The Water of Life
June 25, Third Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 7):
Draft text of the homily, please pardon any typos, and do not cite without permission.
When the water of life, wanted to be known on earth, it bubbled up in an artesian well, flowing freely without effort or limit, giving itself generously and abundantly to any who wanted it.
And people, who were thirsty for this water, who had wandered in the desert, drank deeply from this well and found health and healing, deep joy and great satisfaction. They called others to come and experience these miraculous waters. And others came and also drank. And more and more came. And before long it became necessary to build a wall around the well to protect it. And with so many people coming and going some became worried about the purity of the water, and others became focused on the potential economic benefits. And so fences were put up in addition to the wall, and gates with locks appeared, and then set hours with an admission fee was added. And the people still came. So they wrote laws about water rights and property ownership, and of course they needed to collect taxes to maintain the administrative infrastructure that kept the well running. And still the people came. Those who were there first got very rich, and became powerful, and those who came later were put to work. And everyone was busy processing, or selling, or buying the water, and what no one noticed was that it was no longer the water of life. The water of life had become distressed at all of the conditions placed on it, and it left, and started bubbling up in another place.
A few people realized what had happened and they left everything set out to find the water of life again…which they did…and this cycle has continued to this day.
[I have found two different versions of this parable, both mention that it was reportedly Carl Jung’s favorite. I have adapted it for this homily. The two original versions are here: and in Owning Your Own Shadow: Understanding the Dark Side of the Psyche by Robert A. Johnson].
Where do you find the water of life? What are you prepared to give up in order to find or follow it?
Our scriptures were written by people intimately acquainted with the desert, and the nomadic cultures of the desert…consequently wells show up all over the place—today literally and miraculously.
Wells are vital communal gathering spots. They are sources of life and sustenance…and they are where people encounter the divine—the water of life.
This isn’t the first time Hagar has met God’s emissary at a well. Hagar is an Egyptian slave woman, she is Sarah’s property. Sarah, Abraham’s wife, is barren, and she gives Hagar to Abraham planning to claim the child of that union as her own—so that “I (Sarah) shall be built up through her,” is how the line reads…and if you’ve read or watched Handmaid’s Tale you know how this story goes…
Abraham and Hagar conceive Ishmael, and Sarah, becomes jealous and mistreats and bullys Hagar, so Hagar flees, and finds herself by a “spring of water,” where God’s messenger tells her to go home, it’s going to be OK.
The abuse continues and finally when Sarah sees Ishmael—“playing” is not the best translation, there’s a pun buried here. Isaac’s name means “laughter” and what the text actually says is Sarah saw Ishmael laughing or really “Isaacing” i.e., acting like Isaac…acting like the heir—when Sarah sees that she tosses them both out. (Alter, The Five Books of Moses, p. 103) And at the climax of Hagar’s anguish, the Divine hears and appears to reassure, to guide, to sustain. And Hagar’s eyes are opened to see a well of water—the water of life. It is often in the midst of the deserts of our lives…when things seem most dire that we are able to discover the water of life.
Our scriptures are written by people who understand the desert and wells…Our scriptures were also written by people passionately dedicated to trying (and failing) to live into the promise of being God’s chosen people—of trying (and failing—over and over) to follow the Torah…of trying and failing (over and over and over) to care for and share the water of life. Our ancestors in the faith have built many, many structures around the wells that we have found.
The multiple law codes in scripture, the 613 mitzvoth (the commandments or precepts that shape the moral and religious life of many of our Jewish siblings), the rabbinic teachings, are often referred to as “building a fence around the Torah.” Protecting the source by making it easier to uphold the positive practices and harder to break the negative ones…so, for example: if you’re not supposed to spend money on the Sabbath, it’s even better if you don’t even touch money. Jesus does this with the sermon on the mount…You have heard it said, don’t murder, but I say…if you’re angry with someone go and be reconciled…deal with the lesser before it escalates…
Building structures around what is vital is a natural and to some extent necessary and good process. When we encounter the water of life, we naturally want to keep it flowing…We construct things that make it easier for us—and (we hope) for others—to access it…We create language around it, establishing ever more precise terms for things (that’s not a plate, it’s a paten, that’s not a cup it’s a chalice, this isn’t a poncho it’s a chasuble…We come up with doctrine and dogma (a sets beliefs about the water). We establish forms for worship…
This happens in every profession not just the church…It’s just that in church we call it “spiritual formation” while in the secular world it might be referred to as “life-hacks.”
Anywhere people find meaning, and community, and connection…walls, and fences, and custom, and language develop around it…and alongside all of that come gatekeepers, and authorities, and judges. What happens is that paradoxes develop…so that what is a deep well of life-giving water for some, is an empty form for others.
The structure (and even the length) of our service? The way we do baptisms, the way we do communion, wafers or bread, sipping or intinction…Deep well for some, empty form for others.
The hymns that we know and love? Deeply meaningful for some…teeth-grinding for others…
The old, new, traditional, contemporary, gendered, non-gendered way-too-specific, not-nearly-specific-enough language that we use…water of life for some, wet blanket for others.
These structures—the fences and the walls and the guidelines—aren’t bad…in many ways they are incredibly important…and we do this all the time…in every area of our lives…
Jesus does this himself…remember all of the guidelines last week? Two by two, no money, just the clothes you have, find the ones who will listen to you, shake the dust off your feet…be wise as serpents and innocent as doves…and Jesus also consistently reminds us that doing all this will create opposition…especially as you begin to realize and point out that the water everyone else is drinking is just water…not the water of life…that the structures that we have built in our hopes to create a more perfect union are unhealthy…unjust…fallen…sinful—being aware of that and speaking about it will create some divisions, in case you hadn’t noticed…
And Jesus and Paul are also consistently reminding us that ultimately even the structures that have been given us…to sustain us through the deserts of this life…even those will ultimately have to go. Even those things most dear…the things we cling to…we will have to let them go in order to slip fully into the water of life. “Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism so that we too may walk in newness of life.”
The water of life flows freely and without limit…it is given abundantly to any who thirst…
Where do you find it? And what do you need to give up in order to continue following its flow?