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"Thirsting for Life"

Presented on The Lutheran Hour on March 12, 2023
By Rev. Dr. John Nunes, Guest Speaker
Copyright 2024 Lutheran Hour Ministries

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Text: John 4

"She did not need any therapist to help her see how she was feeling. She did not need to take any personal inventory to know something was missing. She was spiritually dehydrated, socially isolated. Something was missing, achingly remiss. She was suffering from an unquenchable thirst inside a flood of guilt, until she met this man, this pilgrim traveler, from another religion, race, and place." David Brooks, writing in The New York Times, speaks to the rising tide of negativity and unhappiness in our world. Brooks goes on to suggest that most people especially politicians—who are, of course, people too—equate happiness with material- or money-based success.

This is a fiction and a falsehood the haves are as unhappy as the economic have-nots. You can arrive at the top of the hill of life and realize you're standing alone, lonely, and unfulfilled. There's still a missing ingredient; you own a house but have no home. Something is missing like a tune without a tone, ice-cream with a cone, a sim card without a phone, a building with no cornerstone. Something is missing.

One thing that is not missing from John's Gospel is the presence of water. The theologian, Reed Lessing, showed me something in the book of John that you cannot unsee once you see it: the way in which water flows thematically through the first seven chapters of that Fourth Gospel. In John 1 that fiery field preacher comes blazing from the wilderness into Bethany to the Jordan River, pointing to the Lamb of God he says in verses 31 and 33: "I came baptizing with water, that Jesus might be revealed." "He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is Jesus who baptizes with the Holy Spirit." Water is life.

In John 2 this same Jesus to whom John pointed goes to a wedding reception where they run out of drinks. But before the party gets wrecked, as His first sign Jesus, upon the prompting of His mother Mary, miraculously saves the day by turning water into wine. A most excellent wine, mind you. Water restores the life of this party.

In John 3 Jesus meets a nervous Nicodemus at night. Some call this "Nick at night." Under the cover of darkness, this top-ranking Pharisee comes to see the truth about the One who is the Light of the world. For years he has sensed something missing in the sacrificial rites of his religiosity, and he's come looking for more. Have you sensed something missing in your life, Jesus tells you and him, that we need look no further, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you are born of water and the Spirit, you cannot enter the kingdom of God."

Water is life to be born again, to be born brand new, to be born from above, embraced by a God of love, to be reborn for the new start you're looking for in your life. Let's skip John 4, which our text, and we're going to come back to it near the end of this message.

But John 5, Jesus goes to a pity party beside the pool of Bethsaida where a man for 38 long years had lingered sick and learned to whine well about his lack of opportunity. He was putting his hope in some magical water. The myth was if you could get into the water when it was bubbling up, you'd somehow be healed. And "everybody else," griped the man, "steps over me and nobody will help me." So Jesus, the ultimate hope-dealer, challenges this man's mindset:

"Do you even want to be made well?" And the man picked up his mat, and put down his excuses, and walked. The disabled man was enabled by the One who is the water of life, the One who works better than any magical, miracle water.

Then John 6, you remember Moses who led a freedom march through the water when ole' pharaoh was compelled to let God's people go, and through the Red Sea God's people were set free.

As we make our way through Lent, the long Lenten season towards the empty tomb, from the seemingly loss of Jesus on the cross, to the glorious, victorious resurrection. I'm looking forward to the Easter Vigil where we will hear these words from Exodus 15:1. "Then Moses and the people of Israel sang this song to the Lord, saying, 'I will sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider He has thrown into the sea." Victory in water as the people walk on dry land towards the Promised Land. Like the hymn in the Lutheran Service Book which says, "We have come over a way that with tears has been watered, We have come treading a path through the blood of the slaughtered."

But in John 6 Jesus doesn't walk through the water divided by the divine, Jesus walks on top of the water, demonstrating His divine nature as the Almighty Lord of wind and wave and sea and all nature, and since then, nobody has even attempted to repeat that miracle. Water skiers? Not really!

And then John 7, on the last day of the big festival, after seven days of celebrating, seven days of eating, drinking, and making merry, seven days of worship and fellowship, Jesus stands up in the middle of the temple and boldly proclaims: "If anyone is thirsty ... if there's something missing in your life, something wrong at the level of your soul, believe in Me and all things will be made right. I will be your fountain of life"—abundant life for all those drowning in a rising tide of negativity and unhappiness.

