Sunday, March 23, 2014

Sermon: "Thirst"

Scripture Intro – John 4:5-42

Today’s gospel reading is the story of Jesus and the woman at the well.
The key thing to know about this story is that it takes place in Samaria. 
Samaria is the territory that lies between Judea and Galilee. Jesus and his disciples would need to pass through Samaria or go around it every time they traveled from Galilee to Jerusalem. The reason they might consider taking the long way around is because Jews and Samaritans were not on friendly terms.
The Samaritans were a mix of decedents from the original Northern Kingdom tribes and foreign colonists from Babylonia. When the Jews returned from exile and rebuilt the Temple in Jerusalem in Judea, the Samaritan objected, because they believed God now resided in their territory on the top of Mount Gerizim. Because there could be only one true place to worship God, and the Jews and the Samaritans disagreed on where that was, the two groups reviled each other and built up numerous cultural walls to keep from interacting with one another.
Into this setting walks Jesus and the woman from Samaria.
It’s worth noting that she stands in stark contrast to the story of Nicodemus that we heard last week.   
Nicodemus is a Jew. She is a Samaritan.
He is a man. She is a woman.
He is righteous moral leader. She has a questionable past and is an outcast.
Nicodemus visited Jesus at midnight
Jesus encounters the Samaritan woman at noon.
Possibly because when the sun is high overhead it is much harder to hide in the shadows…and this encounter was one that Jesus wanted everyone to see.

Rev. Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
March 23, 2014
Exodus 17:1-7; John 4:5-42


At daybreak on April 26, 2003, 27-year-old adventurist Aron Ralston set off on a solo hike into the remote canyonlands of Utah. It was meant to be a fast day hike, one that he had done many times before, so he carried only a limited amount of food and water, and he didn’t feel it was necessary to tell anyone where he was going.
You can probably guess where this story is heading.

Just after noon, Ralston met two young women who walked with him for a while. When he told them how far he intended to hike and where, they were skeptical that he would finish before dark. When they reached a fork in the trail they urged him to hike out with them, but he insisted on going it alone and completing the hike he had set out to do.

At 2:40 in the afternoon, Ralston lowered himself into a narrow slot canyon, which is essentially a crevice in the ground, where the walls are so close together you can touch both sides without straightening your arms, and the canyon floor is so far down the sky is reduced to a narrow band of blue and white above.
As he shimmied down into the narrow opening, navigating around the fallen rocks that had wedged themselves between the canyon walls, Ralston inadvertently dislodged an 800-pound boulder. He fell, landing on his feet on the canyon floor below…but the boulder came tumbling down after him, trapping and pinning his right hand and wrist against the canyon wall.

Aron Ralston spent six long tortuous days at the bottom of that canyon, desperately trying to wrench his arm free of the rock that held him in place.

I will spare you the gory details of how he eventually broke free.
You can read about it in the book that Ralston wrote about his experience, which he titled “Between a Rock and a Hard Place,” or you can watch the movie version of his story, starring actor James Franco, which was renamed, 127 hours.
One hundred and twenty seven hours is how long Aaron Ralston managed to survive in that narrow desert canyon without food, and more importantly, without water.

We often hear that the human body can function for weeks without food, but without water, we will die in 3 to 5 days.
The survival time is reduced even further if we’re exposed to heat, cold, and the elements, like Aron Ralston was in the Utah desert.
Over the course of six days, Ralston felt his skin shrivel, his blood pressure drop, and his organs deteriorate as he lost 4 to 5 pounds per day.

But what he remembers most about the experience is his unrelenting thirst. In his book, he writes:
For all the physical signs of my body’s dire need for hydration, nothing, nothing compares to the anguish of my thirst: unshakable…unquenchable….insuppressible…inextinguishable. I find myself wishing to get this all over with simply to bring relief to the thirst.

Ralston survived for six long days by rationing the two sips of water he had left in his bottle and recycling the water that trickled out of his body.
Again, I will spare you the unpleasant details about how he did that.

While he was trapped, with his mind and his body straining to function, Ralston did what many of us would have done. He came to terms with the fact that he was going to die.  He thought of what he might say to his family and friends if he had one last chance to tell them how much he appreciated and loved them, he looked back over his life and felt regret for all the selfish and stupid things he had done, and he promised himself that if by some miraculous chance he made it through this experience alive, he would be a better person, and no longer believe that he had to go it alone in the world.

The combined predicament of feeling trapped and decimated by thirst, is one that would bring most of us to our knees.
When we can’t move or escape from a situation that is slowly killing us, when our lips and throat are cracking from lack of life giving moisture, when our head is pounding as our blood desperately tries to force itself through our veins…..there’s not much that we can do except resign ourselves to our fate and wait to die, or wait for someone to save us, because we no longer have the strength to save ourselves.

The woman Jesus encountered at the well was in a similar predicament.  
She was thirsty, and she was trapped, and she was desperate for someone to save her.
As a Samaritan woman with five marriages under her belt she was trapped by her social and religious standing, her gender, and her reputation.

We don’t know if she has been divorced 5 times, widowed 5 times, or if the relationship she was currently in was actually what the Jews would call a “Levirate Marriage” – one where the brother of her deceased husband is obliged to take her in out of duty and pity.

What we do know is that she came to the well at noon, in the heat of the day and hours after all of the other women would have come and gone,
most likely because drawing water in the morning with the rest of her community brought on judgmental stares and hurtful comments, and it was just not worth the effort.
She would endure her thirst.
It was easier than enduring disdain.

