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Living Water

Living Water

John 4:5-42

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

Cathedral of Hope – Oklahoma City

24 February 2008



    Jesus said to her, "The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life."


    What is eternal life?


    Friedrich Nietzsche offered one of the strongest critiques of Christianity. As Nietzsche saw it, Christianity was too focused on the afterlife. If you were going to get your reward in the hereafter, then there was no reason to live well now. According to Nietzsche, Christianity denied people happiness in this world. What people needed to do was to affirm living life now. In fact, they should affirm this life and love this life so deeply that they would be willing to live their life over and over again. He wrote:


What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: 'This life as you now life it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!"

    Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or, have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: "You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine." If this thought gained possession of you, it would change you as you are or perhaps crush you.


    Congregation, I pose Nietzsche's question to you. If you had to live your life over and over again exactly the way it has been and is does that thought fill you with excitement and joy or does it make you want to rend your garments, scream and cry, and pile ashes on your head?


    I submit to you that Friedrich Nietzsche, though debunking Christian theology as he understood it, actually came closer to understanding eternal life than most Christians ever have. Nietzsche advocated a "yes" to this life as the true source of freedom and joy. I submit that Jesus Christ also advocated a "yes" to this life that is the true source of freedom and joy.

    So, let me explain. First, what I mean by a "yes" to life. Second, how we say "yes" to life. And finally, what about those times in life when we can't say "yes."


    "Eternal life" is not everlasting life, despite what old translations might have said. Eternal life is not becoming an immortal like in the Highlander film and television series, or becoming the living dead like in vampire legends. I think if we really thought about it seriously, none of us would really like to live for centuries and centuries in this life.

    Nor is "eternal life" the afterlife of popular conception. Just for the record, tonight's sermon is not about whether there is or is not an afterlife. That's a discussion for another time. What I will say on that topic is that I don't know if there is an afterlife, nor do I think it's relevant. I don't think an afterlife is a core doctrine of the Christian faith; believing in one is not necessary for living the Christian life. We live the Christian life not because of what we will get out of it, but because this is the way of life that God has called us to. I can also say that I hope for a life beyond this one. But exactly what that is, I cannot say.

    If eternal life is not everlasting life and not the afterlife, then what is it?

The very first sermon I preached for you all, three years ago this coming April, was entitled "Resurrection People." In that sermon I told you a story about the summer of 2004:


Last summer I was down emotionally, close to the lowest I've ever been, not quite, but close. At the end of June I went to Birmingham, Alabama for the annual General Assembly of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. One thing I do there every year is buy a big bunch of books and then go back to the hotel room and peruse them, reading introductions, skimming contents, etc. One book I bought was Jurgen Moltmann's In the End – The Beginning: The Life of Hope. I had not read any Moltmann before, so I was anticipating that this little book would give me a good introduction to his thought. Sitting on my hotel bed I began reading the introduction, and I pretty much didn't put the book down until I had finished it two days later. I didn't attend any workshops or breakout sessions during the conference; I spent almost the entire time reading that book. Its message about resurrection was what I needed in that moment.


The theme of the book is that the central tenet of the Christian faith is that with every end there is a new beginning. Ours is a faith of hope, a faith that is constantly looking to the future. Moltmann claims that this hope, this faith, that new beginnings rest upon the resurrection. I have often used the phrase from that book, "Christians are the eternal beginners," in my preaching and teaching here.

Tonight I'm interested in what Moltmann has to say about eternal life. According to Moltmann we should talk about "eternal livingness," about "the intensity of experience" or "the depth of experience in the moment." Notice in the passage from Nietzsche that I read, that you can say "yes" to life if you've had one tremendous moment in your life.

Moltmann claims that eternal life is actually about the quality of life. In other words, a life in which we find meaning.

Our life has meaning if we love our life, if we delight in it.

Our life has meaning if it has possibility, which returns us to the idea of eternal beginnings. According to Moltmann, eternal life is, "a life that begins every moment . . . we look to the future and welcome the possibilities of the new morning."

Eternal life, then, is a quality of our current life. It is saying "Yes" to the life we now live. We can say "Yes" because it is a life filled with meaning. It brings us delight and possibility. As such, eternal life is a life of freedom and joy.


Now that sounds pretty damn good. How do we get it, then? How did the Samaritan women get it?

She came face to face with God. At the well she encountered Jesus. In this encounter he reveals who he is for the first time. In telling the truth about himself, he opens up the truth about herself. In knowing him, she knows herself. He is the truth, the way to new life.

She has a face-to-face encounter with God, with the tremendous mystery of the divine. She is filled with wonder at this encounter, a wonder that leads to fellowship. A fellowship of mutual knowing and mutual rejoicing.

We also experience eternal life in those moments when we come face-to-face with God in the divine mystery. These are the moments that fill our lives with wonder.

The name for this experience is the contemplation of God. Now, at first, that might sound super-serious and un-fun, "the contemplation of God." Yet, nothing is further from the truth. We contemplate God precisely in those moments that are filled with wonder and excitement.

Now this gives me the chance to pursue a little tangent and talk about something dear to my heart. I view one of the most important elements of my role as pastor to excite this type of wonder. Rarely am I hoping for an intellectual response to worship. That might happen, but it is usually a by-product or a means to another end. An intellectual response would assume that we can grasp and understand what it is that we are worshipping. And rarely am I hoping to evoke an emotional response to worship. Emotional responses are also valuable, but are also usually a by-product or a means to another end of what I'm aiming for.

What I'm aiming for is an aesthetic response. A sense of wonder, really. An encounter with mystery, with the sublime. What is traditionally called "awe."

The God we encounter in worship is too big for our intellect, and far exceeds our emotional capacity. Our God, is quite truthfully, an awesome God.

