A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church
A new church for a new day, in Fremont, California,
on Sunday, April 28, 2013, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Psalm 23 and John 4:1-30
Copyright © 2013 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

My earliest memory is of water.  At least I think it is.  I think it is my earliest memory and I think it’s of water.  The memory is really more of a feeling, the feeling of swirling around under water and not popping up to the surface – and of being surprised and confused by this.  Because this is more a memory of a feeling than of an event, I realize it may not be what I think it is.

The summer when I was two, we lived in Gloucester, Massachusetts.  My father had finished graduate school, started his new job (which meant moving to Massachusetts), and my parents decided to spend the house-hunting summer on the beach.

My mother told me that one day during that summer, when she had taken us kids to the beach, I went wading.  A wave came in and knocked my off my feet.  I’ve always imagined this to be a huge wave, at least half as high again as me – which, since I was two-years-old, meant it would have been maybe three feet high.  I suppose it could have been a chest-high wave that knocked me over, or simply the undertow that pulled my feet out from under me.  In any event, I was under water and it took me long enough to get back on my feet that my mother did get up off her towel.

I assume that my memory of being suspended in the water is of this incident.  I have imagined the wave mixing enough air into the water that I had zero buoyancy for a moment.  Eventually the air bubbled out and I came to the surface.  I’m grateful that this memory and this incident didn’t make me afraid of the water.

When I read Psalm 23, one of the strongest images for me is the “still water.”  “He leads me beside still waters.”  I see a stream trickling down a mountain.  The grass is rich, soft, and green, growing out of the soil and rocks.  The water has pooled in a shallow, flat area.  The surface is perfectly smooth, reflecting the blue sky, white clouds, and green and gray slopes.  I suppose the image is more Switzerland than Palestine.  And when the sheep show up, they pretty much ruin it.

So the Psalm invites me to think about real-life still waters.  It invites me to think about the still waters that restore my soul.  Only it turns out that “still waters” is an incomplete translation.  The Hebrew literally means “waters of rest,” and this expands the number of places we can go.  I suppose experience and context makes all the difference as to where you waters of rest are.

I know a guy who has a spot in Carmel that looks out over the Pacific.  He goes there to sit and breathe, to connect with God and renew his soul.  I have a friend in Washington who will sometime hike to the bottom of Snoqualmie Falls when she needs renewal.  It is not exactly “still waters,” but it is in the power and sound and insistence of the water thundering over and down the 267 feet (100 feet taller than Niagara Falls) that she finds her renewal.  I imagine that for the farmer in the midst of a drought, renewal can come in a rainstorm.

For me, it’s a lake in New Hampshire.  On a hot summer day after a sweaty hike, my soul is restored by plunging in.  On a cool autumn day, quietly paddling around the lake in the old Grumman aluminum canoe, listening to the small waves beat out a rhythm on the metal hull, renews me.

There is something about connecting with water – sitting beside it, riding on it, plunging into it, dancing under it as it falls from the sky – that renews the soul.  It is so elemental to our being, so elemental to life, that water renews us like nothing else.  For the thirsty person, this is especially true.

Have you ever been really, really thirsty?  You grab a cup, turn on the kitchen faucet, fill the cup, and drink it down.  You can feel the water slide down your throat and fill your stomach.  You can feel it relieve the thirst and renew your body.  It’s amazing how easy that was.

“Water used to be part of the rhythm and motivation of daily life …  But in the United States and the developed world, we’ve spent the last hundred years in a kind of aquatic paradise:  our water has been abundant, safe, and cheap.  The twentieth century was really the first time when all of those things were true.  It has created a kind of golden age of water, when we could use as much as we wanted, whenever we wanted, for almost no cost.

“Water service is so reliable that it has become completely inconspicuous.  It is possible for a typical American to go a whole lifetime and never turn on the kitchen faucet and have no water come out.”[1]

This “golden age of water” matters.  In 2005, Harvard economist David Cutler and Stanford professor of medicine Grant Miller published a study that teased out the impact of treatment methods on the most dramatic reduction in death rates in U.S. history.  “By 1936, they conclude, simple filtration and chlorination of city water supplies reduced overall mortality in U.S. cities by 13 percent.  Clean water cut child mortality in half.”[2]

Access to clean, safe water remains a problem in the developing world.  We all know this.  We all know that the lack of good water is the biggest single factor in disease and ill health in the developing world, and without it people cannot grow crops to support themselves.  We know that pollution of water sources or over-extraction has a very damaging environmental impact.  We know that Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH) programs are among the most efficient and effective efforts contributing to international development.  We know that for every $1.00 spent on water and sanitation, roughly $4.00 to $8.00 is returned in reduced health care costs and increased productivity.[3]  We know that children, girls especially, are trapped by having to walk miles each day to fetch water.  As a result, they don’t go to school, and this denies these countries a huge pool of labor, energy, creativity, and talent – just so these children can walk to fetch water.

