This is the second sermon in a series about the different places we can find God around us.
SCRIPTURE – John 4:7-15 – A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” 8 (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) 9 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.) 10 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.” 11 The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12 Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” 13 Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14 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.” 15 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.”
Finding God…in the Water
September 4, 2016
We continue our sermon series today called “Finding God,” in which we’re looking at the different places around us where we encounter the living God. This series stems from my recent three-month sabbatical, during which I was able to experience God in some amazing places. Now that I’m back home in Lexington, can we find the same God here that I found out there? I believe so, if we only know where to look. Last week we found God by looking at the ground underneath our feet. Today, we’ll look for God in our most common and precious source of life.
I grew up on the banks of the Ohio River in Jeffersonville, Ind. For me, the river was always there, so much so that I kind of forgot about it. It’s like the story of two young fish who are swimming along and pass an older fish, who says to them,” Hey boys, how’s the water?” A little later, one fish turns to the other and says, “What the heck is water?” The Ohio was what it was: an ugly brown body of water, a barrier to get across, another dull feature in the landscape. I took its water for granted.
I wonder if folks who grew up in Lexington feel the same way about water, but for a different reason. Because I grew up near water, it became invisible. But there’s no water flowing through Lexington, no river to remind us of its power or beauty. Other than a few small creeks and streams, water is not a regular part of our landscapes. In Lexington, we also take water for granted.
That’s easy to do, since water is so easy to find, easy to use, easy to discard. Buy a bottle at the store, turn on your sink, even press a button on your fridge, and water is right there. Clean, clear, refreshing. Under control. A commodity to be used to make our lives easier, cleaner. I talked a few weeks ago how I had become so familiar with God that I had domesticated God. In our modern times, we’ve taken the element that carved the Grand Canyon and fills the oceans and domesticated it. To us, water is just…water.
That’s not completely a bad thing. I like a hot shower just as much as anyone. But by taming this source of life, not only have we learned to take it for granted, but we’ve forgotten the power that water has. In our passage today, Jesus compares the life he has to offer to H2O, presenting himself as “living water.” I wonder how we would treat our water differently if we saw its divine qualities.
In the Bible, water is anything but domesticated, and certainly never taken for granted. It’s feared for the power it holds. Back then, no one knew what was under the water, so it had this dangerous, mysterious quality to it. It was thought to be the locus of evil and home of the great sea monster Leviathan. From the very beginning, in Genesis 1, we see God’s spirit hovering over the waters, bringing order to chaos. Not long after that, God sends water to the earth to wipe out evil humanity, only rescuing Noah and his family in the ark. Just a book later, God provides an escape for the Israelites from slavery in Egypt by first parting the Red Sea, then causing it to come crashing down on the Egyptian soldiers. Water in the Bible was not to be messed with.
But just as it can take life away, it can also give it. Baby Moses is sent afloat on the waters of the Nile, where he is scooped up by Pharaoh’s daughter. When the Israelites are wandering in the desert, Moses is able to provide water from a rock to quench their thirst. The psalmist writes of how God leads him beside still waters as a way of restoring his soul. Water has the power to create life, or to destroy it. But we forget that when we can control it with the twist of a faucet knob.
The Bible takes our understanding of water a step further. Going beyond the literal power of water, biblical writers tap into its metaphorical power as a source of God’s providence and presence. One of the best examples is from the prophet Amos, who rails against the Israelites’ disobedience to God. Decrying their false and empty worship, God proclaims, “Let justice flow down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream!” Water’s presence in our lives is supposed to remind us of God’s presence, which brings justice, vitality, and the reminder of the gift of life.
Do we remember that when we’re watering the lawn or washing the dishes? Does water remind us of God’s presence when we see rain in the forecast? Every day I pour out glasses of water that were fixed and then forgotten, or run the sink for a few minutes to get hot water. Water is so available, so accessible, so free, that we forget its fragility, its finiteness.
There’s a lot of water on this planet. About 71% of the earth is covered in it. See, there’s plenty of water, right? Except that about 96% of that water is salt water, leaving only 4% fresh water. Two percent of that is in the form of ice, meaning we only have two percent of earth’s water to use, and only .3 percent of all the earth’s water is actually readily available to us. .3 percent. I’m suddenly aware of all the times I’ve left the water running while I brushed my teeth.