Sisters and brothers, I've tried this Jesus. I've trusted Him, and He's never failed me. Even though I have failed Him so many times. But thanks be to God. Forgiveness is His business. I invite you to drink of this life-giving, forgiving water of life named Jesus. He is your Savior and your Suffering Servant who literally would wash your feet to show you how much He loves you, who literally did die for you!

Biologists will tell you that 60 percent of the human body is constituted of water. Geographers know that 71 percent of the earth's surface is covered by water. Humanitarian workers with organizations like Lutheran World Relief are concerned that there are many places on the planet experiencing a crisis of access to safe drinkable water; some predict that wars of the future may be fought over water. Water is life and a lack of water can be death, deadly. Dieticians inform us that to be thirsty is a warning. It's the body's way of telling you you're dehydrated, perhaps from not enough water or maybe from too much spicy or salty food. Water is a symbol of life. And John threads this point through his Gospel: for every harrowingly dry valley of death you are walking through today, for every sin-parched episode of life you're clawing to recover from, Jesus will be your Water of Life.

Here in our reading from John 4 Jesus decides to take a road through what many among the upright crowd considered a downright wrong neighborhood, Samaria. Enroute, He meets a woman at a well who came from a different and despised ethnic group, She eked out her life on the wrong side of the tracks. On top of that, she had a shameful marital track record. And you can imagine how she got hit by a train of gossip as she tried desperately to cross back to respectability: ostracized, excluded, marginalized, by her gender, by her race, by her religion, by her social status: She was much-married, much-marred, and much-maligned. She was much-married; she had five former husbands to show for it. Because of this, she was much-marred by the scandalous sin she was in—five times divorced and cohabitating with a husband who wasn't her own, trying to fill the gap for what was missing in her life. She was looking for love in all the wrong places, and found betrayal upon betrayal, failure upon failure.

As Joseph Sittler once wisely wrote: "What is bitter about our need for the truth is simply that if we fall for an untruth about love we are built up for a letdown. If men and women, for instance, are encouraged to believe that in the hot furnace of loving personal relations ultimate redemption can be found, several bitter things occur: they write too large checks for one another. They frantically turn to love to deliver a redemption it was never intended to supply; they eat one another up instead of building one another up. The entire weight of personal life is on a single hook, and when the hook pulls out they are bitter."

The hook of disappointment was pulled out multiple times for this woman. You can be sure, humans beings being who humans are, that the bitterness was widespread, that this woman was also much-maligned, talked about by the other people in her village, which is why she came to the community well when no one else from the community was there, at the least popular time of day, during the scorching noon-day heat. Because of all of this, she was more than a little bit defensive when she met Jesus.

Jesus, the traveler, approaches her and takes an interest in her—not in some salacious or sexual way—but in a manner that grabs her attention and her heart, that reaches into her solitary confinement of sin, that touches her loneliness, her emptiness, her sinfulness, with refreshing words that offer a path to forgiveness and wholeness and happiness. And this same Jesus deeply desires to reach every one of us hearing His words today. John 4:14, "Whoever drinks of the water that I give will never be thirsty again. The water that I give will become a spring of water welling up to eternal life." Do you need this wellness that wells up to eternal life? I certainly do! If you also thought to yourself, "Yes, I need this!" I invite you to drink from this well that can never run dry. Taste this abundant life that begins right here and right now and will satisfy you, every day you live, into eternity. The woman drank. Her life was changed. Her priorities were rearranged. Her dignity was restored. Her sin was forgiven, and so is ours, by Jesus, the Water of Life, sparkling with life, vitamin-infused with the salvation that we need.

Let's look at the final water reference in John's Gospel, chapter 19:34. In order to give us life, Jesus is nailed and tied to a tree in the most degrading death that the colonial Roman military could devise. And the Gospel writer notes that the process there was a soldier, stabbing Jesus with a sword near His ribs, His chest cavity. And when that happened, water flowed, as Jesus loves us to death, loves us with His dying breath. From the first chapter of the Bible, when the Spirit is hovering over the waters, to the last chapter of the Bible in Revelation, the Holy Spirit tells us: "And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price" That's what we need. That's what's missing in your life and mine. That's the love we've thirsted for. That's the truth which sets us free. That's the life which overcomes death. That's the Name in which we are baptized, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Reflections for March 12, 2023

Title: Thirsting for Life

Mark Eischer: Joining us now, here's Lutheran Hour Speaker, Dr. Michael Zeigler.

