March 27, 2011

John 4:5-42

Did you know that Tuesday, March 22nd was the international World Water Day? I didn’t know that it was until yesterday when the day had already passed. But marking World Water Day a few days late is probably better than not marking it at all. The purpose of the day is simple – to raise awareness about the achievements made and the challenges faced in ensuring people around the world have access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation.

I hate to admit it, but I went down to Regina on Friday afternoon with our Synod Youth group, and I complained about the tap water. I’m not the kind of person who ever bothers with bottled water. Tap water is fine. But I suddenly realized that I’d become accustomed to some pretty fine tasting tap water here in Saskatoon. Just brushing my teeth with the Regina water was unappealing, let alone actually drinking it. And that is good, fresh, treated water that is perfectly safe to drink. Even the people of Regina have it pretty good!

Clean water is essential to life, yet over a billion people around the world still do not have adequate or sustainable access to safe water or proper sanitation facilities. A lack of sanitation and clean drinking water leads to serious health problems such as cholera, diarrhea, scabies and malaria. In many developing countries, women and children are responsible for collecting water from wells or streams that are far away and may not be clean. Children often miss school because they are collecting water or are ill from drinking unsafe water. Large cities and slum areas struggle to provide appropriate infrastructure that keeps pace with the growth of urban populations.

Our Canadian Presbyterian development agency, PWS&D, works with overseas partners to provide clean water, improved sanitation facilities and hygiene education in schools, churches and communities around the world. People are living healthier lives through programs that construct wells and rainwater tanks closer to homes, repair broken water taps, install latrines and teach families about proper hygiene practices. These are all good things, and we can be proud of the contributions that we make to these programs through our church. But at the same time, there are many people right here in Canada that don’t have access to enough clean water.

I read an article the other day about thousands of Manitobans living on northern reserves that were hoping that the federal budget presented earlier this week would come through with money to bring clean water to more of their homes. In late January, a review of water systems on more than 600 Canadian reserves was completed and will likely help to draw attention to this issue. But one article suggested that some of those living on reserves survive on less clean water per day than is provided in refugee camps in war-torn nations. Most have to cart buckets of water from pumps, but several reserves can’t produce enough clean water from their treatment plants to meet demand. It is a public-health nightmare, with residents reporting higher rates of infectious diseases due to overcrowded and unsanitary living conditions.

The United Nations recently declared access to clean drinking water a basic human right. But Canadian diplomats didn’t support that resolution. A few years ago, we all heard about the E. Coli found in the water supply of the Cree living in the Kashechewan First Nation along James Bay. That situation was bad enough that much of the population was evacuated from the community for treatment of ailments caused by the water. But five years later, there are still 117 First Nations under drinking water advisories.

Now, I suppose that you probably didn’t come to church this morning expecting to hear so much about water. Perhaps if this Sunday was planned for a special focus on the work of PWS&D, you wouldn’t be surprised by a bunch of talk about access to clean water. But on a regular Sunday you likely expected to hear a message that’s a little more “spiritual.”

But the thing about God that religious people may be most inclined to forget is that, for God, the physical is spiritual… and the spiritual is physical. Remember, this is the God who began with the divine Spirit brooding over the soupy mess of nothingness, and created the physical world and everything in it, and called it good. Remember, this is the God who became flesh in Jesus Christ – who became physical and lived in the world as one of us. And Jesus didn’t tell us to stop doing all the physical things that we do… like eating, and laughing, and loving, and playing, and working. No, he joined in all those things with us.

And he pointed out that the physical is spiritual too. He pointed out that the God who created us, and who loves us is with us, and in us, and around us, and between us. He went fishing, and he began relationships. He shared food, and he touched and healed sick people. He drank wine at parties, and I imagine that he danced, and laughed, and celebrated with his friends.

And though he told stories and shared teachings that spoke to people’s spiritual needs, he did not neglect or make light of the physical needs of the people he encountered. They were hungry. They were sick. They were injured. They were oppressed. And he cared about all those things, and all those people.

John’s Gospel is great for putting together the physical and the spiritual sides of life. Because in John’s Gospel, Jesus is always using physical, everyday things to help people to understand the spiritual. Last week, we heard Jesus tell a man called Nicodemus that he needed to be born again. That image of the struggle to be born… to come out into the light of day and participate in the risks and joys of living in the world… is a physical reality that points towards a spiritual journey towards an adult faith. Later in the Gospel Jesus will heal a man who was born blind in order to teach about spiritual blindness. And he’ll feed a hungry crowd with bread, but then invite them to realize that he himself is the “bread of life” that will truly nourish them.

In today’s Gospel text, Jesus says to the woman that he meets at the well, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”

He’s not saying that the physical doesn’t matter or that she doesn’t need actual water to live. Obviously she does, as we all do. Even Jesus needed water. And having no bucket with him, he was relying on this stranger to help him out and get him a little water to drink.

But Jesus’ message invites us to pause and consider how extremely critical it is to human life to have water. We can’t live without water. If we don’t have enough, it has to become our first priority to get water. And then we are invited to consider that Jesus is offering us something like that… something like water. Jesus is offering us something like water. And when we drink it, we’ll never be thirsty again. When we drink THAT water, it will become like a spring within us… it will never run out… and it won’t just keep us alive, but it will give us life forever.

