Home / Sermons / Still Thirsty

Still Thirsty

Posted on

These stories are about more than the politics of water and the failures of leadership, though. They are also very personal stories about despair and hope, about deception and honesty, about living water – we might call it grace – that provides life in moments when it is least expected.

Today’s texts – Exodus 17: 1-7 and John 4: 5-34; 39-42

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable to you, O God, who sent your word to live among us. Amen.

Pastor Phil

We just heard about the Israelites wandering in the wilderness, having fled from slavery in Egypt. The journey was not going well.

“The people were very thirsty for water there, and they complained to Moses, ‘Why did you bring us out of Egypt to kill us, our children, and our livestock with thirst?’ ”

And then we heard about a woman going to a well under the noonday sun, seeking to fill her bucket with water. She clearly knew the importance of water to life.

So do the people in Flint, Michigan.

You know the story from there over the past few years. It has to do with water and with life. It has to do with what leaders did – or did not do – to get them water. It had to do with people who had fled from slavery but had not yet found freedom.

Flint is a city of about 100,000 people, located 70 miles north of Detroit. It is a city where 41 percent of the residents live below the poverty line and where 57 percent of the population is African American. The median household income there is about $25,000, compared to almost $50,000 for the rest of Michigan.

Earlier in this decade, the state of Michigan took over Flint’s finances and in the process, saved money by changing the water source from Lake Huron to the long-polluted Flint River. The river was 19 times more corrosive than water from Detroit, so lead began leeching from service lines to homes.

The lead warnings in the water coming out of the taps came in February of 2015. By September of 2015, a study showed that 40 percent of the homes in Flint had elevated lead levels.

There were no wells to go to at noon, but bottled water – at no small cost – became the alternative. The governor of Michigan – like Moses – knew that the people of Flint were ready to stone him – at least metaphorically.

It was only in January of this year – just two months ago, some two years after the first tests showing lead in the water – that lead is now below the federal levels for what is acceptable. The level of trust among the citizens of Flint is way below what is acceptable. They know that being black and poor made their welfare expendable to the powers that be.

Let’s go 6,000 miles to the east from Flint, to what is now the city of Nablus in the West Bank, Palestine. Nablus is around the setting where today’s Gospel story took place. It is on the site of the ancient town of Shechem, near Jacob’s well.

Water is still an issue there, and not just under the noonday sun.

Since the Arab-Israeli War of 1967 – 50 years ago – the water in Palestine is controlled by the Israeli government. It has long been a point of contention and negotiation, but even negotiated agreements have not turned out well for the Palestinians.

The 1995 Oslo II Accord gave the Israelis four times the Palestinian portion of joint aquifer resources. And even then, according to a World Bank report from 2009, Israel extracted 80 percent more water from the West Bank than agreed to in the Oslo Accord. That report said that aquifer levels are near ″the point where irreversible damage is done to the aquifer.″ Israeli wells in the West Bank have dried up local Palestinian wells and springs.

Thus, the Palestinians are often left trying to collect rainwater to meet their needs. But even that is problematic. According to the 2009 report “Troubled Waters” by Amnesty International, some 180,000-200,000 Palestinians living in rural communities have no access to running water and the Israeli army often prevents them from even collecting rainwater.

The Israeli army frequently destroys small rainwater harvesting cisterns built by Palestinian communities who have no access to running water, or prevents their construction.

Those of you who have been around Memorial for awhile know that our travelers who have visited the Israel and Palestine over the last 13 years have brought back many stories of the injustices of the occupied lands there. This is just one more. But it is a vivid example – along with the story of Flint – of the desperation that grows when an essential element of life is absent.

These stories are about more than the politics of water and the failures of leadership, though. They are also very personal stories about despair and hope, about deception and honesty, about living water – we might call it grace – that provides life in moments when it is least expected.

Let’s go back to that scene with the Israelites below the Sinai desert stretching between Egypt and Israel. They are still pretty early in the journey away from slavery in Egypt and it is not going well. They are grumbling at Moses, some of them want to turn back.

Anyone who has tried to make a major change in their life knows that feeling. There is the fear of change, then the exhilaration of something new, then dissatisfaction and the desire to return to what was there before, even if it was not good.

An alcoholic knows that feeling well. The grip of alcohol or some other addictive drug has them on a downward spiral and then there is a moment when it seems that life can be different. All is good…until a time comes when the lure of what was overcomes the hope of what can be.

