A sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent, March 27, 2011. The lectionary readings are Exodus 17:1-7, Romans 5:1-11 , Psalm 95, and John 4:5-42.
When I think of the season of Lent and of today’s Gospel story about the Samaritan woman at the well, I remember a particular church I went in, several years ago. It was Lent. There was purple on the altar and the pulpit and lectern, like most churches use for this season. The church also had a free-standing baptismal font in the back, near the main entrance. This meant that as one entered the church through the main doors, one would walk right by the baptismal font. It was usually filled with Holy Water, and one could take a little, perhaps make the sign of the cross with the wet finger, and remember one’s own baptism.
But on this particular day, as I walked into the church and walked by the font, I was surprised to find no water. There was no water, but the font was not empty. Instead, it was filled with sand and some sort of dried twigs. It made a point having to do with the season of Lent. This church was waiting on Easter for the font to be filled. It was waiting on Easter for new water and that particular congregation was reminding itself that it was waiting for Easter for new life. Until then, it would acknowledge its thirst.
Today’s scriptures are about thirst.
In the first reading we hear how the people of Israel feel like they’re about to die of thirst. It’s a literal thirst, to be sure. But it also seems to be a partly spiritual thirst. After wandering in the desert, they begin to wonder: Has the Lord forgotten us? Is Moses up to the task of leading us? They’re stuck in a cycle of bickering and fussing with each other, of feeling like they’re being tested. Will they ever be relieved of this thirst, this doubt, this frustration? God hears their prayer and Moses makes a miracle. As the psalmist sings, “He made streams come out of the rock, and caused waters to flow down like rivers. He smote the rock so that water gushed out and streams overflowed.” (Psalm 78)
But water doesn’t always come so easily. In the Gospel, water is almost bargained over. We have this wonderful (if long) story about Jesus and the Samaritan woman. It takes place around water, with water, about water. It’s a great conversation between the woman and Jesus. There’s a give and take, a back and forth about it. The Samaritan woman is skeptical. She’s cautious. She wonders if Jesus is just another charmer whose promises are empty. But she still listens, because she’s thirsty for some good news, some glimmer of new life. Responding to her questions, Jesus explains about the water that he can give. He can give water that quenches thirst, water that washes, that completes us, and buoys us up into the loving arms of God.
This story is important because it shows us Jesus going outside the social norms of his day and moving beyond the racial and gender norms of his culture to befriend this Samaritan woman. It reminds us that Christian faith, at its best, moves outward, invites and encourages.
The story is also important because it shows us Jesus as the Lord of Creation—of all creation-- and that includes water. The water is physical and literal, but it is also spiritual. It symbolizes faith itself—our ability to believe that Jesus came, died and rose for us. The water is also hope—hope for God’s protection and guidance, hope for God’s good purposes in our lives and in our world, and hope for our eternal life in God. And finally, the water represents charity—water that is shared, faith that is shared, belief that is shared.
The Samaritan woman is offered living water by Jesus and it’s interesting to me to notice what she does and what she does NOT do. She does not commit herself to a life of meditation upon the water. She does not build a shrine there at the well, a shrine to spend all her days at. She does not start a new form of worship around the water. Instead, she becomes a disciple. She becomes a witness and she goes around telling people about Jesus. In other words, she doesn’t hoard the water or save it up for another dry spell. She goes out offering Living Water to others.
The season of Lent invites us to notice our thirst. For what do we hunger and thirst? Do you hunger for health or healing? For relationship, for someone to love or someone to love you back? Do you hunger for meaningful work, or for a new start with someone, or for some burst of new energy or creativity in your life? We don’t know exactly what was going on in the life of the Samaritan woman who met Jesus at the well, but she had the faith to come thirst, and she had the courage to ask Jesus for water.
In a great old hymn from the 19th century, Fanny Crosby invites us to come.
Come with thy sins to the fountain, Come with thy burden of grief; Bury them deep in its waters, There thou wilt find a relief.
Come as thou art to the fountain, Jesus is waiting for thee; What though thy sins are like crimson, White as the snow they shall be.
Come and be healed at the fountain, List to the peace speaking voice; Over a sinner returning Now let the angels rejoice.
I began this morning by talking about a church I went into that had taken out the water from its baptismal font for the season of Lent. While I understand the imagery, and appreciate the attempt to use a visual to help people think about the season, I think the image can be confusing. Even though we thirst for all sorts of things. Even though we thirst for God, the font of living water is never empty. The church is NEVER without water, if we will look for it from God.
With the persistence, the tenacity, the honesty, and the faith of the woman at the well, let us ask God to quench our thirst not just at Easter, but this day and always.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.