I went to a meeting this week with a small group of leaders from some of the innercity churches here in Saskatoon. We meet together often at the Innercity Council of Churches, but this meeting was called by Dr. Ryan Meili, one of the doctors at the Westside Community Clinic. Ryan was concerned about the growing problem of homelessness in Saskatoon, and he was wondering whether some of the churches might be able to work together to provide emergency housing for people who sometimes end up sleeping outside in the winter.

So we got together to talk about this problem. We talked about people who are homeless and the services that are available to them. We talked about the various shelters, who they serve, and what they provide. We heard about the “Out of the Cold” programs in Toronto and Calgary, and thought about whether the Saskatoon churches could or should consider doing something similar if it is needed here in our city.

One of the people that came to this meeting was Don Windels who is the director of the Lighthouse (just up the street from us at 20th Street and 2nd Ave). Some of you will know the Lighthouse because our Outreach Committee organizes an annual event where we go and sing carols and spend some social time with the residents there. (You also might remember that it used to be called the Capri.)

Anyway, the Lighthouse is primarily a residence for people with physical or mental disabilities that make it difficult for them to live independently. They house both men and women in hotel-style rooms, and provide meals, encouragement, and support to be actively engaged in the community. But the Lighthouse also includes an emergency shelter. They have space for both men and women who have nowhere else to stay. And because of the increased need for emergency shelter, they have opened up a couple of common areas that become “overflow areas” when the need is greatest.

What we discovered at our meeting is that even though there are people sleeping on the streets in Saskatoon, the Lighthouse pretty much always has space to take more people in their overnight shelter. The problem seems to be that not everyone knows that they are there and able to house more people. In fact, the Lighthouse is building right now so that they can expand and improve their facilities, both for those who live there permanently, and for those who stay in the emergency shelter. And so the conversation shifted from a discussion about opening up churches for people to sleep on the floors of our halls towards a focus on how the churches might give support to an organization like the Lighthouse that is seeking to meet this growing need in our city.

We got talking about the ministry that the Lighthouse offers. It is not ministry of a particular congregation or denomination, but it is a Christian organization. Although they provide housing and support to people with mental or physical disabilities, as well as emergency shelter for both men and women, they also see their ministry as filling more than just physical needs. They want to share the good news of Jesus Christ, and to invite people into relationship with God. You might say that the Lighthouse wants to offer water to thirsty people, but they also want to offer the “living water” that only Jesus can give.

Hearing this mission of the Lighthouse, Ryan asked whether that might ever become a barrier to people accessing the help that they need in a physical sense. And the answer was “no.” We certainly hope not. We never push religion on the people. There is simply an invitation, never a push or a shove or a bribe. That was certainly the mistake that many Christians and churches made in the past. We made physical help dependant on acceptance of a spiritual message. And when we did that, that was a matter of manipulating people. It was using our power unfairly. And it was a distortion of the good news of Jesus Christ.

But I think that Don Windels wanted us to know that at the Lighthouse, they don’t want to become just another place where people who are desperate can find a place to sleep and something to eat. They do want to provide for people’s needs, but they know what so many people are struggling to understand… that life is more than food and drink and shelter and entertainment.

Like Jesus at the well in Samaria, the Lighthouse wants to be more than just a place where people can have their basic needs met. It wants to be a place where people are invited to go deeper and to meet the God who has come to us in Jesus Christ to bring hope, and meaning, and purpose to our lives.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus is bold to tell the woman of Samaria that life is more than food and water, and that through him and the living water that he would give to her, she could experience this deeper, more meaningful, more purposeful life. And because of that conversation at the well, the woman’s life was changed. Not only was she ready to experience the Spirit-filled life that Jesus was offering, but she was ready to tell others and invite them to come and see for themselves.

And did you notice? When she ran back to the city to tell others about Jesus, she left her water jar behind. Yes, she would be back to collect water there again… but now her life was going to be about something more as well.

This isn’t a message about how everything “spiritual” is good, and the “physical” is bad or unimportant. The fact is that Jesus calls us and sends us to provide for the physical needs of the people in our community and around the world. Everyone needs clean water, healthful food, reasonable shelter, and meaningful activity. But those things aren’t enough either. Those things on their own don’t make for the life that God intends for us.

Strangely enough though, often it is those of us who have all of our basic needs met that seem to miss that point. We have everything we need and more, but we go searching for something to make our lives feel complete. We look for distractions. We reach out for comforts. We strive for success, and accomplishments, and we try to acquire more things. Maybe it’s the rich among us that need to learn from the poor of the earth, from homeless guy staying at the Lighthouse, from the woman at the well. Because when she heard Jesus’ invitation to receive the living water, her life was transformed. She left her water jar beside the well, and she went running to tell her friends.

May the Spirit of God fill us and give us life, like a spring of water gushing up to eternal life. And may our lives overflow with blessing so that we may share God’s love both by providing for the needs of the poor and those in crisis, and by telling the good news of Jesus Christ to all. Amen.