Sermon preached for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church on the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost.
Jacob got to his feet and set out for the land of the easterners He saw a well in the field in front of him, near which three flocks of sheep were lying down. That well was their source for water because the flocks drank from that well. A huge stone covered the well’s opening. When all of the flocks were gathered there, the shepherds would roll the stone from the well’s opening, water the sheep, and return the stone to its place at the well’s opening. Jacob said to them, “Where are you from, my brothers?”
They said, “We’re from Haran.”
Then he said to them, “Do you know Laban, Nahor’s grandson?”
They said, “We know him.”
He said to them, “Is he well?”
They said, “He’s fine. In fact, this is his daughter Rachel now, coming with the flock.”
He said to them, “It’s now only the middle of the day. It’s not time yet to gather the animals. Water the flock, and then go, put them out to pasture.”
They said to him, “We can’t until all the herds are gathered, and then we roll the stone away from the well’s opening and water the flock.”
While he was still talking to them, Rachel came with her father’s flock since she was its shepherd. When Jacob saw Rachel the daughter of Laban his uncle, and the flock of Laban, Jacob came up, rolled the stone from the well’s opening, and watered the flock of his uncle Laban. Jacob kissed Rachel and wept aloud. Jacob told Rachel that he was related to her father and that he was Rebekah’s son. She then ran to tell her father. When Laban heard about Jacob his sister’s son, he ran to meet him. Laban embraced him, kissed him, and invited him into his house, where Jacob recounted to Laban everything that had happened. Laban said to him, “Yes, you are my flesh and blood.”
I won’t name names, but I happen to know a few of you are big fans of the Christmas movies on the Hallmark channel.
Even if you’ve never seen one, you know how they go: big city girl leaves a successful but empty life in the big city to open a bakery or dogwalking business or bookstore in a small town. She meets a guy with either a kid or a dog and sparks fly. They might bicker for a while, but you know exactly where the story will end. Toss in some swirling snowflakes, warm lamplight, and schmaltzy cinematic music and you’ve got the basic recipe for a holiday romance movie. They churn out dozens of these a year, and people watch, because they’re comfortingly familiar.
What can I say? We love a love story.
Turns out, the ancient Israelites did too. But their romance stories didn’t revolve around twinkle lights and snowflakes. They started their love stories at the well.
In Hebrew scripture, if a man and a woman meet at a well, you know exactly where the story will end. Abraham, Jacob, and Moses all meet their wives at the well.
It makes a lot of sense. In the ancient world, drawing water from the well was women’s work, and one of the few times women might go out on their own, away from the protective eye of their fathers and brothers. If you wanted to chat up a lady, the well was the place to do it.
Our scripture today is one of the Bible’s seminal love stories, and it begins with a meet-cute at a well. Now Jacob is one of the Bible’s bad boys, having stolen his older brother Esau’s birthright. He’s on the run from Esau now, headed to the safety of his mother’s brother Laban.
He’s never met his uncle, so when he gets to Haran, where Laban lives, Jacob asks if anybody knows him. They do and—what a coincidence—it’s his daughter coming with her father’s sheep to let them drink from the well.
Now this isn’t just any well. It’s covered by a stone so heavy that usually the shepherds wait until everybody’s there, so they only have to drag the stone away once.
But when Jacob sees Rachel, he decides a little chivalry is in order, and in a show of manly strength pulls the stone aside so that she can water her sheep right then and there, no waiting. Cue the romantic music.
Apparently the crush is mutual, because Rachel takes Jacob home to meet the parents, and we get a family reunion to add to the love story. (The fact that Rachel and Jacob are long-lost first cousins would have made their romance more perfect, and not creepy, in the ancient world.) After so many months on the run, Jacob is finally home.
We started this sermon series with another story about a woman at a well—the Samaritan woman who catches Jesus’ attention. Standing at a well named after our own romantic hero, Jacob, most first century listeners would have assumed at the start of that story that Jesus was about to find a wife at last. But the gospel of John turns the meet-cute on its head, and the Samaritan woman finds not a sixth husband to offer her security in this life, but a savior to offer her salvation in the next.
It’s that story has pulled me towards talking about the church as a well this month, a well dug by our hands but full of Christ’s living water. But the story of Jacob and Rachel reminds me that this church is also a well of love—God’s and ours.
In fact, churches are great places to fall in love.
Not romantically, I wouldn’t recommend that—but they are great places to fall in love with ordinary, sainted sinners. How many of you love somebody you would never have met if it weren’t for this church? How many of you are loved by somebody you would never have met if you hadn’t stopped here, at this well? We send cards, we make calls, we lift prayers, we bake brownies. We root each other’s successes and we raise each other’s children. Even when it’s not easy, we strive to love each other.
A few years ago I attended a conference at Montreat for new pastors. I chose a workshop on visioning and strategic planning for churches, and we learned a lot about creating checklists and drafting campaigns and running scenarios.
But the only thing I really remember clearly was a comment about people. One of my fellow pastors shared that as he planned, he wanted to find out which programs and worship styles could attract more people to his congregation. So he asked some of his newer members why they had joined. This was what they said,
“When we came here, we didn’t just meet people we liked, but people we wanted to become like.”
In other words: we fell in love with people.
Over the last four and some change years, I have fallen in love with each of y’all. Your joy. Your wisdom. Your compassion. Your quirks. Your strength. Your faith. So when the pandemic hit, of course it was y’all that I most wanted to be with.
But that hasn’t been possible this year, not fully.
I know how deeply we want to be together with the people that we love. But I am so grateful that love is not bound by the four walls of the sanctuary, and that we have found ways to love each other this year that go far beyond the Sunday service.
Jacob fell for Rachel at that well, but it was fourteen more years before he got the chance to marry her. Fourteen years of hard work, but he never walked away. I pray that it will not be fourteen years before we are all back together again, but I know that some days it seems like it already has been.
Here is my prayer for us all: that we will remember the love that drew us to this church, to each other. That we will fill this church with our love even in these difficult days. And that we will draw strength from the love we find here, love undergirded by the great and powerful heart of God, until the day we thirst no more.