Exodus 17:1-7, Psalm 95, Romans 5:1-11, John 4:5-42
I can understand the Children of Israel being worried about no water. They get judged for their complaining, they get judged by Psalm 95 for the hardness of their hearts, but look at their predicament. They’ve got little children to think about, and their elderly, and their animals, and a great big desert in front of them, a landscape they’re unprepared for, and has anyone informed them of the water-plan? Has anybody shown them what the plans for water were?
"We had not asked to be forced out of Egypt. We would have preferred to stay there, only not as slaves. Why didn’t you just stop the oppression but let us live there like we used to before the oppression had started? We knew how to live there. We didn’t need any miracles from your God to get by. You forced us into this; we would have asked for something else. You’ve got us in a fix and you don’t have a plan."
When I was in my previous congregation in Grand Rapids, Michigan, early on, people asked me what my vision was for the congregation. "Vision for this congregation? What vision? You asked me to be your pastor. I came here to be your pastor. I preach the next sermon, I pray the next prayer, and I visit the next person." That’s what I did in my first three charges. That’s what my father did.
But now I was the leader of a big church with a big staff and four pastors under me and a bunch of big wheels on the consistory, and they wanted to know where I was leading them, and I realized they had their point and I worried that I was unprepared, and I wasn’t the only one who worried that, and the complaining began. Moses was sensitive about his leadership, and we can feel it in his complaint: "C’mon, God, you got me into this, now get me out." And how testily might he talk to the people? "No, I don’t have a plan. Sorry. Because I was not given the plan, that’s why."
The judgment against the Israelites for complaining against their leaders seems like a judgment against ordinary human nature. Why should they not doubt? How long had they known this Moses? Three months? How long had this Lord God of his been in their lives? Two months? After 400 years of no contact? This Lord God who had avoided them for so many years, and now they’re supposed to put radical trust in him? How do they know that this God will not abandon them again?
They were a people who were traumatized, as we would say today. They were traumatized by their oppression under Pharaoh, and then traumatized by their uprooting from their homes, and then by their being pursued by Pharaoh’s army and fearing for their lives, and then by their narrow escape through the Red Sea, a traumatic rescue in itself. As traumatized they feared the worst, and so of course they feared abandonment. Abandonment is the root cause here, I think.
The fear of abandonment is a different version of the not-believing on which I preached last week. I said that not-believing is a sin to the extent that you keep believing in other things which are counter to your belief in those promises of God which are delivered by the Lord Jesus. Those other beliefs are reasonable: about how to secure your future, or how to get power, or get what you want when you want it, how to get ahead, how to feel yourself as right. Such beliefs are examples of "knowing-better," as I said two weeks ago.
But sometimes "knowing better" can have the content of "knowing worse," that you know better than other people do how bad things really are, and that your countering beliefs are negative beliefs, realistic beliefs, that people will not come through, that God will not come through, that the promises of the gospel are fantasies, and that ultimately you’re always abandoned to yourself and your own devices.
That’s how we find the woman at the well. Alone. She came to the well at noon-time and alone, not with the other women at sundown. Five successive husbands have divorced her. If she were a modern woman, we’d suspect she was addicted to relationships, or looking for love in all the wrong places, or maybe she was hot like some celebrity and able to make her way through six successive men. But realistically in her day such freedom was not available to her, and she had little choice in her marriages. Even if she was sufficiently attractive for each new husband to desire her, it was always up to him and not to her and her value decreased with each divorce and at this point she was effectively abandoned as damaged goods.
In situations of abandonment we often descend to our desires and we abandon ourselves to our appetites and we comfort ourselves with our cravings. Eating, or drinking, or hoarding, or politicking or socializing or even thinking. They satisfy only enough for the moment and then you desire again. Consuming, shopping, flirting, yet one more try at love. What was this woman thirsting for? What did she suspect this stranger was suggesting by requesting to put his lips upon her water jug and cross the boundary of sexual propriety? How would you read it if in an otherwise empty subway car some intriguing guy sat down right across from you and looked at you and spoke to you? If you were feeling otherwise abandoned, might you not respond to him? Despite the risk?
One of the problems of sin is that it gives in to sin. I have already spoken of sin’s contagion and momentum, that it gets too big for us to handle. But here I mean that even the smallest and lightest and most harmless of sins is magnetic, and takes an effort to resist, and then more effort, and then more effort until no effort is enough. We give in to sin, we yield to it, despite the risks that we’re aware of. The motion towards sin feels similar to the motion towards healing and hope.
The motion of this woman towards Jesus: it was for healing and hope, but how different was it from her motions towards other men before? We can’t know. The remarkable detail of the story is that she never gives Jesus anything to drink. She comes back at him with her question. "How is it that you, a Jew, are asking me, a Samaritan, for a drink?" You a Russian and me a Ukrainian? You an Israeli and me a Palestinian? "Well, if you knew who was asking, you’d ask me for a drink."
Notice that she does. She doesn’t yield; she rises, she enters. It’s not so much that she is drinking as that something’s being poured into her. What’s the living water? God’s love? God’s Holy Spirit? What does St. Paul write: God’s love has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. It’s God’s love poured into her by the Holy Spirit which has turned her suffering into patience and her patience into character and her character into hope, and her hope comes flowing back out of her as she returns to her village and tells them what she has found.
I frequently meet people in the agony of abandonment. Nothing is working in their lives, they are alone and all their attainments are unraveling, and God is silent to their prayers. I can’t give them much in the way of prescriptions and solutions. I hear myself echoing the Israelites, "Is the Lord among us or not?" My job is to help them to not yield to their abandonment. For that would be a sin.
I know that sounds severe, and unsympathetic, and that’s not how I represent it in the moment, but it would be a falling short. The knowing-better would be the certainty that it’s all bad and that nothing is not hopeless. It can seem reasonable, and tragically romantic, but it’s the sin that yields to sin. And yes, we all know of extreme cases of people absolutely abandoned, which tempt you to doubt it all, but none of you are in that state, and you don’t have that excuse.
But you will have seasons in your life when the only righteousness that may be left to you is simply to keep on believing. Still believing in the middle of your suffering. Endurance can be little more than resistance, and only lacking the initiative to make a change and that’s okay, belief can only not not-believing, and it’s the job of the rest of us to keep you from falling, to get you up off the sidewalk, to get you into a chair, and to pour some of God’s love back into you.
It requires your belief. That’s all it requires but it does require that. Not your strong belief but maybe your desperate belief — if only that there’s nothing else to believe in. I invite you to believe the unprovable promise that God’s love has been poured into your hearts by the Holy Spirit. And that Love, and that Spirit, never yields to the sin. You are weak yourself, but poured into you is the pure and noble and indestructible and life-giving love of God for you.
Copyright © 2014, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.