This week I found out from our parishioner Laura Manship that we are halfway through tax season which is not something I had really thought about. So now I have to start working on my taxes. And you may know that this coming week we will be halfway through Lent, and so we may say the same thing – well, I better start working on my Lenten discipline, the thing I said I would give up or the thing I said I would take on, whatever it is for these 40 days.
Over the years I have seen the many ways in which people approach the disciplines of Lent and the many things that people give up or take on. Several years ago the big thing was to give up social media for Lent, but then people wondered – how will I let everyone know the great job I am doing giving up social media if I am not on social media, so you don’t hear much about that anymore. But there are all sorts of things people give up, they give up chocolate, coffee, eating meat, sweets, all sorts of things. You know about them.
And occasionally you hear that people have taken things on for Lent, which is perfectly acceptable. And so you hear about people taking on the disciplines of praying more, reading the Bible more, doing volunteer work, which reminds me – come by the drop-in center any Thursday whenever you can. One person I know took up the discipline of writing her elected officials during Lent, which I thought was great, and if you want to know who your elected officials are so you can write to them, I’m we can find out.
Lent is an active season. And I think we like the idea of having activities because activities are tangible, they are things we can do. We want to do something. And if it’s something we can do to help us achieve our goals that’s great, and fi it’s easy even better.
Have you ever noticed when you’re on the internet or you are on your phone and you see these adds that say: Here’s one simple trick you can do to lose weight, you just take this pill. Or here’s a simple hack that will help you earn millions. Just do this one thing. And it sounds so good because we love to believe that if we just do this one thing we can get what we want. And it plays on our desire to make our lives easy, and to believe that we have some control.
And this same thinking often applies to our faith. As Christians we want to do things that will put us in good graces with God. So we ask: How many Hail Mary’s do I have to say? If that’s something I can do, let me do it. How much do I have to give to the poor, exactly? Just tell me exactly so I know I have given enough.
And it makes sense that we think this way about the activities of our faith, especially about Lent, because on Ash Wednesday we hear that these things that we do during Lent are to prepare us for an encounter with Jesus on Easter. So we want to do all we can to make that encounter happen. Someone tell me exactly how much chocolate I have to give up so that on Easter morning, April 9th, I can be there with the women at the tomb to meet the risen Lord.
But it doesn’t work that way. We do not have that power over Jesus to make an encounter like this happen. And here today at the beginning of our service, we are reminded that we don’t have power. The collect, which is the prayer we say at the beginning of the service, says this very clearly: Almighty God, it says, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves, therefor we ask you to keep us and defend us and so on.
The woman who meets Jesus at the well today did not do anything in her power to make Jesus come to that well. She did not pray for him to be there. She did not give anything up or take anything on so that Jesus would be there. He was the furthest thing from her mind as she set off to go to the well. Yet there he was.
Next week we will hear the story of a blind man who Jesus encounters. And he didn’t do anything to bring Jesus there. The week after we will hear the story of Lazarus raised from the dead, and how much chocolate did Lazarus give up so that Jesus could come and appear before him? And the answer is none because he was dead. And yet there Jesus was.
Jesus moves, he appears, he seeks because he is the living presence of God here among us. And our job is not to make him appear. But our job is to make ourselves ready for when he does. What little power we have is best spent not trying to influence God or even influence other people, but is best spent trying to influence ourselves. We are the only things in life we can control. And we can’t even control ourselves most of the time.
So the Lenten disciplines are not practices we do so we can buy a noonday ticket to a nice meeting with Jesus at the well. But the Lenten disciplines we practice are ways to wake us up. That’s what happened to Jesus during his 40 days in the desert, he woke up. And discovered who he was and who God was for him.
And we need that because we are asleep. I am asleep. And you are asleep. Maybe some of you are literally asleep. I hope not.
Out there in our world right there now are people who are hungry and I am asleep to their pain. Right now, not far away from us, are people who are incarcerated and I am asleep to the conditions of their lives which led them to jail. I am asleep to the racism experienced by so many people in our country. I am asleep to sexism and homophobia as a straight white man. I am asleep to what life is really like in Ukraine or places where people live in war. And asleep to what life is like for transgendered teens in those places in our country and our world where people want to control their lives and make them disappear.
And so maybe there’s something I can do to wake myself up. If I go for a day without eating because it’s my Lenten discipline, maybe I can begin to understand what life is like for people who live without food. My hunger of a few hours might give me insight into what it’s like for the over 800 million people who go to bed in our world hungry every day.
And I believe that through our practices, especially through those things we do to really stretch ourselves, we can open ourselves to our own needs and our fragility, and that place within ourselves that we fill with so many other things that are not Jesus Christ.
When the Samaritan woman goes to the well today, she has this interaction with Jesus that opens her to the fact that what she really needs in her life is him. There she is at noon, and it’s likely that she is there at noon alone because for some reason she has been ostracized by the rest of the community. She has been cut off. After all, the custom was for women to go to the well in groups, and for them to go in the morning or in the evening, together. So why is she there alone if she has not had some problem.
As they talk, we begin to learn more about the woman and in particular about the fact that she doesn’t just have one husband but there are have been five husbands. Maybe this is something that everyone knows about her. Maybe they say – there she is, the woman who has had five husbands. And this isn’t something she really wants to admit to herself. Maybe she has shame. Maybe her past shames her and every day she goes to the well at noon bearing the pain she has been carrying for so long. And what hope does she have and what can possibly make her situation better?
So like us, she fills that space inside her with something. Because something has to go in that space that’s filled with emptiness and want and shame. And it seems like the choices we face in life are to fill it with delusion, or to fill it with chocolate, or alcohol, or drugs, or diversions, or entertainment, or money – all these things we use to dull the pain so we can just keep getting ourselves to that well day after day. And all of these things put us to sleep.
The other choice she has is to fill that space with God. And that’s what Jesus offers today – he says, let me give you my water, my spirit and my love. And you will never be thirsty again.
What we do with these Lenten disciplines, ideally, is find a way to empty out that space within us that we have filled with all these things. It was the French mathematician Blaise Pascal who had this image that within each of us there is this God shaped space. He writes about how people have this hole that we try in vain to fill with everything around us, but, he says, “this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God.”
The infinite abyss is a God shaped space. And the woman Jesus encounters at the well is just like us and she has filled it with things that do not feed it, so she will always need more. Why are we always so hungry for more? Why is there always this need? It’s because we haven’t gotten that which makes us complete. As the Psalm says – for God alone my soul in silence waits. And Jesus says today that if we just drink from him we will never need water again.
So here at the halfway mark of Lent, I invite you to take stock of yourself and the journey of Lent you have lived so far and to consider what still lies ahead. Spend some time this week considering what you do to fill that space inside you. And think about what it would mean to clear it out. What does it mean to wake up? What does it mean to be really alive to the needs of the world and the sufferings of others? What does it mean to be alive to our own pain like the woman in the Gospel today? And to our own sin.
Sometimes it seems like it’s too much. But when it is too much, we know where to go. He’s waiting at that well. He’s here for us in this Eucharist. He’s right in your heart. He’s in the person next to you. He’s out there in the world, in the adventure of life. And he has something for us.