And so our worship is intended to evoke the contemplation of God – an encounter with the awesome. Such an experience is closer to the sense of beauty, closer to the imagination. Imagination, which is wild and free and playful.

So what in each service excites your imagination, thus leading you into contemplation of God? Is it a chord played by the organ? A phrase in one of the readings? The picture printed on the cover of the bulletin? Some story told in the sermon? The taste of the communion wafer? The flicker of the candlelight?

It is not that each week there is a time so tremendous that you experience eternal life. But each of these moments of awe-filled imagination give us glimpses of what that sort of time is like.

We don't just experience those moments in worship, however, though I believe that worship gives us the tools to contemplate God at other times. In your life, where do you experience the sublime? When are you filled with awe? When does your imagination play with wild abandon?


Could it be when you are at the opera?

Or a rock concert?

Maybe sitting in a museum looking at a masterpiece?

Or walking beside a creek?

Maybe it is eating a perfect peach in the middle of summer?

Or laughing with friends while drinking a glass of wine?

Could be when you watch your children sleeping?

Or when you have just scored the winning point?

Maybe it's when you are dancing in nightclub?

Or sitting alone dissecting a line of poetry?

Maybe it's when you have really great sex?

    Or all of the above, you might say.


    I submit that all of these, and moments like them, are opportunities to contemplate God. Each of these could be glimpses of eternal life. Why is that? Because God is in all of these things. Moltmann eloquently writes,


If God is in all things, then creativeness is present in everything created, and the infinite is present in everything finite. Then in everything we taste and see 'that the Lord is good.' Everything has the fragrance and taste of God because everything has then become the sacrament of God. That is what is meant by the eternal 'life of the world to come.'


    These imaginative moments of contemplating God lead to fellowship -- fellowship between ourselves and other people, between ourselves and creation, and between ourselves and God. Like the Samaritan woman, we come face to face with God in even the simplest of things, like drawing water from a well. Once we develop the imagination to experience God in all things and all things in God, then every moment of our lives has the potential for fellowship. We begin to see everything and ourselves in the correct light. We know the truth. And what results is an ecstatic fellowship of mutual knowing and mutual rejoicing. We develop the ability to say "yes" to life.

    And it could all begin with the simplest thing like watching a candle flame or a baby sleep or eating a great peach.


    Now that we've explored what it is to say "yes" to life, and how we say "yes" to life, what about those moments when we cannot say "yes."

    Our energy affects not only ourselves, but the world around. The spring of water gushing up within us spills out and touches other people. If we are positive, then we have a positive effect on the world around us. If we are negative, then we have a negative effect on the world around. Part of spiritual wisdom and maturity is learning to stay positive and avoiding the critical, anxious, cynical demons that haunt us.

    I've talked a lot about this lately. In December I told about my friend Herbert Holcomb who remained joyful while dying of pancreatic cancer. In January I preached about how we are responsible for how we respond to something – we choose whether to be offended, for example.

    The truth is, I am not skilled at remaining positive. Sometimes I preach a powerful spiritual truth on Sunday and then have violated it myself by Wednesday. So, I know first hand that sometimes it is just not easy.

    You know what, though, when I do get all negative and critical, then I feel even worse. Because I know that I shouldn't be negative. So, then guilt and shame rear their ugly heads. And if I don't watch it, I'll spiral down.

    How can we avoid that sort of negative spiritual spiral? I always come back to the grace of God. Some people think that when we fail, we should feel guilt and shame. But I think that is a mistake. I think God's grace is meant to release us from guilt and shame. Maybe God's grace is like some jolly grandfatherly figure who picks us up bruised and embarrassed from our fall and hugs us close and laughs that jolly laugh and says, "Oh, you were human again," and then brushes us off and gives us a piece of candy and sets us on our feet again.

    When you are in a moment when you can't say "yes" to life, take time to examine the moment. First off, is it actually your own fault? If it is, don't feel bad, learn to live into the forgiving embrace of God's grace. Then take the steps to get back on track. What practices can you engage in that will reconnect you with the living water and allow you to once again say "yes" to life?

    But maybe it isn't your own fault. Maybe life has really thrown you a sucker punch. As I've said before, it is not wrong to experience fear, sorrow, depression, or other emotions from the depths and darkness. In fact all spiritual traditions say that we must experience these emotions if we are to grow spiritually.

    Spiritual traditions also say that we must not become mired in these emotions, that we must begin to find joy and courage even while walking through the valley of the shadow of death. If you are dying of cancer or fighting addiction or struggling with depression, how can you find those small moments to connect with eternity? Maybe lying in your hospital room you look out the window and watch the snow fall and become lost in its quiet beauty?

    At its source the spiritual life is not about a difficult list of Herculean tasks to accomplish. It is about cultivating the imagination, the sense of wonder, the appreciation for beauty, in the littlest and simplest of things. If you develop this skill, then you become able to say "yes" to life even in the midst of the most intense suffering.


    Every week, usually during the prayer of thanksgiving, I ask God to fill us with God's power and glory. Here's something for you to try at home. If you are feeling particularly unpowerful or unglorious, then pick up your Bible and turn maybe to Genesis 1 and the creation of the world, or the first chapter of Ezekiel which describes the mighty chariot of God, or Isaiah 6 where the prophet has his vision of God's throne, or Revelation 21 and 22 that imagines the city of God. Read those chapters about God's power and glory and then realize that the power and glory described there is yours for the asking.


    Mortals join the happy chorus which the morning stars began; love divine is reigning o'er us, joining all within its span. Ever singing, march we onward, victors in the midst of strife; joyful music leads us sunward in the triumph song of life.


    Jesus said to her, "The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life." O Divine Majesty, may it be so.


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