Sermon preached for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for the Eighteenth Sunday After Pentecost.
[Jesus] had to go through Samaria. So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.
A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”
I have a friend who runs a weekly chapel service for nursing care residents living with dementia and Alzheimer’s.
She doesn’t preach. She reads only a verse of two of the Bible, and then only the greatest hits. Mostly she sings.
And her congregation, many of whom are silent the rest of the week, sing with gusto alongside her.
Many of them cannot remember their own names; they don’t know what day of the week it is. They don’t remember whether or not they have children.
But they know Amazing Grace, all four verses. They know the Lord’s Prayer. They know the 23rdPsalm. My friend says sometimes she would like to sing something different, or branch out from the standard scriptures. But she knows what the hour means to them. A chance to reconnect with the deepest parts of themselves, parts their illness has all but shut away.
Benjamin Mast is a geropsychologist at the University of Louisville, just down the road, who writes about the power of the gospel for those living with Alzheimers. In an interview, he talked about how the disease disrupts recent memory, but can’t always destroy the memory that a patient has held the longest.
And so what people remember is what they learned in their childhood, what they recited week to week in Sunday School and worship and in daily prayers.
“If you ask a person who’s been deeply affected by Alzheimer’s about something that happened yesterday, you’re going to their weakness in terms of memory,” Mast says. “But if we can engage them […in] faith services with older songs and hymns that they’ve known for many years, we’re meeting them where they’re strong.”
We’re meeting them where they’re strong.
I wonder, somedays, what I would remember, if Alzheimers came for me. What is so deep in me that it can’t be destroyed. Where my strength would be.
Our scripture today is one of my favorites. Jesus meets a woman at a well, and they talk about water. For the woman, the well is both a place of pride—it is her inheritance from her famous ancestor Jacob—but also a place of exhaustion—where she trudges each day to bring back water for her home.
The well, she says, is deep.
It’s an interesting detail, and one I’ve rarely paid attention to. A deep well is a good thing; it means a constant source of water. But it also means it takes more time and more muscle to pull the bucket of water all the way back up to the surface. The woman at the well probably had some biceps on her. This well is how she survives, but it’s also the source of her exhaustion.
Few of us nowadays now the daily toil of dragging heavy buckets of water up from holes in the ground, but we do know what it is to be exhausted by the very things we turn to for survival.
In this pandemic year, most of us have turned to technology to sustain our jobs, our relationships, even our faith life. Zoom has been a lifesaver for many of us in a time of upheaval. And many of us are totally burned out on it.
We follow the news because our common life together demands it. And many of us are totally burned out on it.
We check our masks, keep our distance, forego hugs so that we can do our part to lessen the death toll of COVID-19. And many of us are totally burned out on those practices.
Even the hobbies that used to be enough for little pick-me-ups at the end of the week can feel like dry wells now. A colleague recently lamented that all the things she used to turn to for joy—knitting, painting, hiking—just aren’t cutting it now. “I need something deeper,” she said.
We have built human wells to draw from, for our survival, for our refreshment. There’s nothing wrong with that. But human wells can exhaust us, and human wells can go dry.
And so Jesus offers us something more. Living Water from a deeper well.
The song Tony sang earlier is directly about the woman at the well and her encounter with Jesus. The writer, Mark Hall, commented how “she was standing there talking to Jesus about water and Jesus was talking to her about water, but they weren’t talking about the same water. . . I look at myself as a believer [he said] and I see that usually when I come to Jesus, I’ve already got my well figured out, I’ve already got what I think is going to sustain me, I just need him to sprinkle some magic Jesus dust on it and make it work. We have our wells figured and we want Jesus to fix our wells, but our wells are really holes in the ground. . . [Instead we need to] start with Jesus.”
Jesus’ well never runs dry. That is his promise. “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, [he says] but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”
Can you imagine? Never to be thirsty again, never to be tired, never to work with sore and aching arms for your own mere survival? To simply sit and rest and drink the water someone else offers you?
I have been captured by this story in the last few months, as I’ve thought about the work of the church in this pandemic. Our year together has in some ways looked nothing like I expected. I certainly did not plan to lead worship from my living room for a quarter of the year, nor to spend my nights worrying whether or not my preaching would endanger lives. I did not expect to cancel our trips to Montreat, or to ask people to text the peace to each other. I did not expect to have to miss you as fiercely as I have done this year.
Most of all, I did not expect to see in the clearest of terms how much this church matters.
Many years, church is a little muddy. We appreciate it, but it’s also part of the routine. And in October, I ask you to give money so we can keep the wheels spinning, so we can maintain what we are doing, so that the next year will look much like the last.
But this year, the power of the church has been as crystal clear as Christ’s Living Water. With the routine disrupted and the incidentals stripped away, I have witnessed how deeply the church, and the faith that we hold together here, has mattered to this congregation. I have seen the work you all have been willing to do to draw up buckets of living water from this church.
It has been a year of sacrifices, and of exhaustion, and we are far from done. A return to normal is far away, and I expect it will come as gradually as the shutdown came suddenly. But by Facebook and Zoom, by masks and hand sanitizer, by painstakingly hard choices and feats of time and attention, we have come to this well of worship to hear good news when everything else was bad. We have remembered that there is a deeper well to draw from, when our human wells fail us.
This church is of human making. It takes our money, our time, our hands, our volunteer hours, our choices, to create and sustain this community of faith. And sometimes the work of the church feels as exhausting and back-breaking as the work of dragging heavy buckets up from the ground.
I know there are days you don’t want to wear a mask. I know there are days you don’t want to tune into Facebook. I know there are days you are desperate to sing a hymn together. I know there are days when making your promised donation cuts deeper into the bottom line than you’d planned. I know there are days when you miss each other. I know there are days when it is hard—achingly hard—to be the church right now.
But I also know that while we may be the ones who dig this well, it is Christ himself who fills it—fills it with Living Water, with good news, with love, with peace, with hope, with rest. The church we create together is so much more than the sum of our human efforts. Here you are invited to sit—in the pew or on the couch—and remember that you are loved, just as you are. Remember that there is grace, even in the rawest days. Remember that there is hope, even when everything seems hopeless. Remember that you are not alone, even when you feel so, so lonely.
The well is ours, but the water is Christ’s.
And so this month, as we prepare to make the promises of money that will enable to plan for another year of ministry together, I’m asking you to dig deep. Help us build our well together, keep this church vibrant and strong when we so need a source of strength in our lives.
But I’m also asking you not to forget to rest when the digging is done. Draw deeply from this body of believers and what we offer to each other. I know it’s harder than it used to be, when you could just show up to 710 Western Reserve. But do not let distance keep you from Christ’s living waters, that we are pouring out over each other.
Pray often. Give joyfully. Return to the scriptures and songs that give you peace. Call each other. Join us in our mission to others. Worship however you are able. Rest. My friends, please, please remember to rest, in the sure and certain knowledge that you are loved, and you belong.
In a year when we are so tired, when everything feels so heavy, when so much has been stripped away, this place is still our strength.
Let us meet where we are strong.