Sunday, March 23, 2014

Third Sunday of Lent

John 4
5 So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6 Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon.
7 When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” 8 (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.)
9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.[a])
10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”
11 “Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? 12 Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?”
13 Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

Sometimes, when you want to truly understand something, you have to break it down:

1. Dorothy's house falls on a witch.
2. Dorothy’s new friends confront a number of challenges including flying monkeys.
3. Dorothy and her dog discover ‘there’s no place like home.’

1. Scarlett loves Ashley, but Ashley marries Melanie.
2. There's a civil war and girl falls off a horse.
3. Scarlett claims she no longer loves Ashley, and Rhett doesn't give a damn.

1. George dreams of a life beyond Bedford Falls
2. Evil Mr. Potter traps George in Bedford Falls.
3. An angel convinces George that Bedford Falls isn't so bad if you have friends.

1. It turns out Harry is a wizard.
2. Strange and wonderful things happen at Hogwarts.
3. He-who-must-not-be-named is defeated by impossibly cute children.

What we’ve uncovered is narrative structure. And if you want to tell a story, you will need to pay attention to this three-act movement of set-up, conflict, and resolution. Each element is essential to storytelling, and each performs a important purpose.

Act one, the set-up, introduces the characters and the problem that they together will face. Act two is where much of the action takes place, and we see what characters are made of. In act three, things come to a head, and the story ends with some sort of resolution. Set-up, conflict, resolution.

Now what if we tried to fit this structure to the passage John read for us this morning? This extended passage records the longest conversation Jesus has in the Bible, and acts as a critical point of introduction in the overall story of Jesus as presented by John.

But if we focus just on the conversation, we see the three-act structure:

In act one, Jesus appears at Jacob’s well, he is alone and tired, and he asks a woman for a drink. She is quick to note that this is a strange and inappropriate request.
In act two, Jesus and the Samaritan woman debate the difference between water and living water, and the woman seems interested in the living water Jesus describes.
In act three, as Jesus describes details of her personal life, she accepts that he is a great prophet, albeit a Jewish one. Jesus dismisses the difference between them, insisting instead that a time is coming when all will worship in spirit and truth. He admits he is the Christ.

Now, a careful reader will note her reaction to the story and question whether there is, in fact, a resolution to the story. It seems she is very much her own person, hearing Jesus confession of messiahship but then saying to her neighbours, “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?”

She remains on the fence, or at least not fully convinced, but convinced enough that she invites the others to come and decide for themselves. In this, she is the first evangelist in John’s telling, the first to invite others to experience God in a new way.

There is, of course, another character in this three-act play, and that would be you and me. The very first readers would know even before the dialogue begins that this is story with a highly unusual plot and lots of potential conflict.

Jesus is alone with a woman, and a foreign woman, something our author notes at the very beginning. So, we’re taken-aback even before Jesus asks for a drink. We’re impressed with her boldness, and the fact that she reminds him what’s appropriate in this situation.

And we, as the reader, already know the difference between the water and the living water that Jesus is offering, but enjoy her playfulness as she says “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where are going to get your living water?

But our final role in the unfolding of this story comes when she asks her final question saying “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?” We are reading and nodding, and drawn to answer, for John’s ultimate purpose in telling this story in this way is to draw us in, and lead us to a place where we can say a final and definitive, ‘Yes! This is the messiah!’

So we’re convinced through the truth of the message and the strength of John’s telling that this is the Christ, and that we can worship him in spirit and truth. And that through him we will drink only living water, ‘a spring of water welling up to eternal life.’ This is our hope, the message we cling to as we are confronted by the conflict life presents. It is, following the three-part movement, our eternal resolution.

Were it so for others. For two weeks, the world has been gripped by another narrative, by the tragic disappearance of an airplane. The fate of this plane and over 200 passengers remains uncertain this morning, and we pray that for the sake of the family and friends of the missing, the mystery be resolved.

The odd and almost equally troubling aspect of this story is the extent to which we can’t look away. At moments it has seemed almost voyeuristic, watching as upset became anger and despair. But other times it seems the story is less about the fate of an airplane and more about us.

This thought began with around the clock coverage (on CNN at least) with talking heads expounding on the most mind-numbing details. Most of what was being shared was speculation, supposition based on conjecture, scenarios mapped out in great detail based on almost nothing at all.

Senior reporters, one sitting in the airport in Beijing, another trapped in a flight simulator in Mississauga, and all the while Russia has invaded and annexed part of a foreign country, and we’re learning about vectors and navigation systems.

It occurred to me this week, and my pastoral care class concurred, that this is really a story about our own mortality, and the extent to which we fear death. Just as every funeral we attend becomes a rehearsal for our own (“I wonder what they will say about me”), every disaster story becomes a story about our potential demise, and the fear we bring to the idea.

Yes, you might argue that the story of MH-370 is about upper middle-class fear, the fear unique to the class of people who spend entirely too much time flying, but the story seems more universal than that. We can’t help but imagine ourselves in the story, and what every dimension of the story would be like.

And this is where the living water comes in. We have a hope that transcends the ordinary thirst that so many experience: the thirst for knowledge, the thirst for certainty, the thirst for a life without fear. We have the water that only Jesus gives, the water that means we never need thirst again, a spring of water welling up to eternal life.

We can move beyond fear, and uncertainty, and the crippling sense that we will be forgotten in death, and know instead that we drink at the well of eternity, now and always, amen.


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