Wednesday, April 13, 2011

John 4:5-42[1]
In 1994, I spent two months during the Summer teaching at a Seminary in the Philippines. I was in Baguio City, in the northern part of Luzon. If you know anything about the Philippines, you know that I was there during what is known as the “rainy season.” Let me tell you, they aren’t kidding about that! It rained most of the time I was there. At one point, we had an eight-day stretch where it rained night and day with no breaks. Eight days straight! As much as all that rain tended to have a “dampening” effect on my mood, I couldn’t help noticing the end result. There was a veritable garden of Eden there! All around me life was flourishing—from hibiscus that served as hedges to beautiful trees to all kinds of flowering plants. It was easy to see the life-giving effects of water all around me.
It might be hard to sell the people of northeastern Japan on the life-giving properties of water just now. Hundreds of thousands have either lost loved ones, or homes, or have been displaced by the damage done by the tsunami—not least on the nuclear reactors at the Fukushima plant! All around them is evidence of the destructive power of water. But at the same time, the very difficulty they have ensuring that they and their family have access to clean water reminds them that it is necessary for life. Even though they have all too painful experience with the destructive power of water, they are constantly reminded that it is life-giving.
I think you could probably find some reference to water as a symbol for the gift of new life, divine life, in just about every religion. The image of water as life-giving certainly fills the Bible. In the book of Genesis, the Garden of Eden is watered by four great rivers, and it’s filled with all kinds of plant and animal life. In the Psalms, the vitality of faith is compared to a tree planted by streams of water bearing fruit. In the prophets, the way home from exile was to be attended by streams in the desert, turning the wasteland into a green and living garden. And in the visions of the end, the ultimate renewal comes when the river of the water of life flows throughout the earth from the throne of God.
Jesus’ interview with the Samaritan woman in our Gospel lesson for today illustrates the life-giving quality of water. She came to the well to get water, and he startled her by asking for a drink. She no doubt recognized that he was crossing several boundaries that people just didn’t cross in that day and time[2] —he was Jewish, she was a Samaritan; he was a man talking with a woman who was not a member of his immediate family; and he was a Rabbi talking with one who had been shunned by religious people. No wonder she was startled.
But Jesus replied that he could give her water that would truly satisfy her thirst. And like Nicodemus, she misunderstood him at first. He was talking about something entirely beyond her comprehension. He said it this way: “no one who drinks the water I give will ever be thirsty again. The water I give is like a flowing fountain that gives eternal life” (Jn. 4:14, CEV). But what precisely was this “life-giving” water Jesus was talking about? The mysterious nature of it reminds me of what Jesus said to Nicodemus about the Spirit as the mysterious bringer of new life. In John’s Gospel it is the Spirit who gives us the new life God has in store for us—a completely new experience of life.[3]
I believe St. Paul’s comment about peace and hope and love “poured” into our hearts through the Spirit may help us understand what Jesus was talking about in our Gospel lesson. The Spirit gives us a whole new quality of living in part by assuring us of God’s love. When you look at the Gospel lesson again from that perspective, it seems that what was so life-giving about Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well was his acceptance of her just as she was.[4] It was his offer of unconditional love that brought a whole new vitality to her life.
Think about it. What makes life really worth living for you? What makes you “come to life”? What gives you enthusiasm and strength for living? I guess we might have different answers, but if you’re like me, it’s the fact that you’re the “apple of someone’s eye.” What gives me life is the knowledge that there is someone who loves me unconditionally, irrevocably, and absolutely. There is someone in the universe whose refrigerator is covered with pictures of me. It’s the realization, down deep in my soul where doubts and fears lurk, that, in the words of Desmond Tutu, “there’s nothing you can do to make God love you more,” and “there’s nothing you can do to make God love you less.”[5] That assurance is liberating, it’s healing, and it’s invigorating. Like the cool, refreshing water that constantly surrounds us and sustains us, that experience of God’s love is life-giving.

[1] © 2011 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 3/27/11 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Judith Gundry-Volf, “Spirit, Mercy, and the Other,” Theology Today 51 (Jan 1995): 508-510.
[3] In John 7:37-39, when Jesus invites all who are thirsty to drink living water that will fill their hearts, John explains that he was talking about the Spirit of God as the one who brings new life. Cf. Gail. R. O’Day, “The Gospel of John,” New Interpreter’s Bible vol 9:566. Cf. also Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 4.4.126.
[4] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Face to Face with God,” The Christian Century (Feb 28, 1996): 227: “The Messiah is the one who shows you who you are by showing you who he is—who crosses all boundaries, breaks all rules, drops all disguises—speaking to you like someone you have known all your life, bubbling up in your life like a well that needs no dipper.” Cf. Similarly, Gundry-Volf, “Spirit, Mercy and the Other,” 511: “Jesus' spring, …, is a symbol of the sweet water of inclusion. As the Samaritan woman experiences inclusion through Jesus' dismantling of ethnic, religious, and gender barriers, she begins to taste this water and, then, to thirst after it.”
[5] See Desmond Tutu, God Has A Dream, 32

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