Joe Neville

Exodus 17:1-7

John 4:5-42



The Container of Our Life

It's high noon. Straight up above, the sun is hot and glaring. A man and a woman arrive at the well of Jacob for water.

The man says to the woman, "Give me a drink."  A long, somewhat dull-witted conversation occurs, one in which truth, revelation and grace are exchanged between two thirsty souls who cease to be afraid as they seek some kind of connection through risking a relationship.  The conversation follows the pattern of Jesus and Nicodemus, whose story we heard last week. Jesus says something and it's taken (at first) in its most literal sense.  It's not that the woman or Nicodemus are dull; they simply take life at face value.  The Samaritan woman and Nicodemus have a lot to lose if they move into the deep with Jesus, so they would just as soon receive him on the surface.

What John would have us see here is that there are certain truths we cannot merely accept, but have to discover for ourselves, and that Jesus is constantly asking people to face these truths for themselves; not charging in on a stead to rescue the day.

John sets this story at noon, when the light is high in the sky, as a contrast to the visit Nicodemus makes in the darkness of night.

It's fairly amazing that this conversation took place at all.

She is a Samaritan, he a Jew; between the two there was enormous historical hostility.  At least four centuries before, the Jews of Samaria had intermarried with their captors, losing their religious and racial purity.  They could not be forgiven for their impurity and were held in contempt by most Jews in Judea and Galilee. That's why the woman asks, "How can you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?"

There was a further prohibition. Jesus is a rabbi and rabbis were not to speak to any woman in public.  Some Pharisees were known to shut their eyes when they saw a woman on the street. In those days, some of them kept their eyes shut so long they bumped into walls and stumbled down in the streets.  They were called "the bruised and bleeding Pharisees."  This chance meeting of unlikely souls is a recipe for personal and political disaster.  What possible good could come from these two people exchanging words with each other in this place?

It's a story about thirst -- not simply physical thirst, but deep, spiritual thirst. It's a story about being dry and dried up, parched and brittle and all used up by life.  It's a story about longing -- Jesus' great longing for an end to his own thirst and the thirst of the world. It's a story about this container -- our life -- and what kinds of things fill our cup -- the Container of our life.  And it's a love story too, strange and wonderful, between two unlikely people both in search of the same kind of salvation through love, not law.

Much has been made of the woman's past, using her marital "unstatus" as a way of underlining Jesus' generosity and grace.  But it is not so much her past that grabs me as her desire to know and move from the literal well water to the water of a living God who will refresh her eternally in spirit and in truth.   In our own lives it's not so important that we linger, stuck in the mud of our past, but that we are willing to move into new life when transforming grace is present.

How many of us are stuck in our life? How many of us carry around our failures and failed deeds and count those far more important than anything hopeful or good that we have done? We count the tragedy of divorce, a time of betrayal in a friendship or family relationship, an addiction to alcohol or drugs, a life of moving from one relationship to another without a sense of commitment, failure to come through for a parent or a child -- these are those awful life failures which cause or caused us great pain and even shame and sorrow. We stop there. Some of us carry our stuff around in us in big bags weighing us down and causing us to be burdened and blinded to new freedom. Some of us push our pain and failure so far to the edge of our lives that we become dulled or bitter or even ill without understanding ourselves, and this can be dangerous.

I pray that none of you have had to experience the horror of an attempted or successfully completed suicide of a friend, colleague or loved one. The shear frustration, anger, agony and helplessness are paralyzingly numbing.  It seems that all you can say over and over again are these words, "why couldn't you tell us the load was too much for you to handle on your own?  Why couldn't you tell us that you felt so all alone? We would have cared, we would have shared."

Sometimes I think it's not that we care too little, but that the world hurts so much.  We forget that few of us escape the sorrow, struggle and loss of the world.  It is a difficult existence at best, living in this world of ours.  Terrorist land mines tear at young limbs, innocent people are murdered, nations tear at their own people and fabric As we consider inclinations of Iran and North Korea, the sky threatens to glow, not with the heat of the sun, but with the flare of nuclear weapons.  In New Haven and Hartford, New York and Boston, children are gunned down in front of their own homes -- and we don't dare approach the great inner ocean we know as compassion for the pain of this world, lest we fall and drown forever. Instead, we become isolated and apathetic, privatized and confused, sometimes even shame filled and guilty -- unable to bear another's pain and certainly not able to meet our own.

