Remember the last time you were really thirsty? You know, the kind of thirst where you can barely swallow because your throat feels like it is sticking to itself? The kind of thirst where your tongue sits in your mouth like a piece of old leather? Yeah—really thirsty. It’s easy to describe.
But how to explain when you are thirsty for something that is intangible and elusive? Something that can only be experienced and not seen? Last week, I went to an unfamiliar sanctuary and felt my thirst begin to slake the moment I sat down. There was a warm, dynamic silence; a kind of energy that was calm, welcoming and yet crackling with possibility.
There was no Passing of the Peace, instead, at the beginning of the service we were invited to turn to someone nearby who we didn’t know (this is key) and ask them, “When was the last time you asked for help?” We had two minutes.
I told the man next to me that the day before I had asked directions to a room in the Convention Center. He had asked for computer help about a spam bot. Somewhat superficial answers, but it didn’t matter. What mattered is that we looked one another in the eye, spoke, listened and connected. This man was so kind and present that I wanted to ask him for help right there. I wanted to say, “Can you tell me why I am drinking up this experience like a dry sponge dropped in a puddle of water?”
The scripture was the story of The Woman at the Well. But before the sermon, we sang this hymn, “We Seek You With Our Questions, God.” *
We seek you with our questions, God, with open heart and mind;
We long to live a fresher life and leave our past behind.
For all that we have known has faded and grown worn.
We see you with our questions, God, that we might be reborn.
We wonder why things come to pass and how to come alive,
Where do your living waters flow? How can dry bones revive?
Who are you, God, who meet us here with wisdom and with sign?
We seek you with our questions, God, we yearn for truth divine.”
I felt as if I had written this hymn myself. I couldn’t sing the last two verses (below) because I was all choked up.
The preacher began by pointing out that the well was a place of community and connection and that every one of us gets thirsty—just like Jesus. And we get thirsty in spirit, just like this unnamed woman. Then the preacher asked, “For what does your soul thirst?”
That question—once again my eyes filled with tears because suddenly, I am the Woman at the Well talking with Jesus.
Jesus says, “I’m thirsty. Would you give me a drink?”
I get uncomfortable because as the biblical Woman at the Well, I am Samarian and Jews have nothing to do with us. Also, I’m a bit slutty so people don’t speak to me. I file my nails against the rough terracotta of my jug. Finally I say, “I don’t think you are supposed to be speaking to me.”
“I’m Jesus. I speak to everybody and anybody. Now, may I have a drink?”
I look him straight in the eye and say, “I’m sorry, but this well is dry.”
He smiles and raises an eyebrow. “Then why do you keep coming back?”
I say, “I come back because every once in a while there is a random splash, an isolated droplet that gives me hope. I come back because this is the well of my family.” I pause because I realize I’m in too deep now to back out. “I die a little each time I come, for the journey is arduous, this jug is heavy and my disappointment is even heavier.”
“What do you seek?”
Jesus and I often go back and forth between speaking metaphorically and speaking literally. I can’t say why this is. Now I am literal in my answer. “Community, connection and inspiration, so that I may go out renewed and ready to serve.”
“I know, I know. I am still thirsty.” (Back to the metaphors!)
“Why do you not seek another well?”
He’s got me there because we both know there are lots of “wells” in this area, but even more important than that: I can quench my spiritual thirst in other ways that have nothing to do with a well. This realization snaps me out of dry, dusty Israel and into the cool, minty air of the Pacific Northwest. So I grab a Bible and turn to John 4 to read what Jesus said about where to worship. (Bold-face mine.)
Jesus: 21-24 Woman, I tell you that neither is so. Believe this: a new day is coming—in fact, it’s already here—when the importance will not be placed on the time and place of worship but on the truthful hearts of worshipers. You worship what you don’t know while we worship what we do know, for God’s salvation is coming through the Jews. [God] is spirit, and is seeking followers whose worship is sourced in truth and deeply spiritual as well. Regardless of whether you are in Jerusalem or on this mountain, if you do not seek [God}, then you do not worship. (The Voice)
So time and place is not important; what is important is seeking the Divine. The last two verses of that hymn summed it up for me.
We search for you in garden green where once you gave us birth;
We search for you in desert parched and all throughout the earth.
With wonder, worry, doubt and awe we search through night and day.
We seek you with our questions, God, at home and far away.
You seek us with your questions, God, inviting us to dare
To know you and to love you more, to grow through act and prayer.
“Who will you trust and follow now? My truth is all around.”
You seek us with your questions, God, you seek and we are found.
