Seeing Deeper

Sermon preached for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for the Third Sunday in Lent.

John 4:5-42
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.”

Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.”

The woman answered him, “I have no husband.”

Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!”

The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.”

Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”

The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.”

Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”

Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?”

Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” They left the city and were on their way to him.

Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.”

But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.”

So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?”

Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”

Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”

I grew up in a congregation that had children’s church. Halfway through the service, we were whisked to the basement to make macaroni Jesus portraits and stuff our faces with pretzels and juiceboxes. I liked it very much. 

Except, once a month, we had to stay upstairs. In the sanctuary. With the boring adults, and the boring sermon, and the really, really boring offertory. All for the purpose of taking communion. 

Now, no one remembers which child it was—or perhaps no one wants to name names—but there is a story from my home church about a young child, who, when being told they would be staying to take communion, got very excited. If they had to sit through all that boring stuff, they figured, then communion must really be something special. The child eagerly craned their neck as we passed plates of crackers and tiny glasses of juice, waiting for their turn. 

After church, their mom asked them what they thought. 

“It’s just a snack,” the child responded dourly. “And not a very good snack at that!”

This story is mostly told in hushed, horrified tones by the good Presbyterian women I was raised by; sometimes with a shrug and a laugh and a “kids say the darndest things” attitude. But I find that kid’s honesty refreshing. At face value, communion is just a snack—and not a terribly tasty or filling snack at that! I have certainly never found myself wandering hungrily into the kitchen to cut myself a cube of bread and pour myself a few milliliters of Welches’ grape juice. 

It’s an odd thing we do, this communion bit. 

Once a month or so, I invite you to the feast of the Lord—and follow it up with a serving size so tiny it could outdo even the priciest restaurants. What I am really doing, of course, is inviting you to act out an imaginative story with me. Like children sitting down to a tea party, going through the motions of pouring invisible tea and talking to invisible guests, during communion we are stepping into a world of imagination. 

I want to be clear that imagined worlds are not always made-up, or fake. Our imagination is a gift of God that allows us to see beyond and through what is right in front of us. And in communion, we take the simple symbols of bread and juice and imagine whole worlds contained in them, worlds that God has promised us:

From this bite-size snack, we imagine the abundance of manna coating the desert ground, of baskets of leftover loaves on a Galilean hillside, of a banquet table in heaven that reaches as far as the eye can see, and where everyone we ever loved sits and eats and laughs together, and where somehow every one of us gets to sit next to our Savior. 

From these ordinary pantry staples, we imagine Christ’s own body, born for us, touching us with healing, broken for us, rising for us. We imagine being fed not with carbs and sugars but with grace, and courage, and forgiveness, and hope. We imagine walking away stronger, holier, even, because we know that we are what we eat. 

The child who took communion at my home church was disappointed, because they hadn’t yet learned about all God’s promises, and the worlds God invites us into. Once upon a time, it was considered proper for children to learn first, so they could truly appreciate communion. But I think it works better the other way: experience the world we have, then learn to see the world God is drawing us into. 

I think it is more powerful to learn that what we thought was ordinary, or small, or even disappointing, is actually bursting with meaning, then to learn to recite meanings and hope you experience them when your turn comes. 

This morning we meet a woman at a well. The well is ordinary; her task there is routine. It was women’s work to draw water, and she probably went every day, possibly more often. She carries a jug for water; her arms are probably muscular and strong. But while the well is part of her heritage—it was where her ancestor Jacob met his beloved Rachel—and while having fresh water at all is a miracle—I imagine she had long ago stopped looking at this well with any sense of romance or adventure. This was work. The daily grind. 

And into this boring, ordinary daily grind comes a stranger, who asks her for a drink.

The woman assesses him at once. He is a man, of course; and a foreigner; and a Jew. And immediately they are at an impasse. 

The woman is Samaritan, and Samaritans and Jews, as John is quick to point out, do not share things in common. Not things. History, yes—lots of shared history. They are both descendants of the Hebrew people, both adherents to the Torah. But while the Jews went on to add psalms and histories and prophecies to their scripture, and to build and worship at the temple in Jerusalem, and to look for a king like David to save them, Samaritans stuck to the Torah alone, and worshipped on a mountain, and waited for another prophet like Moses. And over the centuries these differences, which seem so slight nowadays, got mixed up with political intrigues and blossomed into wars and rumors of wars and by Jesus’ day these two close cousins would not step foot in the same town if they could help it. 

