The Rev. Stuart Craig Higginbotham
Lent III, Year A
St. John 4:5-42
March 23, 2014
Both of my grandfathers had wells in their backyards when I was a child. I remember at one grandfather’s house, going over and taking the wooden top off the well to toss stones down the well. I liked the pause…..and to hear them “plop” in the water about thirty or so feet down into the darkness. That grandfather told me that a man came and dug that well. He was an expert at it; there weren’t many people around who knew how to come and dig wells. The man dug down and them put in a ring of concrete to hold the wall back. Then, he dug down more, and someone else slid down another ring of concrete. Eventually they reached the water table and the well was now a working well. But, the family stopped using that well after a while; It was too hard to get a bucket down there, and the water was muddy and not entirely dependable. It became more of decoration in the yard—and a temptation for us grandchildren who would always go throw stones down into it.
Now, my other grandfather did something quite different with his well. I was actually at his house when he brought in the new well digger. There was a big truck with a drill on the back of it. But I remember that they didn’t just start digging. In fact, there was no digging at all. Rather, one of the men took out two small, bent wires and began walking very slowly around the yard. He was holding the wires up in front of himself and walked in no particular pattern, I thought. I watched him walk very slowly…until…he stopped and said to the other men, “Here.” Then, they backed the truck up, raised this long pole in place and began drilling. In a little over an hour, water suddenly bubbled and gushed and sprayed out of the top of the pipe. We had struck water! I was amazed…how did he know where to drill the well?
Two wells, two ways of seeking to reach water. Two ways of tapping into that source of physical life that allows us to exist on this planet. Two ways to try to access nourishment…
Who knows how long the woman at the well had been there herself. But here comes Jesus walking up to her and asking her for a drink. First she reminds Jesus that he is a Jew and she is a Samaritan woman, so the fact that he is even talking to her is stepping outside the norm…. Tricky Jesus strikes again.
And Jesus invites her into a new space of relationship, “If you knew the gift of God…and who it is asking you…you would have asked him….and he would have given you the living water.”
Alas, just like Nicodemus, when faced with a new space of spiritual insight outside of the norm, she responds: “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep.” What is this living water, and are you greater than Jacob who had this well dug, and whose sons and flocks drank from it? In other words, what more can there be? This is all there is, and it looks to me like you don’t have the necessary tools…
And Jesus comes around a second time: “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink from the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water I give them will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”
And then, the woman’s spiritual heart begins to open….maybe she begins to see…..maybe she begins to realize what is happening to her…the space she is being invited into. She begins to realize that Jesus wasn’t constrained by the old norms, by expectations such as those…..and that neither was she! “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water!”
It’s a vulnerable feeling when we enter into a new way of being together. When we take a step out of “this is how we have always understood it” and into “maybe there is another way of exploring the questions.” We humans are creatures of habit, indeed, and there’s a reason that the book called “Who moved my cheese” sold millions of copies!
And, there is a reason that there are countless manuals and other type books on what it means to “live the Christian life.” Of course we want steps to follow. Of course we want some easy outline, a well-worn path. Of course we want experts to tell us what to do and assure us that we are doing the right thing, that we are “being good Christians.”
But deep down we know that experts don’t have all the answers. Deep down we know that more is asked of us on our spiritual journey. Deep down, sometimes, we have an inkling that this call, laid out in our Baptismal covenant, “to grow into the full stature of Christ” is going to require more of us than simply following some other person’s advice. An expert can’t make our spiritual journey for us. And the richness of Christian discipleship occurs when we step into the unknown, into the vulnerable, into spaces of greater trust and reliance upon God’s indwelling Spirit.
A few weeks ago when we gathered at one of the earliest GWAG events, we asked ourselves what have been the most prayerful experiences of our time here at Grace. There are many, many wonderful, deep, heartfelt responses to that question. Over the past two weeks, one has rattled around in my heart.
Someone wrote that the most prayerful part of their life here at Grace is that this community, this shared practice and prayer, invites them practice what they called “mature religion.”
“Mature religion.” A direct quote from you…..
I believe that is what Jesus was inviting the woman at the well to explore: mature religion. Up to then, she could only understand getting nourishment one way: using the same old well that her folks had used for ages and ages. Hey, it’s worked for them, so it will work for me, she thought.
And here came this man—this opportunity, this relationship—that didn’t seem to fit into those norms. “Give me a drink,” he asks her.
But he didn’t have the usual tools. He didn’t have the proper type of bucket to access that water. He wasn’t following the rules. He wasn’t functioning the way she expected him to.
But properly functioning and well-polished buckets aren’t what is required of us to delve deeply into the life-giving waters of the Spirit of God.
I’m thinking here of our ongoing conversation about children and youth ministries at Grace. Well-defined programs are not going to ensure that our children receive a deep level of meaningful and nourishing formation. State-of-the-art buckets are not a guarantee that they will feel encouraged and supported to practice their faith in the complexities of the world in which they now live. There are no user’s manuals that we can give them, and if we tell them to just follow some external set of rules….we know deep down that that is more about our comfort than their spiritual growth. There are no experts: not our new Youth Director, not the wonderful teachers and mentors, not me.
Spiritual formation is not about having proper buckets. It is about entering into a Spirit-grounded space of conversation, of community, of relationship, of holy questioning, of seeking, of searching, of wondering, of divine curiosity…and about being continually reminded that God promises to be with us always…and that we can trust God’s promises….
It is about discerning… It is, like I saw in my grandfather’s back yard, about taking the dowsing rod of the community’s combined prayerful presence and journeying together…..walking together…..wondering…..until our wires start to tingle and move…..and we feel our hearts swell…….and someone says “Here. This is the spot. There’s water here”…….and we share together in that amazing and life-giving geyser of the Spirit that swells within our heart…and gushes over.……..and we know………and we realize…….maybe…what Jesus might have meant…..when he said that we could experience eternal life……….Here……Now……