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Sermon – March 27, 2011 – Thirst

Sermon for March 27, 2011
The First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

Romans 5: 1-11, John 4: 5-42
Iʼve said this before but the ceiling of this sanctuary reminds me of the interior bottom of a boat. There are lots of metaphors involving ships in the life of churches. I will say that the two great dangers to a vessel and its passengers are storms and being becalmed, and simply note that what bears a church along is an adequately constant pressure of Godʼs spirit blowing on it. The presence and push of that spirit I invite you to pray for, for this church to serve its purpose.
And we–this church–may be the topic again before the sermon is over, but I want to speak about life in general, and human life in particular, first. I want to get at the familiar story of Jesus meeting the Woman at the Well by considering the human soul as a kind of craft designed to navigate the vagaries of existence, and the Woman at the Well as an instance of someone off course, perhaps adrift, because of an incapacity to handle the forces pushing her.
Jesus says something to her which is surprising, and which seems like it certainly isnʼt true, but which must mean something. Itʼs that he has water to offer her which, if she will accept it from him, will mean that she will never thirst again. She hears this is a very literal- minded way, which is always the wrong way to take Jesus in Johnʼs gospel, which is ironic considering how many Christians make a virtue of literal-mindedness. She takes him to be speaking about ordinary water and its ability to quench ordinary thirst– which we all know is a temporary thing, which is why Jesusʼ offer seems to promise too much.
She listens to him, not just because heʼs willing to listen to her, which we all know is unusual in itself– if she were the pillar-of-the-community matriarch of the whole town it would be strange for Jesus to be conversing with a woman completely new to him. The disciples react to discovering the two of them talking by being astonished. But they would be more astonished– not because itʼs unusual for Jesus but because Jesusʼ disciples always are caught flatfooted by Jesusʼ comfort level with sinners– if they knew as much about her as Jesus does. He is willing to be engaged in give-and-take with her, so thatʼs one reason she listens.
The main reason she listens, though, is her recognition that Jesus really is a person of God because Jesus knows all her secrets. Only spiritual perception, a kind of holy ESP could explain his insight into her. Thatʼs what rivets her attention, and thatʼs what sends her to her neighbors, toward the end of the story, to announce him as one sent by God. “He told me everything I ever did.”
Itʼs that insight into her which is a clue to Jesusʼ early remarks to her. The setting is a well and the business of needing to drink, so thereʼs an obvious and natural reason for him to speak with metaphors of thirst. Thereʼs a deeper reason, a spiritual reason, an insight into the soul of the woman he meets there. Sheʼs not just a thirsty person like every other creature in Godʼs green world which has a body built out of ninety per cent moisture. She, for whatever reasons of her own, whatever formative events, whatever inherited temperament, whatever personal beliefs and choices– sheʼs a person with a thirst for life which she has tried hard to quench by connections with lots of different men but which has left her still unsatisfied.
Notorious women arenʼt the only sinners in the gospels. Often they are compared favorably, by Jesus himself, to the real villains of Jesusʼ interactions with other human beings–the smug, the greedy, the judgmental, the snobby, the merciless. There is, however, something intrinsically interesting about notorious women, and in this instance, at least, we arenʼt necessarily reading this woman as a victim of social inequalities. She doesnʼt seem like a nice young girl who was blind sided by circumstances and taken advantage of by unscrupulous men. For the purposes of thinking about human nature Iʼll make her a woman who thought she knew what she wanted and wasnʼt too concerned about other peopleʼs opinion of her, who was essentially a strong person but not strong enoughintermsofself-control. Acertainkindoffulfillmentandaffirmationwasavailablein her relationship with a member of the opposite sex, and she had a strong desire for that. She didnʼt get everything she felt she needed with the first, or with the second, or the third– neither in marriage nor in less formal menages did she find what she was looking for.
What is it with her? Does she have a greed for affection, for attention, for pleasure, that nobody can be expected to satisfy, not for long? Is she so needy a person, even if the need really is for love, for security, for stability–that she sabotages her chances for all those things, and drives away from her people who are overwhelmed by her insistence on getting what she wants? Is that why she has gone through these serial connections, one combination after another?, until we imagine her as this village scandal, bold, unrepentant, a tough dame unafraid of anyone or anything any longer, the sort of soul so far from timid that sheʼll get into a back-and-forth with someone who might be holy.
When Jesus tells her he can offer her something so that sheʼll never thirst again, whatʼs he telling her? I saw in the paper a couple of weeks ago that the actress Jane Russell had died, and it said that up to the end she was quite active, and one of the things that engaged her was her church, and charities to which she was devoted. I think thatʼs what is supposed to happen to the sort of women that Jane Russell so often portrayed, smoldering, perceptibly-sneering bombshells straining their blouses in an effort to make slaves of men. Theyʼre supposed to grow up and mature and get over their youthful fascination with matters of the flesh and the power they wield in that arena, and come to appreciate matters of the spirit. The men who were their contemporaries are supposed to give a little sigh for youthful folly–both because they miss it and because they now see through it– and admire the woman all the more because she has become a worthwhile human being–as though the temptress warned against in the early chapters of the book of Proverbs had lived long enough, and become wise enough herself, to be transformed into the paragon wife and mother extolled at the end.
This is the cure for thirst that Jesus is commending to this woman, that the real satisfactions of the human soul are to be found, not in one place or another, nor with any kind of achievement or acquisition–not even in relationships with other individuals– but in spirit and truth. All the appetites and ambitions of the human heart, all the needs of the emotions and desires of the mind, will engage, over and over again, with the passing things of this world, and register their appropriate reactions, and be prepared, again, to confront the new. The soul is different. The soul may respond to all kinds of things, and doubtless finds itself enhanced by good experiences, but it is made for God, and cannot be happy to be occupied with things less than God.
ThisisthethirstJesusidentifiesinthewoman,andJesusisright. Atfirstshemaybe just a bold person stimulated by taking on an unconventional conversation– in fact when Jesus begins to get pointed in his remarks she pulls back a little and herself makes the conversation more conventional, bringing up broad, general topics like the different religious notions of Jews and Samaritans. Jesus knowing so much about her, however, doesnʼt just startle her and intrigue her, and it doesnʼt just reassure her, in the sense that she knows he knows her and despite that offers something holy to her. This uncanny uncovering of her secrets on the part of a stranger persuades her that the whole realm of God and the soul is real. She really can have a relationship with God. She really can, herself, forgetting the niceties of religious distinctions and whether you worship here or there or this way or that– she really can, by accepting Jesusʼ offer of faith in him as truly sent by God, find peace in one good choice.    She can give herself to something which lasts. She can secure her life through faith in Jesus, and in that sense she is being offered a cure for the thirst which has bedeviled her.
The lifeline which she is being thrown is the possibility of faith in something and Someone larger than anything she has known. It is the chance for a soul which perhaps never knew itself to have such potential to recognize Godʼs claim on it. All the miscues and wrong turns and defiantly denied regrets of life in the world have not, after all, made her unfit for a relationship with God. Her thirst for life sent her in directions which didnʼt solve her problem, but that instinct that something would satisfy, and that urge to get what she needed, at last find their vindication in Christ.
However we may regard ourselves as faithful, we can learn from her. Some part of us always, or most everything about us at some point, is adrift, not secured to Godʼs attentive presence. We forget the route on which Christ has put us, and look for meanings and sustenance in lesser things. We are called to find in our discontent, and even in our suffering, the occasion to be reminded that our souls exist for a greater relationship than any we yet have engaged. We are urged, by Godʼs seeing through the secrets of who we are, to find our fulfillment in faith.

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