“Living Water: Giving and Grace”

September 11, 2016


Jeremiah 2:4-13

John 4:7-15


I want to say a word of thanks to Jeff Barton for filling this pulpit in my absence last Sunday. Jeff told me that things went a little long and that I might get “high marks” for a shorter service today to make up for last week.

We’ll see.

You might remember that the title of Jeff’s sermon asked the question: “Why Are Some Biblical Texts So Difficult?” And that gave me an idea. I’ve told you before that I often have trouble coming up with a sermon title. It seems to me that I could just start using Jeff’s title each week.

Put it up on the sign outside and just leave it there.

Have a year’s worth of bulletins preprinted with that title.

Because some biblical texts are difficult—maybe all of them.

Consider with me for a few minutes my text for this morning.

God speaks through the prophet Jeremiah: “My people have rejected me, a source of living water.”

Those are hard words for this morning.

It is 9/11—a date seared into our national consciousness. And today is one of those “significant” anniversaries—fifteen years since the attacks on that beautiful September morning.

As we gather on this morning we might want and expect to hear words of comfort—reminding us that God is with us in our sorrow; we might want and expect to hear words of encouragement—telling us that God calls us to not give in to fear; we might even want and expect to hear words of affirmation—inspiring us with our progress since September 11, 2001.

Instead we hear words of confrontation, a text that challenges us on this day and every day. That might not be what we expect or want to hear, but it is fitting for this anniversary day that confronts us with the realization of just how far we have slogged into the mire over the past fifteen years.

We began a demonic descent into becoming a nation of torture that made us not safer but morally bankrupt.

We brought the suspicion, hatred, and vilification of Muslims and Islam to a boiling point and kept it there. Tens of millions of dollars have been spent promoting Islamophobia.

Our nation, which has been a place of refuge, calling out to other nations: “Give me your tired, your poor,/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” now seriously considers electing a leader who will build a wall to keep people out.

We have been in a perpetual state of war, leaving a staggering amount of debt for coming generations—our children and grandchildren. At the same time the gap between rich and poor in our nation has grown dramatically.

We have militarized our police with surplus equipment from our ongoing wars and have seen that militarization carry over into how police interact with people—so that they must be reminded: Black Lives Matter.

Our politics have become filled with an animosity that is unlike anything in my lifetime. We are quick to declare that “those who are not with us” are “cowards” or “treasonous.”

For fifteen years we have sung a song of anger, of fear, of conflict, of suspicion, and of hatred. Rage that led us to turn on others eventually has turned back upon us. And now we find ourselves coming to the conclusion of one of the strangest election seasons ever, our national divisions all the more obvious.

On this day those words from Jeremiah neither comfort nor encourage nor affirm. They have a chilling effect on us.

Speaking to another nation, long ago, the prophet told them:

They had failed to remember God’s faithful deliverance from Egypt.

They had polluted their land with their idolatry.

Their religious leaders lacked all knowledge of God.

Another nation, long ago.

We can’t draw direct connections between ancient Israel and our own nation in the twenty-first century—and we shouldn’t try. In spite of the claims of some, we are not a nation founded by God. We are not a “Christian nation”—whatever that might be.

But if we listen and if we are wise, we might hear the truth in the prophet’s words for us:

We, too, forget our origins.

In the midst of conflict we are quick to jettison our principles.

Our leaders—and especially our religious leaders—seem to lack a sense of God, a sense of the holy in the world, a sense of value.

Like ancient Israel, we have changed our glory—freedom, welcome, openness, respect for all people—for something that does not profit, for a suspicion that closes up, for a fear that tears down, for a racism that attacks and kills. All around we see signs of the sin that clings so closely.

Yes, we know our sin.

Yet, wasn’t it Jackson Browne who pleaded years ago: “Do not confront me with my failures, for I have not forgotten them.”

“My people have rejected me, a source of living water.”

As we listen, we begin to sense that the living God who speaks through Jeremiah seems concerned with something beyond sin.

The God who speaks to Israel seems more sad than angry, more perplexed than judgmental.

God asks: “What wrong do you find in me?”

God says to the people: “You don’t even ask: ‘Where is God?’”—If the people did ask this, they would at least suggest they feel as though they are missing something.

God suggests with longing: “Look at the other nations. They don’t abandon their so-called ‘gods.’ They are faithful, but you have abandoned me.”

There is much here that on the surface sounds like condemnation.

As we listen closely, however, we discover the God who continues to seek out relationship with us, who continues to call to us—even when we have strayed far from what is good, even when we have rejected a source of living water.

We hear questioning, listening, and patient waiting for an answer in both the God who speaks through Jeremiah and the Jesus who sits by the well in Samaria.

