Third Sunday in Lent
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church
Readings: Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 95; Romans 5:1-11; John 4:5-42
In his celebrated commencement address to the graduates of Kenyon College, David Foster Wallace begins with a story. “There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning boys, how’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the heck is water?’”
For Wallace, the story captures an essential but easily overlooked truth: “that the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about.” How could a fish not know it swims in water? How could it not know that everything it does, from its feeding to its swimming and schooling, depends upon the existence of this fundamental element, which is everywhere it goes, hiding in plain sight? So it appears with us. As Wallace sees it, we tend to be so caught up in the daily routines of our workaday world—hitting the alarm clock, taking a shower, making the coffee, dropping the kids off at school, sitting in traffic, sending emails, grabbing lunch, going to meetings, sitting in more traffic, making dinner, putting the kids to bed, and then falling asleep ourselves—that we too miss the water, the stuff that makes it all possible, the stuff that gives it meaning. What’s worse, our daily routines have the effect of taking on their own water-like quality, forming the ostensible bedrock of our lives, so that we end up mistaking the routines for the real thing. Our alienation is thus twofold: we are unconscious of the fact that a thousand little choices have combined to form a new normal, an unmovable set of self-bestowed givens, and this has made us all the more unconscious of those deeper realities that undergird and support our routinized lives—realities which, like water for the fish, are hiding in plain sight, obvious to the outside observer, but invisible to us.
What is that water? What is that deeper substrate of reality upon which we all depend, to which our daily routines point, and our restless hearts attest, but which we cannot perceive because those routines prevent us from seeing them? And how do we interrupt our established routines, our conventional ways of thinking, long enough for such a question to even occur to us? For Wallace, getting to this question is half the achievement, for it means we have sensed, if just for a fleeting moment, that there is more out there than just our routines, and this recognition is already evidence of our awareness of the existence of the water.
You may have noticed that water is all over this morning’s readings. It’s there in Exodus, where Moses makes water gush from a rock in the desert, satisfying a tired and thirsty people (17:6). It’s there in Psalm 95, where the memory of this miracle is recalled as a reminder of Israel’s tendency to forget too easily who has provided for their needs (95:8-9). And it is quite literally at the center of the Gospel lesson, which takes place at a well in Samaria.
Let’s review the details. Jesus is on his way to Galilee and decides to take a shortcut through Samaria, the homeland of the Samarians, with whom Jews do not ordinarily interact. We’ll come back to this part of the story later. Jesus stops at Jacob’s well, and a Samaritan woman comes to draw water. It appears the woman has grown accustomed to her daily jaunt to the well; indeed, one gets the sense that she has come thousands of times before and this has become a permanent, if reluctant, feature of her life. Later we find out that the primary appeal of the water that Jesus has to offer is that she would no longer have to come to the well (4:15), suggesting that part of what she seeks is a release from this routine, from the necessity of having to come at all. At the beginning of the story, however, she is unaware that there is any alternative. Like us, her routine is her reality.
Jesus is depicted as an interruption of her routine. He interrupts her routine in three ways. First, he is a man sitting by a well where only women typically come. Witness the astonishment of the disciples later in the story when they find him speaking with her (4:27). Second, he is a Jew, and Jews aren’t supposed to be hanging out with Samaritans. Third, he asks her for water. On a normal day, she comes to the well, draws water, and goes home in peace. She is not accustomed to strange men asking for water from her jar.
These interruptions prompt a question: “How is it you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (4:9). Notice how the question further serves to destabilize the routine. This man and woman are no longer quietly going about their business; they are talking to each other. They are engaged in a dialogue. They are conscious. Jesus responds by saying she has asked the wrong thing. If she knew who he was, she would have asked him for living water. To which she responds, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?” (4:12). It sounds a little like the fish’s question, doesn’t it? And here we have arrived at the crucial moment, where her routine has been interrupted just enough for her to be able to glimpse beyond the daily drudgery and see that there might be something else. What do you mean living water? Is that something you can get here? Is that something you need a bucket for? I haven’t heard of that before. Tell me more. So Jesus explains, “Everyone who drinks of this water [from the well] will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (4:14). Strikingly, the woman appears to equate this water with a kind of physical water, the kind that would mean release from physical thirst and the need to continue her daily routine. The appeal, as mentioned before, is that she will not have to keep coming back to draw water. The appeal is that she might be released from the weight of her routine.
