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February 27, 2005 (Lent III)—“Finding Grace in Unexpected Places”

Pastor David Barber

John 4:5-42

Sisters and brothers, grace be unto you and peace from God our loving Creator and from our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Today we meet a unique Samaritan woman--doing the ordinary and necessary tasks of life. I don't imagine that as she set out for Jacob's well one fine day, she expected anything different than what she had experienced every other day of her life.

But oh! Was she surprised!

She was surprised by grace. She was surprised by a man who told her everything she had ever done. She was surprised by a man who took her seriously, and showed her perhaps, for the first time, that she really mattered. And because of his grace, an extreme makeover took place in her life.

One of the recent movies that Karen and I enjoyed tremendously was the movie Sideways. Some of you have also seen it I'm sure.

It's the story of two former college roommates who embark on a trip through California wine country. Miles is a depressed Junior High teacher who lives by his insecurities.

Jack is a washed-up actor about to get married. Miles is his best friend from college, and Jack can't understand why Miles can't get over his divorce or the often-repeated rejection of his unpublished novel.

This odd couple's chemistry is outstanding. These two middle-aged men have different viewpoints on a lot of things but especially on how to wrap up bachelorhood.

As a wine connoisseur Miles wants to drink fine wine and play golf, but Jack isn't fussy about what he drinks or about the women he wants to pick up before getting married in a few days.

These two characters, along with two women that they meet, give us a portrait of four stumbling souls who long for a way out of the darkness but are obsessed with their own daily existence. In one way or another they each desperately need a note of grace in their lives.

Perhaps this move suggests the presence of grace in an unexpected way even if it comes in something as ordinary as a letter or something so simple as a knock on a door.

In the simple and the ordinary and the unexpected, that's how it happened one day for an unnamed Samaritan woman. She came to Jacob's well alone in order to draw water for her most basic needs.

Why she came alone and in the heat of the day, we'll never know. Had she been ostracized or shunned and left on her own to look after herself?

There's no father, or husband, or any adult male to care for her. And there's no group of women to talk story, wipe her tears, or even to make her feel happy.

Sometimes she's been painted as an immoral woman because she's had five husbands, and the sixth man that she's living with is not her legal husband. But even though this is part of her history, this by itself doesn't make her a loose woman.

No woman in that culture could have ever gotten a divorce. If she had five husbands, then more than likely this meant that either the five husbands had died, or perhaps the five had married her only to abuse her and then desert her in divorce.

As more than one commentator has suggested, if this is true, maybe her problem is not guilt. Maybe her problem is grief. The pain, the loss, and the suffering would be great--perhaps too great to commit herself in marriage to another man. Maybe that's why she came to the well alone. Her pain is too great to talk about it with anyone else. But today it was different. When she arrived at the well, she discovered that she wasn't alone. A stranger was there--and a foreigner at that. This unwelcome but grace filled intrusion turned her life around.

He was out there alone in the dessert as well, and he was thirsty. A couple of weeks ago this man was also alone out in the wilderness where he was tempted by the devil--and he was hungry. But now he is thirsty, and he needs a drink.

If we fast-forward to the end of his life, he will be thirsty and alone at noontime once again. On that day he won't receive any water from Jacob's well but only vinegar will be offered in mockery.

The gift of living water will not be apparent to the one holding the sour sponge. But today, when Jesus and the Samaritan woman meet, she is offered the gift of living water to quench her eternal thirst.

Did she know that she was thirsty? Perhaps she did. Like Jesus she probably knew that there was something that needed to be quenched, but she couldn't name it or understand it.

Even when Jesus offered her life-giving water she still assumed that it meant water for her body, but instead of being stale and still water from a well, she assumed that it meant running water.

It was only when Jesus drew her deeper and deeper into greater dialogue that she at least begins to glimpse what she could receive through him. Jesus encountered her with grace, takes her beyond the surface realities of her life to uncover a deeper thirst, and her life is forever changed.

