Sunday, March 27, 2011
John 4.5-42 +
I have been reading a wonderful book this Lent, called Thirst by the poet Mary Oliver. If you do not know Mary Oliver, I would highly recommend you read her. Even if you don’t particularly care for poetry—or MY poetry for that matter—trust me, you will LOVE Mary Oliver.
Another morning and I wake with thirst
for the goodness I do not have. I walk
out to the pond and all the way God has
given us such beautiful lessons. Oh Lord,
I was never a quick scholar but sulked
and hunched over my books past the hour
and the bell; grant me, in your mercy,
a little more time. Love for the earth
and love for you are having such a long
conversation in my heart. Who knows what
will finally happen or where I will be sent,
yet already I have given a great many things
away, expecting to be told to pack nothing,
except the prayers which, with this thirst,
I am slowly learning.
One of the things we learned in the so-called exegesis of a poem is to pay attention to words. If you notice in this poem, the word “thirst” is used only twice, but they are placed at wonderful intervals from each other. One is at the beginning, the other at the end of the poem. Doing so, places that word in positions in which one can see clearly the poem is truly about thirst—a thirst for something more, for something deeper. Thirst if one of those things we don’t worry about too much in our lives in our privileged Western world. Most of us don’t physically thirst. We have our coffees, our clean water, our water machines and water tanks, not to mention our sodas and our recreational alcohol. So much of our life our life revolves around what we drink, that thirst very rarely ever plays into our lives anymore. But although we might not thirst for liquid often in our lives, we do find ourselves thirsting. We do thirst for knowledge, we thirst justice, we thirst for fulfillment. And we definitely thirst for spiritual truth. The Buddha says that thirst (trisna) (or desire) draws our ego back to this earthly life again.
And I think that’s very close to what Jesus is talking about in today’s Gospel. In our very long Gospel reading, we find Jesus confronting this Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. More often than not, when we encounter a story like this in scripture, we don’t often think about what happened to some of these people their experience with Jesus. Every so often, it might not hurt to ask ourselves: what happened to this woman at the well? Did she heed the words of Jesus to her, or did she go on in her old lifestyle? We know she shared the news with other Samaritans. But did she reform her life? Well, there are actually some interesting stories about what might have happened to this Samaritan woman.
What many Western Christians don’t know—and probably have never given a second thought to—is the fact that this Samaritan woman is revered now by the Eastern Church. They have actually given her a name. Traditionally, she is known now as St. Photini. According to tradition, the belief is that St. Photini did, in fact, take Jesus’ words to heart. The story goes that she, along with five of her sisters, were baptized and that, following Jesus’ death, she went out to proclaim the Gospel. She was preaching the Gospel in Rome when the Emperor Nero began his persecution of Christians. She confronted the Emperor with her faith in and love for Christ, which simply enraged him. He had her imprisoned and tortured, but would not allow her to die. One night, as he lay in prison, begging for God to allow her to die, Jesus appeared to her just as he had at Jacob’s well. As he stood above her, he offered her the waters of everlasting life. The vision filled her with such joy, that, a few days later, she died singing her praises to God. In the Orthodox Church, she is referred to as “equal to the Apostles,” which is saying a lot. There is a wonderful hymn that the Eastern Church sings to St. Photini
Illuminated by the Holy Spirit,
From Christ the Saviour
you drank the water of salvation.
With open hand you give it to those who thirst.
Great-Martyr Photini, Equal-to-the-Apostles,
Pray to Christ for the salvation of our souls.
It’s a great story and hopefully one that will help us all appreciate this Gospel story every time we ever read it or hear it. But, more importantly, is the message that is here for all of us as well. When Jesus sits with Photini at the well, he offers not only her that water of life—he offers it to us as well. And we, in turn, like her, must “with open hand” give it “to those who thirst.”