Why not just make more water? It sounds easy, right? Combine two molecules of hydrogen with one molecule of oxygen. But if you’ve seen the movie “The Martian,” you know that trying to make water can be a combustible process. Matt Damon almost blows up his space station trying to do it. We live on a pretty big space station, and sometimes it feels like we’re trying to blow it up in other ways, but trying to make water isn’t one of them. The water we have is the water we’ll have.
We might find more motivation for recognizing the divinity of water if we look backward, not forward. If we can’t create water, that means the water we have now is the water we’ve always had. The water in your water bottle may have been part of the Red Sea, or have borne Jesus’ footsteps when he walked on the Sea of Galilee, or was present at creation when God’s spirit hovered over it. Our water connects us back to creation and God’s story. It’s not just a commodity; it’s a reminder of God’s sacred presence with us.
I certainly became aware of this in all the ways I encountered water on my sabbatical. The town I stayed at in Alaska, Talkeetna, was at the confluence of three rivers – the Talkeetna, the Susitna, and the Chulitna, all derived from the Athabascan name for “river.” Standing at the confluence, the waters roared by, carrying large trees and boulders. The raw power of that water was scary.
I experienced water’s power in a much different way while standing at 180 Greenwich St. in New York City, site of the 9/11 Memorial. Two large caverns in the ground have been turned into in-ground waterfalls, with tons of water rushing from the surface into the holes left by the towers. The sound of the water is sobering, drowning out the noise of the city. That water carried the pain of the past and the hope of the future.
As we prepared to travel to Europe, the girls were excited to fly across the ocean, until they realized all that really meant was several hours of looking at an endless horizon of water. The vastness of the ocean was mesmerizing. And in Ireland, we saw the River Shannon at the ancient monastic site of Clonmacnoise. Spiritual pilgrims would follow the river in order to find the monastery. The river was literally the pathway to God for those early spiritual seekers.
Water plays such a powerful role in the lives of people around the world, but that’s easy for us to forget when we don’t have to rely on water in its natural form. We can push a button or turn a knob and have all the water we need. But in other places, the lack of clean, usable water is causing disease, drought, and death. For example, former farmers and fishermen in Middle Eastern countries are being driven off their land and into the cities, where, as they struggle to survive, they became more susceptible to joining radical religious groups. We may think the challenges of water are someone else’s problem, but they are ours, too. We are all connected by the waters that flow around us.
I remember vividly a story I read on CNN during the search for the lost Malaysian flight. Rescue planes over the Indian Ocean thought they spotted some debris from the downed flight, but instead it was report to be “just a floating pile of garbage.” A floating pile of garbage so big it could be seen from an airplane thousands of feet in the air. Does that make you mad? I admit it didn’t make me mad, because it wasn’t my water.
Of course, ultimately, it’s ALL our water, on loan to us from God. And the more we mistreat it, the more damage we do to our neighbors, our space station, and I would argue, to our understanding of and relationship with God. In England, we visited the city of Bath, which was the site of an ancient Roman worshipping community that had built up around a natural hot springs. The Romans believed that bubbling water signifying the presence of the goddess Minerva, so they built a temple on the site to honor her. The saw the divinity in their water.
I’d say Christians have done something similar. Rather than finding water and building a temple, we build a church and then include the water, in the form of a baptistery. That is holy water for us, and something transformative happens whenever someone enters into it. But – here’s a secret – at Crestwood, that water comes from a tap. Just like the water you use to boil green beans or water your hydrangeas. That knowledge might lessen your view of the holiness of our baptismal water, but I pray instead it elevates your view of the water use you every day. Every drop of water we have now was present at creation. Every drop of water, from the bathtub to the bottle to the baptistery, is holy water.
In the very first chapter of the Bible, we are told that God’s spirit hovered over the waters. In the very last chapter of the Bible, we read this: “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” And then Jesus, in some of his last words, says, “Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.”
The living water offered to us through Jesus is truly a gift. But so is the literal water that flows around us. It is infused with God’s spirit, which has coursed through it from the beginning of creation. Every time you take a drink, or go swimming, or relax in the bath, remember you are encountering nothing less than the living presence of God, which has the power to fill us, refresh us, transform us.