Praying for Living Water 3-19-17

What are We Praying For?  Living Water

John 4:5-42

St. Luke UMC, Bryn Mawr, PA

March 19, 2017

Rev. Tom Lank

We are living in a time of unprecedented progress for women in American society and a time when women are still reminded in often degrading ways that they have not quite reached equal status with men.  Female participation in the workforce is at an all-time high, yet there is still not equal pay for equal work.  There is a new push for paid family leave, but even when leave is offered, fewer men take advantage of it than women.  Child-rearing is still primarily considered to be women’s work.  More women are becoming executives in the arenas of business and government, but they often find they have to dress more like men and act more like men in order to be effective and accepted.  Though women make up 50% of the electorate, they represent only 20% of our elected representatives in Congress.  And we have yet to elect our first female President, a category in which we trail allies like Britain, Germany, Israel, India, Pakistan, Iceland, Argentina, the Philippines, Liberia, South Korea, and the list goes on.  On the other hand we also witnessed a Women’s March on Washington two months ago that drew 500,000 demonstrators and more than 800 simultaneous protests covering all seven continents.  An estimated 4.2 million people marched in this country alone in support of women’s dignity.


Even in the church, we have a long way to go in breaking what is known as the “stained glass ceiling.”  Though many more conservative traditions still ban females from preaching or becoming pastors, more and more women are becoming pastors in the United Methodist Church.  We just celebrated 60 years of full clergy rights for women in the denomination.  Since that time, we are steadily approaching gender parity in our clergy.  But it is still the case that men are twice as likely as women to occupy the pulpits of churches with attendance of 350 or more.  When you look at our megachurches with attendance over 1000, only 4 out of 177 have female senior pastors.  25% of our active bishops are female, including the bishop of this Conference, Peggy Johnson.


Just this past week, a shocking video resource was produced by female clergy in the North Alabama Conference exposing some of the harassment and discrimination they experienced in their paths in ministry.  Just a couple of examples:


One said: “When I was hired on the staff of a large church and met the senior pastor’s wife, she looked me up and down and then said “I can see why he hired you!”  If I was given a dollar for every time I was told I’m too pretty to be a pastor, I could pay off the church building debt.”

Another said:  “I was offered a significant raise by my church when I became the senior pastor. But the bishop at the time had the church reduce my salary by $5,000. The bishop told me it could be bad for my husband’s self-esteem if I made so much money since my husband was clergy as well, that it might be hard on our marriage.”


That is one of the reasons why today’s Gospel reading from John is so important.  It reminds us that women, as has frequently been noted, play a vital role in Jesus’ ministry.  They are not among the 12 apostles, but they are often in positions of trust and are more loyal and devoted than the men who followed him.  Think of Mary and Martha, some of his closest companions.  Think of Mary Magdalene or his mother Mary.  Think of all of the female characters in Jesus’ parables.  Today, in the story of Jesus’ interaction with the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus has his longest sustained recorded theological conversation with – A WOMAN.  When she realizes who he is, she runs to her village to tell everyone to come and see this man who told her everything.  She becomes the first female preacher and evangelist.  The Samaritan people, because of her testimony that brought them to Christ, became an important part of the early church in the Near East.  Women like this Samaritan woman were leaders in the Christian movement from the very beginning and were integral to its success.  It is a shame that we will never know her name.  We cannot erase male patriarchy from the Bible, but we can celebrate the women within its pages who bear witness to the equality we all share in Christ – in whom there is no East or West, no Jew nor Gentile, no slave nor free, no male or female.

It is this kind of radical equality that keeps surprising people about the Kingdom of God.  It constantly challenges our categories and our boundaries and shows us where we’ve been creating insiders and outsiders.  It takes Jesus, or the people who have been inspired by him, to bring those walls of division down.

I love that the image Jesus uses for this – “living water.”  Living water, like so many other terms Jesus uses has multiple meanings.  It might just mean flowing water, like a brook or a stream, indicating that it was fresh and probably safe for drinking.  But when Jesus uses it figuratively, it becomes much more.  It is like something that bubbles up inside of you and overflows.  It is like a spring whose source God has placed in a human heart that continually produces joy and wonder and eternal life.


