Sunday, March 27, 2011

Where is your well? Where do you go to find living water?

Today's lessons are Exodus 17:1-7Romans 5:1-11, and John 4:5-42. Here is my sermon for today:

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“Here I find my greatest treasure; hither by thy help I’ve come.”

Where is your well? Where do you go to find living water?

I want to tell you about a place that is special for me, where I find living water.

Forgive me if you’ve heard this story before – I have written about it [including on this blog], and talked about it in other settings. But for some, you haven’t heard this about me.

Many years ago, probably around 1980 or so, I was introduced to a stream that flows from beneath a slumbering volcano, Mount Lassen, in the northeastern corner of California.

The stream, Hat Creek, runs cold and deep, and a three-mile section is maintained as a wild trout sanctuary. I learned to catch fish with a dry fly on Hat Creek, and I learned how to read the water and the wily ways of truly wild fish.

I also learned something about patience and solitude, though not nearly enough.

I have returned to Hat Creek many times over the years, often with a buddy or two, and many times alone.

There was a time in the mid-1980s when things were not going so well for me. That was before I met Lori. Things have gone quite a bit better since then.

I got up early one morning, and I was there at dawn for the mayfly hatch.

I wanted to catch fish, but really I wanted to be on the stream to be alone, to sort things out.

I went to the widest deepest section below the riffle at Powerhouse #2. I took my time, gazed at the water for a while. I set up my rod, put on my waders.

I watched the water awhile longer. I got into the water, walked out into the stream until I was waist deep. I found firm footing on the sandy bottom, then took my first cast.

Instantly I caught the largest trout I have ever caught on Hat Creek. The rules say that you can keep two large trout a day, but I thanked this one and let her go (the big ones are usually female).

At that moment, I had this wonderful feeling that all would be well, that God was with me standing in the stream, holding me up.

And like the water flowing by me, I just knew that my life would have many twists and turns before reaching the sea hundreds of miles and many years away, but that all would be well.

I could sense God telling me that my difficulties were temporary. I needed to be patient to see where this river, my life, would flow.

I would not exactly call this a "conversion experience," nor would I have made any connection at the time with church things or John’s gospel about “living water,” or baptism, or any of that. I'm not sure I would have known the words.

But it was for me a holy experience, and I knew in that moment that my life was going to change in ways I would not and could not know, and I didn't mind that unknowing.

You can chalk it up to cold water or a big trout or high altitude, and maybe that would be so. But the moment has stuck with me for 30 years.

As life has unfolded for me, not everything has turned out as I would have liked or planned, but that is what I heard would happen standing in the stream a long time ago.
And that is all right. That is well.

I return to Hat Creek often, although I have not been there physically in many years. Hat Creek is the place of my imagining, the place where I can bring the deepest longings of my heart. It is where I find the well of living water for me, and yes, it is the place where I meet the living Jesus of my prayers.

I don’t have to be there physically to return to that place and that moment long ago. That is my well of living water.

Where is that well of living water for you? It might not be a creek at all; it might be on a hillside or a city street, or beside the road or inside this church. That well of living water can be anywhere you meet the living Christ.

This morning we meet the Samaritan woman at the well where Jesus finds her and offers her living water. She is the exact opposite in almost every way from Nicodemus, who we met last week.

Nicodemus is powerful, elite, a member of the religious upper crust. He comes to Jesus in the dead of night, perhaps too embarrassed that anyone might notice.

The Samaritan woman doesn’t even have a name. She is an outcast, a member of the wrong tribe, the wrong religion, female, dirt poor. Jesus comes to her, at high noon, in broad daylight.

Sometimes modern preachers portray the Samaritan woman as a terrible sinner because she’s been married five times, but that’s not it at all. In her society, she has no right to divorce men even if they abuse her. She is treated as property. She is used-goods; she’s been traded-in five times.

And Jesus finds her and they talk.

Jesus’ disciples are outraged at this behavior. Why would Jesus deign to talk to her? How dare she talk to him? She is a Samaritan, after all, and they see Jesus as belonging only to them (alas, this theme will play out time and again, down through the ages).

But for Jesus, these social boundaries are not his boundaries. Economic class, religious caste, social cliques, gender, politics, credentials – all of that means nothing at all in these encounters Jesus, not then, and not now.

Both Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman have something in common besides meeting Jesus, perhaps something in common with us. They ask questions, lots of questions, and they push the edges of their beliefs until their old beliefs grow into something new.
What counts is that these two people have an experience of the divine when they meet this mysterious rabbi from Nazareth.

Neither can quite put their finger on it well enough to explain it, but something is now different for each. They find a well of living water that never runs out.

We can read books about Jesus, we can argue about theology and history, we can develop intricate doctrines and obtuse creeds, and we can delve deeply into the literary power of metaphors, and that will carry us a certain way.

But at some point to get it – to really get it – we need experience this for ourselves. Maybe we will do this like Nicodemus, and go looking. Or maybe like the Samaritan woman, this living water will find us.

Either way requires opening our eyes and ears, seeing and listening, and being vulnerable to the deepest longings of our hearts, and paying attention to what is around us, especially when we least expect it. That is the central purpose of Lent, to slow down, take stock, look around, and get into the water.

This living water will bring life in ways we can’t yet imagine, and will ultimately wash away pain and all that harms us. Even our tears will disappear into the river and will become droplets bringing new life once again.

Where is your well? Where will you find this living water? It is there, flowing freely, and it is never too late for any of us to have a new beginning; it is never too late to stand in the stream and drink of the living water.

Or maybe catch a big fish.

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