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Sunday, March 19, 2017 | 9:30 and 11:00 a.m.
Water, Water, Everywhere
Tony De La Rosa
Interim Executive Director, Presbyterian Mission Agency
John 4:5-30, 39-42
We, unaccustomed to courage
exiles from delight
live coiled in shells of loneliness
until love leaves its high holy temple
and comes into our sight
to liberate us into life.
What do you offer a thirsty stranger?
The story of the woman at the well in the Gospel of John is said to be “preacher’s gold,” because there are at least a hundred sermons that can be preached from it. There’s the focus on the Judean oppression of the Samaritans. There’s the socially controversial engagement between disparate genders and competing ethnicities. There’s the willingness of a Samaritan—a woman, no less—to confront and challenge the Son of God. There’s the revelation of Jesus’ mortal nature in his being thirsty. There’s her use of basic biological science to question his spiritual assertions. There’s all sorts of prurient speculation on the significance of having five husbands . . . The list goes on and on. This is a rich passage, and I’m deeply honored by the fact that Reverend Kershner has passed on to me this morning’s opportunity to preach from this particular passage from John. That’s what friends are for. (Heaven help me!)
But truthfully, what do you offer a thirsty stranger?
The cultural and spiritual essayist Richard Rodriguez has written about how the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim religions that all worship the God of Abraham owe their origins to life in a place where water is scarce, namely, the desert. Rodriguez writes,
All three desert religions claim Abraham as a father. A recurrent question in my mind concerns the desert: Did Abraham happen upon God or did God happen upon Abraham? The same question: Which is the desert, or who? I came upon a passage in 2 Maccabees. The passage pertains to the holiness of Jerusalem: The Lord, however, had not chosen the people for the sake of the Place. But the Place for the sake of the people. So God happened upon Abraham. Abraham is the desert.
An old man sits at the door of his tent in the heat of the day.
Between that sentence and this—within the drum of the hare’s heart, within the dilation of the lizard’s eye—God enters his creation. . . . God promises that in a year’s time Abraham’s wife, who is long past childbearing, will hold in her arms a son. . . .
The child of Abraham and Sarah is named Isaac, which means, “He Laughs.” From the loins of these two deserts—Abraham, Sarah—God yanks a wet, an iridescent, caul: a people as numerous as the stars. From the line of Sarah, royal David. From King David’s line will come Jesus. (Richard Rodriguez, Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography, pp. 31–33)
It’s this same Jesus, a descendant of the desert, who asks—no, orders—the Samaritan woman to give him drink. It is an imperative statement, not a question. He does this without so much as an introduction or even any acknowledgement of her humanity. She doesn’t let him get away with it. She questions why he is even deigning to speak to her at all, since he is of a much more socially acceptable status as an apparent Judean than she is as a reviled Samaritan.
He responds by offering her something she’s never heard of before, “living water,” which causes one to never thirst again. This is crazy talk, and she’s, not surprisingly, skeptical. It’s only when Jesus begins to confront her with her past and current domestic situation that she begins to understand just how profoundly powerful and insightful he is. She recognizes what no one else at this point in the Gospel of John is prepared to say out loud. She hints at the possibility that he indeed is the Messiah, and he readily acknowledges the fact.
In that moment, she is transformed. She is no longer a lowly Samaritan woman, bandied about by at least six different men, husbands and otherwise, who exercise some cruel degree of control over her being and her body. After realizing she has been speaking to the Savior of the world, she goes and leaves behind her water jar, the symbol of her servitude. She becomes a strong and powerful woman, willing to proclaim a new world order and convince those who might disbelieve her. She becomes, at the very essence of her being, truly human, proclaiming the salvation of the world to all who would listen. She inspires a movement, because her witness brings others to know Jesus the Christ, intimately and personally. She is, in fact, empowered to be an evangelist, the first truly successful one in the Gospel of John.
In so doing, she offers up to others the gift that has been given to her: she offers to all who would hear living water, water that refreshes the soul to boldly proclaim God’s love for all and our love as people of faith for one another. Her witness is the living water from which others may never thirst. The spiritual realm triumphs over the sociopolitical realities of the day and brings life to a desert full of defeated people. She has fulfilled Jesus’ initial demand: she has given to all a refreshing drink of living water.
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At the Presbyterian Mission Agency, I get to see many who offer living water to a parched and thirsty world. I suspect you experience this, too, for this is a congregation that knows something of the power of living water. Your faith and witness have sought to transform communities in distress into places of hope and celebration. The entire Presbyterian Church (USA) looks to Fourth Church as a beacon to which all aim. Indeed, that’s why denominations exist—to serve as conduits of an amplified degree of grace, entire aqueducts of living water poured out to restore a fallen world.
You’ve witnessed God’s love to the least powerful and the most vulnerable. You’ve transformed people and places into virtual reservoirs of living water. What you haven’t been able to accomplish on your own, you’ve inspired others to do through your generosity to national mission. Your offerings of time, talent, and treasure, shared with sister congregations in the PCUSA, have been exemplary, and from the bottom of our hearts, we are thankful to God and to you for them.
But we, your fellow Presbyterians, are not the only ones grateful for your offerings. It’s all the souls we touch, both here and abroad, that offer the surest sign that living water has the power to transform. Earlier this month I attended the installation of a new chaplain at the Menaul School in Albuquerque, New Mexico, one of the historically racial/ethnic schools in the US supported by Presbyterian congregations like yours here at Fourth Church. Brandon, a seventh grader at Menaul, sang in the choir during that installation service. A young African American boy, Brandon belies his twelve years of age with a distinctly adult insight he shares in a promotional video we filmed at the school. Noting the difficulties for securing employment among young African Americans like himself, Brandon says, “It’s critical for me to set the path to [be successful], so that others can do it, too.” (Again, Brandon is age twelve.) Brandon’s mother is quite clear about the presence of living water in the scholarship support her young son has received at the school. She says, with all the conviction only a mother can muster, “The ability to receive aid from the scholarships is everything to us. Without that help, my son would not be here.”
Make no mistake, this is life-giving, living water. You played a role in ensuring that presence of living water through your support of the Christmas Joy Offering last year, which benefits schools like Menaul and students like Brandon. There is living water, thanks to you and so many other faithful and generous Presbyterians throughout our denomination who give through special offerings, shared mission support, and special appeals. There is gratitude all around for these gifts, but there is also transformation, lives changed that now proclaim the love of Christ that has touched them. Whether a young scholarship student attending Menaul or a refugee family being resettled in Louisville or a new members class in Los Angeles using Korean-language curriculum or a Philippine village recovering from a devastating typhoon or persons of faith protesting environmental degradation of Native American land, the presence of living water that sustains and refreshes knows no bounds, thanks to you.
A final word here is again from Brandon’s mom, who knows a thing or two about living water’s power to satisfy and transform a thirsty stranger. With tears in her eyes, she tells us, she tells you, “I don’t know how to say ‘thank you’ enough . . . but ‘thank you!’” Like another woman who conversed with Jesus by a well in Samaria, she has been been touched by the knowledge that Christ is real, Christ is present, and Christ gives life. She now testifies to the saving grace that has saved her and her son. And she now imparts living water for all who thirst for life anew.
So may it be. Amen.