you don’t have to ever have another. You can understand why she’d be interested in that kind of water – she was an outcast who came to the well at noon, the hottest point of the day, because it was when no one else would be there. The only problem is that Jesus isn’t talking about this kind of water. Instead, he’s talking about the kind of water that satisfies our spirit.

The water Jesus offers her quenches that inner thirst for communion with God, the thirst described by the Psalmist:

As the deer pants for streams of water, so I long for you, O God. I thirst for God the living God. When can I come and stand before him? (Ps. 42:1-2, NLT)

It is the thirst that Isaiah says only God can satisfy:

Ho, everyone that thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat. Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. (Is. 55:1).

The woman’s answer is a typically human one. We can become so fixated on the physical realm that we miss what’s going on spiritually. But John tells us that Jesus knows that we have a need for something only a relationship with God can satisfy.
III. A Place to Worship
The conversation quickly turns from water to worship. Once she catches onto what Jesus is offering, she gets defensive and begins to argue about which place of worship is superior to the other. We worship on Mt. Gerazim, you worship in Jerusalem – she says. But Jesus says that true worship is about the heart not the location or the ritual. Too often we get caught up in the form and loose sight of the purpose of worship. In worship the soul’s thirst is satisfied by an engagement with the presence of God.

Finally, after she begins to catch on, this social outcast returns to her village and tells everybody about her encounter with Jesus. She may not have understood everything about Jesus, but she knew that he held out for her the promise of forgiveness and grace. And that was enough.
Now there is much more to this story, but in the end we see that Jesus breaks down the barriers that keep us from experiencing that sense of wholeness that comes from walking with God. And not only does the woman respond to the offer, but so does her whole village.

There is, of course, a moral to our story. Even as we drink from the water that satisfies our deepest longings, like the woman at the well we will begin sharing this faith empowering experience with others. But, as this story reminds us, there are barriers that must be overcome. Our attempts at communication can get hung up on misunderstandings. And so we must be attentive to those "issues," whatever they may be. As we do this, we will see that deep in the hearts of our friends and our neighbors is that same thirst for the Living Water that will never run dry. Yes, we’re all looking for the Living water that satisfies the human thirst for God’s gracious presence. And as we hear Jesus’ invitation to the woman, so we hear our own invitation to drink deeply from this well.

Preached by:
Rev. Dr. Robert Cornwall
Pastor, First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Lompoc, CA 93105
3rd Sunday of Lent
February 24, 2008

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