And we know that we can make a difference.  We know that we can help bring these waters of safety to thirsty people around the globe.

It was thirst, it seems, that opened the discussion between Jesus and the unnamed woman at the Samaritan well.[4]  Do you know the beer commercials starring actor Jonathan Goldsmith as “the most interesting man in the world”?  “People hang on his every word,” the narrator intones, “even the prepositions.”  “His mother has a tattoo that read, ‘Son.’”

The ad is clever and funny, though I wonder about the tagline:  “Stay thirsty, my friends.”  Doesn’t that imply that drinking this beer won’t quench your thirst?  Or perhaps there’s some theological integrity to it, that when we drink beer or water, we will thirst again.

Contrast this with the exchange between the Samaritan woman at the well and Jesus.  What’s on offer in John 4 is “living water.”  And obtaining it requires a more daring leap than the short-term gains of “Interesting Man’s” carpe diem philosophy.

The Samaritan woman – with whom Jesus holds his longest discussion in the gospels – is not promiscuous.  She is not a prostitute.  She’s not spiritually dead or “hopelessly carnal.”

She is a spiritual seeker.

When we read this section of John 4 in its context, we see it is part of a Cana-to-Cana framework that places the woman at the well between the Pharisee Nicodemus (3:1-21), who has religious power, and the royal official (4:46-54), who has political power.  Nicodemus, has his theological debate with Jesus under the cover of darkness.  Jesus response can easily be seen as sarcastic (3:10) and condemnatory (3:18).  The royal official begs Jesus to heal is son, but there isn’t any sign of theological depth in his conversation with Jesus.

The Samaritan woman is his mirror opposite.  She also engages Jesus in a sophisticated theological exchange – under the noonday sun – and comes to believe.  To her, Jesus reveals his true nature.  With strength and savvy, she accepts it and witnesses to others.  Take a closer look at their discussion.

The woman systematically grills Jesus on the different beliefs held by Jews and Samaritans.   Why is he breaking custom by asking her for a drink (4:9)?  Why does he elevate himself to the status of the Samaritan patriarch Jacob (4:12)?

In response, he tests her:  You have had five husbands and the one you have now isn’t your own (4:16-19).  In John’s highly charged symbolism, this isn’t a sudden diversion into the personal.  The meaning is much clearer when “husbands” is understood as “lords” or “gods.”  Samaria has had five foreign gods since the Assyrians invaded (see 2 Kings 17:30-31) and the god Samaria worships at the time of this encounter is not Yahweh, but a god from Rome.

Finally, she challenges him on the last major hurdle in the Jewish/Samaritan theological divide:  Worship on Mount Gerizim or on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount?  Jesus’ answer astounds her.   He makes a claim for neither.   Instead, in his New Israel, all will worship in “spirit and truth” (verse 24).

Still sizing him up, she proclaims, “I know that the Messiah is coming … When he comes, he will tell us everything.”  Jesus replies: “I am.”

At this, she leaves her water jar behind (4:28).  This is an act reminiscent of the fishermen leaving their nets to follow Jesus, as reported in other gospels.  She goes to her people and says, “Come see.”

This woman has drunk from the well of Living Water.

The simple fact of the matter is we need all three kinds of water.  We need the water that restores our souls.  We need the water that quenches our thirst.  And we need the living water that is Jesus.  Combined, they become the waters of safety that allow us risk going forth to invite others to taste and see.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Charles Fishman, The Big Thirst, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2011), from the iBook version, so I don’t know how to accredit the page number.

[2] Ibid.

[3] A United Church of Christ website that I can’t find now claimed the 1:4 ratio.  InterAction (http://www.interaction.org/work/wash) claims the 1:8 ratio.

[4] This discussion of John 4:5-30 is based on the exciting work of Rose Marie Berger, “The Most Interesting Woman in the World,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/most-interesting-woman-world (27 April 2013).