Bishop Peggy A. Johnson
A sermon preached at the Eastern PA Conference Service of Ordination, June 17, 2016
Scripture texts: Ephesians 2:12-22 and John 4:3-30, 39-42
There are few things more important to life than water. Humans are composed of 70-80% water. Water has everything to do with our body temperature, metabolism, breathing, organ functions. It is the most abundant compound present on the earth. Plant life must have water to grow and germinate seeds. Birds, fish, animals, every living thing needs water. Water is a key substance that cleans the earth’s surface into the ocean. Its ability to evaporate by heat and condense by cooling creates a cycle that brings fresh water for drinking and irrigation. Water makes up 70.8% of the total land mass of the earth.
When water is not around it is devastating. Think of the droughts on the West Coast. When I was in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, a few years ago the well was broken at the Mpasa Clinic. What a joy it was to see it fixed while I was there. It was like Christmas had come!
Wells were a source of critical water supply in biblical times. They were also a place where people came for important encounters with women of a marriageable age. Abraham’s servant met Rebecca at a well and felt she was a suitable wife for Isaac. Jacob met Rachel at a well. Moses met some eligible women at a well in the land of Midian.
And it was certainly the site of the longest theological conversation in all of the four gospels: Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well. Water was the key element of this discussion, not just physical water but the everlasting water of life.
What are the lessons about water that this text brings us on this ordination night?
Water is for everyone and everything on earth. Jesus came to the well in Sychar after a long walk and wanted water to drink to quench his thirst. Whether Jews or Samaritans, men or women, water is something we can all agree on. Water is no respecter of persons. It goes anywhere. God sends rain on the just and the unjust.
I remember as a child my grandparents lived in a neighborhood of houses. Some of the homes kept nice yards and some did not. My grandparents were gardening fanatics and spent hours manicuring their lawn and caring for their many flowers and bushes. They were a bit disapproving of the neighbors who did not keep up their yards up quite as well. It was what it was.
Then one night there was a car accident in front of my grandparents’ home. It seems a drunk driver slammed into a fire hydrant that was near their front yard. Gallons of water streamed out of this hydrant, and it took hours before the water department could get to the shut-off valve. When morning came, what do you know? All the yards in the neighborhood looked the same. They were all covered with water: the manicured yards and the not-so-nice yards. Water did not pick and choose where to go.
So it is with God’s Spirit and God’s saving love. God wants the water of the Spirit to quench everyone’s spiritual thirst. Jesus demonstrated that. He broke a good bit of his own religion’s social taboos by talking to a woman, and a Samaritan woman at that.
The law forbade interactions with women. One early Hebrew writing said “He that talks much with womankind brings evil upon himself, and neglects study of the law, and at law will inherit Gehenna (hell).”
Talking to Samaritans was even worse. Jews were not supposed to walk on their land or even touch bowls or dishes that they ate from. The parable of the Good Samaritan was not written because Jews loved Samaritans. Quite the opposite.
But there is Jesus. He is breaking all the laws and human taboos because of a greater law: the law of God’s love that pours out like Niagara Falls on everyone. No one is unworthy of God’s love, acceptance and grace, including the likes of you and I.
Is that not our DNA as United Methodists? John Wesley came from a stock of very proper Anglicans, who had rules and taboos about preaching. Then he learned about the poor miners who went to work at 4 o’clock every morning. At the urging of George Whitfield, he began to preach to them in the open air.
Wesley wrote in his journal, “I submitted myself to be more vile.” Vile! That is the point. Get the word out to everyone, whatever the situation, the people involved, the social taboos around it. God’s love and God’s Spirit is for everyone. They don’t have to live up to our standards and rules.
Ordinands! Commissionands! Jesus has showed you the way! Get out there and reach people for Christ: all people, anyone, everyone, especially the loners at the well. You are appointed to your community—not just to your church—specifically, to the “not-so-loved” people of this world.Then watch God work.
As I said, water renews the face of the earth by its cleansing rain and its regenerating properties. So it is with the Spirit of God. God wants to love everyone; and part of that love is to call people to accountability and change. God never leaves us how we are but is always working on us and making us more and more spiritually in tune with him.
For the woman at the well, Jesus calls her to a better place. Traditionally, church teaching surmises that this woman is something of a prostitute or a woman of the night. Preachers have long suggested that she went to the well at noontime because she was a social outcast due to her many husbands, and whatever that was about. A woman with five husbands and apparently living with someone whom she is not currently married to could raise ancient and even modern eyebrows. But I would rather not go there. We often say that she launches into a discussion about mountain worship after Jesus gives a prophetic word about her living situation because she is trying to avoid this embarrassing conversation. Do we know for sure? How quick we are to judge.
