January 14, 2007

Caravan: Water
John 4:17-25; Isaiah 55:1

We have a food dehydrator at home that my wife picked up somewhere at a yard sale a few years ago. You’ve perhaps seen one like it. It is made of durable plastic and has several racks for holding fruit, vegetables or even meat. Once you have positioned the food, you simply close the lid and plug in the device. Over the next several hours, the dehydrator lives up to its name and quietly extracts the water from whatever food you’ve placed on the racks.

Several months ago, I tried this new appliance with bananas. I carefully positioned slices of several fresh bananas on the rack, plugged in the dehydrator, and waited. When I came back hours later and opened the lid, those same banana slices, once fresh, firm and tasty, were now dry, brittle and shriveled up—mummy-like—and most of them stuck to the rack. I removed each slice from the dehydrator and placed them in a Tupperware-type container, where many of them remain to this very day! What a difference water makes.

You’ve perhaps never compared yourself to a banana—unless you are yellow!—but bananas and we humans have at least this major characteristic in common with everything that lives—we need water. Without water, we shrivel up and become dry and brittle. The human body, after all, consists of up to 75% water. Our bones are 20-30% water, our muscle tissue 50-70%, our blood nearly 80%, and the gray matter in our brains 70-85%. 5/8ths of the water in our bodies is housed within cells, and the remaining 3/8ths either lies between the cells or is in circulation. We are, in a real sense, walking water bottles.

The importance of water in the human body, however, goes well beyond our mere composition. The body uses roughly 40,000 glasses of water each day, recycling all but ten of those. 400 gallons of water pass daily through your kidneys and mine, yet only about 10 cups leave our bodies when we breathe, go to the bathroom, and perspire. Of those ten lost cups, we regain perhaps three through the food we eat and another 1? as a by-product of other bodily processes, but the remaining 5? must be reintroduced into our systems through drinking. And if we don’t replenish our bodies’ water supply, we become like those dried banana slices stuffed away somewhere at my house in that Tupperware-like container.

This is how it works. Insofar as our bodies use water to perform virtually all of their functions—digestion, respiration, joint lubrication, purification and temperature control—we begin to slowly malfunction when dehydration sets in. When mildly dehydrated—when 2% of our normal water volume is lost—we typically experience such symptoms as thirst, loss of appetite (don’t get any ideas!), dry skin, tiredness, loss of tears, headache, dizziness when standing and a lessening need to urinate. During moderate dehydration, say 5-6% water loss, we experience greater lethargy, seizures, fainting and sunken eyes. As dehydration worsens, our heart and respiration rates increase as our bodies attempt to compensate for the water loss. At 10-15% water loss, our muscles spasm, skin shrivels and wrinkles, vision dims and urination, though infrequent, becomes painful. Finally, at 15% or so, we die. All in a matter of just a few days.

Like the lily in my office that droops when left unattended, we need water—badly. Without it, we die. So when the woman of Samaria came to Jacob’s well that day described here in John 4, she was doing what people have been doing throughout all of history. There were no doubt clothes to wash, floors to mop, baths to take and meals to cook. But more importantly, there were human bodies in her hometown of Sychar, bodies of men, women and children, in need of water. Bodies experiencing varying degrees of dehydration. So the woman came to the well that day as she often did, bucket in hand, consumed with the physical aspects of life.

We seldom go to wells these days, although Jacob’s well remains to this day for all to see. Yet we often do so much of what we do with the physical dimension of life primarily in mind. Although we rarely concern ourselves with finding water to drink, we often give considerable attention, not to mention time and money, to what we look like, the clothing we wear, how much we weigh, the cars we drive, and the houses we live in. In 2003, for example, Americans spent nearly $7 billion on hair care—none of that money was mine!—$8.3 billion on cosmetic plastic surgery (tummy tucks, face lifts, etc.), $23.6 billion on cosmetics themselves, and over $40 billion on weight loss programs and products. Yet such sums are relatively modest in comparison to the amounts of money spent on elaborate wardrobes, recreational activities, fancy cars, and extravagant houses. Clearly, we live in a day and age, not of buckets and wells, but of extreme makeovers of our bodies, our homes and our careers. And as you know, popular TV shows are devoted to this very thing. How much time and energy, it makes me wonder, do we put into making over our souls?

