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A few years ago, the computer that manages the water tower here in Sterling had a problem. We discovered the problem when we turned on the tap at the kitchen sink and nothing came out. Through Facebook, we found out what happened and that we would need to use bottled water until it was fixed. Though bottled water is easy to get at the store, we panicked. How many bottles would we need for drinking, cooking, cleaning, flushing toilets, let alone showering? We had bottles of water on hand, but we had to drastically reduce our usage until the city got the problem fixed.
Our outage in Sterling was only one day. In Lyons, the city just north of us, they had a couple of outtages during which they went without water for a whole week.
Water is such a basic need. We can’t live without it. And these days many of us we don’t have to. But in the Sinai desert, where the people in Exodus 17 were wandering, lack of water was a serious problem. Experts say we can survive without water for about 100 hours. But in 90 degree desert temperatures, survival would only be 50 hours. And if they were on the move, their survival time would be reduced even further.
In the desert, moving from place to place in an unknown landscape, they were at God’s mercy, fully dependent on God for their survival. God might send rain, or lead them to an oasis. There were no faucets to tap into, so God tells Moses to tap a rock. Moses taps it with his staff, the same one he used to part the waters of the Red Sea.
God tells Moses, “I will stand before you on the rock at Mount Sinai.” Moses won’t be facing the people or the rock alone.
When we’re in a tough situation, we doubt God’s presence and providence. The Israelites do the same. “Is the Lord with us or not?”
Maybe it was this wondering whether God was trustworthy or not that made them say they’d rather be back in Egypt. They were enslaved in Egypt, forced to perform hard labor, but at least they knew where they stood, and at least they had food and water.
In our gospel reading from John 4, it’s Jesus who is thirsty. He’s not in the desert, he’s in Samaria near the village of Sychar at Jacob’s well. The disciples have gone ahead into town to get food, so Jesus is alone, and tired and thirsty. His problem is not the availability of water, but access. He needs a bucket to get water out of the well, so he asks the Samaritan woman for help.
“Please give me a drink.”
The woman is surprised to be asked. “You are a Jew. I am a Samaritan woman. Why are you asking me?”
Jesus, as usual, gives a puzzling response. “If you only knew the gift God has for you and who you are speaking to, you would ask me, and I would give you living water.” (v10)
She asks the obvious questions: “How can you offer me water without a bucket? How can you offer water that’s better than this well?”
Then Jesus speaks to her situation. Somehow he knows that she has had five husbands and the man she’s living with now is not her husband. She sees that he must be a prophet, so Jesus tells her, “I am the Messiah.”
Just then the disciples return, shocked to see Jesus talking to a woman, and she leaves her water jug by the well and runs back to her village to tell everyone about Jesus.
Jesus has crossed some boundaries by talking to a woman, something men didn’t do, and talking to a woman who is a Samaritan, something Jews didn’t do. But he doesn’t talk to her from a position of dominance or power. He admits his vulnerability, his thirst, and asks her for help to get water.
Jesus doesn’t talk to the Samaritan with scorn or judgement. The woman at the well hears Jesus’ understanding. Is it condemnation? I don’t think she’d be so excited if it were. She’d go back into hiding her shame. Instead she goes and brings others to Jesus.
This is the living water Jesus is talking about. This is grace and acceptance. I love how the art for this week reflects the mutual dependence of Jesus and the woman at the well. They are portrayed as equals.
Where do you feel the most like an outsider? Where aren’t you accepted for who you are?
A few years ago I was in a group that was meeting with a social services provider who was telling us how they offered help to women escaping domestic violence. The provider asked how we dealt with these kinds of situations currently, and one of our group said, “We don’t really have that here in Sterling.” I wish that were true. The reality is that we do, but people usually keep it hidden. They’re afraid of shame and judgment, or that the person to whom they might reveal it isn’t a safe person to tell.
The same is true about people who are LGBTQ or are dealing with depression, learning disabilities, anxiety, and a whole host of other challenges, like poverty, joblessness, homelessness. It’s not that there aren’t any in Sterling. It’s just that it’s usually safer to keep it hidden. Do people deal with this here in Sterling? Or wherever you are? Yes. But it’s hard to show our true selves to one another. And it’s hard to ask for help without feeling ashamed for needing it.
