March 15, 2020


Exodus 17:1-7
Psalm 95
Romans 5:1-11
John 4:5-42

“More to Life”

In the Revised Common Lectionary of Sunday Scripture readings, we’re in Year A of the three-year cycle right now. And during the Season of Lent in Year A, we get a series of wonderful, long, elaborate stories from the Gospel of John.

Last week it was the story of the Jewish leader, Nicodemus from John 3. Today, we read John 4 in which Jesus encounters a Samaritan woman beside a well. Next week, he’ll be healing a blind man in chapter 9, and then we’ll go on to chapter 11 where Jesus will actually raise Lazarus from the dead.

Last week, the Rev. Bob Wilson talked about how Jesus told Nicodemus that he must be born again. He must open his life to be led by God’s Spirit. He likened it to trusting God and “letting go of the rope” that we are clinging to for security, and to let God take us where we need to go and do what we need to do to build God’s kingdom on earth. And that kind of faith and trust begins with choosing to believe God – to believe that God loves us, that God has plans for us, that our future is in God’s hands.

The major theme of John’s Gospel that is explored in all these wonderful stories is about how people come to believe in Jesus as the Son of God and Saviour of the world. At the end of chapter 20, the purpose of the Gospel is made plain:

“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”

And the detailed stories of Jesus’ various encounters each give insight into both the identity of Jesus and the process of coming to believe in and have faith in him.

The stories of John’s Gospel are hopeful ones. They show that people can move from little or no understanding to become believers, and even sometimes to become preachers of the Gospel. They demonstrate that doubt can turn into faith. Blindness can become sight. Misunderstanding can be transformed into clarity and purpose.

By using confusing language and metaphors, John’s Gospel illustrates the transformation that takes place in people’s lives as they converse with Jesus and try to understand his message.

Many of the things Jesus says in John’s Gospel have two layers of meaning. At first, his listeners only understand the literal or more obvious meaning, and the challenge is to try to understand what he is “really” talking about. He refers to physical realities like water, bread, birth, and sight, when he’s really talking about spiritual realities like the Holy Spirit, spiritual nourishment, spiritual birth, faith and belief.

In today’s reading from chapter 4, Jesus talks about the “living water” and the “food.” “Living water” (hudor zown in the Greek) has two possible meanings. It can mean “fresh, running water” (spring water, as opposed to water from a cistern) or it can mean “life-giving water.”

The author of John’s Gospel intentionally uses a word with a double meaning. The Samaritan woman hears only the meaning “running water” in Jesus’ words and so responds to his offer of running water with protests of logical and material impossibility. It is not credible to her that a man who has just asked her for water because he was unable to acquire any for himself should now offer her fresh running water.

And her protest leads to a question: “Where do you get that running water?” This question, like other questions about the origins of Jesus’ gifts, is ironic. The question operates on two levels simultaneously. It makes sense to ask a man with no bucket where he will get water, but the question can also be asked of Jesus’ gift of living water. The irony arises because the reader knows the appropriateness of the question on both levels, but the woman is aware only of the first, literal level of meaning.

As the conversation continues, the woman too will begin to understand that there is another level of meaning in Jesus’ words. “You are not greater than Jacob, are you?” she asks. She assumes, at first, that he’s not. He can’t be. But he says, “Yes, actually, I am greater than Jacob.”

Her ancestor Jacob, from the Old Testament stories, made lots of water spring up from the well, providing enough for many flocks and herds. But Jesus provides water that gets rid of thirst altogether and permanently. “Those who drink of this water will never thirst – it will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life,” Jesus declares.

The woman responds enthusiastically, and asks for some of this water. But she’s still missing the point. She’s still thinking that the water is to satisfy a physical thirst. She figures that if she gets some, she won’t have to keep coming to the well every day. Her request is ironic to the reader, because we know that it is the right request for the wrong reason.

Jesus’ conversation with his disciples follows a similar pattern to his conversation with the woman. It opens with a dialogue that revolves around a misunderstanding about the meaning of “food” (browsis in the Greek). The disciples ask Jesus to eat the food that they have brought from town. But Jesus refuses, saying: “I have food to eat that you do not know about.”