Michael Zeigler: Hello, Mark.

Mark Eischer: I had not noticed St. John's recurring theme of water. So once again, thanks to Dr. Nunes and also to Dr. Reed Lessing for bringing that to our attention.

Michael Zeigler: We talked last week about how John uses symbolism in his account of the life of Jesus. And again, by symbolism, we're not saying that this is a fictitious story. John is telling us of real persons, real places, encounters, conversations, things that actually happened. But he's telling us the story in a way that shows us that these particular things—that happened long ago, in ancient Israel in a tiny little corner of the world—these particular things have universal meaning and application for all people everywhere for all times. And a method that John uses to show us this is symbolism.

Mark Eischer: So John's story stands for itself. It's a report of historical events, but you're saying it's more than that?

Michael Zeigler: Correct. A book that I've found helpful on this topic is titled Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel. John is the fourth Gospel. It's by Craig Koester. That's spelled Koester. Koester says that a symbol is something that also stands for something else. And John has many symbols in his book. You just think about it, if you're familiar with the story, you've got the sacrificial lamb, the shepherd, grapevine, door, road or way, bread.

Mark Eischer: The serpent raised up in the wilderness.

Michael Zeigler: Right. Last week in John 3, and the one that Dr. Nunes mentioned today, the main theme of water. So the thing about all these symbols to remember is that they're there to help us know something about Jesus, who He is and why He matters.

Mark Eischer: And how does water stand for Jesus?

Michael Zeigler: All right, good question. So Dr. Nunes had some memorable lines in the sermon. I just love how he poetically puts things. But he said, water is life, water is rebirth. Think about water's cleansing. We're going to get to John 9. The man is going to go to the pool and wash and be cleansed and see. The other thing about it though, it's in paradoxically, water is dangerous. If you've ever been in a flood, if you've ever known someone who's drowned, water is destructive. Water, like Dr. Nunes said in the sermon, it's what destroyed the army of pharaoh that was hunting down God's people, trying to enslave them. So water is judgment, it's chaos, it's devastation. It brings life, but also brings death. And like Dr. Nunes said, water is what Jesus alone can walk on. So He's Lord of the water, the symbol. He's more than the symbol. He's the One who can overcome this. He's the One that life, that water flows out of His side when He's crucified. Water stands for Jesus. To answer your question, maybe a simple way to say it, is that He's essential. And for those with faith, for those with eyes to see, His words give what water gives: life and rebirth and cleansing and refreshment. But for those who reject Him or ignore Him, His word brings death and judgment.

Mark Eischer: Now, it's also interesting how these symbols are all drawn from everyday life. Things like bread, water, light, doors, maybe not so much today, but certainly at that time and place, sheep and shepherds and vineyards, those would all be common sights for people.

Michael Zeigler: Yeah. Craig Koester in the book that I mentioned, The Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel, he notes that point: that all of these symbols of John that are used in the narrative are ultimately, that Jesus is using in His teaching, they're all part of the fabric of everyday life. And Jesus is pointing to and talking about ordinary things in the world, staples, common features of life, using them to make Himself known and to make God His Father, known. And He can use things in the world like this, not just because He's a good teacher and a good illustrator, you know, object lessons. It's because He's the Creator. That's why they testify of Him. All things were made through Him and for Him. And so what John is helping us see is that when we look at the world with eyes of faith in Jesus, everything testifies to Him, everything praises Him. Everything points back to Him. Even a terrible death on the cross points back to Him.

Mark Eischer: And like water, He is essential.

Michael Zeigler: Yeah, there's no life without Him. That's what John is trying to tell us through and through. That's why he writes this book about Jesus. He makes his motivations very clear. These things are written so that you would believe, so that you would trust, so that you would know Him, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and knowing Him have life in His Name.

And so I encourage you as you're listening, if you've never read or listened to an audio recording of the Gospel of John from start to finish, or if it's been more than a year than you've done so. I encourage you to do that this week. Give yourself, say, two and a half hours. Sit down, read it or hear it read from beginning to end, and listen for all the symbolism. And then see the world around you today for all its signs and symbols and how all of these things turn you back to Jesus.

Music Selections for this program:

"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.

"I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say" by Amanda Husberg. Used by permission.

"Come, Thou Fount of Ev'ry Blessing" arr. Kenneth Kosche. From Triumphant Lamb by the Kammerchor (© 1996 Concordia University-Wisconsin)

"May God Bestow on Us His Grace" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House) Used by permission.

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