Flowing water, like the grace of God, we know, finds a way to seep into the cracks and to make streams in the desert.  It fills up the low, empty places and overtops the levees we have put in place to keep ourselves safe.  It’s like a flood of love.  It can bring destruction to our interior lives, but also cleansing.  It can be a blessing and a curse, but Jesus’ living water is certainly no respecter of boundaries or persons or the containers we try to create in our lives or our socieites.   The Samaritan woman came to the well with a bucket, hoping to fill it with still water, but left it behind when she found the living water that could not be contained.  The love and grace overflowed from her as she went running into the village to proclaim the Messiah whom she had just discovered.


It’s odd, isn’t it, how often scenes like this seem to come out of nowhere.  When we least expect it we are surprised by grace.  The woman at the well was simply going about her business, coming to the well with her empty bucket for some water, presumably something she did at least once a day every day since she was a little girl. She probably didn’t expect to meet anyone at the well at that time of day, let alone the Messiah.  But Jesus interrupted her routine and changed her forever.  So many stories of faith have that component – perhaps yours does, too – that Jesus comes to us not necessarily when we are reading our Bibles or praying fervently or sitting in church listening to the sermon.  Jesus meets us in the everyday, in the routine, in the places he’s not supposed to be, when we least expect him.  We, too, stand their with our spiritual buckets empty and Jesus proceeds to fill them for us until they overflow with a view of his glory and a taste of his Kingdom.


The named disciples were called in the middle of their workday, mending nets, or fishing, or walking along the road.  Zaccheus is called out of the crowd and singled out.  I know of people who have had an encounter with the voice of Jesus during communion, while deep sea fishing, while walking to work and stopping to talk with a homeless person, or while crying in a hospital.  For John Wesley and myself, our hearts were strangely warmed while in Bible Study.


In the course of it, he challenges us, and shows us something bigger than ourselves, bigger than our categories and assumptions, about how all life is integrated together.  In the book of John, Jesus goes to great lengths to break down our rigid categories.  Jesus insists that he, and we, can be both human AND divine when we would prefer to keep the two in their separate spheres.  When he meets Nicodemus, he insists that you must be born of both water AND the Spirit.  When he meets the Samaritan woman, he tells her that it doesn’t matter where she worships God, so long as she worships God in Spirit AND in truth.  For so long, she had taken it on faith that you could only properly worship God if you did it on the Sabbath, on Mt. Gerizim, and in a certain way.  The way the Jews did it in Jerusalem was wrong.  It couldn’t possibly be that they were both acceptable or that the categories were all wrong.  When the Samaritan woman hears Jesus break down those black and white categories and cut straight to her heart, she drops everything, water bucket included, thirst forgotten, and goes to get the townspeople who may have been excluding her because of their own cultural ideas about the proper roles of men and women, who was clean and who was unclean.

What sorts of assumptions do you bring to the well today?  Where has your heart become rigid and your bucket small enough only to carry a gallon of love?  Where have you been judging others unworthy all the while distracting yourself from your own sense of unworthiness?  What boundaries does Jesus need to cross to come find YOU?  What rules does he need to break, what lines does he need to cross to tell you that he loves you ANYWAY?  How far does Jesus have to go to see you for who you truly are, and to accept you ANYWAY?

I invite you this morning to close the distance.  Bring yourself close to him.  Expose your whole being to the light of his love, because, as the Scripture says, “God did not send his Son into the world to judge the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”  You may find yourself leaving amazed, full of living water, overflowing with good news of God’s love, talking to people you never thought you’d talk to, saying “Come and see a man who told me everything I’ve ever done!  Could this man be the Christ?”

I invite you today to live with the expectation that Jesus may pop up where you least expect him.  He may be just around the corner. You might bump into him at the water cooler or the grocery store.  Live with the expectation that Jesus is coming and that you will never be the same.