Exodus 17:1-7, Romans 5:1-11; John 4:5-42
Here we are in the third week of Lent and week 3 of this sermon series on “What keeps you up at night?” The first week, the topic was money. Last week, it was aging. This morning, it’s another one of the questions that plague us: “Am I more than my work?”
Well, I’m a priest; so my work is an ordained vocation and all that. But I’ve often wondered what it would be like to be a bartender. The romantic image of it appeals to me, the image from movies or old reruns of Cheers. On difficult days here, I could really see myself doing it: John at the bar, who welcomes people as they come in, listens to their stories, offers a wise word here and there, and serves drinks to ease their pain. Actually, maybe my current vocation isn’t so different after all. Turn the bar into a communion rail …. well, perhaps it’s not a 1:1 match.
But I do have days when I wonder, “Am I more than my work?” You don’t have to be a priest to experience it. You get up in the morning and start thinking about what’s on your schedule. You get to work and dive into the day – moments of energizing creativity alongside mind-numbing details. Amid one meeting after another, you try to get the most important things done and keep the urgencies of the moment from pushing the priorities aside. You struggle to keep up with the e-mail. You worry whether there will be enough – customers or profits, Sunday attendance or pledging units. You take real joy in those times when you know, deep in your heart, that you’ve actually made a difference. You go to the day’s last meeting, and then you go home to find it’s nearly bedtime. And you go to sleep thinking about what’s on the schedule for tomorrow….
You don’t have to be a mental-health professional to know we need a more holistic sense of who we are and what we do. God has equipped us for work, but God has not created us to be workers. God has created us to be … human beings, earth-creatures miraculously filled with the divine Spirit so that we can bridge this world and the kingdom of heaven we can’t quite see. We know this, deep down. We know we’re more than carbon-based life forms, random collections of chemicals that somehow evolved self-awareness. We know God sees us as more than that. But we also find ourselves right there with the people of Israel sometimes, wandering in the wilderness. In the dust and the heat of our own barren landscapes, we sometimes look around and see no water. Intellectually, we may know God’s leading us on a journey; we may understand we don’t get to see the Promised Land until we’re there. But in the moment, it’s easy to wonder whether we’re doing anything more than wandering. Are we just walking in circles in a barren wilderness? “Is the Lord among us, or not?” (Exodus 17:7).
Let’s change the scene to today’s Gospel reading. We’re not in the desert wilderness, but the setting is just as hot and dry – and potentially, just as spiritually desolate. Jesus is walking through Samaria, a place that used to be part of Israel. David and Solomon ruled this land; the people there and the people of Judea once were one. But over the centuries – after divisions, and invasions, and deportations, and return from exile, and rule by different foreign empires – the people of Samaria and “the Jews” are just similar enough to despise each other.
So at noon, traveling in the heat of the day, Jesus stops at a well to rest. There he meets a Samaritan woman – an odd meeting for several reasons. First, most of the local women wouldn’t have chosen the heat of the day as the time to lug gallons of water back home, so you have to wonder if she wasn’t welcome among the others who would have been there that morning. Second, Jesus engages this woman – he asks her for a drink, and he carries on quite a conversation with her. That would have been a breach of social norms because a man and a woman wouldn’t have engaged each other like that in public. And finally, he was a Jew, and she was a Samaritan. And you don’t have deep, meaningful conversations with people you’re supposed to hate….
The woman names the awkwardness, but Jesus takes the conversation in a new direction – away from the need for a drink of water and into the need for hope. He tells her he can offer not just well water but “living water” (John 4:10) – flowing water, not stagnant; and water that leaves you satisfied forever after only one drink. The woman is intrigued – she’d love to stop making her daily journey to carry water from the well – but she’s no fool. Who’s ever heard of water that quenches your thirst forever? Jesus needs to take the conversation deeper so she can see him as something more than a snake-oil salesman. So he leads her to look at herself through his eyes.