Except Jesus goes into Samaria, and asks a woman for a drink. And when she questions him about it, he says that while he needs a cup of cool water from her, he can offer her living water in turn. 

The woman has dealt with water her whole life. It is her daily work, the weight that makes her arms ache at night. Yet Jesus invites her to imagine: imagine what water could mean. Imagine what water could do. 

I have living water, water to keep you alive not just for a day or two but forever. Water that is not a task but a joy. And more, Jesus adds, building out this imaginative scene: you won’t just be a consumer of water. You will become the well, providing water for others.

Had the woman never heaved a jar of water up from a deep pit in the earth, I do not think she would have been so amazed by the picture Jesus paints. The wealthy woman lounging in her salon, waiting for her servant to fill up her washbasin, could not have been so compelled by this image. Jesus takes what is ordinary, boring, routine, and shows us the extraordinary. 

There is a B plot to this story that we often overlook in favor of the fascinating woman at the well. Jesus’ disciples go to a nearby city to do some grocery shopping, and they come back, interrupting this groundbreaking conversation. It’s almost comedy. “Rabbi, eat something,” they urge, shooting nervous glances at the Samaritan woman, trying to decide whether to remind Jesus that he’s breaking the rules in his choice of conversation partner. 

“I have food to eat that you do not know about,” Jesus responds, and for a second I am irritated at him, because what a rude response to someone who has just gone shopping specifically for you. But again, Jesus is interested drawing his disciples deeper. “My food [he continues] is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work.”

I don’t know what food the disciples had brought him. Perhaps it was a loaf of bread and a skin of wine. Perhaps olives and dried meat. Jesus will need to eat, eventually. But he wants them to imagine more—imagine something else as important as food, as filling. Purpose. I have a purpose, Jesus says, and that purpose is as good to me as food is. Imagine, he says, imagine having something so important to do that it fills you like a good meal when you can do it. For me, and for y’all, that is doing God’s work, and spreading good news. And then, Jesus twists the metaphor again: the people he meets become the food, not to consume and toss away, but to cherish and savor. This woman, he almost says, is my food, the thing I love, the thing that gives me life, the thing it is worth working hard to harvest. 

Throughout the gospel of John, Jesus is invested in teaching us to see. To see beyond what is obvious, what is boring, what is routine, and into a world that shimmers with God’s grace, God’s hope, God’s promise. Jesus, in fact, is the one who sees: who sees us, not as a list of stereotypes—female, Samaritan, unmarried—but as a whole created, beloved, complicated, possibility-laden person.

In fact, when the woman goes back to her friends, her neighbors, to testify that she has met the Messiah, she says “he told me everything I have ever done.” In other words, he saw me. And now I can see him.

Jesus looks into the dark-tinted water of a deep well and invites an aching woman to imagine eternal life. He looks at a bag of groceries and invites his disciples to imagine life-giving purpose. He shows up as a dusty, chatty, Jewish stranger and invites us to see a Messiah. 

Faith calls us to an active imagination. Some of us—some of us adults—are uncomfortable with the word imagine. Fine. Visualize, meditate, metaphorize, whatever you prefer. But Jesus calls us to have the faith of children, and if there is anything children excel at, it is seeing more than what is in front of them. What a gift. 

A strongly developed Christian imagination is not one that makes up fantasy worlds to escape the one we have, but sees God’s gifts and God’s calling in the everyday bits of the world we have. The Samaritan woman meets Jesus at work, of all places. What have you gotten too used to, in your daily life, that could have God’s fingerprints all over it? Perhaps more importantly, who have you not seen, that might just be in your life to show you the face of God? 

In a few minutes, we will take communion. As a snack, it will always be disappointing. But it is not a snack. Communion is an invitation to believe that there is more to the world than what we see, more to our lives than what we would put in a bio, more to our faith than mere props and symbols. In communion we stand with the Samaritan woman, looking over the lip of the well, down, down, down into the darkness, until we catch a glimpse—

of the very source of life. 


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