“Problems, Problems”

John 11

In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

We all have known people whom we call, “needy.” While they are not necessarily poor, they always have something wrong in their lives.

Their parents won’t listen to them. Their children won’t listen to them. They don’t have enough money to pay their credit card bills. Their bones ache. Their neighbors make too much noise. They can’t decide whether to quit their jobs.

When you’re talking to people who are “needy” in this sense, their issues all jumble together, until it’s hard to distinguish their trivial problems from their serious ones. And because they’re not sure what they are looking for, such folks tend to remain in need of help: if they solve one problem, another issue is likely to appear.

Jesus encounters just such a person in the very long story that we heard in the Second Lesson for today. The person’s name is not provided; she is known to history as “the Samaritan Woman at the Well.” And she has problems galore.

First of all, she is a not a conventional Hebrew but a Samaritan. The Samaritans were a small sect that split off from Judaism. They followed a shorter version of the Bible.

Second, the woman has what we would call, “relationship issues.” She has been married five times, and when she meets Jesus, she is living with a man who is not her husband.

Third, she is simply thirsty, which is why she came to the communal well in the first place.

Then, as the woman arrives at the well, and Jesus asks her for some water to drink, a fourth issue becomes apparent. The social situation is awkward. Customs at the time would have frowned upon a woman alone speaking with a male religious teacher whom she didn’t know.

When the conversation develops, however, it becomes evident that the greatest problem the Samaritan woman has is spiritual. As Jesus observes, she needs to find a way to worship God “in spirit and in truth.” Christ notes the irony that the woman has come to the well to get ordinary water when he is able to offer her “living water”—“a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”

We can see from this brief summary of the story that it is filled with the kind of symbolism that the Gospel writer, St. John loved. We don’t have time to look at all of the nuances, so let’s focus on the main issue. Of all the woman’s needs, her biggest concern is to get connected with the true God. Jesus is able to supply this connection.

Notice that Christ does more than simply point the way to God. He makes God present in his own person; he embodies the divine.

So Christ in himself offers an eternal connection with God. And as Jesus incarnates the Divine in human form, he is able to give the Samaritan woman spiritual nourishment that will quench her thirst forever.

Notice that Jesus isn’t just talking here about a changed life in the future—about life after death. The way to God he brings changes how we live now.

Pope Benedict’s latest book is about the last days of Jesus; the Pope often draws on St. John’s Gospel to illuminate Christ’s teaching about death and resurrection. Benedict remarks, in a difficult but profound passage, that “‘Eternal life’ is not–as the modern reader might immediately assume–life after death, in contrast to this present life, which is transient and not eternal.”

Instead, according to the Pope, “’Eternal life’ is life itself, real life, which can also be lived in the present age and is no longer challenged by physical death. This is the point: to seize ‘life here and now, real life that can no longer be destroyed by anything or anyone.”

The woman’s thirst will finally be satisfied because she will be able for the first time to live. Such new life, as the Pope says, won’t be undermined by her foolish mistakes; life in God’s Son is able to withstand the changes and chances of the material world.

Thus after the woman accepts Christ’s gift, she is no longer possessed by her neediness. For at the same time that she discovers the way to God in Christ, she also finds her true self.

The Bible story doesn’t have a conventional happy ending. St. John says simply that the woman went off and said to people she met: “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”

While the woman obviously is leaning toward belief, the text doesn’t reveal whether the woman’s romantic life eventually stabilized. Nor does it say whether she eventually became a member of the Church.

But these matters are incidental to St. John’s message. The Gospel writer is well aware that having the right connection with God doesn’t solve all our problems.

What our contact with the “spirit” and the “truth” of God does give us is an alternative to neediness. Instead of always looking for a perfect job or a perfect friend, the living water of Christ allows us to drink deeply of the life we already have.

The spiritual writer William Johnston calls this connection, “the still point.” Each of us has a still point in our souls, and that link with the eternal is there, whatever we feel or do.

Those of us who are customers of a certain telephone company are familiar with the phenomenon of “dropped calls.” I’m chatting away and suddenly I realize that the person I was speaking with can no longer hear me—because he is no longer there!

Dropped calls seem to me to illuminate the central truth of the Story of the Samaritan Woman at the Well. Our problems are like these calls. They break our connection to the spiritual.

The spiritual here includes both the Holy Spirit of God and our own spiritual selves. What seem to be our overwhelming issues can keep us from seeing our true problems. As the Samaritan woman’s thirst for male companionship masked her deeper thirst for spirit and for truth, so our concerns with careers or relationships can mask our real neediness for the spirit and for truth.

We prayed earlier in this service of Morning Prayer these words: “Let not the needy O Lord be forgotten.” And we can silently add, “let not our own worldly needs keep us from the One who gives us the water of eternity. Let not, O Lord, our small problems keep us from the real life you want us each to have.”

And now unto God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit be ascribed as is most justly due all might, majesty, power, dominion, and praise, now and forever. Amen.

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