The woman of Samaria approaches the well, understandably, thinking solely of the physical dimension of life. She comes to draw real, wet water. Jesus, however, seizes the moment and subtly begins to reorient her perspective. You’ll recall that he did much the same thing in John 3 during his conversation with the Jewish leader, Nicodemus. Like the woman of Samaria, Nicodemus was encumbered by a similar preoccupation with the physical. When Jesus spoke to him about being born again, Nicodemus thought only of crying babies and human wombs. Now, Jesus addresses a woman preoccupied with literal water and suggests to her that there is a type of water that is fundamentally different from any she has yet tasted. That the woman finds his categories confusing is evident in her follow-up questions. “Where is this living water?” she asks, knowing full well that there was no stream or running spring nearby. “And with what will you draw it?” Jesus was, after all, bucketless.

These are, of course, the standard questions of people preoccupied with the physical world. What matters most are those things that we can taste, hear, touch, smell or see, those things that we can get our hands on and explain. Those things that make us look better in the eyes of others and enhance our earthly pleasures. Those things that we can quantify and attach a price tag to. Those things that seem “real” to us, like cold, refreshing water on a hot day.

Jesus, to the woman’s alarm, speaks of water in quite contrary terms. You don’t need a bucket to draw it. You don’t pour it in a glass and drink it. You don’t dangle your feet in it. In fact, you can’t even see it or taste it. Instead, this water of which Jesus speaks flows, not in a nearby stream, but out of the depths of the human heart. With this water that the bucketless Jesus himself promises to give, even the deepest thirsts of the human heart—those thirsts that can never be quenched by tummy-tucks, fancy clothing, or prestigious jobs—can be forever satisfied.

Jesus, in but a few short statements, confronts the woman of Samaria with this astounding truth: we humans, so often preoccupied with the physical side of life, are fundamentally spiritual creatures. And with one fell swoop, Jesus asks the woman and the rest of us why in the world we put so much time and energy into things that simply are of little importance. Why do we model our lives after Brittany Spears, Brad Pitt and Tiger Woods when God longs to mold us into the very image of Christ? Why do we concern ourselves to such a great degree with what we wear and how we look when the very glory of God might fill our hearts and shine from our faces? Why do we care so much about fancy cars and elegant houses when mansions are at this very moment being prepared for us? Why do we invest so much—so much thought, so much time, so much energy, so much money—in our bodies and often so little in our souls? Why?

The woman of Samaria came to the well for water. And fresh, cold water is a wonderful thing, isn’t it? Without it, we shrivel up and die, much like those once tasty banana slices that I placed on the racks of our dehydrator several months ago. We feel parched, brittle, sightless and weary. But physical water can only carry us so far. We are, Jesus reminds the woman and us, spiritual beings, longing for spiritual refreshment that nothing physical can ever satisfy. Spiritual beings who need living water. Spiritual beings who need God.

Pedro Arrupe, a Spanish priest who was later exiled from Spain, wrote a poem that I found one evening hanging on the wall at the spiritual center in Wernersville where I sometimes go for prayer retreats. Arrupe was no doubt thinking about this very idea—the central importance of the spiritual dimension of our lives over the physical—when he penned these words:
Nothing is more practical than
finding God, that is, than
in a quite absolute, final way.
What you are in love with,
what seizes your imagination,
will affect everything.
It will decide
what will get you out of bed
in the morning,
what you do with your evenings,
how you spend your weekends,
what you read, who you know,
what breaks your heart,
and what amazes you with
joy and gratitude.
Fall in love, stay in love,
and it will decide everything.
“Our hearts are restless,” St. Augustine once wrote, “until they find rest in Thee.” Jesus here says much the same thing to the woman of Samaria. Real water drawn from Jacob’s well is important, of course—Jesus is not so naïve as to deny that. Without it, our bodies shrivel up and die. But there is a need that we all have that is even more basic—more fundamental—than our need for physical water. We need living water. Without it—without God—our souls shrivel up and die.

Why, then, do we spend so much time and energy concerning ourselves with things that matter so little? What we look like. What we wear. What we drive. What we live in. In an “extreme makeover” culture, Jesus invites us here to pay less attention to the physical world and to be far more attentive to our souls.