Like the Samaritan woman we, too are thirsty, but what we are thirsty for often eludes us, or at the very least it doesn't quench our thirst. In fact, sometimes we're so thirsty that we find ourselves engaged in unfaithful, unhealthy, and sometimes destructive behavior.

We can talk about our thirst for money, for power, for oil, for status and popularity, or even good grades. Deep inside of us there is a thirst yearning to be satisfied with living water. And we can pursue many stale and stagnant ponds with great diligence and persistence without ever finding that water that will quench our thirsty souls.

In her book Traveling Mercies, Anne LaMott has a chapter entitled "Thirst." She's a recovering alcoholic and she loves to listen to alcoholics tell their stories of ruin because she's a sucker for a good resurrection story.

She writes about our amazing attempts to satisfy our thirst, and she says, "I love to hear of their efforts to see what was as plain as day. I have a doctor friend, for instance, who used to shoot up sodium pentothal in his garage and them make a run for the bedroom, where he could pass out for the night; he was convinced he had a problem with insomnia, not drugs.

Then she had another friend "who could admit that he was an alcoholic but then one day had to have surgery to remove pebbles from his forehead; the tiny stones got embedded while he was smashing his face against the pavement at the end of a cocaine binge. Telling me about his operation, he said with enormous hostility, 'Now everyone's going to think I have a drug problem.'"

She calls these stories the gentle illusions by which we stay sober, but theses stories could also illustrate the energy we exert and the delusions we create to satisfy our thirst--without any success.

Like the Samaritan woman is not our thirst quenched by the same grace-filled and life-giving water that she received? Doesn't it often come to us in ordinary and common and unexpected ways--drawing water at a well, where we are met by a stranger who tells us everything that we have ever done?

Is not our thirst quenched when we are known to the core of our being and still received by grace and surrounded by love? Is not our thirst quenched when we are cared for and we know that what happens to us makes a difference to someone else?

Leslie Weatherhead, a Christian writer and preacher, was also an air raid warden during the terrible days of the London blitz during World War II. When the all-clear sounded, it was his job to go and survey the damage. One night there had been a particularly heavy bombing and when he went back to the surface, all he could see was smoldering ruins.

As he walked, he suddenly heard the sound of a child's voice crying. He went around some ruins and there to his amazement, he saw an eight-year-old boy sitting and sobbing on what had been a building. Somehow the child had gotten lost trying to get to the air raid shelter and had managed to survive by staying on the surface.

Weatherhead went up to the lad and said, "Where do you live, son? Where is home?" The child pointed to a street where there was nothing left but rubble.

He said, "Where are your parents, your mother and father?" His father was overseas in the navy and his mother was killed two nights ago.

"Well, what about the rest of your family--your uncles, aunts, brothers and sisters?" Weatherhead inquired. They were all gone. They had all been killed.

At this point Weatherhead stooped over and got eye level to the little fellow and said, "Tell me, son, tell me, who are you?

With that the little boy began to cry even more compulsively and then he said through his tears, "Mister, I ain't nobody's nothin'. I ain't nobody's nothin'."

"If he lived to be a hundred," said Weatherhead, "he didn't think he would ever forget the intensity of that sight--a little boy sitting in the midst of chaos, feeling unconnected, unimportant to anyone else in the world."

There are plenty of Samaritan women out there and plenty of children of every shape and size and age group who don't feel connected and accepted by anyone else in the world. There are plenty of folks who are hungering and thirsting for that food and drink which will satisfy and give life to their weary souls.

We know the One who gives us life-giving water. We know the One who satisfies us. We know the One who through this community has given us unconditional love and amazing grace.

As our communion liturgy says, "We praise you for Christ, our Rock and our water, who joined us in our desert, pouring out his life for the world."

As we come to receive the water of life once again, may we go from this place to sit by the wells of this world. May we offer life-giving water to strangers, to the unconnected and to the unloved, and to all those in need so that their thirst might be quenched by Jesus--the water of life.


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