We don’t know for sure about her life. Maybe her first husband died, and she ended up with this man’s four brothers, one after another, and it was not such a fun time with the wives of these brothers. Maybe she is abused, used, sold, rejected by the good people and had no place to go. Don’t we all know people like that?
Human trafficking is a multi-billion-dollar business in this world of ours, and no one who is being sold for sex volunteered for it or loves doing this. There is a sad, sad story behind each face and a God of justice who sees that face and longs for them to be in a better place. There would be no human trafficking in this world if God’s people stood in the gap between poverty and this insidious form of abuse.
This tiny ancient story of the woman at the well doesn’t explain this woman’s real story; but we know this, Jesus used her past as a tool for evangelism and to lift her to a better place in her community. After Jesus’ amazing revelation to her, that he was the Messiah, and after he proved it by revealing information about her life that he had no human way of knowing, she believed and was transformed. She left her water jar and ran back to tell the people of her town about Jesus. What better way to get their attention than to tell them that he knew her “story.” Jesus transformed her life and then used her “story” as a tool for evangelism.
It still works today. God is about the business of using the imperfect people of this world, people with a story, people who have been transformed by the Spirit of God, to be some of the greatest witnesses to the power of the gospel.
There is an old Indian parable about a gardener with two terra cotta pots that he carried on his shoulders with a stick in between. One pot was perfect, the other had some leaks. The perfect pot was proud of its accomplishments, perfect for the purpose for which it was made: to carry water. But the poor, cracked pot that dribbled water along the way was ashamed of its own imperfection. It apologized to the gardener: “Because of my flaws you have to do more hauling of water each day.”
The water bearer replied, “I want to show you something.” He showed the pot the path where they walked each day. The side of the road where the cracked pot was carried was strewn with many flowers. The gardener said, “Everyday, while we walked back from the stream, you watered these flowers for me. Without you being cracked just as you are I would not have the beauty of these flowers in the house.”
Don’t forget the amazing power of God made perfect in weakness when you feel down on yourself for whatever reason, and also when you are choosing people to do the work of Christ.
One of the most powerful witnesses to the resurrection of Christ that I know of is a very unknown person named Mark who is Deaf and who works with Deaf prisoners around the country. He had a hard life growing up and experienced a lot of rejection and poverty. He has struggled personally with employment and being sidelined because of his deafness.
But what a witness. He goes from prison to prison and finds the Deaf inmates. He ministers to them and reaches people that no one else possibly could because of his witness to the power of God. He advocates for justice and services in a way that no one else is capable of.
So Ordinands and Commissionands! Seek out the broken pots to do the work of Christ; and the brokenness can be cleaned up and used of God in powerful ways that the “know-it-alls” and the “have-it-alls” can’t possibly achieve. It is the way of Jesus.
Jesus said to the woman, “Everyone who drinks of regular water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I give will never be thirsty. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
This life is not the final destination. We are about the business of bringing people eternal life through Jesus Christ. It is about bringing all people into a saving knowledge and love of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins and everlasting life in heaven. As the Ephesian texts states, “So you are no longer strangers and aliens but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.”
The school system doesn’t teach this; the government can’t write laws about it. Many of our families are far from God; but the family of God, the church, is the powerhouse for this kind of life-giving water distribution program.
So have at it! The fields are ripe for harvest. We have plenty to do! Give out spiritual water to people, all people: people obsessed with things and power and ease, people who hunger for acceptance and bread, people who are living in fear and depression. God’s water is available to all.
I celebrate the churches I know that are getting into nursing homes and mental health institutions with the love of God. I celebrate the churches I know that are ministers to the migrants who come and work in our fields in the summer and pick our crabmeat.
I celebrate the churches that are intentionally reaching children and young people who are not brought to Sunday School anymore like the old days. They find ways to minister during the week. I celebrate churches that are helping people find employment, social services, veterans’ benefits, always in the process of bringing living water.
So Ordinands and Commissionands, Pastors and Lay folks, Elders, Deacons, Local Pastors, Deaconesses, Christ Servant Ministers, Lay Servants, Certified Lay Ministers, certified candidates, all of you with all of these certifications and levels of power and authority: go out and do the work of spreading around the living water.
This is the main thing we should be doing. Measure your spirituality against the number of people you have reached for Christ. Measure your effectiveness against how many lost people have found the living water through you.
And God will be with you! God’s got a master plan here, and we are called for such a time as this. Spread the water to all.