Later in chapter two of Jeremiah, the God who is the source of living water asks the people:

Why should you make off to Egypt

to drink the waters of the Nile?

Our why make off to Assyria

to drink the waters of the Euphrates?

In our thirst—in our fear, our anger, our grief—we have polluted our own water and drunk from streams that have neither satisfied nor given life.

We have done this over and over again for fifteen years.

Here is the good news:

The living God, the God of ancient Israel, the God of Exodus freedom and prophetic judgment, the God made known in Jesus knows this, knows our sin, knows the ways that we fail and fall—and still calls to us as this same God called out to Israel through the prophets.

God keeps offering living water.

“My people have rejected me, a source of living water…”

This morning we hear of a very human Jesus with a very human problem. He is tired and thirsty, sitting by a well. In the land of the Samaritans he is a despised Jewish foreigner. He, too, seeks refreshment.

Then, as is often the case, Jesus does the unexpected. He turns to a woman—and a Samaritan woman at that—and asks for a drink. A stranger with basic human needs, he sets aside all the social strictures, he ignores the barriers of race and gender and religion that would separate.

Perhaps he later spoke out the memory of this experience of being a thirsty outsider when he told those who would follow him through the ages: “I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me,” adding, “When you did it toward the least, you did it for me.” The one who was forsaken calls those who would follow him to compassion toward others. He calls us to such compassion even today.

As he often does, Jesus engages in a bit of word play with this unnamed woman, offering her “living water.” “Living water” can mean fresh spring water or it can mean life-giving water. Only slowly does the Samaritan woman begin to understand that the “living water” Jesus offers speaks of giving and grace. Only slowly do we also come to understand.

Living water speaks of giving.

We are helped in understanding it, I think, in some musings of William Sloane Coffin some years ago:

“In the Holy Land,” Coffin says, “are two ancient bodies of water. Both are fed by the Jordan River. In one, fish play and roots find sustenance. In the other, there is no splash of fish, no sound of bird, no leaf around. The difference is not in the Jordan, for it empties into both, but in the Sea of Galilee: for every drop taken in one goes out. It gives and lives. The other gives nothing. And it is called the Dead Sea.”

Each Sunday we stand after the offering and sing the affirmation “blessings flow.”

Living water is openness to others, welcome to the stranger, hospitality to those on the margins of society. Living water courses through us and on toward others, bring more life to all as it flows.

If we can find reservoirs of life and love that are available in human relationships—and from time to time we do just that—it is not difficult to begin to search for the source of these gifts: a source of life, a source of love that is eternal and intensely personal, a fountain of living water. This source is what we call “God.”

And when we experience this source, is it so strange for us to envision one life lived among us who was totally alive, completely loving, perfectly being what he was created to be. In this life, all that God is might be seen, met, engaged, experienced. This life we call “the Christ.”

Living water speaks of giving.

Living water speaks of grace as well.

God speaks, not to condemn but to give life. God keeps reminding us of our past as a way of calling us to present and future goodness.

A couple of weeks ago at the Danish film festival at the Iowa City library they showed the wonderful Babette’s Feast—and if you missed it or if you’ve never seen it, you can check it out at the library. Near the end of a marvelous—even transformative—meal, one of the participants rises and speaks of human frailty and foolishness:

We have been told that grace is found in the universe. But in our human foolishness and short-sightedness we imagine divine grace to be finite. For this reason we tremble before making our choice in life, and after having made it again tremble in fear of having chosen wrong. But the moment comes when our eyes are opened, and we see and realize that grace is infinite. Grace, my friends, demands nothing from us but that we shall await it with confidence and acknowledge it in gratitude. Grace…makes no conditions and singles out none of us in particular; grace takes us all to its bosom and proclaims general amnesty. See! That which we have chosen is given to us, and that which we have refused is, also and at the same time, granted us.”

Those words remind us of God’s grace that surrounds us everywhere and is always accessible. In our human frailty and foolishness we forget this. We forsake our best values, our grace as a people, for that which does not profit.

But grace tells us that when we have chosen the wrong, now, even now, we can choose the right. When we have rejected God, now, even now, we can turn again to the source of living water.

Living water speaks of grace.

A major part of the 9/11memorial in New York City is a pair of immense, black holes set into the square footprints of the fallen towers, called “Reflecting Absence.” Water plunges about four stories to shallow reflecting pools that mirror the sky. The pools are, of course, a reminder of loss. But they can also serve as vision of hope, calling us to become a nation of welcome, respect, and peace, calling us to be faithful to the God who is the source of living water, the source of giving and grace.