(Play the opening of Wade In the Water)
This song, Wade in the Water, has been stirring up my thoughts all week as I’ve pondered our two texts for this morning. God tells Moses to strike a rock from which water will gush forth for the wandering, thirsty, and complaining Israelites. Jesus tells the woman at the well that he has water to offer which will gush forth into new life for all peoples. And this song tells us that “God’s gonna trouble the waters.”
I learned this song, Wade in the Water, at my daughter’s graduation from Willamette University, a small school in Oregon. That year an honorary agree was awarded to Bernice Johnson Reagon, a history professor, social activist, and founded of the African-American women’s a capella group, Sweet Honey in the Rock. In her speech to the graduates, Dr. Reagon urged them to go out into the world and “trouble the waters” -- stir things up, bring their gifts to bear on the many needs of our world. She also, in the middle of that academic afternoon of long speeches, sang Wade In the Water – and stole the whole show. By far the best graduation speech I’ve ever heard!
The song makes several references to that great story of Hebrew liberation, the story of the exodus of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt under the leadership of Moses. “Looks like the band that Moses led -- God's a-going to trouble the water.” When we meet them today, the Israelites are in the midst of their long desert sojourn, and they are furious at Moses. “Why did you bring us out here, to kill us?” they rage at him. Egypt is looking pretty good at that moment, and they are ready to trade freedom for a roof and a cup of water. Stuck in the desert, they take their anger out on Moses, who begs God to intervene. And God does, instructing Moses on how obtain water from the rock. Where God is, water is often transformed. Water often becomes a sign of God’s movement among us, and of our movement out into the lives into which we are called.
The woman at the well? Another story of God’s movement among us, and of God sending us into new lives. This woman seems to have nothing going for her as the narrative begins. She’s a Samaritan, a member of a population reviled by the Jews. She’s had five husbands and has a new companion – a biographical detail that has caused a number of judgmental comments against her – but we have no idea why she’s had five husbands. Divorce? Widowhood? Violence? Family pressure? What we do know is that she’s had to start over six times, and that by now she must be disappointed, weary, and worn down by hopes dashed, over and over again. She’s also alone, isolated from others – by herself at the well in midday instead of part of an early morning communal gathering.
And yet – Jesus engages her. She’s of the wrong culture and the wrong gender for this conversation – Jews did not interact with Samaritans, and Jewish men did not interact with women to whom they were not married. He breaks all the rules, and with his words, he changes her understanding of life – changes it so much that she – what does she do?
Now here I have a confession to make. This story of is great personal significance to me, for reasons I’ll get to in a minute, but it’s also a story to which my attention has been drawn in rather humorous circumstances:
You probably know that we Presbyterian pastors are all required to study Hebrew and Greek in seminary. And let me tell you: Greek was not one of my strengths in school! I really had to work at that language – there is nothing about it that comes naturally to me.
On our final exam, we were presented with a lengthy passage to translate. I couldn’t make head nor tail of that passage, so I started looking around for words I recognized. The first one I came up with was pente. You would know it, too, once you could read the Greek alphabet, for of course pente means five. The next word I figured out was andras, which means men. Hmmm, I thought. Five men. Where are there five men in the NT? Then I remembered that andras can also mean husbands – five husbands! Finally! I knew what the passage was, and I could go back and figure the rest of it out -- with one exception.
Toward the end of the passage, the woman is so excited that she goes back to town to tell everyone about her encounter with Jesus, but first she does something. She does something with her water jar – and I could not figure out what that verb was. What did she do? The verb [aph-y-e-mi, a mi verb] is one of a series of difficult verbs with many different forms, and as I looked at my test paper, I simply had no idea which one it was. So I thought: She came to the well to get water; the logical thing for her to have done, then, would be to have picked up her water jar and returned to the city. So that’s what I wrote: “She picked up her jar and returned to the city.
Wrong! “Robin,” my long-suffering professor groaned after the test, “the verb is left. Left behind. She is so excited that she leaves her water jar behind!”
Of course. How did I not know that? (And I’ve never forgotten it since! I don’t remember the Greek verb at all, but I do remember that the woman at the well leaves her jar behind.) She is so excited by the living water that she does something completely out of character, completely out of her usual routine: she leaves her work and goes off to tell people about her encounter with Jesus. She wants them to know that the water for the journey of life is here -- and it's not literal water; it's the messiah, the anointed one, the savior of the world whose spirit infiltrates her life.
Why should I have known that? (Even if the vocabulary was beyond me.)
The story of the woman at the well is one which I see as my own. Some time ago, I was engaged in a year-long experience of prayer, the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises, a year in which I spent hours each week meditating on and contemplating many Scriptural passages. When I reached the story of the woman at the well, it reached out and grabbed me – spoke to me in a way much more intimately personal than many other stories had. I recognized that woman. I hadn’t been married five times, but I had experienced many other kinds of disappointments in life, and her tired and frustrated – and mystified – questioning of Jesus rang true to me.
How is it that you ask a drink of me? Where do you get that living water? Who are you, anyway?
What I came to understand, after spending a week or so with her story, was something that I often share with you: the story of Scripture becomes our story, and the stories of our lives become the stories of Scripture. The water that God has to offer the Israelites and the water that Jesus offers the woman at the well -- this is water that expands life. This is water that enlarges who we are and what we are called to be. This is the water of the Spirit, water that fills us with energy and hope. This is living water, water that gushes up into new and eternal life.
No wonder the woman at the well left her jar behind. News so unexpected, so startling, so filled with possibility and with love – of course she had to run back to town to tell others.
God doesn’t pour water from a rock so that our own thirst might be quenched. Jesus does not offer a drink of living water merely for our own personal needs. No – God troubles the waters. God offers us water so that we might share it with others, splash it around, drench the entire world in God’s love.
My invitation to you this week is that you ask yourselves: Where in your lives have you sensed a direct encounter with God? With Jesus? With the Spirit?
Where has Jesus unexpectedly offered you water?
Where has God troubled the waters of your own life -- sent you out to be someone new, to proclaim God's goodness, through words or through your acts of service to others?
You might have to give this matter some thought. My guess is that you were not wandering around in the Sinai desert, or sitting at a well in the city of Sychar. My guess is that the offer of living water has come to you in the form of a conversation, or maybe in a moment in a sacred place. Maybe in music, in the form of help or encouragement from a friend.
Last week, one of you shared a song with me, a song that she loves, and a story of calling a friend and singing the song to her over the telephone. That was a woman at the well moment: she was filled with the spirit of God, with the living water that gushes out of God’s love, and needed to tell someone. She left behind her water jar, the ordinary reticence that might have prevented her even from humming a tune in the hallway, and burst into song.
What about you? Are you paying attention? Are you noticing when Jesus walks into your life to ask for a drink and then turns the encounter around to offer water to you? Are you paying attention when God troubles the waters of your own life, and invites you to share what you’ve been given with others?
We need water on this Lenten journey of ours, and here it is: the living water of Jesus Christ, the water that quenches thirst forever, the well from which you are invited to drink and the water you are invited to pour all over the place, everywhere you go. Amen.