But that is the very reason why we don't need a "champion savior" -- someone who is going to come riding through our lives on a white steed, claiming victory once and for all; -- but someone who is like us, weary from the journey, tired and thirsty from the walk, slumping down at noon, asking a stranger for water.

John knows -- life can be too much and life can never be enough. He knows that existence upon this earth is powerful, painful, wearying and wonderful. This Gospel, which more than any other glorifies Christ's divinity, also stresses his humanity to the fullest; Jesus says, "Give me a drink."

He asks her for water, she responds.  He offers her living water and she replies that he doesn't even have a bucket to draw with.  She is still with the world.  But when he tells her that she can have water welling up to eternal life, she understands well enough to know that this is something of what she seeks; she says simply, "Sir, give me this water."

Jesus asks her to go call her husband.  She pauses and begins to tell her story.  Without her sexual history, we know the story would be a little light on transformation.  With her truth revealed, we realize that every life, no matter how pained or failed or sorrow-filled is valuable to God.  It's a love story of sorts.  For she says a little later, "He told me everything I have ever done."  And we hear in the unspoken silence the wonder of   he still loves me.  We see Jesus looking deep within the well of her soul and saying he accepts her, not for what she had done with her life, but because she is infinitely lovable.

Perhaps the most remarkable moment in the life of a Christian is that moment when we realize (week after week after week) that it's not about what we do or don't do in this life.  It's about who we are to God.  God loves us.  "There is more grace in God than sin in us." Hold on to this truth. Remember it in the darkest of all your nights and the glaring heat of your days.  We may want to let go of God, but God is never willing to let go of us.

Like the woman at the well, we have made some strange bedfellows in this life and we have taken some foolish and sometimes terrible missteps.  Like her, we are accustomed to the literal words of religion, but we fail to connect them with the possibilities contained in the promise of real living water.  But like the woman, we too can take the leap of faith from the water of Jacob's well to the fountain of endless hope in the Gospel of love and reconciliation.

There is hope for the world! Barriers of race, sex, class, gender and religion can be broken open and broken down.  Jesus broke down barriers and so must we -- St. Paul reminds us, "In Christ there is no Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for all are one."  In our eagerness to bond too tightly with our own kind, we can forget that the goal of life is to do the opposite.  Jews and Christians, black and white, gays and straights, men and women, Protestants and Catholics, Palestinians and Israelis -- we were born to be together -- not separated by our puny ideas about what it means to live on the planet. Together, we ought to be building a home for all people on this earth, rather than creating ethnic or religious fiefdoms based on selfish ideologies about who has the right to inhabit God's house, this world.

This coming Friday will be the World Day of Prayer.  Next week Churches across this nation will celebrate One Great Hour of Sharing; Our Global Ministries continue to coordinate relief and compassion to tsunami victims in Southern Asia as well as those affected by the California Floods, at home.  These are all reminders that we belong to One World, a world of women and men, rich and poor, needful and caring, love and justice. This is God's world; God's borders eclipse even the fiercest barriers constructed by the fears of human beings.  Jesus' vision was of a world where this lonely, used and tired woman could drink from an eternal wellspring of unending love -- a community of grace beyond grace.  This world is vastly inclusive and compassion flows without false boundaries:  Your world, my world; God's world.

In this world, people are not hard as rocks, but when touched, yield forth compassion and wisdom.  The healing waters of God's reconciling love flow freely in this place and all are invited to come to the waters.

The second verse of this morning's Third hymn sings it best:

See, the streams of living waters, springing from eternal love,

Well supply thy sons and daughters, and all fears of want remove.

Who can faint, while such a river ever flows their thirst assuage?

Grace, which like our God the Giver, never fails from age to age.



Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken      (709)