Saturday, March 26, 2011

Lent 3

There’s a story I hear a while ago – probably apocryphal, one of those stories that maybe never happened but should have – and it’s set in the 1930’s in the outback of Australia where Afghan camel drivers made improbable journeys across the desert.  And there is a traveller who is lost – how he got there I don’t know, but he is out of water and wandering in circles when he comes across an old water pump that at first glance just looks like a piece of rusted junk.  Attached to the pump handle however, he finds a tin can, and when he gets the lid off he finds a letter folded up tightly - and he reads the faded writing:

"The pump is alright.  I just used it (1932) - but the leather washer dries out and so it’s got to be primed.  Under the flat rock you’ll find a bottle of water - there's enough in it to prime the pump, but not if you go drinking it.  Pour some out to wet the leather.  Then pour in the rest and pump like crazy.  This well has never run dry.  When you’ve got all you need, fill up the bottle and put it back where you found it for the next feller.  (signed) Afghan Billy."

Well it’s one of those stories about a dilemma.  How much do you trust Afghan Billy?  How much faith are you going to put in a rusty pump sticking up out of the desert? On the one hand you’ve got a bottle of stale water that is guaranteed to keep you alive for half a day.  On the other hand you’ve got Afghan Billy telling you there is enough fresh water under your feet to meet all your needs and more.  Onlt catch is – you’ve got to pour out the little bit you’ve got!

We’re living in the second driest State, on the driest continent on earth.  Perth’s water supply, as we are by now all too aware, is precarious.  I remember reading, in the early 90s, that Perth is floating on a deep aquifer with enough fresh water in it to supply the city for 500 years.  Only trouble is we don’t quite know what the environmental consequences would be if we drew large quantities out of it.  The availability of water defines the limits of what’s possible – sitting on the edge of the desert, no water means things die, not enough water means growth goes backwards. 

The whole earth needs water.  Water is what life is made out of.  But we don’t just need water for drinking, or just to water our lawns or drive the engines of industry – we don’t just need physical water but also spiritual water – just as the availability of physical water defines the limits of our physical lives, so our lives contract and dry up if there is no spiritual refreshment, if the wellspring of the spirit dries up in us then our lives shrivel up.

That's how it is with Jesus and the woman of Samaria.  Jesus is thirsty, he is out of place walking the wilderness roads northwards into Samaria, and he needs water.  The Israelites in our first reading are also out of place, wandering in the desert that can’t possibly sustain their lives.  The water they find there reminds them – and us – that God is not limited by our categories of what is or isn’t possible, that we encounter God in the dry and inhospitable places just as much as we do in the leafy green places that we long for.  So Jesus asks for water in an unfamiliar, inhospitable place, on a hot day – asks for life-giving water from a woman who is not only a despised Samaritan but an outcast in her own community – coming as she does to the well in the middle of the day means she is not welcome with the other women who would have come in the cool of the evening – married five times in a society where women aren’t free to choose their husbands means she has probably been divorced five times, or some of her husbands have died, and she is now forced to accept a roof over her head from a man who refuses to marry her.  By implication, this woman is barren, childless – rejected in her own village – yet Jesus chooses to engage her in conversation, both asking her for refreshment and offering her the water of life.  As she is drawn into an understanding of who Jesus is and what he is offering – she is energised and refreshed and she becomes the water-bearer for the whole village – because this outsider has become the one through whom others also have been enabled to drink.  

The water of refreshment comes when Jesus dares to cross the boundaries of convention, when Jesus recognises her as a person who can refresh him by giving something of herself, and as a person able to recognise who he is at the deepest level.  That's the sort of water we need.  Living water is the water that Jesus gives us when he shares himself with us and we recognise that he comes from God – living water is the water we give to others and receive from others when we share with them who we are, and we recognise the trickle of delight that runs deep inside that person because they like ourselves are a child of God.  That living water is not just found in church – it is found in shopping centres and at bus stops and in all the most unlikely places because, as the Israelites found in the desert, God is just as much present there – but the church as the resurrection body of Christ is especially in the business of dispensing it.  The church is in the business of carrying water, the business of sinking wells. 

I guess that each of us have decided that church is a good way to spend your time on a precious Sunday morning because, at least at some point in our lives, we have found that to be here, and to encounter Christ in one another and in the bread and wine of the Eucharist, we have found a source of life-sustaining refreshment.  Maybe we come because we know that if we have a hard week there is something in us that needs to be refilled, we need to touch the source of life and love – for us to keep meeting the demands of our own lives and to give of ourselves in our relationships we need to have our own needs met here.  But is there sometimes a trade-off for us between drinking the spiritual water we need for ourselves and being the water-carriers for others?  Is the cost of sharing living water with those who are in need, that we don’t get to drink deeply ourselves?  Is there enough water to go around? That’s a question that comes up for churches that start to think about doing things differently, changing some familiar traditions to make the message of the Gospel more accessible to people who come through the door for the first time  – why do we actually come here? Because this is where we find water, or to offer water to those who need it? 

That’s the issue – do we go for the familiar and safe, or are we prepared to take a risk?  Afghan Billy reminds us that at the heart of the life of faith is the requirement that we take risks. “You'll get water.  This well has never run dry." That's what Christian faith is all about.  "Pour out the little water you’ve got - then pump like crazy."  Faith is about taking risks and trusting God.  When you "pour out the little bit you’ve got and pump like crazy," you are daring, not just to conserve what you’ve been given, but to multiply it, to work together with God's creative energy, to throw yourself into the process.

The other word for this is responsibility.  Accepting responsibility for the future, taking risks for the sake of others.  The alternative is to be a one-talent church – to bury what we’ve got in the hope of at least ending up with what we had at the beginning.

But if we pour out the little we’ve got and "pump like crazy" that's an act of faith - faith in things not seen, faith in God, faith in human beings.  It's also a gift of hope – especially the sort of hope we call imagination – the sort of hope that encourages us to take risks and to trust in what is yet to be.

Most importantly of all, it’s an act of love.  I can’t imagine why Afghan Billy would have left that note in the first place except as an act of love – or why anyone who found that note and trusted its writer enough to act on it and pour our the little bit of water in the bottle without drinking it would take such a risk unless they knew that it was a gift of love.  Or why we would take such an absurd risk as to pour out the little bit of water we’ve got - unless we trust that the God who gave us the bottle of water in the first place loves us enough to show us how to get the pump going and fulfil the promise of living water to give new life not only to us but to others as well.

Ultimately the thing about living water is that it never stands still.  In the original languages of the Bible ‘living water’ means literally running water, water that gives life because it’s not stagnant but flowing and fresh.  You don’t get to hold on to living water but only to channel it, to make sure it goes where it’s needed.  Like the woman of Samaria, we find ourselves unexpectedly transformed by the gift of living water.  What are we going to do with it?