So, here we are, rather battered and ill at ease, missing our fellow congregants and wondering if we really should be here ourselves. It has been a long, long week. I am so tired of emails and news updates. And we know we have so many more to come. Thank you all for your patience and creative flexibility as we all figure this out together.
And it’s a frightening time. Like the Israelites in the Exodus reading we heard today, we might be tempted to ask: is the Lord still with us or not?
Do you remember way back to last week, ages ago now, when we heard the story of Nicodemus? The Pharisee, sneaking in to Jesus under cover of night to find out if Jesus really is the Messiah, wanting his facts, fearful of what seems to be happening? Jesus doesn’t give him an easy time of it, rebuking him for his lack of faith and confusing his literal mind with metaphor and symbol. Whether Nicodemus sees and understands at the end of that exchange, we don’t know – I imagine him creeping back out again into the night, still confused. Maybe that’s something of how we’ve been feeling this week.
Well, this week’s story at the well is almost an exact opposite of that one. It is not nighttime; it is high noon, the heat of the day. The person Jesus engages is not an insider, a religious man of authority; it is a woman, a Samaritan outsider (whose name we never hear). She’s not looking for Jesus – she’s just at the well to get water, her daily routine. She too has a hard time seeing Jesus for who he is. But when she gets it, she really gets it – and she becomes the first apostle, bringing the good news to the Samaritans.
This is the longest conversation Jesus has with anyone in scripture, and it’s with an outsider woman. Maybe that’s why the story is so powerful – we get such a sense of who she is. She’s there at the well in the heat of the day; she is perhaps excluded from her community, maybe avoiding the other women who go to the well in the cooler times of the day. She has had several marriages and relationships – perhaps ending in divorce and disgrace, perhaps ending in grief and widowhood, we don’t know. But whatever protection marriage should afford her in that culture has failed her, one way or another. Her life, it seems, has been hard, tragic, and painful. And you can hear it in her tone as she addresses Jesus. Oh yeah, living water, huh? Sure, guy, give me some of that. Then I’ll finally be free of this drudgery, this endless hopelessness. This woman, it seems, has seen too much of life. She is bitter and jaded, and nothing good is going to come her way again.
Except it does. There sits Jesus, talking with her. Looking right at her and into her and knowing her. I am he, Jesus says – the one who is talking to you is the one you have been waiting for. The living water you need. And the moment the woman sees that, everything changes for her. Off she runs, forgetting her chore and her water jug and the drink Jesus had asked for. She’s bubbling over with the good news, completely breathless and full of joy, running to all the people she used to avoid, to tell them about Jesus. Everything that up to this point has blinded her to God’s action in her life falls away, and she sees – and she can’t wait to bring that news to others. And she really does bring that news, because they all come running themselves to meet Jesus – they don’t stop to question her, because they can see how everything in her has changed. It’s an incredible story of hope and new life where before there was none.
So what’s the difference between this woman and Nicodemus? Why does she get it so quickly and readily and rush to share it with others, while he keeps doggedly asking his questions and trying to pin Jesus down? I wonder if it isn’t simply because she’s an outsider; things haven’t gone easy for her. She doesn’t have anything to fall back on in life, nothing to cushion her from the hard stuff. She has been beaten down so far that she’s ready to embrace the change – whereas Nicodemus still has so much to lose if he takes the risk of following Jesus. For one reason or another, she knows her thirst. She knows what she lacks and what she needs, and she knows that she hasn’t found it anywhere else. She is ready to drop that water jar and really drink from the water Jesus is offering to her.
So here’s where there might be good news for us, shaking in our shoes. As the Beatitudes say, blessed are the poor. Blessed are those who know they need it. Because when things are going well with us, we don’t see why we should take a risk for the unknown, however wonderful the promise might be. When we’ve got it sorted out in life, we might do like Nicodemus, dabble in a little God in secret, on the side, but that’s good enough. A few weeks ago, Americans were getting on airplanes and running in and out of grocery stores without lines and riding the subways with all of humanity. Now we’re uncertain, feeling like sheep without a shepherd, not knowing where the wolf is or how frightened we should be. We’re skulking around in the dark, afraid. And there’s Jesus, standing in the bright sunlight, offering us water. Now maybe we’re starting to see how much we need it. Not just on the side, but right here, right now, every moment.
We are actually, all of us, in this kind of need, all the time. We are empty and thirsty and need that living water. It’s just that most of the time we delude ourselves and pretend we’re not, cushioning ourselves with routines and comforts and reassurances and self-sufficiency. As if having a retirement portfolio or a fully stocked larder will keep us safe. We don’t want to acknowledge how bad it feels, how much we need help in our lives. We don’t want to pay attention to the voice of loss inside of us. We don’t want to admit that the structures we’ve built to fortress ourselves are really houses of cards. No matter our status and privilege or lack thereof, we are all alike in our need.
If there is any gift to be had in this time of crisis and fear – and I think we will find that there are many, when we are ready to see them – it is that we already see afresh how tenuous all that structure is. It hasn’t taken long for us all to move from business as usual to completely changing everything, and knowing that more still will probably change too. How interesting that this is all happening in Lent, a season we begin on Ash Wednesday, receiving on our foreheads a smear of ashes and being reminded that we are dust, and will return to dust. This is a season when we are led to reground in God; recognize our thirst; look for the light. Other times, most of the time, we forget – we pretend we did it ourselves. Now we’re being reminded that we had it wrong. Now we’re seeing that we need God – who is ready, right here, with the water.
It’s a tiring, confusing, frightening time right now. And yet, God is here; God has always been here. In a few moments we will offer our prayers, the prayers of our hearts for our needs and the needs of others and our world. And then we’ll celebrate the good news of God with us in the Body and Blood of Christ, receive the gift that reminds us of God’s new life for us. Today, we really pray these prayers. Today, we lay out before God all on our hearts and minds, all the fears and worries, like cards spread out on the table. Today, when we come to communion, we will be ready to receive the gift, ready to know the living water welling up within us. We need it.
And what does the Samaritan woman do when she receives that gift? She turns and immediately runs to share it with others. And that’s what we will do too. Because everyone needs this water right now. Our job now is to take this to others – those who can’t get here to church with us today, those who are alone and afraid, those who will suffer in the weeks ahead. We will find ways to do so – in phone calls and emails and walks in the park and meals to go, we will care for one another. Here’s the living water: I need it, and so do you. A spring of water, gushing up to eternal life, within us all. May God guide us as we go.