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Numbers 21.16-18

John 4.5-30

The Well of Well-Being

Sixth Sunday of Easter

Debbie’s dad was a Presbyterian minister.  The Rev. Dr. Bickford Lang received his undergrad degree from Franklin & Marshall, his Master of Divinity from Princeton, and served churches in Erie and Fox Chapel, PA, Cincinnati and Dayton OH, and he spent his last dozen years of ministry at the International Fellowship Church in Sao Paolo, Brazil.  Bick was a preacher possessed of a powerful pulpit presence.  When he climbed into the pulpit and began to preach, he had a way of capturing your eyes and your attention and you could not let go until he was finished.  I heard him preach about a half dozen times, and it was especially grand to have him preach in my Calumet and Bridgewater churches.  Bick passed away in 1996.  One of his more memorable sermons, to my mind, was one he called “The Inward/Outward Journey.”  He reminded us that in order to be our most effective as we each engage our own ministry, whether it is in the church, in the community or in the world, we need to be certain we are taking care of ourselves, in body and in spirit, so we can present our very best selves to others and to God, and remain grounded in the dynamics of our faith.

To be honest, I don’t remember the text Bick used for that sermon, but I could not help but think of his message when I reread this morning’s gospel story from John.  It just contains so many facets of what it means to take care of yourself both physically and spiritually, and the Samaritan woman at the well in Sychar learns something about herself along the way.

I think the most telling part of her encounter with Jesus comes near the end of the story.  When she returned to the city, she told her neighbors and friends with palpable astonishment, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!  He couldn’t be the Messiah, could he?”

It is a rich story, unusual on multiple levels.  First, Jesus the Jew initiated the encounter with a Samaritan woman.  The woman herself noticed the disconnect right away, because Jews and Samaritans were not on speaking terms:  “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” she asked him, because as John reminds us, Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.  At the same time, the encounter is of a man speaking to a woman; again, the moment flies in the face of the contemporary culture.  “[Jesus’ disciples] were astonished that he was speaking with a woman.”  Two counter-cultural moments in the same gospel story.  Then again, that’s just Jesus being Jesus.  But on a deeper level, he already knew, or sensed, her life story.  “You have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.”  Note, Jesus does not judge the woman for anything in this moment, he just names her history.  And it was both his acknowledgement of her status, as well as his refusal to judge, that left her astonished.

At the heart of the story though, is the living water Jesus offered her.  “Everyone who drinks of this [well] 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.”  “Sir, give me this water.”

You and I have a phrase that describes refreshing and renewing ourselves.  We go to the well, or we go back to the well, to a place where we know we can find sustenance and support, where we can find bread for the journey and drink for the spirit.  And we find these in any number of places.  We find them in friendships:  few things are as rich as an hour of conversation with a dear friend over a cup of coffee or a glass of wine.  We find them in prayer: quiet time with God, whether we are praying, or listening, or meditating on our place in God’s world and God’s place in ours.   We find them in nature and in beauty:  if I had a nickel for every time someone said to me they find either God, or grace, or a little of both, in a walk through the woods or a stroll on the beach or a glorious sunrise or the twinkle of stars, well, I’d write a book and retire.  And, speaking of books, we find the same sustenance and support in reading and in music:  from a novel that changes the way we see ourselves and our world; from our choir who never fails to elevate our worship and to praise God.  Several weeks ago Debbie and I sat in the Sydney Opera House for a solo piano performance of Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier,” a seventy-five minute piece that pianist Vikingur Olafsson played completely from memory.   The setting was spectacular; the acoustics were phenomenal; the performance was as riveting as it was beatific. God speaks to us and edifies us through every medium available.  And as a result we are fed and fortified.

But we have also heard the caution about going to the well too often, right?  If we go back to the same source too many times it might dry up.  Maybe the friend gets tired of having coffee with us and listening to our stories, or we grow jaded seeing the same constellations every night.  I can’t imagine that myself, but it happens.   But that’s not the way it works with Jesus, who knew this stranger woman so well – her motivations, her checkered marital past and present, her deepest desires, he could see to the root of her soul and understand her most profound needs – and he met them.  It was a level of intimacy that told her his words about the living water were every bit as true and dependable as his observations about her life.

God knows us better than we know ourselves.  And with God, it is not possible to go to the well too often.  “Whoever drinks the water I give will never be thirsty.  The water that I give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”  It is sustenance and support that will never be exhausted.

The idea of the life-giving well is an ancient one in Hebrew history.  The woman admitted as much when she said of the place she met Jesus, “Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us this well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?”  And I chose the passage from Numbers for Deb to read because it is actually a song about a well.  “Then Israel sang this song:  ‘Spring up, O well! Sing to it! The well that the leaders sank, that the nobles of the people dug with the sceptre, with the staff.’”  You might call it one of history’s earliest drinking songs, and although I could have a lot more fun with the fact this is called the well of Beer, the word Beer, in Hebrew, simply means, ‘well,’ it has nothing to do with the contents of the well.  Oh well…

How do you and I go to the well?  I described some of the ways others have done so, but it is different for each of us, and if I had to guess I’d say we have multiple sources for sustenance and support, for refreshment and renewal.  For me it is prayer, walking and riding outdoors, friendships and music, not to mention that I have the best job in the world!  Wherever it is you find your nurture, your inspiration, go there, and go there often, and remember, in God, the well is fathomless.  It will never run dry.

Because my father-in-law was correct.  We are a congregation that continues to find new ways of giving ourselves to our church and our community, and we need to be sure we are taking care of ourselves at the same time.  We need to go to the well with the same ardent need as that Samaritan woman did, if only because it is one of the places we encounter the presence of God in Jesus Christ, who knows us better than we know ourselves, who knows what we need before we need it, and who continues to feed and supply and equip us in every instance and circumstance.

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