To truly understand the meaning of water, here, though we have to gently remind ourselves of the land in which this story is taking place. Palestine was and is a dry and arid land. And in Jesus’ day, water was not as accessible as we take for granted these days. It came from wells that sometimes weren’t in close proximity to one’s home. The water that came from those wells was not the clean and filtered water we enjoy now, that we drink from fancy bottles. They didn’t have refrigeration, so often the water they drank was lukewarm at best. And sometimes it was polluted. People got sick and died from drinking it. But despite all of that, water was essential. One died without water in that arid land. Water meant life. In that world, people truly understood thirst. They thirsted truly for water.
And so we have this issue of water in a story in which Jesus confronts this woman—Photini—who is obviously and truly thirsty. Thirsty for water, yes, but—as we learn—she is obviously thirsty also for more. She is thirsty as well for love, for security, for stability, all of which she does not have. Now, we have to be fair to St. Photini. For a woman to be without a man in her day would have meant that she would be without security, without a home, without anything. A woman at that time was defined by the men in her life—her husband or father or son. And so, widowed as many times as she was, she was desperate to find some reason and purpose in her life through the men in her life. Photini is truly a broken woman. She is thirsty. Thirsty for the water she is drawing from the well and thirsty for more than life has given her. In a sense, we can find much to relate to in Photini.
We too are broken people, as you have heard me preach again and again during this season of Lent. We too are thirsty. As broken people, we are thirsty for relationships, for money, for food, for alcohol for anything to fill that empty parched feeling within our broken selves. And as broken people, we find that as much as we try to quench that thirst, it all seems to run right out of us. We find that we will never be quenched until we drink of that cool, clean water which will fill us where we need to be filled.
That cool, clean Water is of course Jesus. He is the Water of which we drink to be truly filled. It is the Water that will become in us “a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” What better image to take with us in these long days of Lent? As we journey through the desert of Lent toward Holy Week, toward the darkness and violence of Good Friday, what better image can we cling to? Because that is what we are doing during Lent. We are traveling through the desert. We are walking through the arid wasteland of our own lives. We are journeying toward the Cross and the destruction, pain and death it brings. We are wandering toward that tomb, that dark, dank place. We are St. Photini—parched and alone, thirsting for something more.
In Lent, we bring ourselves—our fractured, shattered, uncertain, frightened, insecure selves—to the well, expecting only for a temporary quenching. But at Easter, that day we are longing for, that we are traveling toward, that we are striving toward despite our thirst—on that day we will find more than we expected to find. On Easter, we will find Jesus, alive and vibrant, offering us water that will truly quench our thirst.
At the empty tomb—that other well—he gives us the water that will fill us and renew us and make us whole and complete. There, he offers us the water that will wash away the grit and ugliness of all that we have done and all that we have failed to do, as we say to God in our confession of sins. We find glimpses of this Easter feast in the Eucharist we celebrate together. Here too we our thirst is quenched in the blood shed from the broken body of Jesus. Here we too drink to quench our thirst. And in the brokenness of Jesus, we find our brokenness healed.
Like Photini, the Samaritan woman, we approach the well of this altar, trapped in our own brokenness. But, like Photini, we are able to leave the well of this altar and of the Easter tomb different people. We walk away from this altar and that tomb transformed people—a person made whole. We walk away no longer fractured people. We walk away remade into saints.
So, as we approach Easter and the Living Water that pours forth from the tomb of Easter, let us drink fully of the water that is offered to us there. Let us drink deeply of Jesus, who offers himself to us fully and completely there, on Good Friday, there on Easter morning, and here on this altar this morning. And in that Water, we will find all that we desire. Our insecurities will be washed away. Our wounds will be cleaned and healed. Everything we have done or failed to do will be made right. Our brokenness will be made whole.
That thirst that drives us and nags at us and gnaws at us, that drives us to drink from places where we should not be drinking, will finally—once and for all—be quenched. And in that Living Water we will find Life—that Life that Jesus brings us on that Easter morning—a Life without death or suffering or wanting—a life which Jesus breaks wide open for us and shows us as more incredible than anything we fully appreciate or understand. Jesus is there, offering himself for all.
All we have to do is say, “Give me some of that water.” And it will be given to us. And those of us who drink of that water will never again be thirsty.