Wells

3/10/96
Lent 3
Jn. 4:5-42

Much has been written about the story of the Samaritan woman at the well. Historians describe the well in detail, and women’s studies’ scholars point to the marginalized role of women. Wednesday after a seminar at Yale on the Holy Spirit and following some pastoral calls, I stood in the parking lot at the hospital and realized that I didn’t want to give you historical footnotes regarding the Samaritans or women’s issues. Instead, I wanted to tell you a story. It is the story of my friend Jake.

We met about ten years ago. He is bigger than I and older. Jake dresses like an undertaker, and has a doleful demeanor. Beneath his sardonic humor and self-deprecating facade, there is a big heart, a keen intellect and a great love of music.

Shortly after I met him, Jake retired. For years he had travelled extensively in a bureaucratic job. He had sharpened pencils in all 50 states. One day Jake went out to put a quart of oil in his wife’s Chevy. He slipped, broke his hip, and landed in the hospital for six weeks. After work I would drop in to see Jake and we would regale one another with stories of our misspent youth.

Like many folk, Jake wears a cross suspended on a chain around his neck. It is a fairly good sized cross, but what caught my attention was the chain. Finally one day I said to him, “Jake, why do you wear your cross on the kind of chain used for suspending window sash weights?” Jake got very serious, was quiet for a bit, and then told the following story.

Jake was in Baltimore on an audit. At three o’clock one Friday afternoon he got a phone call at work from the hospital in his home town. There had been a terrible accident involving his daughter, Noelle. She was riding her bicycle home from high school and was broadsided by a car. Noelle was in intensive care with head, back, and leg injuries. Jake bolted from the office and ran to Union Station. On the way he put his hand in his pocket and found his disceased mother’s cross, which he had inadvertently put there two weeks before when cleaning out her house. On impulse Jake turned into a hardware store and asked the clerk for a length of chain, any chain. The clerk gave him some sash chain, and Jake hooked the cross to it. “I vowed then and there that I would wear that cross for Noelle,” Jake recounted. The family prayed and kept vigil by his daughter’s bed for days. The neurosurgeons operated to relieve pressure and damage to the brain. Noelle responded, but her legs were paralyzed. Life began to imitate normality. Jake and his wife, Ellen, were thankful that Noelle had lived and come out of her coma. They visited Noelle every day and on Sundays the whole family would have a picnic in the hospital room, always giving thanks for the food and always praying for Noelle. The doctors had reconciled themselves to the fact that Noelle would never use her legs again.

Six months after the accident, around Easter, Jake and his wife were having Sunday fried chicken with Noelle. “I was munching away,” Jake recalled, ” when I looked down and her foot twitched.” Tears filled Jake’s eyes as he continued. “Again it twitched. Then it moved.” “‘My God!’ I cried to Ellen, “‘Noelle moved her foot!’” Jake looked at me and said, “If there ever was a miracle, that was one. God gave us a miracle.” By now Jake was crying and I was too. “God gave us back our daughter.”

Noelle recovered, walks easily, and now teaches handicapped children. Her sister became an ordained minister. Jake still wears the cross on the sash chain for Noelle. Now he wears it not out of petition but out of thanksgiving.

You may wonder if I am betraying a confidence by telling this story. No. Jake has told this story himself. It is public knowledge, and Jake and Ellen still refer to Noelle as “our miracle.” You may also wonder what Jake’s story has this to do with the Samaritan woman at the well story in John’s Gospel. To me Jake’s story is a midrash, an exposition, of the woman at the well story.

You see, you and I face our everyday lives, and the crises therein, by drawing on our reservoir of knowledge, talent, experience, traditions, and faith. That was as true two thousand years ago as it is now. Like the Samaritan woman we go to the well to draw water. The thirst which we seek to quench is not only a physical thirst, it is a thirst for meaning, forgiveness, redemption and purpose.

Some of us have scant faith. We seek to cope with the stories of our lives by drawing from a well of stoicism, wiliness, and intellect. We greet the mundane as well as the crises in our lives by exercising our talents for being practical or being in control. The need for control can come from a deep well of loneliness or despair. When faced with insecure or unsatisfying work, we can pull up from our well a bucket full of stoicism. “When the going gets tough the tough gets going,” sounds good for a football game, but it wears thin when dealing with a censorious supervisor or a cantankerous aging parent. Have you not sometimes found that when there is too much togetherness with a nasty supervisor, dissatisfied spouse, or depressed parent, your well offers stoicism and practicality, but seldom forgiveness and hope?

Others of us come from religious traditions, the waters whereof do not slack our thirst. The Samaritan religion was a poor substitute for Judaism, The Essenes in Jesus’ time held an unworldliness which put them literally out of this world and out of business. While it is true that the religions of mankind are portals to the creator and redeemer God, they are not always well maintained and often do not slack the thirst of the soul. The theologian, Karl Barth, has rightly criticized “religion” in and of itself as being made in the image of man. For Barth Christianity is built upon divine revelation and divine action, which brings you and me into a living relationship with a purposeful and redemptive God.

Like my friend Jake, you and I are often blessed to be able to draw from a well which has within it living water. This is the redemptive and sustaining power of Jesus Christ, God’s incarnation. In a sense, Jake was wrong. The miracle in his story was not just Noelle’s recovery, it was the faith of the family. Their faith had been established early (note the cross of Jake’s mother). In times of crises you and I are forced to go for the basics. Crises strip away our false pretenses and petty grievances and make us humble. It is in that humility that you and I are open to God’s grace and the redemptive and healing power of the Holy Spirit, which we receive from Jesus Christ.

Not all accidents or crises have happy endings. You and I have known incredible losses. But to find hope, and not despair, steadfastness and not disillusionment, love, and not fear Ü all this comes from a well of faith which yields water which slacks the thirst of our soul. That is what happened in Jake’s family and I suspect more often than not has happened in your lives from time to time as well.

This Lent consider the water in your well. Do not wait for a crisis to force you to screen out the debris and to purify it. Be frank with yourself about your Faustian compromises and sins of omission and commission Ü as frank as the Samaritan woman was about her five husbands. Repent of your misdoings and of those times when you have poisoned the wells of others. Perform an act of penance by rectifying, when possible, broken relationships. Come to God’s table. Receive His forgiveness and the body and blood of His son. In so doing you will add to the true water of faith which you received in baptism. Through the sacrifice of Christ and the presence of the Holy Spirit the well within you can be renewed. You need not wear a hair shirt or even window sash chain. You need only to be open to Jesus Christ. You need only to worship God “in spirit and in truth.” As the Samaritan woman said, “Come and see.” Amen.