Likewise a woman fleeing from a violent intimate relationship.

In some of the programs I work on with Domestic Abuse Intervention Services, the leaders put us through a simulation of fleeing from an abusive relationship. Fleeing seems like a good idea – except for the fact that flight is the most dangerous moment for someone in a violent relationship, except for the fact that once you are out, there is not enough money for a place to stay, the rejections from family and friends, the crowds at homeless shelters, the lack of room at a domestic violence shelter.

‘Why did you bring me out of Egypt to kill me with thirst?’ ”

Like the people of Israel, folks in those situations may well ask, “Is the Lord really with us or not?”

The woman at the well in the Gospel story might have wondered that as well.

She was a Samaritan, part of a group that shared common ancestry with the Jews of southern Israel – Judea – but who had broken away at least 400 years before Jesus., developed their own identity and their own theology. They considered their temple near the well on Mount Gerizim as the holiest site, while Jews considered the temple in Jerusalem as the holiest site. There was no love lost between Samaritans and Jews.

So why, then, was this Jewish man sitting by the well where she was going to get some water? Just before the passage we heard in today’s Gospel, it says that Jesus had left Judea to the south and started back to Galilee in the north, but “he had to go through Samaria.”

Had to? There were other routes Jews usually took to avoid Samaria. And clearly he had gotten ahead of his followers on this journey – and on so many others.

The woman was probably here at noon because she did not have such a good reputation in Shechem, where she had gone through five husbands and was now shacking up with a new guy. Most women would go to the well early in the day before the sun got hot, chat a bit while they drew their water. Maybe they even gossiped a bit about this woman.

Now there is this strange man sitting by the well. Good grief!

You heard the back and forth between them. And then comes that moment when Jesus and she start talking about the men in her life.

Let me suggest that what really matters in this exchange is not the number of husbands this woman had, as intriguing as that story line is. What matters is a new level of honesty between the woman and Jesus. His willingness to accept her as she is and her willingness to be open about that is the pivot point in this story.

He had promised her living water, which sounded mighty strange. Even though she thought it would be a good idea if she never had to come back to the well again, that’s not what Jesus was talking about.

Instead, he was striking the hard rock of the divisions between people and letting living water flow.

It’s not about male and female

It’s not about which mountain your temple is on.

It’s not about your marital status or your acceptance by the village.

It’s about spirit and truth. It’s about grace and honesty. It’s about the values and beliefs that are essential for life – the living water.

Can you understand why she might have been a bit awestruck by this?

For John in writing the Gospel, this in part is a story to help establish Jesus as, in the words of the woman, “the Messiah, the one who is called the Christ. When he comes, he will teach everything to us.”

First, notice that definition of Messiah. Not the one who will overthrown the Romans or bring back the glory of King David or rule over the earth. It is the one who will teach everything to us.

Jesus’ answer is simple and straightforward – and remarkable.

“I am – the one who speaks to you.”

Up to this point in the Gospel according to John, others have talked about Jesus as the Messiah, but he never says it himself. As he is gathering his closest followers, he merely invites them to “come and see.”

The first time he says this is to a women – and a Samaritan woman, no less. As a woman and as a Samaritan she was an outcast among the people Jesus was usually with. No wonder his disciples were shocked when they arrived.

(And a few years later, toward the end of the gospel according to John, they will be shocked again when another woman – Mary Magdalene – comes back from Jesus’ tomb to proclaim with joyous amazement: “I have seen the Lord!” and invites them to come and see.)

But for now, the Samaritan woman, the arrival of all these other Jewish strangers broke her moment with Jesus. She put down her water jar and ran back to Shechem. And what does she say?

“Come and see!”

Sound familiar?

Encounter with Jesus not only gave her the courage to be honest about who she was, but also the courage to longer shrink in shame from her townspeople. And clearly her enthusiasm was contagious. They invited Jesus and his followers to stay with them for two days – a group of Jews welcomed into their closed community. The walls came down, the food came out.

That’s what living water will do.

Whether we are wandering in the wilderness feeling like we are dying of thirst, whether we seek to come to a well under the noonday sun to avoid harsh words, there is always the chance for grace to break through, for God’s love to overcome our fears and to come and see what wonders God has in store for us and our world.

There’s always a chance for grace to break through to help us overcome the injustices in the Flints of our world, the oppression in the Palestines of our world, whatever gets in the way of God’s love.

The Lord will be with us.

That’s the good news. Thanks be to God.