Reading Water

a sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent [Year A]

John 4:5-42

A few years ago a friend gave me a book called How to Read Water by adventurer and nature enthusiast Tristan Gooley, a British man whose main claim to fame, among many, is that he is the only living person to have both flown solo and sailed single-handedly across the Atlantic. Gooley is an expert in natural navigation, which is the science or art—depending on how you look at it—of relying on cues from nature, rather than GPS or technology, to find your way around.

In How to Read Water, Gooley explains to the average person how basic observation of any kind of water, from puddles to the ocean, can reveal important information about the world around you. There is a chapter explaining in detail that there are different kinds of puddles and how they form, and another chapter unpacking how the different shades of blue and green and brown indicate things about the depths of the water. One of the most fascinating chapters is on the indigenous peoples of the South Pacific who have for centuries been able to sail back and forth with ease between small distant islands in primitive watercraft before the first European sailor ever arrived with their fancy sextants and telescopes and written maps. The Polynesians do it simply by understanding how the waves and ripples move over the surface of the deep blue ocean. If you’ve ever seen Disney’s Moana, you know what he’s talk about.

Gooley’s How to Read Water is a great book,one that when on my shelf makes me appear to be a lot more worldly and interesting than I really am. It covers every form of water in the natural world, but nowhere does it talk about living water. To learn about that, we’d have to talk to the woman at Jacob’s Well about whom we’re told in John’s gospel.

At first, she comes across as the expert in water, herself. Jesus approaches her and she lets him know that her ancestors have been coming to this place for water for centuries. She knows how the well works, what the water tastes like in every season, rainy and dry. She knows how it feeds their sheep and goats, just how far to drop the bucket. My people know how to read this water, she explains to Jesus. Where do you get off talking to me about some other kind of water? But slowly she realizes he is different.If we listened to her she would tell usthat we don’t read living water.Living water reads us.

That is one of the main messages of this encounter between Jesus and the person who has come to be known as the woman at the well. Jesus comes to read us—to know us and care for us and share the journey of life with us with all its ups and downs. Jesus comes to read us and the pain we experience and the suffering we encounter. And he finds us right in the ordinary, everyday places where we live and work and go about life.

Vasily Polenov (1900s)

Lots of people spend a lot of timesearching for wisdom and truth and transformationin far-flung places.Jesus walks right into our midstto transform us where we are.It may be in the loving words of someone we know,it may be in the comfort of prayer,it may even be in the community of a local congregation.The point is that Jesus crosses boundaries that we set upand finds us in our situationsin order to make that connection happen.

Jesus is Jewish, and this woman is Samaritan, a rival group. Doesn’t matter. He goes right to their well, a common community location that people would have visited on a daily basis. We should watch for how Jesus might find a way to show up in a grocery store parking lot, or the school lunch room, or the pew next to us, encouraging us to speak with the person who seems different. And while he’s with us, (the Samaritan woman would explain),this living water comes to read the paths we’ve walked and the wounds we’ve suffered so that he knows them and understands them. He comes to make sure God’s unconditional love flows over us like a stream of fresh water from a source that never goes dry.

A lot of the imagery and language in Scripture is a little inaccessible for us living in the United States in 2023and access to water is one of them. We can turn on a tap whenever we want to. Just outside of my office here, in fact, in this hallway that goes toward Price Hall the church installed a new set of water fountains when we did our construction project. One component of that water fountain is a spot where you can fill up a refillable water bottle. Above the waterspout is a little screen with numbers that count up every time you fill it which supposedly corresponds to the number of disposable plastic water bottles we’re saving. Right now we’re up to 2192 water bottles saved, although I bet at least two thirds of that has actually come from filling up our church’s Keurig reservoir, which is a bit ironic because every cup of coffee made sends a little piece of plastic to the landfill. My point is that for someone in Jesus’ time water that is that reliable and that plentiful would have been life-changing. You would never have had to live with thirst because you could always reach for a glass of water.

Jesus likens himself to that unimaginable scenario. He is reliable in a way that an ancient well can never aspire to. The little number counter on him goes to infinity. His mercy, his forgiveness, his understanding, his compassion for us will never run out. In a world that offers so many false promises of care and concern, any number of fly-by-night cures, Jesus never fails. And it gushes up not just for us but eventually within us. And it never runs out so we don’t have to be stingy with it or ration it out. We see this as the woman goes from the well back into her village to spread word of what he encountered in Jesus, a village of foreigners, no less, who had reason to distrust anything that would come from Israel.

Yes, if we want to learn to read living water,it would be good to start with this woman’s testimony.A lot of assumptions have been made through the yearsabout her past and the number of husbands she has had.People have read into this all kinds of things about her moral state,but Jesus makes absolutely no judgment or declaration about her characteror her decisions.Her witness to the love of Jesus—how he knows her story and does not judge her—teaches us a lot about how Jesus embodies God’s never-ending grace.He comes to know each and every story,eventually letting his own life follow the course of every human life,even into death.We will never be thirsty, not even when we’ve breathed our last,for the water he gives gushes up to eternal life.

It will be a long, long time—maybe never—before I hear this particular story in John 4and not think about the beginning of the COVID pandemic. Because we use a three-year lectionary cycle, this happens to be the exact reading we had in 2020on the first Sunday after the COVID shutdown. March 15, 2020, was the Third Sunday in Lent and we had made the decision to try to worship on-line rather than just cancelling church that Sunday altogether. None of us had a clue what we were doing. Except Turner Barger. Turner, our technology and media support person, always knows what’s going on (Hi, Turner).

We decided to cram into the parlor and set up a little altar thereand we used Facebook and Instagram Liveto broadcast a thrown together worship service.Kevin rolled one of the electrical pianos in there so that we could singand Beth Barger held the words up to the hymns,which we had written out on paper and an easel padMarkus Groener was there, and Matthew Barger and Mike Dunavant,and all of us were, as they say, flying the airplane as we were building it.

I don’t know about the rest of thembut I was operating out of survival mode and fearbecause at the time, even though we thought it would be temporary,I couldn’t help but think, “Well, this is it. There is no way we’re going to surviveshutting down for two Sundays.”And of course I was worried about the spread of the diseaseand who might be at riskand what kids were going to do about school.I had all the concerns that everyone else did.

But thank God that Jesus the living water comes to read us. Because it ended up being more than two Sundays. And we’ve thrived. He decided to show up over and over again in the only wells we had to meet at back then: online and the telephone. Council members had the idea to call everyone in the membership roster and check in on them. As we peered into our computer and phone screens, his water kept flowing. As we shared on Zoom and Facebook live he kept us connected and tempered our feelings of isolation. And this was going on in congregations all over the place: Jesus, the living water, reading us in our anxiety and fear, paying attention to our story, and mostly breaking down barriers. And suffering produced endurance, and endurance produced character, and character hope…and hope did not disappoint us.

Nowadays, three years after all of that, we are joined in worship by people in Texas, Connecticut, Florida, Long Island, some of whom hope to catch a glimpse on the screen of their relatives sitting here coming back from the communion rail. One of our regular livestream worshippers calls it “Virch Church,” and I’m kind of overwhelmed by it, to be honest. Our statistics suggest that around 120 people worship with us this way each week. I have no clue who they all are, but I’m thankful they’re here at the well with us.

Did the Samaritan woman know them all back in her village when word of Jesus got out?

Maybe. But probably not. I suppose that wasn’t the point, to revel in numbers themselves, to boast in the success of her testimony, or we in ours. The point is she was overwhelmed—as in by a flood—of grace and acceptance. It is a flood of living water that gushes up and always, through whatever faces us, gives life.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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