Too much Water
People in the village of Bluffton do not like too much water.
Walking the trails at the Bluffton University nature preserve has been a bit of a struggle the last few weeks. We know that socks will probably be soaked and that shoes will need to be left at the front door because of the mud caked onto them. I am guessing this is common in Bluffton as spring comes around the corner.
From what I have learned, the houses in this town have received more than their fair portion of flooding. I grew up in a house in eastern PA that did not have a sump pump in it. We lived towards the top of a hill, which would seem like a mountain out here, and water seldom found its way inside.
So, the other week when Chaska heard a beeping noise coming from the basement and told me it was the sump pump beeping, I reached out for help. I was at noodle night and I came to a table of some long time Bluffton residents. Everyone had experience and helpful insight. I have learned that whether you were a science teacher, a religion professor, or a hairdresser, if you have lived in Bluffton for some time, you have experience with sump pumps and flooding. Alex even came over with a backup sump pump, something that I didn’t know existed, to come check out our situation. We figured out that the battery sump pump was kicking in and was charging. I learned that evening that people have back up battery sump pumps – so in this case two sub pumps – in their basements. It wasn’t until writing this portion of the sermon that I learned that it was a sump pump, not sub-pump.
People in the village of Bluffton do not like too much water.
Too much water is harmful. Hillsides erode, fields of young corn turn into short term ponds, basements fill up with water, and at its worst, whole towns and lives get swept away in a flood.
Too much water is harmful.
The passage for today is the opposite. The people in this story are thirsty. Its a story about needing more water.
Jesus says in a demanding tone to the Samaritan woman – “Give me a drink.” And after Jesus explains how he has a different kind of water to offer her – living water – she then becomes direct and nearly demanding – “give me this water.”
The mutual boldness between the woman and Jesus is striking. I don’t think I have ever been that bold before! “Give me this water!” She knew what Jesus was offering would quench her desire.
Desire is a tricky thing. Freud talks about desire being a fire without a focus that burns at the center of our lives, and pushes out in a relentless and unquenchable pursuit of pleasure. Whatever it is, we as humans have a restlessness, a longing, a hunger, a loneliness, a nostalgia, a wildness, that looks like thirst that feels impossible to tame. Ronald Rolheiser writes that desire can show itself as aching pain or delicious hope.
It is clear that this woman at the well was thirsty for something other than what she had in life. She had a deep desire for what Jesus had to offer. And she understood this metaphor that Jesus presented.. She understood that she was longing for water that would change her life.
This was quite different from the conversation that Jesus had with Nicodemus -the passage that we heard last week.
Nicodemus, a Pharisee on the Jewish high counsel, comes to Jesus. Jesus tells him that in order to see the kingdom of God, he must be born again. Nicodemus, taking this literally, asks how this is possible. Jesus says that one has to be born of water and spirit.
Nicodemus once again is baffled and says “how is this so?”
Jesus says “You are Israel’s teacher and do you not understand these things?”
The teacher, the Pharisee, Nicodemus is struggling to wrap his head around the metaphor Jesus is presenting.
It becomes very clear that the woman at the well is not Nicodemus, who does not know what he wants and is confused with what is going on. Nicodemus has power as part of the Jewish high counsel, he is a teacher, is inquisitive, and has people to please. His inquisitive nature gets him in the weeds about how to be born again, a distraction from searching his own heart for what this metaphor might mean.
I could imagine the woman at the well listening in on this conversation and saying,
“No dip sherlock, of course you are not going to be literally born again.”
Nicodemus is so concerned about how entering the kingdom happens. “How do I get back in the womb! How can I be born again?”
Quite different than the woman at the well who knows her longings and desires when she tells Jesus to give her the living water.
She knows because she has been carrying water from the well to her family her whole life. When she is providing for her family, she needs to make sure it’s coming for a clean source or her family will be sick. Her burdens are heavy. She’s in need of a balm.
To this day, women all over the world daily take the huge risk gathering water at wells – where they are vulnerable as they carry water. Water carriers have high amounts of violence and abuse towards them.
Not only has she had to carry water, she has had to deal with discrimination as a Samaritan and as a woman. She seems to struggle with relationships. Her road has been tough and she is thirsting for something that will be a balm for this tough, hot, dry road.
She knows she needs some living water. I wonder what that would be for her.
Nicodemus, a pharisee with power, on the other hand, desires to find a way into the religious club, and did not understand what was going on inside him.
I get Nicodemus’ flooded path, saturated in religious jargon, and I am probably on it more than I am on the path of thirst. Nicodemus needed a different path than the woman at the well. To be born again was to start over, to give up what he has that is distracting him. He needed to give up what he had too much of.
Thirst though is the opposite. Thirst comes from absence. The thirst that the woman at the well had, comes from the heart. A deep yearning for wholeness. A longing for something that would refresh one’s life that has been a struggle.
Ronald Rolheiser writes about how spirituality is ultimately what we do with this desire. What we do with our restlessness.
Do you need to find ways to reset like Jesus asks of Nicodemus?
Or are you thirsting living waters that tend to your deepest desires?
What do you thirst for? Grace.
What do you thirst for?
I am not saying “what do you want?” – a new car, a bigger house, a relationship, more power, a fancy vacation, a way into the religious club. These things are distractions from tending to one’s deeper longings.
I know I like to distract myself when I am restless – and I think this is a pretty universal thing. Whether its social media, or overworking, or the next project, or the tv show – the list can go on.
