Lent 3 – Year A

It was one of those strange, providential encounters which brought that Sama-ritan woman to Jacob’s well just when Jesus, exhausted from his journey, stopped to rest. The scene is almost surreal: Samaritans and Jews simply did not speak to each other—yet here is this wise, discerning Jewish rabbi asking her for a drink of water! At first the woman demurs; but Jesus persists: “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” “Where do you get that living water?” she asks. Little does she know what lies ahead!
Strange, providential encounters like this are typical of the way John tells the story of Christ in his Gospel. And it’s striking how often water plays a part. Last Sunday we heard about Nicodemus, who stole quietly away from his fellow Phari-sees under cover of darkness and came to question Jesus about the signs he’d been performing. Jesus calls Nicodemus up short and says he needs to be “born of water and Spirit.” In other words, following Jesus is all about being baptized into a whole new way of life. Earlier in his Gospel, John tells of Jesus at a wedding reception in Cana with his mother; and they run out of wine; and she gets him to perform one of his signs; and he uses water—six enormous stone jars of water—which he turns into far more wine than all the guests can possibly consume! An encounter with Jesus is like being in the path of a veritable tsunami of grace!
Water is healing; water is life-giving; water is cleansing. And John, with his keen eye for symbolism, wants us to see in Jesus nothing less than “living wa-ter”—for the cleansing of our spirits. Like Matthew, Mark and Luke, John’s pas-sion is to proclaim the saving power of Christ in the strongest terms. He states it clearly near the close of his book: These scriptures, he says, “are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”
That’s exactly what Jesus wants for that Samaritan woman in today’s gospel—life in his name! So when he offers her “living water” and she responds, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty,” what does he say? He says, “Go, call your husband, and come back,” knowing full well that she has had no less than five of them and is living with still another man! Before she can even fathom the kind of life Jesus is offering her, the woman needs to deal with her present life—who she really is, and what she’s missing, and where her real need lies. The very prospect of dealing with it, of course, is highly threatening to her—so what does she do? She tries to change the subject—like you and I tend to do when we’re caught outside our comfort zone! She brings up the whole issue of where believers should worship—on Mt. Gerizim in Samaria, or in Jerusalem—which was a huge bone of contention between the Samaritans and the Jews.
Jesus of course is not about to be sidetracked, and he cuts to the chase by pointing out that true worship has nothing to do with place and everything to do with spirit—the spirit of the worshiper and the Spirit of God. The woman shows some awareness of that bigger picture when she says she believes in the Messiah who is to come. “I am he, the one who is speaking to you,” declares Jesus.
The question for the Samaritan woman is the question for you and me: Where do we get that living water? And the answer for us lies in discovering the Messiah deeply at work, like a flowing stream, in the most intimate recesses of our lives, flooding us with a tsunami of grace. The Samaritan woman thirsted to be set free from her marital conflicts; Nicodemus sought relief from the parched, stifling at-mosphere of the Pharisees. How is it with you? Where are the thirsts in your life? Where are the dry places? Where are the soiled places? Look for the Messiah in those places! Dare to let that living water reach those places, reach down through all the cracks and crevasses of your life to the very depths of your being.
Some years ago I spent several weeks of a sabbatical leave at the Virginia Theo-logical Seminary where I had an experience of “living water.” When I arrived I was totally exhausted from parish work and from a lot of diocesan and communi-ty responsibilities. I felt dried out and depleted. The program I was involved in at the seminary, with about fifteen other clergy from around the country—and two from England—was designed not to flood us with information but to bathe us in the spirit of Christ in those dry, parched places. We worshiped together; we ate together; we went on retreats together; and we had some very frank, searching discussions in which we disclosed a great deal about ourselves. I got in touch with a whole lot of dysfunction from my earlier life which I had kept under wraps.
But the part I want to share with you this morning has to do with our belonging to the church as an institution, and how a parish—like St. James’s Parish—does or does not bathe us in that “living water” of Christ. What really swept me off my feet, as though by a tsunami, was when we spent a whole day with The Church of the Savior in Washington. I had read a book about it by a longtime member, Eliz-abeth O’Connor, but I had never experienced it face-to-face. The Church of the Savior was formed in 1947 as a small, tightly-knit group of people who took se-riously Christ’s call to follow him, live a disciplined life and serve others. It has had an impact out of all proportion to its numbers. To be a member you have to have a rule of life for private prayer and corporate worship, you have to give a tenth of your income to God’s work, you have to belong to one of the small groups that meets weekly for Bible study and spiritual growth, and you have to commit to one of over forty different outreach ministries in the community.
A lot happened on that day we spent with The Church of the Savior. First, we experienced their ministry to indigent people who were former prisoners and who had been discharged from a hospital but had no place to go for convalescent care. That was one of the church’s very specific and focused ministries, and for which, at least at that time, they had acquired a whole building in which to house and staff it. Next, we spent some time at the church’s coffee house on Nebraska Avenue, a unique ministry of coffee and conversation and books, which provided outreach to lonely souls thirsting for friendship and meaning in their lives. Finally, we had about an hour with Gordon Cosby, the founder of The Church of the Sa-vior. If there was ever an individual who not only talked the talk, and walked the walk, but who lived the faith to the depths of his being, it was Gordon Cosby. The whole day gave me a new lease on what it means to be the Church. Ever since then, I have resisted even speaking the expression “going to church” or “attending church”—as though the church were a “place” where we might or might not show up! The Church of the Savior stands tall for the fact that we are the Church—men and women, boys and girls—and God calls every single one of us to own that and to be about God’s work.
A sermon preached later by Gordon Cosby reflects the “living water” sought by the Samaritan woman and so needed in our own dry, parched lives. He takes as his text a verse from the 46th Psalm: “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God.” He says, “The stream flowing through our lives is from eternity to eternity. It is artesian. It is totally adequate. Everything we need is borne by that stream. In this space-time realm, conditioned as we are, the stream can seem to be a trickle. It seems puny against the drugs we’re battling, against the divisions among us or the power of greed that fuels our economy….But in fact, it is a powerful, surging, cleansing tide that purifies all it touches. It is a grace torrent. It flows irrespective of merit….What [Jesus] says is to set our minds on God’s realm, God’s justice, before everything else. Everything else will be given by the stream.”
Let’s trust that stream! That’s the message this morning!
I want to leave you with a challenge: What if every member of St. James’s Pa-rish committed to those same four things required of members of The Church of the Savior? First, a personal rule of life for prayer, Bible reading and the like, and for corporate worship. Second, involvement in a small group meeting weekly for Bible study, book study, prayer, or some other kind of Christian fellowship and nurture. Third, a commitment to tithe—to devote a full tenth of your income to God’s work through church, charity and other realms of God’s work. Fourth, a commitment to be personally involved in one of the outreach ministries of the pa-rish.
Those are the four commitments. I must say that one of the reasons I love St. James’s so much is because so many here are already doing some or all of these things. And I guarantee you that if every one of us will commit to these four things, we will see a tsunami of the living waters of God’s grace flowing through our parish and out into the community as never before!

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