I am not sure if the sermon below is a sermon at all, sent as it is from my isolation to yours: not preached but written, not heard but read. There is no communal response, no chance to affirm or disaffirm that the gospel has been preached. CHMF sermons open themselves up to the conversation; they are never finished, never whole in themselves. But if this is a sermon, I want to say what I planned to say had the virus not kept us from gathering, which is this: All sermons are made from other sermons, other conversations, other guides. As I worked on this sermon, I had a conversation with my friend, Ashleigh Elser, who helped me see the echoes of other well-side stories in John’s version of The Woman at the Well. And in the past, whenever I prepared a sermon and couldn’t clear my line of sight, I would return to old CHMF sermons that helped me find words to trust. Whenever I go back to them, I am reminded how our words are in each other’s mouths, our lives in each other’s hands. When I searched for help this week, I thought of Alex Sider, one of the founding members of CHMF, without whom I may never have come to this church ten years ago, may never have become a member, may never have sent Isaac that all-important, half-considered text message one Friday night in 2013: “Baptize me.” In any case, Alex studied at Duke before I arrived in Durham — I met him in Bluffton, Ohio. When I came here to study at the Divinity School, I looked for his dissertation in the library. He knew a lot more than me about theological matters, and I wanted to learn from him. I pulled his dissertation from the shelf and, for some reasons I understand and others now difficult to recall, I read that dissertation again and again. When I found a reference I didn’t know, I followed it to its source and read that book, too. One of those books was Marilynne Robinson’s 1980 novel, Housekeeping, which made a profound impression on me. As I read the text from John this week, a passage Alex quoted from Housekeeping rushed to the front of my mind: “Cain murdered Abel, and blood cried out from the earth; the house fell on Job’s children, and a voice was induced or provoked into speaking from a whirlwind; and Rachel mourned for her children; and King David for Absalom. The force behind the movement of time will not be comforted. That is why the first even is known to have been an expulsion, and the last is hoped to be a reconciliation and return. So memory pulls us forward, so prophecy is only brilliant memory…”
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts, be pleasing to you, O God, our rock and our redeemer, the one who redeems our words and our thoughts. Amen.
Jacob’s Well goes deep. At the bottom, everything is dark. Down there is silence. Down there is all uncertainty. Down there is life. To pull water from its depths is to draw from a source you cannot see but hope will be there when you return, again and again, with your empty bucket. But there are depths the bucket cannot reach. Lean over the low stone wall and look down at the mysterious dark. You might see a ripple of water shimmer, hear an echo coming up from below. The well is a leap of faith. The well is labor that never ends. The well has a history. When Jesus approaches the stone wall, the scene resurrects other well-side stories, romances deep in the community’s memory. But this story takes a different shape; it turns on something else.
At high noon, a woman comes to the well to draw water. She has been returning to the well since time immemorial. Trace her back through the Bible. Abraham meets Sarah by a well. Jacob meets Rachel by a well. Again and again, men take wives who carry jars to the well and bring water for their husbands to drink. This woman, unnamed, could be any of them. When she sees a stranger at the well, she stays at a distance. For as long as she can remember, meeting a man at the well has bound her to a world that casts her out. She thirsts for something else.
Give me a drink, says Jesus. The tone is sharp, the moment ironic. The woman responds, again and again, with a question. Why are you, a Jew, asking me, a Samaritan, for water? She is the only one in the story whose questions confront Jesus. When the disciples return, they whisper questions to one another; the woman looks squarely at her confusion, her desire to understand, her desire — as the story unfolds — to be free. Everyone who drinks of the well’s water will be thirsty again, Jesus says to her. But everyone who drinks of the water I give will never be thirsty.
Suddenly the world looks different to her. Possibility opens. Give me this living water, says the woman, so I never have to come back to this well again. She sees a crack in the given world. She knows, as we do, that life can change in an instant. She knows, as we do, that the ground on which she stands and clings to every day can unexpectedly shake, give out, rearrange itself. She knows our fragile lives often wear a veneer of stability, an illusion of permanence. As a widow, she knows the brevity of life, for she has loved and lost and loved and lost, world without end. And now she finds herself drawn toward a strange promise, the promise of something new.
Here the story takes a sharp turn. Go call your husband, says Jesus. He turns the conversation to her past — the past she silently carries with her, like the jug she carries to the well, every day. To be sure, it is an odd and awkward moment to read; we’re told something about her that we didn’t ask to know. Every time I read it again, I cringe. If we are looking for a template for tactful, sensitive conversation, John’s rendering of Jesus disappoints. Something else is going on. Something about her thirst. The revealing thing comes from her mouth. Without Jesus recalling her life to her, we wouldn’t read what comes next: the confrontation that saves our lives.
“He told me everything I have ever done.”
When she asks for living water, Jesus brings her back to herself — the same life, but a little different. Here is your past, he says. Here is all your sorrow, all your loss, all you’ve done, all you’ve given to the life you chose and didn’t choose, the self you can’t escape. I hold it all. I have always held it all. In John’s story, God remembers us whole. To encounter the gift of God is to be drawn into that all-important confrontation with the self we did not think could be loved. Under the light of Christ’s eyes, we find our lives not abandoned but held together at our most vulnerable, most desperate. You must be a prophet, she says, for she knows that prophecy is only brilliant memory, memory radiant with love, memory that makes a crack in the given world, through which life might burst like a spring, or light a path we could not see.
So the brilliant memory of God seizes the woman at the well, and something remarkable happens: she puts down her jug. She leaves it by the well so her life can take the shape of praise. She abandons the world that could never see her to tell the truth that frees us all: “Come and see the one who told me everything I have ever done.” She becomes the storyteller; she becomes the one whose language disrupts the given world and makes room for new life. Her praise makes room for others to see themselves in the light of God’s memory, finally free from the words and worlds they cling to, which kept them from receiving the love they sought but could not see. This is the promise of God: at your most vulnerable, most desperate, God clings to you, and by clinging to you, makes you a giver of life, a giver and receiver of God.
This is the story we echo, again and again, with our lives. To be the people of God is to tell the story of God, to hold the story together, to hold each other’s lives: if not with our hands, with our words and our thoughts. We gather however we can, always hoping — for ourselves, for each other — that we might find in church a place with enough room to be ourselves with people who help us be ourselves before God. A place where it remains possible to hear the gift of words that are always a disruption, words that bring us life, that are life: I know you, says Jesus, to the woman at the well and to us. I know you. I see it all. I love it all. The well is deep, but nothing is lost; everything is gathered up. Lean over the stone wall and look at the water below. Down there is everything you’ve ever done and will do. Down there is everything you cannot see. Down there is God’s promise of life, life gushing up from the depths, life that remembers you whole.