Who Leads Me Beside Still Waters

Life (Jacob's Well)The ordinary gives way to the extraordinary. In the heart of the West Bank lies the Palestinian city of Nablus, a teeming, crowded center of more than 200,000 people. Of that number, approximately 500 are Christian, worshiping at the Anglican, Orthodox, and Catholic churches of the city. Even with this small community, Nablus remains a city of pilgrimage for the hearty few. Nablus is a mispronunciation of Neapolis, the new city the Romans gave name to. They were rebranding Biblical Sychar, also known as Shechem, the capital of the northern Samaritan kingdom. When Moses led the people out of Egypt and they brought Joseph’s bones with them, they buried him here. And it is also here that the spring known as Jacob’s Well sits.

Jacob’s well is housed in a Greek Orthodox Cathedral. The current building, the third one in history, was built in the last twenty years by a Greek national named Fr. Justin who worked alongside Palestinian refugees from the Balata refugee camp right across the street. The massive sanctuary stands empty much of the time. Orthodox pilgrims come to visit, filling up the worship space on feast days. At the far end of the sanctuary is a set of stairs descending to an underground chapel that houses the well. On slow days, you can enter, draw up the bucket, and drink a cup of water from the same spring where Jesus met the Samaritan woman.

The ordinary gives way to the extraordinary.

The city of Nablus sits at the foot of Mt Gerizim. Its peak is home to 500 Samaritans who live there today, a continuous presence dating back thousands of years. When political tensions run high in the region, the Samaritans tend to keep to themselves; but it is not unusual to see them in Nablus. They own property and businesses there, and even have representation on the city council.

For the Samaritans, Mt. Gerizim is the holy mountain. Their ancestors built an altar, their site of worship to Yahweh, the God of the Hebrew people. The Judeans, or Jews, of the kingdom of Judea and the Samaritans of the kingdom of Samaria worshiped the same God, but disagreed about where to do so: Mt. Gerizim in the north, or Jerusalem in the south?

King David united the two kingdoms as one, and called the new kingdom Israel, the nickname give to their common ancestor Jacob after he wrestled with the angel of the Lord. This political unity only lasted a couple of generations before petty rivalries divided the kingdoms once again. Eventually, Babylon attacked Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple, and took the Judean people into exile. Samaria was defeated too, but there was no parallel exile for the Samaritans, who stayed at Mt. Gerizim and continued to worship the Lord.

When the Persian Empire defeated the Babylonians and King Cyrus allowed the Jewish people access to Jerusalem again, a rumor started that the Samaritans who had stayed behind had intermarried with the conquerors and were no longer pure in their bloodlines. This rumor persisted, alongside theological and geographical arguments over holy sites and proper worship of the Lord God Yahweh. And it was into this animosity that Jesus stepped, telling crazy stories of the Samaritan who saved the life of a Jew on the road to Jericho, and drinking water from a Samaritan well and speaking at length with a Samaritan woman.

The ordinary gives way to the extraordinary.

The story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman is not just one of personal devotional interest, but of historical importance. After what we read today, the Samaritan woman asks Jesus whether Jerusalem or Mt. Gerizim is the right place to worship. Jesus replies cryptically that we worship God not in one place or the other, but “in Spirit and truth.” When the disciples return to the well, they are baffled as to why such an important person like Jesus would stoop to chat with a lowly Samaritan – a Samaritan woman, no less. Jesus gives us a living parable for generations of Christians to come about overcoming prejudice and not getting caught up in petty details that separate tribe from tribe. It’s a lesson that generations of Christians have failed to learn. Even we enlightened, 21st century Americans would do well to revisit this message again and again, to be reminded of how much we still need to grow in spiritual maturity.

Even with all of this weightiness, the whole story of Jesus and the unnamed Samaritan woman hinges on, of all things, a pun. Jesus tells the woman that he can draw “living” water. In Greek, the phrase “living water” also means “running water”. That’s why she asks Jesus about a bucket. If he had one, he could draw up the running water that comes right out of the spring far below, not the still water that sits in the well. And even by the end of our reading this morning, she still misses the point, wanting Jesus to give her the miraculous running water so that she doesn’t have to keep coming back to this well again and again to draw well water for her constant thirst.

The reality is that when our thirst is quenched by living water, the water that Jesus gives, we will still need to drink the plain old water. We will still have to come back to the well day after day, lower our buckets, and draw up what we need to continue on. You see, if it weren’t for the well, the woman would never have had the encounter with Jesus that changed her life. It was her normal, physical need for daily water that led her to this astonishing encounter with the living Lord.

The ordinary gives way to the extraordinary.

When we read in Psalm 23 that the Lord, our shepherd, leads us beside the still and quiet waters, it’s a lovely, pastoral scene. At the same time, it is ordinary – extremely ordinary. The shepherd leads the sheep here…because the sheep needs to drink. That’s it. And the waters are calm and still, because the shepherd doesn’t want the sheep to get too carried away by any turbulent waters. There is peace in this scene. God desires that kind of peace for us, the comfort in knowing that our needs are met. And yet, there is in the ordinary a chance for the extraordinary to take place.

Where is your ordinary? Where is your well? Where is it that you go again and again to meet your need for the still, peaceful waters?

Is it here in worship? We have been talking a lot about worship recently here at Oglethorpe Presbyterian. Your suggestions have been our music choices. The prayers you write down on these simple blue cards are the ones we share together. We imagine together how we might shape this space differently to improve our worship experience. In many ways, these are ordinary conversations. After all, we are ordinary humans. And yet, there is something about being here – together – in this thing called “worship” that allows room for the extraordinary to break in, surprise us, and move us.

Have you had that moment where you are convinced that the preacher was speaking directly to you? Or has a prayer lifted up been just the one you needed to give you peace? Have the lyrics of a hymn cut you to the quick, or the right combination of notes played wordlessly on flute or piano or organ transported you? Has it been at the font or the table that you have seen and experienced faith in a whole new way? Has it been the noise of people greeting one another with signs of peace, or the chaos of children coming forward for conversation, or the pause of silent prayer where you have heard holiness speak?

It is not that these things are going to happen week after week. That would be wonderful, and that may even be the case for some of you. For most of us, however, the truth is that we need the habit of worship more than we might admit, especially if it doesn’t happen every time. If we don’t return to the well of worship again and again, then we don’t give the opportunity for the ordinary to give way to the extraordinary.

Do you want to know the secret about worship? It’s not meant to be a weekly practice, but a daily one. The purpose of weekly worship is to fine-tune us so that we will recognize the risen Christ in our daily encounters. Our spiritual thirst, much like our physical one, is a constant reality. It runs deep – deep enough to thirst for that living water that Christ offers.

Worship styles are supposed to give way to a worship lifestyle. Worship practices are meant to give way to worshipful encounters. And the ordinary, ultimately, gives way to the extraordinary. Let us pray together that it would be so.