Sunday, February 24, 2008

Lent 3A

Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 95; Romans 5:1-11; John 4:5-42

It was as though the massive wooden doors guarded a passage back through time. Stepping through them, we left the noise of New York City and entered a fortress of faith, enormous, ornate, and insulated from the hustle and bustle surrounding it. There was very little light inside, so that the stained glass windows hung like jewels in the dark stone walls, and the ceiling vaulted into shadows filled with smoke from the incense of midday mass. Columns of saints set in marble rose behind the altar, attended by angels carved in choirs along the pews. Out of reverence, no one spoke above a whisper; and yet, even the barest of breaths echoed through the vast space, so that we imagined the saints themselves were speaking.

We were there as part of a class assignment, to study what our professor called the “theology of bricks and mortar,” the way in which worship spaces shape and participate in our prayer. He had asked us to note a number of things in each church we visited, such as the distance between the congregation and the altar, the placement of the pulpit, and the variety of images visible in glass or stone or wood.

At first we thought it was the enormity of the space, or the dim light, or the distraction of ornamentation that made it difficult to find the font. After a while spent searching, however, we finally asked an attendant to show us where it was. We watched as he opened a set of oak doors carved into one of the huge pillars along a side aisle. There, hidden inside the pillar, was the font, the water in its bowl as sober and still as the space in which it was enclosed.

We visited a second church that day, a few city blocks and a thousand light years away. This one was sunk below the busy streets and sidewalks, more accessible by subway than by taxicab. It was full of light, pouring in from the clear glass windows that spanned the length and height of the soaring ceiling. From any of the seats that circled around the altar, we could look up at the people, the traffic, and the concrete and steel of the city, and we could hear its hum. The space itself was fluid, like city life, easily arranged and rearranged to meet the needs of those who worshipped there.

Only one piece in that church could not be moved, a large pool carved in granite that seemed to rise up out of the earth itself. It was the baptismal font, but unlike any we had ever seen, inviting all who entered the church to brush their fingertips across its waters as they passed by, without having to stoop. The water within the font was fountain-stirred, so that the sight and sound of the water led one to suspect they were going to get wet even if they did not touch the water itself.

I thought of this assignment as I read this morning’s gospel story. I saw Jesus sitting on the sun-baked stones surrounding the well that the Samaritan woman had come to for water, a font of sorts. I listened to them discuss the properties of the water within, whether it would really quench what made them thirst – weariness, wonder, the weight of the world. And I found myself wondering what sort of properties the water, the pool, the well within me has. Is it hidden away, as sober and still as the space in which it is enclosed? Or is it living water, fountain-fed, close enough for others to suspect they’ll get wet just from being near me?

We are surrounded by and composed of water. Seventy percent of the earth’s surface. Sixty-five percent of the human body. We are indeed living water, and while in this part of the country our yards sometimes suffer from lack of water, we are fortunate to always have enough water to drink. We are able to satisfy our thirst.

And yet, we are made to be vessels not only for the water that continually flows from earth to air and back again. We are also made to be vessels for God, to hold God within ourselves and to allow God to pass through from us to others and back again. But we are imperfect, easily cracked and drained by the stresses of life – by failures, disappointments, grief, anger, loneliness, self-doubt, and fear. With what do we try to fill the emptiness? With what do we try to quench our thirst? Do these things satisfy us? How soon are we thirsty again? Almighty God, our collect began this morning, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves…although goodness knows we try to fill our empty buckets.

We thirst for love, for companionship, for wholeness. Loneliness, guilt, and grief leave us parched. We try to satisfy our thirst with things like food, drink, work, looks, accomplishments, possessions, and other people. All these can indeed quench our thirst for a time. They can also become toxic. Our thirst can motivate us; it can also kill us.

Like the Israelites’ journey in the desert, like the Samaritan woman’s journey to faith, like Jesus’ heart-breaking journey to the cross, like our journey through this Lenten wilderness, like all these things, life is a journey by stages. Bit by bit, drop by drop, moment by moment, we find the strength it takes to get to the next well, the next place of renewal and refreshment. The woman’s journey takes place within the space of only a few minutes. She does not understand Jesus at first, thinking only how lovely it would be not to have to carry a heavy water jug any more. But as the truth of what he is telling her finally sinks in, soaking her thirsty soul, she realizes that Jesus is offering her something far more essential to her well-being, far more necessary for life, than water itself. Jesus is offering her the living water of God’s grace and acceptance of her, just as she is, cracks and all.

If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water. Jesus himself is the living water who longs to quench our thirst for life, so much so that he will wait patiently beside the well for our arrival. If we will have him, he flows through the cracks in our lives, filling every deep crevice so that nothing is hidden from the life that he brings. He flows into every wrinkle and scar, every line drawn by failure, regret, or loss. He makes the roads we’ve wandered into flowing rivers and fills the broken places in our hearts and lives.

In fact, more powerful than our aching, our hunger, more powerful than our thirst, is God’s longing to be our bread of life, to be our living water. Jesus thirsts for us, cracked vessels that we are, longing to fill us with God’s love and grace. God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us, Paul writes. Where our longing and God’s longing meet, a fountain of living water erupts, and we can’t help but get wet.

In the journey by stages through the wilderness, God gave the Israelites more than just water – God gave water where there shouldn’t have been any at all. In the journey by stages through faith, Jesus gave the Samaritan woman more than just water – he gave her a new life as a water bearer. She left behind her heavy jug of well water and carried instead a heart full of grace and good news. Come and see! she says to everyone, echoing Jesus’ call to discipleship. Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done, to whom all hearts are open and from whom no secrets are hidden. He offered me living water, and I drank. Come and see! Could he be the Messiah, the one for whom we have been hoping and praying?

The Samaritan woman is still full of questions, journeying by stages, following the stream to its source. Her story and her life are still full of cracks, but the water is bubbling up from within and pouring out through her witness to others. She will bring them to the well, where there are no buckets or heavy water jugs but rather one who will fill them with the water of life. They, too, will become water bearers, carrying that water with them and passing it on to others who are aching and parched.

Who was it that brought each one of us to the well, to the font, to the living water of God’s love and grace? What has become of that spring inside us? Do we keep it hidden behind closed doors? Is the water in us sober and still? Do we fill our cracks and empty spaces with whatever quenches our thirst for the moment, only to find ourselves thirsty again? Or does the water of life flow freely within us and all around us? Do we carry it to others so that they, too, may drink deeply?

Even though our bodies are sixty-five percent water, we still need eight glasses a day to remain healthy – we will always be in need of more water. In something of the same way, we will always be in need of the well by which Jesus sits and waits, not because the living water he offers would dry up within us, but because we have a habit of shutting the doors on the font, the fount, the spring that sustains us.

As we journey by stages through Lent, as we journey by stages through life, let us drink deeply from the well. Let us open the doors of our hearts. Let us be water bearers, carrying grace and good news. Let us get wet. Amen.

Artwork: "The Woman at the Well", by Huibing Kennedy.

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