Here is my sermon for this week. The text is John 4:4-34. The audio version will be up here, later in the week.
Last year at this time we were celebrating Palm Sunday and praying that it would stop raining. Our basements were flooded, and it took us a long time to get anywhere because all of the major roads were underwater. We had more water than we knew what to do with and then in the summer as we entered a period of drought we wondered where all the water had gone. But, the simple truth is, except for rare exceptions, we don’t have to worry about our water supply, or even if we will have access to water.
We have what most people throughout history, and large portions of the world’s population today, have never had: Clean, fresh water whenever we want it. We don’t have to go to a well several times a day and carry the water back to our homes, all we have to do is to turn on our faucet or go to the grocery store, and this allows us, I think, to believe that we can tame water. That we can domesticate it and make it compliant, and so we create dams and canals and other things to try and force water to follow our will, and then we are shocked into remembering water’s tremendous power for both life and death when we witness events like the tsunami in Japan a few weeks ago or the typhoon in Thailand in 2005 or what Hurricane Katrina did to New Orleans. And then we are forced to recognize that we are merely trying to rope the wind, that we cannot control water, that it is ultimately beyond our power, it is a thing of mystery.
In this, water is much like how we approach God. We want God to follow our commands, we want God to answer to our schedule, we want God to be domesticated, because an untamed God, a God outside of our control, is threatening to us, not because of fear of punishment or other destructive capabilities, but because of the simple fact that an unrestrained God might ask us to do things that make us uncomfortable, to go places we don’t want to go, and to talk and deal with people we whom we don’t want to deal. And so we create rules and put up restrictions. Only some people can do this, only particular people can participate, only certain people are worthy.
As the scriptures tell us today, Jews and Samaritans did not like each other. In fact they despised each other. For a Jew to have anything to do with a Samaritan, including drinking from their water jar, simply could not happen. But Jesus not only crosses the boundary of respectability by talking to a Samaritan, he crosses the boundary of gender as well. Men and women did not spend time mingling in the ancient world. Men would talk with women in public only if they were a family member or if they were propositioning her. But Jesus is bold enough to ask the woman for water, to which she wonders why a Jew would be talking to her and the disciples are astonished that he is speaking to a woman.
Then Jesus tells the woman that if she understood who he was that she would be asking him for water, because after having the living water that he can provide she would never be thirsty again. This term “living water” is really a play on words. A well is not living water, because it is stagnant, but instead living water is a river, stream or spring, somewhere where the water moves, and of course the woman wonders where Jesus could possibly ever get living water since the only water source is the well.
We, of course, understand that Jesus is the living water, that the source is not something in nature, but in Jesus himself. And lest we doubt this understanding, just a few chapters later Jesus says, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink.” Now, unlike some other faiths, no one is born a Christian. We become Christians through the act of baptism. It is in being born again, in being cleansed by the water that we enter a new relationship with God and with each other. It is the new covenant by water and the Spirit that brings us into a new standing, but again we like to tame these things, to control them.
We think it’s very cute when we baptize our babies, and so we say the words and keep going, acting as if we haven’t been radically transformed by this action. We seek to domesticate and subdue the power of God by pretending that baptism doesn’t really mean anything that it is just something we do. We seek to make God’s grace and God’s will submissive to our purposes.
But baptism is not about controlling, but instead of being controlled, it is about releasing a totally radical, wild, untamed and expansive grace. A grace that is extended even to people others think are undeserving; people like you and me. It is an unruly, unmanageable and uncontrollable grace and when we understand that and accept it it should scare us, because it means that everything is now beyond our control that we have to put our lives into the hands of another and that is something we almost always try and resist.
But it is not just baptism, it is also communion. Jesus is not only the living water which quenches our thirst, but John tells us that he also the bread of life and whoever comes to him will never be thirsty or hungry. We like to try and separate these two things, baptism and communion, to treat them as if they are separate entities, but we can’t. Theologian Connor Cunningham says that to separate baptism from communion is to render them “unintelligible.” In the early church this was more clearly demonstrated because immediately after baptism people, including infants, would receive their first communion. Communion links us to our baptismal vows in ways that few, if any, other thing can.
Now most denominations stipulate that in order to receive communion you must, at the very least, be baptized. In the United Methodist Church we do not practice that because John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, believed that communion could be a converting sacrament. That is in receiving the bread and the cup, God could work in you to such a degree that you would come to accept Jesus’ saving actions on your behalf, the power of the bread and the cup could literally lead you to accept God’s saving grace, and so instead of baptism leading to communion, communion could lead to baptism or a reaffirmation thereof. And because we can only baptized once, communion becomes one of the primary ways that the radical nature of God’s grace is played out for us in our lives. It connects us to God’s radical hospitality.
But, like everything else when we try and control it, it appears to lose its mystery and power. The Lord’s supper is most effective, most efficacious, most sacramental when we simply let go and experience it as God intends, when we stop worrying about everything, and simply taste the bread and the juice, experiencing God’s grace and God’s love entering into us, and flowing through us, satisfying that portion of our being which longs to be connected to something deeper, which hungers for something more in the world.
Indeed, communion is one of the few things that we in the white protestant tradition do that is sensual. We see the elements, we say the words, we hear the liturgy, we touch the bread, we take and eat, we swallow and we become part of the mystery. When practiced with freedom rather than being controlled, communion should envelope us, overwhelm us and make us one with Christ and one with each other. It is the radical and untamed power of God made real in our lives.
Jesus invites the woman to drink of the water of life, and what does the woman do? She demands it. It is the imperative, “Give me this” she says. Christ invites us to partake as well. Christ reaches out. God’s grace is available to us, in the water and in the bread, but we too must respond and say to Jesus, “Give me this water so that I may never be thirsty and give me this bread so that I may never be hungry.” May it be so. Amen.