The disciples are confused by Jesus’ words and assume that he must be referring to food that someone else has brought him. Again, he’s using words that normally refer to a physical reality, but he’s talking about a spiritual reality. It takes the disciples some time to notice the second layer of meaning.

In verse 34, Jesus makes it clear that the food that sustains him is his vocation: “to do the will of the one who sent [him] and to complete God’s work.” He’s not talking about physical food, just as he wasn’t talking about physical water. Jesus is talking about spiritual things. And slowly, with a little explanation and a little help, the Samaritan woman and Jesus’ own disciples are starting to get it.

As I already mentioned this morning, God does care about the physical needs of all people. The wilderness stories from Exodus remind us of God’s concern for our physical needs, and they inspire us to do our best to make sure that everyone has enough food, water, shelter, clothing, and medical care. But we all know that there is more to life than fulfilling those basic necessities.

In this time of anxiety and fear about COVID-19, I am guessing that those of you who came to worship this morning are convinced that there is more to life than fulfilling your physical needs. Yes, you took a bit of a risk in coming to worship with a bunch of other people.

Those who chose not to risk it likely did so for good reason also – because they’ve been travelling and don’t want to put others at risk, or because they are somewhat vulnerable and need to be extra careful.

Some churches within our denomination and other traditions have already decided to cancel worship and other activities, and we may have to do that t some point also. If we do, we will do our utmost to stay connected to each other by phone and email, and we will provide resources for individual and family prayer and worship.

The good news is that God’s Spirit is not confined to this building or to our community gatherings for worship. And our spiritual nourishment does not only come through the public proclamation of scripture and sermons.

When Jesus’ disciples came back from the city and returned to the place where he is resting at the well, the topic of conversation changed from water to food. As with physical needs, water is the first concern, with food being next on the priority list.

Jesus says that his “food” (the thing that nourishes and sustains him) is “to do the will of the one who sent him.” Jesus is spiritually fed by doing the work of ministry that God has called him to do. And then he goes on to invite his disciples to join in the work. He says that the time is right. It’s like harvest time, and many workers are needed to gather the fruit. Soon a whole bunch of Samaritans will arrive to meet Jesus because of the woman’s witness, and they’ll all have an opportunity to share the love and call of God with these people.

I often hear people talk about coming to church or engaging in spiritual practices like Bible study or prayer, and they evaluate those activities based on whether or not they “got something out of it.” Sometimes they even use the language of whether or not they were “spiritually fed.” I admit, I’ve even used that language myself occasionally.

But Jesus didn’t say that his food came from God when he went off by himself to pray, or when he went to the Temple or the synagogue to worship. He did do those things, of course. In faithfulness, he prayed regularly to God and listened for God’s leading and guiding in his life. And he studied the scriptures and worshiped God in spirit and in truth.

But he didn’t say that his spiritual sustenance came from doing those things. He said that his spiritual food was “to do the will of him who sent [him] and to complete his work.” Jesus was nourished and sustained in the course of his life of service, as he responded to God’s particular call for him.

So, no matter whether we are here at church or worshipping at home, we will be spiritually fed when  we offer ourselves in service to others – doing the will and the work of God to which we have been called.

I can preach in a pulpit, or I can share God’s Word online, by letter, by email, and by phone. You can offer hospitality in our gymnasium, or you can reach out to neighbours, church members, and others who need hospitality in the community. We can all continue to give generously to the church’s ministry when the offering plate is passed or through automatic debit, a cheque in the mail, or an online gift.

I do hope that we can continue to meet in person throughout this COVID-19 pandemic, that the risk will remain low, and we’ll sail through this time, and wonder later why everyone was so worried.

The good news from John’s Gospel today is that there is more to life than physical concerns. Jesus speaks of spiritual life, health, wholeness, and purpose. We have learned of those things here in this place, and enacted them in this physical community, and we are thankful.

God’s love has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, and we are filled, inspired, and equipped to live as God’s faithful people, no matter where we are and how we gather, and we are thankful.