“My truth is all around.” Of course it is! I’ve felt Spirit moving through me digging in the garden, chopping vegetables, sipping tea, holding a dying patient’s hand, kissing a dog, looking at art, walking Green Lake.
I’ve tried to parse out why this Sunday experience was so gratifying. Was it the differences: a compelling sermon; no shouting or performance without content; no words read in unison (none!), no doxology. The prayer of confession was folded into the pastoral prayer. There was a time of reflection where people came forward and lit a candle or gave an offering.
Or was it the similarities? Was it the beautiful music, the time with children, the hymns, the scripture, the benediction, the postlude?
Or was it the coffee hour and the eye-popping amount and selection of Girl Scout cookies?
I think it was all of these things and it was also that mysterious, nebulous, inexplicable energy I felt when I first walked in.
All I can tell you is that I didn’t know how thirsty I was until I started to drink.
*Text: Hannah C. Brown. B. 1980© 1980 2022 GIA Publications, Inc. Tune : KINGSFOLD
Debra, It was so wonderful to share this experience with you. Your story made me feel filled and nourished all over again. Much love.
Thanks for this timely reflection. We follow the Lectionary in our Mazatlán church, so worshipped with the same Biblical references last Sunday. It is such a refreshing drink of spiritual water to focus on the worship of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit and God’s messages for us, rather than having our attention diverted by political issues. One of my most fervent prayers is for the pastors and leadership of UCUCC to re-assess the where and why they are leading the UCUCC, which we have loved for over 30 years, but now don’t recognize as the same church of ‘living water.’
Kirk, thank you for your comment. I deeply understand that we must address racial justice and inequality issues. For me, my feelings about worship are not just about the sermons, but the entire worship service–except for the music which is glorious always. Also, anything with kids is a ray of light.
I remember Rev. Dr. Lloyd Averill saying about worship, “Don’t put words in my mouth!” (He could be feisty.) He objected to saying things in unison and we have a lot of that: the Land Acknowledgment, the Lord’s Prayer, The Prayer of Confession, the Covenant. Some of this unifying, but there is so much. It feels rote after a while. Most troubling is that I don’t know if the clergy are open to changing any of it.
Thanks for reminding us about Lloyd Averill. What a brilliant theologian he was! Indeed, UCUCC has too many unison rote recitals. Before we left UCUCC, I felt like this was brain-washing: those in control dictated what was said in worship, like the Nicene and Apostle’s Creeds in the early Catholic Church. This is so very different from the UCUCC church I joined in 1991, when the standard was “come worship God with us, and believe what you want to believe.” So many churches have dried up because a few people decided to mind-control everyone into marching lock-step into the desert of narrow theology. I loved UCUCC for decades because no one tried to tell me what I had to believe or couldn’t believe as long as I loved God and tried to follow Jesus. So sad that liberal church has been overtaken.
Dear Debra — I really appreciate your naming this experience of going to the well and looking for the water that quenches our thirst, that inspires our spirit, that fills more surely our longing for meaning and being more loving. This UCUCC community of people mean so very much to me that it is hard to step away to find a different worship service experience. So I put on my organizational functioning hat and say sincerely that I would welcome a deep conversation and commitment to meaningful feedback and adjustment process for what is needed. and then my spirit calls out to not delay….
We too attended the service you wrote about here. I haven’t been able to put into words how i felt but your thirst analogy was right on. We have been searching for the water from the well for over a year. We come back to our dry well occasionally for the community we love, but spiritually fulfilling waters are not there. Thank you for giving me words to line my thirsty throat.
I, too, am very thirsty and the well is dry in our church. I attend online because of mobility issues, but drank water when I attendin person three weeks ago . I found thirst quenched in seeing and hugging friends. I still am waiting to have a pastor feel my absence. It has been at least two years. It is hard to be forgotten.
Thank you for reminding me of what I am longing for and what I am certainly missing. I am reminded of a song by Ginny Reilly and Dave Maloney entitled “I don’t know what I want from you, but I ain’t gettin it blues.” I hope that as a church we can figure this out, but I am reminded from my former work life, hope is not a strategy.
Walt, thanks for your comment, especially, “Hope is not a strategy.” Wow. Powerful words that I think are so completely correct.
I appreciate your words and feelings, Debra.
I wish each person who is feeling fed at another church figure out what specifically what they miss in our church, articulate, and work to make our church better meet those needs. In my long life, I have found that no church is perfect, especially when one is there for a while, over the years our church has never been “perfect” for everyone. But then share the specifics so that we can better meet our members’ and guests’ needs.