It is just at this point that Jesus appears to change the subject, asking her to go get her husband. The woman says, “I have no husband,” and behind this statement lie a thousand unstated truths. Yes, she currently has no husband, but she knows she has had a few husbands before—five to be precise—and that she is currently living with another man (4:17-18). She knows she has not married this man, and we may be within our rights to assume that she hasn’t married him because none of the previous five marriages have worked out. She knows this, but she does not know Jesus knows this. And so she thinks her secret is safe, the secret that constitutes a large part of what has defined her existence. For her routine has not only been characterized by the daily drudgery of trips to the well, but a larger, deeper, more unsatisfying routine of trying to find companionship, acceptance, and satisfaction in these various relationships, none of which has worked out. That’s what she is really thirsting for. That’s what her daily trips to the well symbolize. That’s the cycle that has become second nature, the water she swims in, and she would rather not anyone know about it, because if she shared it, she would have to acknowledge it herself, and that is more frightening than simply learning to live with it, which she has managed to do up until now.
But Jesus knows. And his knowledge enables her to finally be honest with herself. She is finally able to break from her routine way of thinking about her life. That is what an encounter with Jesus does. It wakes us from the quiet compromises we have made with ourselves, those daily decisions to live with something that we know does not satisfy us, instead of stopping and following the pangs of our restless hearts for something that might truly satisfy. Jesus wakes us to consciousness. He does not promise us release from routine—and indeed much of his life is an affirmation of the beauty of the everyday—but he does promise us release from the futile task of trying to find our ultimate satisfaction, our ultimate home, in the unconscious habits that our routines can lock us into. Jesus interrupts us long enough to enable us to be honest with ourselves, and then ask, “What water have I convinced myself to swim in? And what is the nature of the water for which I have been created to swim, the water that has been there all along, hiding in plain sight, as the ground of my existence, the substance of my longings, the object of my deepest hopes?” Jesus gives us the freedom to ask that question.
And what is the fruit of asking that question? For the Samaritan woman, freedom from another set of assumptions: that Jews and Samaritans must live and worship separately. The remainder of the dialogue between Jesus and the woman (4:19-26) turns to some of the specific details that separate these two communities: Jews believe God is to be worshipped in Jerusalem, while Samaritans believe God is to be worshiped on Mount Gerizim. That is the ordinary assumption that informs their routines and what has led them to accept their separate existences. Jesus informs her that true worship doesn’t happen in Jerusalem or a mountain, but “in spirit and truth” (4:23). When we glimpse the true reality of the water in which we swim, the one in whom we live, move, and have our being, we see that God is not limited to a specific geography, but is the ground of all geography, the ground of our existence, the air we breathe. And one implication of this is that the dividing walls of our routinized existence, those boundaries that we have learned to uncritically accept and unconsciously let determine the scope our interactions with others, have fallen down in Christ Jesus. We have been summoned to inhabit a new reality, to enjoy a new food and drink, a new harvest, the fruit of which is life together, an expanded community defined not by mutual suspicion but peace and reconciliation.
That is Paul’s message in the reading from Romans. Paul directs our attention not just to the ground of our created existence, but to the one who has justified and saved us. He does so in order that we might fully grasp the real context of our lives. It is not that we will be justified, but that “we are justified” (5:1). It is not that we will be reconciled, but that we “have been reconciled” (5:11). And this is what enables us to endure present sufferings, and the routinized divisions that remain, with the confident hope that suffering produces endurance, and endurance character, and character hope: a hope for the fulfillment of all these things—the glory of community in God and with one another—which will not be disappointed (5:4-5). And what is it to realize this but to realize that this is the true reality undergirding our existence. This is what lies beneath our routines, and in our routines. This is our source and our end. This is what our restless hearts are restless for. This is water. Amen.