When the woman approached the well and saw Jesus sitting there, I imagine that she hesitated just for a moment.
She knew he was not a Samaritan, perhaps because she had heard that a group of Jewish men had arrived in town, but she didn’t know him so there was a good chance that he had no knowledge of her….and thus she would just be some anonymous woman who just happened to be late drawing her family’s water for the day.

So she swallowed her fear and brought her empty jar to the well.

When Jesus spoke to her, he must have startled her.
Men rarely spoke to women at the well.
Not because it was taboo for men and women to speak to each other, but to do so at the well was seen as a sign of marital interest and intended courtship.
Talking to a woman at a well in first century Palestine was the modern day equivalent of approaching a woman in a bar and asking if you could buy her a drink.   
Only in this instance, it is Jesus who asks for a drink.

The woman responded with confusion, as expected.
“How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?”
In her mind this was wrong on so many levels.
He was a man, he was not a Samaritan, and he was asking her to provide something to him that she had access to but he did not.
She could see that he had no bucket to quench his own thirst.
Which made it all the more strange when he started talking about giving living water to her.

She asked him, “What is this living water, that you speak of?” And how do you get it when you have no bucket?”

But Jesus was not talking about giving her a literal drink of water that would quench her physical thirst.
We know that.
He was talking about the eternal, life giving love and grace of God.
The love and grace that sustains us and redeems us and is offered freely and unconditionally to us all, regardless of the circumstances of our lives.

This is the living water that the Samaritan woman was thirsting for.
She was desperate to drink from this cup of acceptance and love.
And this is the cup that Jesus offered to her.

He looked her in the eye and said, ‘I know who you are – I know you’ve had 5 husbands. I know you are living with a man who is not your husband. And I know that as a Samaritan you believe that God is to be worshiped on this mountain and not in Jerusalem as the Jews believe…but in the end, none of that will matter. The living water that will flow through God’s Kingdom is offered to you, right here, right now.’

What Jesus doesn’t say to the woman is that to receive this water she must first ask for forgiveness….for being a Samaritan, for having a questionable past.
And Jesus doesn’t offer her forgiveness.
He never says, “Go, and sin no more.”
Because the living, eternally sustaining love and grace that he’s offering to her is not contingent upon her ability to be perfect and sinless.

How many of us have been thirsting to hear this message in our lives?

Many of us grew up in religious traditions where we were taught that we’re unworthy.
Unworthy of forgiveness, unworthy of receiving the graciousness of God’s gifts, unworthy of being in God’s presence unless we’ve first knelt down with our heads hung in shame, and confessed that we are inherently defective, and will always be deserving of God’s judgment and wrath.

This story of the woman at the well is for anyone who has ever been told, “You’re not good enough to be welcomed into the Kingdom of God.”
“You’re not good enough to be in the presence of Christ.”

What Jesus shows us here is that this nameless woman at the well has just as much right to be in his presence as the respected and righteous Nicodemus.
Compared to Nicodemus, she’s a nobody.
An outsider among outsiders. History didn’t even see fit to record her name.
But Jesus speaks to her and trusts her to carry his message back to her city, and he spends two days in her city talking to other Samaritans because they too are nobodies and nobodies matter.
That is the good news that Jesus has to offer the woman on that day, and it’s the good news he has to offer to us as well.

In the bright light of the noonday sun, Jesus and the Samaritan woman looked at each other and fully saw who and what the other was.
She looked at Jesus and saw a prophet – the Messiah – a man who knew her past and loved her anyway.
And Jesus looked at her and saw a human being, a woman trapped by her thirst and her pain yet she was still willing to leave her precious water jar behind and return to her people to tell them the “good news” –
because this time she carried with her news of living water…water that would quench their thirst for eternity.

I particularly like the ending of this story because it says, “Many Samaritans believed in him because of the woman’s testimony.” 

This woman who came to the well alone at noon because she was shamed by her past was now welcomed into her community, and she was believed.

We don’t know if it was because people began to see her in a different light or if it was because she had let go of her own feelings of shame and unworthiness that led her to believe that she had no choice but to go it alone.

Aron Ralston walked into the Utah canyonlands believing that he was meant to go it alone. All he did was disappoint people, and let them down, and do one stupid thing after another to the point where it was just easier to keep people at a distance, rather than deal with trying to repair what gets broken over and over again.

In the final scene of the movie 127 hours, Ralston drags himself out of the canyon, having freed himself from the boulder that trapped him.
He’s bleeding, severely dehydrated, and on the brink of death.
Off in the distance he sees three people, a couple with their young boy, who just happened to be taking a walk in this remote canyon on that day.
Ralstan falls to his knees and cries out weakly, “I need help. Someone, please help me.” 
And without hesitation, all three turn in unison and run towards this fellow human being in need.

Aaron Ralston is the first one to say that he survived his ordeal not because he found an inner reserve of strength to save himself. He says he survived because of love. In his darkest hour, he saw the faces of his family and friends all gathered together around him, and he longed to see them again. He writes, “God is love, and love is what kept me alive and that love is what got me out of there.”

God has a habit of drawing us out when we’re trapped by our pain.
Sauntering up to us in the light of day and saying, “I know who you are.”
You are a beloved child of God.
You are loved even when others say you are unlovable.
You have value even when you say you are worthless.
And you are an indispensible member of this community, even when they say they don’t need you, and you say don’t need them.

Love and grace is the living water that sustains us.
And as we allow that water to flow in us, and through us,
May we see to it that no one ever goes thirsty again.