Writer Sarah Bessey notes that “often when we find ourselves at a crossroad in our faith, rethinking everything from church to scripture to family to art to politics to science to prayer, we think we have only two options: double down or burn it down.”
What brings us to these crossroads? The Church corporately seems to be at such a place in response to rapid cultural change, with some sectors seeking to reassert hardline doctrinal positions while others are working at the demolition of everything.
In our Gospel story we have another kind of meeting place- not a crossroad, but a well. A place of encountering the source of a new life and future.
In our personal lives we might find ourselves at such a crossing place by something enormous like a personal grief or tragedy, or something that grows slowly like a dissatisfaction with the answers we have had in the past, a sense that our belief systems are no longer working as they once did. There is a thirst for something not fulfilled in us, or amongst us. We have to decide what to do with that thirst. If we decide to double down, we are asserting that where we have felt at home in the past – our beliefs or our ways of being – is the place where we are right and the only place of safety. We refuse to be open to the new life and possibilities of growth and change. We refuse to keep moving, holding fast to our idols and settling into the trenches to defend them, whether they be idols of religion or family, or politics or society. Increasingly, though, we will find it harder to draw life-giving water from the same old wells.
The burn it down option is one taken by many, although mostly -thankfully-metaphorically. In faith, it means a total attempt to disconnect and tear down the structures that have wounded us or failed us. The problem is, in the burning down we do not know what to do with the desire that drew us to faith in the first place. We board up the entrance to the well and resolutely turn our backs, in our isolation mistaking this for courage. The longing for union and communion with God and one another remains, however, often emerging as a fierce sadness or world-weary cynicism that mocks or diminishes the desire of our hearts.
For you see, God speaks in the language of desire and our restless hearts continue to search. The good news is that at the heart of our faith is a journey to being at home in ourselves and in communion with one another. There is a well that does not run dry.
Desire…can be summarised into one word- life…or, if you needed another…love. I think it is Richard Rohr who says, life and love are different words for the same thing. Too often religion has been seen as a kind of sensible restraint applied to the desire in our lives instead of what it is – a consummation, a passionate reconnecting of our hearts and minds and bodies to the source of our being and to one another.
We know we are in the territory of desire in this Gospel reading since the setting is a meeting of a man and a woman at a well. After all, it’s not just any well, but Jacob’s well. The readers of John’s Gospel would have known well the scriptural stories of Isaac, Jacob and Moses. Jacob had met his beloved Rachel at a well (Gen. 29:1–14). Before Jacob, Abraham’s servant, sent to find a bride for Isaac, succeeded when he stopped at the well outside Haran and met Rebekah (Gen. 24:1–27). After Jacob, Moses, fleeing to Midian, at a well had chanced upon seven daughters, from whom he was given Zipporah as a wife (Exod. 2:15–22). A well as a place of encounter, of invitation into new relationship. God is not far above our everyday longings but rather scripture attests to the story of God woven through these very human stories of love and relationship.
The language of love and the desire to be in union with another human being with all of our being, is the closest thing we have to the oneness from which we came and to which we long to return. It is not surprising that so much of our energy and attention becomes fixated through our life on our romantic relationships.
The problem is not the desire but the sin that twists desire. When we try to quell desire, either through disappointment, hopelessness or fear, we reduce our life.
The good news if you are single is that sexual relationships are not the only place life is found. The good news if you are in a committed relationship is that there is still more life yet for both of you. Our culture has placed an inordinate amount of pressure on marriage and romantic love, expecting it to be the sole container of all our longings and meeting all our needs, when there is a whole world of joy to be found in the interdependence at the heart of creation and the adventure to which we are called in the Spirit.
The problem is not that we cannot be satisfied with our lives but that we are too easily satisfied. We play around with little hopes like relaxing with a beer on the weekend or going on our next holiday, or, far more dangerously, fill our hearts and minds with ‘numbing addictions, diversionary tactics, or mindless distractions’.
As Richard Rohr says;
The root of evil is much more selfishness, superficiality, and ignorance than the usually listed “hot sins.” God hides, and is found, precisely in the depths of everything, even and maybe especially in the deep fathoming of our fallings and failures.
Hot sins of passion- the sort of thing most people think about when we think about sin -have human desire at the heart, but a desire that becomes twisted or distorted, often by abuses of power. Yet while in the public eye the church seems to be obsessed with this category of sin, the more insidious sins I suspect are ones where there is little passion at all. The Lenten season is a time for seeing more clearly where we have turned our back on God-given desires for lesser gods of wealth or status or ignored the clarion call of life and become superficial, apathetic or self-interested.
Lent is about allowing ourselves as we are, with all our hopes and longings, dreams and desires, to be seen by God. Jesus meets this woman – a Samaritan, and likely an outsider even among her own people- in the bright noonday sun. He does not judge her nor seek to coerce her into converting to anything new. It seems clear that whatever has been her history, there has likely been tragedy and suffering. In her culture and time her situation as a widow, or one who had been divorced by her husband and passed down between men, would have been a vulnerable one. Jesus takes this woman and the questions that spring from her longing seriously. Indeed, Jesus also chooses to be vulnerable in the bright midday, revealing his identity to her as Messiah and setting her on a path of becoming an evangelist to her own people.
Jesus makes it clear that his mission transcends all divides of culture, race, class and gender- and whatever else constitutes a reason for social exclusion. His is a call to all followers to worship not in tribal and exclusive ways but in spirit and truth. In this detour to Samaria, Jesus crosses all kinds of boundaries and invites his followers to be boundary crossers. It is a crossing that proves too challenging for some who will double down on their own religious rules and exclusions and others who will see the threat of Jesus’ movement and seek to burn it down, beginning with Jesus himself.
This water that Jesus offers comes with the compassionate understanding of the human thirst for life, love and connection and the knowledge that its healing flow does not allow itself to be owned. This living water that gushes up to eternal life will not be confined by one religious or tribal group but offers life to all, particularly those excluded from circles of belonging whose humanity has been denied or degraded.
God knows your thirst. If you find yourself this Lent at a crossroads (or a well!), know that the good news can be found in the God who speaks in the language of desire and understands your longing for love and belonging, acceptance and connection. May we have the courage this Lent to allow ourselves with all our hopes and fears to be seen by God. May we know, with all the sadness and struggle that can mark our lives, that we are made for love and communion with God and one another.
May we never settle for anything less. +Amen
 Sarah Bessey: introduction: A rhythm of prayer, (SPCK, New York: 2020) xiv