Just before Christmas, our son brought home a rescue dog. She is a beautiful Spanish greyhound/Doberman mix, with a glossy black coat, highly expressive ears, and an exquisitely shaped frame. She is also a total mess. When Ben first met her at the shelter, her terror of humans kept her from accepting the bit of cheese that he gently offered. Days away from being put down, this cowering creature came into our home, so skittish at the sight of a stranger that she would lose control of her bladder anytime someone came to our door.
In the months she has been with us, this precious creature is slowly finding safety. However, this slight step forward has led to an awkward assertiveness, in which she randomly breaks out in bullying behavior towards our elderly golden retriever or aggressive barking at us, particularly as we are just sitting down to a nice family dinner. Her neurotic need to compulsively gulp down massive quantities of water means that she frequently puddles on my otherwise carefully kept carpets, and her anxious climbing of furniture to watch at the windows means we’ve taken to storing odd bits of furniture on the sofas. At times, my compassion wears thin. I understand that these bad behaviors come from the deprivations of food and water and the multiple abandonments this poor creature has endured. But what will it take to convince her little doggie self that she is safe with us?
Trauma has a way of destroying a good relationship before it gets deep enough to bring about its healing potential.
Oddly enough, I see a similar dynamic at work in the Samaritan woman’s encounter with Jesus in John 4:5-42. We can only guess at the ethnic, social, and relational trauma that lay behind her awkward responses to Jesus, but the signs are all there. At one moment avoidant and the next assertive and accusatory, the woman seemed to do all within her power to hijack what bore the potential of becoming a healing relationship. And yet, for one with eyes to see and ears to hear, underneath her odd barrage of questions and claims unfolds this cowering creature’s backstory. Racism. “Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob? …Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” Misogyny. “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” Abandonment. “I have no husband.” Deprivation. “Sir, give me this water so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” Shame. Who treks to the well in the heat of the day?
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.”…
“Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 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.”
Jesus, the One who came to reconcile us to the Father (Romans 5:1-11), recognized the festering wounds that hindered this woman from healthy relating and graciously absorbed her blows. Placing himself at her mercy with a request for something to drink, the Son of God approached in the most nonthreatening way possible. He answered her defensive questions with statements of His own, gently inviting her into the sort of safe relationship with Himself that could begin to address her true deepest needs. To her obsession with wells and water He responded with an invitation to ask for Living Water. To her hang-up over the exclusivity of temple worship He responded with a promise of Spirit-infused worship that could take place wherever and whoever she was. And to her hunger for belonging that had led to repeatedly sell herself short in her relationships with men, He responded with an invitation into relationship with Himself, the one who had left the ninety-nine insiders to come after this beloved stray.
Like Nicodemus, the well-educated gentleman who came to Jesus by night, this marginalized woman whom He met at midday found it difficult to understand the things He was saying. Truth be told, I join these intelligent seekers in sometimes getting hung up on the surface-level meaning of His words. I stumble over comments like “being born of the Spirit” and “asking for Living Water” that somehow becomes a self-perpetuating well which overflows into eternal life. Perhaps part of the reason we struggle with these teachings is that we, like Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman, lack the Spirit of Truth who alone can open the intellect of our hearts to perceive them. As Jesus explained, “God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in Spirit and truth.”
“Believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem….Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.”
How can we relate to God, the Eternal Spiritual Being, from minds and bodies that are still not fully formed in their spiritual nature? The longer I sit with Jesus’ words, the more I conclude that we are incomplete, still in the process of being created. What we lack is what Jesus came to offer: the Holy and Life-giving Spirit. Without this Spirit, we are functioning in a two-dimensional world, incapable of perceiving spiritual reality and incapacitated in our human relating. It is as if we need a new switch to be installed, a new lens to look through, a new life to inhabit our flat reasoning and fleshy frame.
This is the gift Jesus comes to offer each one of us. He shows up at our wells, the dry places we compulsively return to out of the neurotic hope we will be able to extract some drop of satisfaction to keep us going in life. We cry out with frustration and despair, wondering why He doesn’t make our vain efforts work, why He hides His face when in fact we are looking in the wrong direction. We anxiously chase after satisfaction through food and drink, security through money and position, love through accomplishment and success. But these are shoddy stand-ins for the One who offers us Life, and that abundantly. That life is the Holy Spirit, who takes God’s love and pours it into our hearts until they are so full that they can’t contain it all. The Spirit meets us at our places of deepest wounding and of greatest longing, offering the Spirit’s own self as the satisfaction that we seek.
Perhaps this is what Jesus Himself spoke of when he told His surprised disciples that He had food to eat that they did not know about. Living Water. Spiritual Food. These are the elements we gather around and partake of, not as lifeless rituals but as Spirit-infused realities. They are material means through which we relate with the Spirit of God, taking His life into our own bodies so that we may be renewed. But the sacrament extends beyond this holy space, inviting us to go out into the world as earthen vessels filled with the transformative power of the Holy Spirit. Wherever and whoever we are, we bear the Holy Spirit in our mortal frames, making it safe for us to proclaim to those around us:“Come and meet the One who introduced me to myself. Come and meet the One who is loving me into goodness.”
Originally presented as a sermon at Christ Church, Georgetown on Sunday, March 12, 2023.