Sermon: Third Sunday in Lent

March 23, 2014

I’m guessing that very few of us spend much time thinking about water.  We expect it to be there in plentiful amounts for our daily needs and wants—we expect our taps to gush with clean water for us to drink and wash and play with.  We don’t ration it or worry about it—at least not as much as people who, like those in our Scriptures, lived in an arid place in a time before plumbing. 

But we in the U.S. are spoiled.  Around the world, 800 million people lack access to clean, safe water every day.  For people in many parts of our planet, getting enough water to drink everyday may mean walking miles to fetch it, and even then it might not be pure.  Getting water takes a huge amount of time (estimated 200 million hours each day, globally) as well as a physical toll, since water is often transported on the backs of women and children. Water is a BIG deal, and when we forget this, we lose the significance of water references the ancient Scriptures, as well as forgetting to give thanks for it.

Water is the common theme throughout all our readings this third Sunday of Lent.   It is both a critical human need and a sign of God’s mercy.  In our OT lesson, the people of Israel complain to Moses of their thirst, and God, out of infinite compassion and patience, provides water from a rock—satisfying both the literal yearning for water and the deeper need the people have to know they are cared for and protected by God.  In our epistle lesson, Paul reminds the church in Rome that suffering leads to endurance, which leads to character, which leads to hope, and “hope does not disappoint because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit…”

It is our Gospel lesson, however, that really captures both the literal thirsting for water and the deeper, metaphorical longing for what sustains us—the kind of thirst Jesus was preaching about when he said, “blessed are they who hunger and THIRST for righteousness….”  We are parched for the water that gushes up to eternal life, satisfying our hunger and thirst for the righteousness and justice of God to replace injustice, oppression, and violence against “the least of these.”

Literal thirst is the kind of thirst that brought the Samaritan Woman to the well to collect water from the well that was given by her ancestor Jacob, whose sons and flocks had needed it for survival.  But this well is more than a utility.  Maybe a good image would be to refer to the community well as “Ye Olde Watering Hole.”  In the animal kingdom, a watering hole is a place to get water even when the rains are scarce, and it is one of the last places to dry up even in severe drought. The idea of this well as a central gathering place for people to refill not only needed water, but also a place to refill our social yearning to connect with other people.

What do we make of the fact, then, that this woman is at the well alone?  Most women would have come to the well early in the morning or in the cool of the evening, not at noonday.  So why is this woman here alone at the hottest time of day?  She seems ostracized from her community, possibly because of her checkered romantic past.  In any case, it appears she is dodging community, and is surprised to find a man (especially a Jewish man!) at the well, asking for a drink.

She engages Jesus in a conversation about literal and metaphorical water.  When Jesus tells her that if she were to drink of the water that he provides she would never be thirsty again, she begs for it. “Give it to me always!”  Not only would it alleviate her need to come to well for water, it might also keep her from having to face her isolation from society.

But Jesus wants more for her than for her to simply survive.  He wants her to have a LIFE, and an abundant one, at that.  He wants her to have meaningful work and relationships.  He doesn’t just give her a sip of water, he gives her a mission and ministry that requires her to face the townspeople—not as an outcast, but as a messenger with a significant story to share.

I am convinced that part of Trinity Lutheran Church’s mission for over a hundred years has been to provide a watering hole for our community.  This faith community has offered actual food and drink for sustenance, and the the water Jesus offers, gushing up to eternal life.  We have collected items needed for living every day, from Health Care kits and school kits to items for refugee resettlement to coats for kids.  We have gathered toiletries, food, coats, and other essentials to bring about a little bit of God’s Righteousness, God’s Distributive Justice.  We have sent money to serve hungry, homeless, hurting, and distressed neighbors here and around the world.  The lines between literal hunger and thirst and the hunger and thirst Jesus describes tend to get blurry when practiced in a faith community.

We remain a community where hundreds of people have shared coffee and snacks, as well as a place where bread and wine carry in them the saving grace of God.  But there is more to our watering hole than meeting our own needs.  Like Jesus and the Samaritan finding common ground, we are called to be a place where people of dramatically different social and religious convictions can meet for conversation, where respect crosses divisions, where people who might be excluded elsewhere find a welcome and a sense of their own significance.  Jesus knew this woman needed connection as much as he needed water.  The town she goes to needed to hear God’s Word of salvation for all people.  And she needed to feel like her gifts and talents mattered.

As baptized believers, washed and nurtured by the waters of eternal life, how we ensure that this is a place where many kinds of thirsts can be addressed?  How can we give and receive living water, not just from each other, but from those we might consider outsiders?  What is the best way to spend our ministry dollars and energy in order to facilitate the quenching of real thirst in our neighborhood and around the world?  Water in the desert is a big deal.  Living water sustains us beyond description.  How do we join our prayers with that of the Samaritan woman and with lonely people everywhere, when we beg, “Lord, give us this water always”?

~Pastor Susan Schneider

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