When we flood ourselves with distractions from our inner work, we are unable to see the kingdom. The flood of distractions keep us from tending to the pain or hope that comes from a deep longing.
What do we really long for? What do we really thirst for – like that woman at the well?
It’s going to be a different cup of water for each of us.
What do I mean by Water
What is this cool refreshing water?
On one hand, there is stagnant water. That pond that has the green algae film over it. You can smell the pond from a distance when there is a breeze. My grandparents had a pond like this. We would go and catch bluegills from it. And one time I remember watching my dad cut open one of the fish to see little warms wiggling around in it. We did not eat the fish that day.
Stagnant water is flood water. The puddles of water in fields or in rain water retention ponds. Nicodemus had a lot of stagnant water – and the swamp needed drained.
St Augustine talked about how living water – what Jesus is offering – is water that is moving. It’s a trickling creek. It’s a spring bursting up from the ground. That type of water is inviting. We want to dip our hands in it. We want to take a sip from it. When water is moving, it is oxygen rich and fish and crustaceans are thriving in the clear moving water.
The feeling of encountering water like this feels incredible. Jesus is offering the fresh, moving, thriving water.
These moments of encountering moving, thriving water, are moments of grace. And I think One way that we can think about this living water is grace.
Grace is surprising
Grace, comes to us unexpectedly – like a bubbling stream we happen across in the woods. That we go sit beside, and listen to it trickle. Water that is so clear that you can see the crayfish poking their heads out from under the rocks.
Grace, like a stream of living moving water, sustains life. It makes it possible for a thriving ecosystem.
Sometimes grace gets talked about as something like forgiveness. I’ll give you grace for the thing you did wrong. A one dimensional grace view of grace that is something that is given to an undeserving sinner.
Now don’t get me wrong, sometimes we need forgiveness. But grace comes in many more varieties than just forgiveness.
There was a book that came out sometime ago by Herald Press called Fifty Shades of Grace.
The provocative title felt a little unnecessary, however, what I loved about the book is that it showed the variety of ways that humans are met with the grace of God. The book included many stories of different Mennonites who in different moments of their lives are touched with grace – given some living water.
One of the stories was about a person receiving moments of grace, when they had a caring interaction with someone else while going through rehab. Connection as grace.
Another story was about watching a friend fall really hard and the fear that rushed through them watching it, only for laughter to erupt from the friend on the ground. Laughter as grace.
Another story was about a stranger’s hospitality, where a stranger unexpectedly invited them into their home and pulled out their finest china for them. Receiving hospitality as grace.
We are given moments of grace in our lives. Rushes of living water that sustain us.
We cannot control grace – it just comes, unexpectedly, by surprise.
In a cold and mostly empty universe, that is bound to either stretch until the last star cools down, where our whole planet, our species, or even just our life-times, are just a blip in time – we have moments of grace. Grace that unexpectedly meet us in moments that feel meaningless, or painful in a cold and unimaginably vast universe.
The women at the well was met by grace – an unexpected gift. It took her by surprise.
Again it’s not “grace” just in the “forgiveness of sins,” that this text has traditionally been taught, where she is forgiven for her long list of husbands. There is no part in this story where Jesus forgives her for sins. She was, however, given a moment of grace for her unique journey – and she was met with the shade of grace that she needed.
In our passage from last week in John 3, Jesus says us a little something about grace. “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going.”
The grace of God is not controlled. Its not planned. You can’t make it happen. But it comes to you like a wind and it happens when it pleases.
This gift, this grace, pertains to you and your journey – your journey. Not the woman at the well’s journey, not Nicodemus’ journey, but a journey that has been shaped by the things that you thirst and the things that you are drowning in. And what Jesus is offering is not stagnant flood waters. And not parched mouths, but living water. Moving water.
It is really hard to know how to talk about these unexpected gifts, these moments of grace that happen in our lives. Or perhaps I struggle to share my own. The most grace filled moments can feel so personal, that it’s hard to share them because it is vulnerable. These conversations that Jesus had with the woman at the well, and Nicodemus – are both so personal.
However, it is these moments of grace that teach us deeply about God, in ways that studying or organizing religion fail to create.
I experienced a moment of grace with Ann Shumakers family this past weekend when we were setting up for the funeral. I had been told that Ann loved children’s books, and so I had decided to use the story “where the wild things are” in my meditation, without telling the family.
When Ann’s family arrives Friday morning, they bring with them a large stack of copies of “where the wild things are” to hand out to family and friends. I told them that I was going to use the book in my meditation. So then we decided to read the story during the service.
I don’t know how God works. I don’t know if things are orchestrated or just a coincidence and I feel hesitant to talk about God planning things.
I do know, regardless, that it was a moment of grace. An unexpected gift, to both me and Ann’s family to have the book as a part of the service. It was a balm on a day of grief. It was a way to connect with the memory of Ann and share an important aspect of Ann’s life with each other. It was living water.
Unfortunately, I got covid. And so Pastor Carrie graciously read the story and my mediation for me. Graciously and willingingly. Another moment of grace.
Moments like these do not need to be a big magical deal. I hesitate sharing the story of Ann’s funeral because stories like these can put pressure that these moments of grace have to be grandiose.
They can be and perhaps even more profoundly simple. Like a bit of sunshine on a January day in Bluffton. Like someone asking how you are hanging in there. Like sitting by a babbling brook. Like a little taste of refreshing water.
May that water meet you on the journey.
May the sump pump clear out the distractions that we flood our restlessness with. May the grace of God meet you on the journey and even for just a moment, and quench your thirst.