As silly as it sounds, there was one discovery that I made that helped my summer immensely: on each wing, there was a small room that contained, among other things, a stack of styrofoam cups, an ice machine, a water cooler, a coffee pot, and a cabinet full of small boxes of tissues.
On my worst days, at the hardest moments, if I could do nothing else, I could always offer people a cup of ice water and a Kleenex. Water is what could get me in the door, it was what I could offer to people as a peace offering to prove that I was kind and harmless. Thirst for water was a common need, and once physical thirst had been taken care of, people would begin to open up about their other thirsts. My ministry of “water and tissues,” as I called it, was a safe way for people to feel comfortable venturing into the less safe spaces of their souls. It was a safe way for me to venture into rooms and into people’s lives during what was, for me, quite the unsafe but fulfilling summer.
Jesus came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob's well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.
A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, "Give me a drink." The Samaritan woman said to him, "How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?"
Jesus answered the woman, "If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, 'Give me a drink,' you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water." The woman, misunderstanding what he meant when he said “living water,” said to him, "Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?”
Jesus said to her, "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." The woman said to him, "Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water."
Jesus said to her, "Go, call your husband, and come back." The woman answered him, "I have no husband." Jesus said to her, "You are right in saying, 'I have no husband'; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!" The woman said to him, "Sir, I see that you are a prophet.”
Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”
The author Sara Miles, a lifelong athiest, took communion for the first time at age 46. What followed was a radical conversion that she writes about in her book, Take This Bread. Her faith journey led her to begin a food pantry in her church. The following is an excerpt from that book, talking about one little girl who she met on a bustling food pantry day.
I was unloading groceries one Friday when I spotted Sasha standing out back by the baptismal font, as if she were waiting for someone. Sasha was a very small black girl, maybe six or seven years old, who usually came to the pantry with an impatient, teenage aunt. I’d never met her mother. Sasha’s hair wasn’t always combed, and this day she had a split lip. “Sweetheart!” I said. I was glad to see her again. “Want a snack? There’s some chips inside.”
Sasha looked at me, not smiling. “Is this water the water God puts on you to make you safe?” she demanded abruptly, in a strangely formal voice.
I put down my boxes. What was she asking for? Was I being asked to baptize her? My mind raced, flashing back to when I’d stood at the font for my own baptism just a few years ago.
Nothing about that water had made me safe. It had pushed me further out from the certainties and habits of my former life, taken me away from my family, and launched me on this mad and frustrating mission to feed multitudes. It had eroded my identity as an objective journalist and given me an unsettling glimpse of how very little I knew. I was no less flawed or frightened or capable of being hurt than I’d been before my conversion, and now, in addition, I was adrift in this water, yoked together with all kinds of other Christians, many of whom I didn’t like or trust.
How could I tell this child that a drop of water could make her safe? I had no idea what Sasha was going through at home, but I suspected it was rough. And baptism, if it signified anything, signified the unavoidable reality of the cross at the heart of Christian faith. It wasn’t a magic charm but a reminder of God’s presence in the midst of unresolved human pain.
I remember what Lynn Baird, [one of the priests at St. Gregory’s] had asked me, when I was contemplating baptism.
“Do you want it?” I asked.
Sasha locked her eyes on me. “Yes,” she said. “Yes, I want that water.”
There was something so serious in her face that it stopped me cold. I dipped my fingers into the font, and Sasha turned her face up to me, concentrating. I made the sign of the cross on her forehead.
I took Sasha into the church and found Lynn...I told her what had happened, and we walked over to the small wooden shrine by the preacher’s chair, where Lynn asked Sasha if she wanted a special blessing.
“Yes,” Sasha said gravely. “I want that.”
From the shrine, Lynn took the small container of oil and showed it to Sasha. The girl stood up, very still, in front of Lynn’s chair. “I’m going to put my hands on you and pray now, if you’re ready,” Lynne said, and Sasha nodded.
Behind us, a crowd was circling around the Table, gathering up rice and beans and Froot Loops cereal. A bunch of other kids were dodging in and out, shouting and punching one another and eating snacks. “Jesus is always with you,” Lynn told Sasha, as she finished rubbing the oil into her skin, “no matter what happens to you, even when bad things happen. you’re not ever alone.” Sasha closed her eyes for a moment, then looked down directly at the seated priest, and I saw something flowing between them: the child, crucified, anointing Lynn with the power of her crucifixion, and Lynn, receiving it, anointing Sasha.
That Sunday, at church, I told some of the other deacons what had happened. [My friend] Lawrence got up suddenly and left the room, crying. “I ran into the bathroom, he said to me later, “and started splashing water on my face, and when I realized what I was doing, that I was rebaptizing myself, I cried even harder.”
Lawrence cleared his throat. He took out a handkerchief and blew his nose.
“Honey,” I said.
“Ah,” said Lawrence. “It just came to me how much I want God’s safety.”
“I know,” I said.
“I wonder if that water really does protect us,” said Lawrence. “I fear not. That’s not what it’s for.”
Two weeks later, Sasha came back to the pantry with her aunt, who was lugging another baby. She ran up to me, leaped into my arms, kissed me, and said, “Let’s go find Lynn. I want a special blessing.” We anointed her again, and again Sasha received the oil deliberately, with great attention, listening to every word of our prayers. Then she corrected Lynn.
“It’s not AH-men,” Sasha said, “it’s A-men.”
I asked her what amen meant.
“It means thank you,” Sasha said.
(Take this Bread, Sara Miles, p.236-238)
Like Sasha standing at the font, and like the woman sitting at the well, we are thirsty people. We are people living in a self-sufficient world who drag our water jugs to all sorts of wells, day in and day out, wells that may quench our thirst for a time, but wells that eventually dry up.
Jesus meets us in these thirsty places. He meet us when material success loses its luster, when relationships fall flat, when schedules are over-full, when we no longer find fulfillment in pursuits that once seemed life-giving. Jesus meets us at the edge of the well, in the heat of the noonday, waiting and wanting to give us his life.
Jesus promises us that all who drink of the living water he offers will never be thirsty. He promises that the water he gives will become in us a a spring of water gushing up to eternal life. But make no mistake here - this living water will not keep us safe. As Lawrence said, “That’s not what it’s for.” This living water will quench us, but it will also transform us and push us forward.
Living water is moving water. It rushes to the shore like the waves of the ocean, and tumbles over rocks like rapids in a river. It carries us with it like the undertow pulls us to the middle of the sea, and it bubbles up within us like an untamed spring in the wilderness.
Living water pushes us into hospital rooms and into the heart of human need. Living water pushes us to feed hungry people against all odds, and to offer blessings to those whom the world forgets. Living water pushes us into the center of crowds where we can shout to all who have ears to hear, “I have seen the Messiah!”
Living water pushes us to leave our old jars behind - our old burdens, our old wells, our old thirsts, our old weights. For our story is no longer one of thirst. It is now a story of God’s love, transforming us form within through the waters of baptism. It is a story of the river of life, rushing through us to create our new identities as children of God.
So today, as you feel moved to do so, I invite you to stop by the font for a moment. Set down your heavy old jars at its edge, and then dip your fingers into the water. Feel the presence of God swirling in that water, filling your soul to overflowing. Know that this living water is for you, no matter who you are or what you’ve done or where you’ve been. Know that this font is the last well you will ever need, for here, you have seen the Messiah, the one who promises to push you forward into the world, transformed, fulfilled, and truly alive.