Now, here we’ve got to be careful to step outside the assumptions people often bring to the character of this Samaritan woman. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of R-rated biblical interpreters, but that’s what often happens with this story. Jesus points out the woman has had five husbands and that the man she’s living with is not her husband. That doesn’t make her either a skank or a hooker with a heart of gold. In this social context, a woman had no legal right to divorce her husband. So the likelihood is that she’s lived through the hell of being dumped or widowed five times. And now, the only relationship she can find is outside what little protection marriage offered women. She’s had an incredibly hard life. She’s on the margins of everything. Jesus wants her to know that he gets it.
And he wants her to know that she is more than what her hard life would lead her to believe. In the eyes of her culture, this woman’s identity would have been a negation: “not someone’s wife.” In the eyes of a Jew walking into her Samaritan culture, the woman’s identity would have been a judgmental negation: “a heretic who’s not someone’s wife.” At best, she’s a nothing. And yet, here’s a prophet engaging this nothing in a theological conversation. Here’s a prophet saying that where people worship God doesn’t make a nickel’s worth of difference; what matters is knowing the Father and worshipping authentically, “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24). Here’s a prophet revealing to her that actually he’s the Messiah, and he wants to have a conversation with her. This woman’s identity is as far away from “nothing” as you can get. It’s not about her marital status, or her ethnic group, or her religious practice. Her identity comes from the living water welling up within her, the water Jesus gives her by focusing not on what she is but who she is. And who is that? This woman is the greatest thing there is: a child of God, worthy of a conversation with God’s own Son, worthy of receiving living water, worthy of being taken completely seriously.
And once she begins to see herself through Jesus’ eyes, she begins to see Jesus through God’s eyes. She says, testing the waters, “I know that [the] Messiah is coming…” (4:25). And Jesus smiles and lets her know she got it right: “I am he,” he says – or, more precisely, as the Greek text gives it, “I am” (John 4:26) – just like God on Mt. Sinai. This has truly been a divine encounter. And it heals the woman so deeply that she can live into the opposite of her society’s expectations. This outsider, who couldn’t even go to the well with the other women, now runs to the crowd and says, “Come and see a man who told me everything I’ve ever done!” (4:29) Come and see the first man who ever truly saw me.
When Jesus looks at you, who does he see? Does he see a banker, or a homemaker, or a student, or a parent, or a physician, or a retiree, or a businessperson, or a priest? Does he gauge who you are based on your accomplishments in your role? No. No. No. No. What Jesus sees is you – the real you, deep down, at the core of your being.
Our identity, our value, comes not from what we make but from how we’re made. We can earn millions of dollars, or labor countless hours, or insist on perfection in all that we do – but none of that gives us our value. Our value comes from the Spirit’s presence welling up within us. Our value comes from the fact that you – not humanity in general but you, the beautiful face looking back at you in the mirror – you are made in the image and likeness of God. You bear the spark of divinity within you. In God’s eyes, you are worth dying for – not because you are “good”; in fact, despite much that you regret. (Romans 5:6-8) Your failures aren’t the point. In God’s eyes, you are worth dying for simply because you are a precious child. Precisely because God knows you so well, because Jesus can tell you everything you’ve ever done, because you cannot earn love no matter how hard you try – because God knows you need it, the love of your heavenly parent flows into your heart. It’s the river that watered the Garden of Eden in the beginning and the river that flows through the city of God, the heavenly city waiting to welcome each of us home. It is the water of life. And it’s yours.
The question isn’t, “Am I more than my work?” God knows you’re more than your work. The question about work is this: “Does my work reflect who I am?” Does what I do spring from the living water that springs up in me? Does my work honor the God who loves me unconditionally for who I am? Does my work honor the inherent value of every person my work touches? Through my work, do I love God and love the person in front of me?
So what is your true work? To serve drinks. When you come right down to it, we are all holy bartenders. You are called to take the love of God that flows into your heart and pour that love back out again. In your office, in your home, at a party with your friends, in a meeting room filled with tension – in every waking moment – your work is to love. Nothing less will do for us, for the children of the God who is love. Your work is to draw living water from the well of your own beloved heart and pour it out freely, not fearing the loss. Your work, my work – our work – is simply to offer a drink to every thirsty child of God the world sends our way