In Kenya, almost twenty years ago, divisions emerged after a difficult election season. A man went to a store in his neighborhood at which he’d been shopping for years. Now, the shop owner refused to serve him. “You are a Luo, right? Go buy from a Luo’s shop.” Over a thousand people were killed during those few weeks.
Our identity can be one of our strongest points of connection with one another, and also one of our strongest points of division. The living water of grace and acceptance flow freely to us through Jesus Christ, and Jesus calls us to share that living water with everyone we meet. No person is less than acceptable to God.
On the one hand, churches are supposed to be a place people can go and find acceptance and grace. On the other hand, they can also be places that make us feel ashamed and judged. That’s not a new problem.
Charles Dickens, the 19th century author of A Christmas Carol and so many other favorites, often has scenes in which humanities vulnerabilities are playing out on the streets of London in the shadow of St. Paul’s cathedral. In his novel Bleak House, one of the wayward characters…. sits, munching and gnawing, and looking up at the great cross on the summit of St. Paul’s Cathedral, glittering above a red-and-violet-tinted cloud of smoke. From the boy’s face one might suppose that sacred emblem to be, in his eyes, the crowning confusion of the great, confused city—so golden, so high up, so far out of his reach.
Are there ways in which God seems out of reach to us? What holds us back from showing our true selves to God and asking for what we need?
What are you truly thirsting for?
This was one of the questions in our devotional book this week. How did you answer? How do you answer now?
According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, water and food and other physical needs are the most basic, the highest priority. Next is safety. Third is belonging and love. Acceptance.
Writer and pastor Mike Yaconelli tells, in his book Messy Spirituality, about an unusual way that a priest offered acceptance.
In the Second World War, a group of soldiers were fighting in the rural countryside of France. During an intense battle, one of the American soldiers was killed. His comrades did not want to leave his body on the battlefield and decided to give him a Christian burial.
They remembered a church a few miles behind the front lines whose grounds included a small cemetery surrounded by a white fence. After receiving permission to take their friend’s body to the cemetery, they set out for the church, arriving just before sunset.
A priest, his bent-over back and frail body betraying his many years, responded to their knocking. His face, deeply wrinkled and tan, was the home of two fierce eyes that flashed with wisdom and passion.
“Our friend was killed in battle,” they blurted out, “and we wanted to give him a church burial.” Apparently the priest understood what they were asking, although he spoke in very broken English. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but we can bury only those of the same faith here.”
Weary after many months of war, the soldiers simply turned to walk away. “But,” the old priest called after them, “you can bury him outside the fence.” Cynical and exhausted, the soldiers dug a grave and buried their friend just outside the white fence.
They finished after nightfall. The next morning, the entire unit was ordered to move on, and the group raced back to the little church for one final goodbye to their friend. When they arrived, they couldn’t find the grave site, tired and confused, they knocked on the door of the church.
They asked the old priest if he knew where they had buried their friend. “It was dark last night and we were exhausted. We must have been disoriented.” A smile flashed across the old priest’s face. “After you left last night, I could not sleep, so I went outside early this morning and I moved the fence.”
In what ways might we also need to move the fence?
Everyone gets thirsty. Everyone needs water. Both the physical kind, and the living water Jesus offers. Everyone needs grace and acceptance. It’s what the Israelites were asking for when they cried out, “Is the Lord with us or not?” It’s what the woman was so surprised to receive from Jesus. The more it flows through us, the more we know God’s presence, and the more we know the depth of God’s love.
Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, (Romans 15:7)
Friends, let us truly love and accept one another, as God has accepted us.
 Anathea Portier-Young, Working Preacher Commentary on Exodus 17:1-7 https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/third-sunday-in-lent/commentary-on-exodus-171-7-11
 By Wikkiwooki – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=126902676
 Photo by JF Martin on Unsplash
 Mike Yaconelli, Messy Spirituality: God’s Annoying Love for Imperfect People, Zondervan, 2015.