Earth is crammed with heaven
And every common bush afire with God…1
How do you picture Jesus? Imagine Jesus the way he symbolically describes himself: I am the good shepherd; I am the vine; I am gate; I am the door; I am the bread of life; I am the living water; I am the light; I am like a mother hen. And Jesus teaches by telling stories — parables — using metaphors and similes drawn from the stuff of life, very ordinary activities which take on a symbolic importance: a sower goes out to sow; a shepherd searches for lost sheep; a widow searches for a lost coin; a farmer’s son comes to collect his father’s produce; a prodigal son goes to spend his father’s inheritance; a merchant searches for fine pearls; a widow gives a mite; a fisherman casts a net; a vineyard owner prunes his grape vines; a wedding guest drinks the good wine. And Jesus sees symbolic truth in the normal play of life: “look at the birds of the air,” “consider the lilies of the field”; learn from the mustard seed, the fig tree, the grape vine, the olive branch; consider the bridegroom and his wedding party. And Jesus says, “you are the light of the world,” “you are the salt of the earth.” Jesus also has this one-liner: “you have heard it said, but I say,” and what he says, consistently, is that to the least or lost or last, the last person you might imagine on this earth, there is a worthy channel of revelation: to a child, a thief, a tax collector, a prostitute, a shepherd, a poor widow, the lame, the leper, the hungry, the servant, the imprisoned — all as being recipients and agents of God’s revelation.
Jesus was very much immersed in life. I don’t think Jesus was much interested in spiritual things. “Spiritual” is not a word in his vocabulary. Jesus promises, “I have come to give you life, and to give it to you abundantly.”4 He does not say, “I have come to give you abundant spiritual life,” but abundant life, the whole of your life. Living a whole life and a holy life are to be one in-the-same.5 Jesus was not a Greek. The prevailing Greek culture of his day revered erudition, lofty knowledge gleaned only by the intellectually elite: the Gnostics. Quite to the contrary, Jesus grounds God’ s revelation in the material earth, and amongst the common and simple. And so we overhear Jesus praying to the God whom he calls “Father,” “Papa”: “I thank you… because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants.”6 This is about God’s revelation to us, in the here-and-now, in the simple stuff of earth. Life is sacramental: the outward signs reveal the inward grace. The outward sign of bread and wine at this altar are what they are — real bread from the earth and wine, the fruit of the vine — and yet they are revelatory of more, of Jesus’ real presence. That sacramental principle is a template for life. The whole of life is intended to be like that: sacramental. It is what it is, and yet it is symbolic of something more, a channel of revelation.
In our lesson from the Gospel according to John, we hear of Jesus’ coming to a well because he is thirsty for water. As is a Samaritan woman. This is a problem. Jesus should not be interacting with a Samaritan. Samaritans were impure half-breeds, to be avoided by a faithful and pure Jew such as Jesus. And secondly, this Samaritan is a woman. No woman in first-century Palestine would ever be alone in public, and certainly not interacting with a man who is alone… that is, of course, unless her feigning thirst was actually a ruse to pick up a trick. Only prostitutes would be out and alone at noonday. Surprise — or no surprise — Jesus talks with her. She actually claims she is thirsty for the well water, as is Jesus. And then Jesus speaks of another kind of water, what he calls “living water.” And she is thirsty for that, too. Water takes on a symbolic importance. Jesus tells her where she may find the living water Jesus promises. Where? The “living water” is to be discovered in quite a surprising location. You don’t have to climb a mountain, or travel the sea to find this wellspring of living water. Nor do you have to become someone different than who you are. Jesus says that his “living water will become in [us] a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The spring of living water gushing up is within us, within you. And remember, Jesus first gives this promise to a half-breed prostitute to convince his listeners, then and now, that no matter how far you may feel you’ve slinked, this promise is for you.
I invite you to take a few moments to ponder, what would that be for you: living water? This is Jesus’ metaphor: the symbol of living water. Not literal water — Jesus and the Samaritan woman are literally drinking water from this well — but “living water.” It’s a symbol. What is it that you now need, perhaps desperately, to survive and thrive in life? What is it you need to know, be assured of, be relieved of, be helped out of or helped into, to be quenched or quelled, without which you don’t know how you could on? What does Jesus’ promise of “living water” mean for you, now? It’s a promise for you. What is the “living water” you most need?
This could be a very powerful way for you to ponder and pray your life. What signs and symbols have communicated to you deeply? Something you saw or heard or tasted or touched or sensed that somehow broke through to you? Perhaps when your life was crushingly difficult, where you were overwhelmed or felt scared to death or hopeless — think back to the recent past, or go all the way back to your childhood What was it? And what about joy? What has been a sign or symbol for your delighting in life? Something that you saw or heard or tasted or touched or sensed that somehow broke through to you as a wellspring of joy? And who is Jesus to you? He gives us many metaphors to describe who he is? Do one of these metaphors from the Gospel speak to you, or is there some other metaphor, some other image of Jesus that you find compelling? Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “we cannot predetermine how the image of Christ will appear to a person, but must allow the image of Christ to develop in that person as that person needs.” Who is Jesus to you now?
Pay attention to your life, and presume that your life is to be lived sacramentally: recurring outward signs of inward grace. Even the simplest elements of life are laced with meaning on more than one level. God is using the created order as a window, as an icon, through which you can apprehend life in the present and life to come. A symbol is a kind of sign that represents or points to a larger reality.7 It is what it is, but it is also something more. Jesus’ life and ministry was interlaced in every direction with signs and symbols, and that continues in this day, every day.8
1 Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806 — 1861).
2 Genesis 1:31.
3 John 14:4-14.
4 John 10:10.
5 Both “holy” and “wholly” have the same etymological root in Old English: hal, meaning hail or whole, and from which comes the English word “health.”
6 Matthew 11:25; Luke 10:21.
7 The English word “symbol” comes from the Greek, syn “with, together with,” and the nominative stem of ballein, to throw, i.e., something that is thrust together, something that makes a connection.
8 To shepherds, he spoke symbolically about sheep and tending the flock; to farmers, he spoke about seed and sowing. To vineyard owners, he did not speak about fish. He talked about fish to those who harvested the sea. To vineyard owners he spoke about the vine, the branches, pruning, and fruit bearing. Jesus used specific signs and symbols that would speak to his listeners.