If You Only Knew
John 4: 1-15

My older brother and his family lived in San Antonio, Texas, during the mid-late 70’s. One year they traveled home to Pennsylvania for the holidays, and we spent Christmas together at my parents’ house. Barry and I had previously decided to pitch together to buy a gift for my mom and dad, and we eagerly waited to see how they would respond to what we believed was a generous and exciting present. As my mother slowly opened the envelope and began to pull a pair of tickets out, she started crying and announced, “You shouldn’t have, Oh, you shouldn’t have.” Suddenly, it dawned on my brother and me that my mother had quickly concluded that these tickets were in fact plane tickets for her and my dad to fly to San Antonio. As my mom continued to say, “you shouldn’t have,” Barry and I stared at each other and thought: “We didn’t, mom.” The tickets in her hand were actually nothing more than tickets for a basketball game in Philadelphia! My mother, I’m sorry to say, received far less than she initially anticipated.
Just last Friday night, a similar act of misjudgment occurred, but in the opposite direction. Deb and I and the kids went to get pizza at Millenium’s in Dillsburg, as we often do on Friday nights. The week before, the owner, who we have come to know, told us to try his cheese steak stromboli sometime. “You’ll never go back to pizza again,” he said with a grin stretching clear across his face. So we ordered cheese steak stromboli and told him that we were holding him personally accountable! One of Julie’s friends was with us that night, and she had never tasted stromboli before. Her disappointment was immediately noticeable when I ordered it, so I told her to have an open mind and try it. With a single bite, her eyes lit up and she said for all to hear: “This is great!” I didn’t need to encourage her to continue eating. If only she had known in advance what a delight stromboli was, she would have needed no persuading. Unlike my mother, she got more than she expected.
The story here in John 4 is striking. Jesus has left Jerusalem because of escalating tension there, and he finds himself standing by a well in Samaria. There he chats with an unnamed woman in much the same way that he conversed with Nicodemus just a short time earlier. Yet the two characters—Nicodemus and the woman—are virtual opposites in many respects. Nicodemus, for one thing, was a Jew, whereas she was a Samaritan. The animosity among the Jews towards the Samaritans is well documented—Samaritans were half-breeds, the scum of the earth, according to common Jewish thinking of the day. Nicodemus, furthermore, was a man, while she was a woman. Nicodemus was well educated, financially secure, and of high moral standing. The woman, by way of contrast, was unlearned, poor, and sinful. Yet Jesus quickly encourages the conversation.
As they talk, it becomes immediately apparent that the woman is completely absorbed by the temporal. She had come to the well, as she always did, to draw water—real, wet, dripping, thirst-quenching water. When Jesus raises the subject of “living water,” which she no doubt assumed to mean running water from a stream rather than stagnant water from a pool or cistern, she grows noticeably concerned about the logistics. “Where will you get this water?” she asked, knowing that there was nothing resembling a stream in the vicinity. “What will you collect it in, seeing that you have neither a bucket nor anything else suitable to draw it with?” And when Jesus pushes through her questions and insinuates that he does in fact have access to such water, the woman quickly desires it so that she will not have to come back to this well again in the future. From beginning to end, this woman of Samaria thinks solely of real, physical water. She is engrossed in the temporal and captivated by the physical. And in the middle of the conversation, Jesus rather gently remarks, “If you knew the gift of God,…” “If you only knew.”
How often, I wonder, might Jesus stand right before us, watch the way we busy ourselves with what is only physical and temporary, and make much the same remark. “If only you knew the gift of God.” “If only you knew….”
Two weeks ago I went to the Holy Cross Abbey just outside Berryville, VA. Both my wife and my spiritual director—a man named Kent who meets with me every month and keeps an eye on my soul, so to speak—had encouraged me for some time to take a few days and go on a personal retreat to be alone with God. As I prepared for the trip, I packed a brief case full of books that I wanted to read, and I formulated a mental agenda—a list of goals and objectives, things I wanted to think through. On the morning that I was to leave, I glanced over a list of suggestions that Kent had given me, and one of the suggestions quickly and painfully struck me—avoid reading anything apart from the Bible and other materials that lead you into prayer. I called Deb from my office in a panic and told her about it, and she simply said, “Leave your books at home.” So I headed to the abbey with my Bible, journal, a collection of prayers, pastels, and an artist’s tablet. For four days. Alone.
I arrived at Holy Cross at supper time on Monday, checked into my room, and enjoyed a simple and silent supper with the other retreatants. After dinner, I settled into B-6, excited and nervous, not knowing exactly what to expect. For the next four hours, I read some Scripture, prayed through the cycle of thanksgiving-confession-intercession-petition, and sat completely silent. It was wonderful, and it continued to be into the following afternoon. But by 2:00 p.m. or so, I was overwhelmed by a burdensome sense of boredom and even disgust. I had prayed for four hours the night before and six hours that day, and I was clueless as to what to do next. “How in the world will I ever make it for three more days?” I wondered.
Then something began to happen, something unlike anything I had ever experienced before. One by one, like Eustace in C. S. Lewis’ Voyage of the Dawntreader having his dragon hide torn away, I felt layers of surface dependencies slowly come to my attention and fall. I was fasting, a discipline that typically makes me realize just how attached I really am to the things around me. After just 20 hours without food—hardly the 60-plus days hunger strike currently being undertaken by Brandon Huddock in Harrisburg—and my body was already crying out for nourishment! No wonder Paul encouraged his listeners to make their bodies their slaves. Otherwise, their bodies would enslave them.
But it wasn’t just food. I had no television, no newspaper, no computer, no CD player. I even decided not to go out for a run until a sense of peace returned. In the same way that eating a Snickers bar before dinner deadens our physical appetite, so too these and other things, though good in their appropriate place, serve frequently as sedatives that deaden our true spiritual desires. I just didn’t want to drown out the deepest fears and longings of my soul with one activity or another. It is easy, I’ve learned, to run and hide when the going gets tough. When God seems silent. When nothing noticeable happens. When I’m left alone with myself and I don’t like who I am. When I fear what God might say if I sit still long enough to listen. This time, I just didn’t want to move. If it is true, as Elijah apparently experienced, that God typically speaks to us, not through earthquakes and storms but through a gentle, almost silent breeze, then I felt compelled to wait.
It took two more hours, two hours of intense spiritual frustration, before a sense of calmness began to return. Slowly, as my attachments to noise and activities were exposed and confronted, I was aware of God’s presence like never before. Everything else seemed trite and of little consequence. The anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing, in writing about a similar experience, speaks of “the naked intent for God alone.” Nothing other than God matters. It is moving for me just to think about it. For the next three days, I simply “hung out” with God, as Richard Foster describes it. Three days of listening and talking, thanking and confessing, laughing and weeping, agreeing and arguing, conversing with the Lord about your needs and my own. It was truly a transforming experience, far more than I might have anticipated.
Let me be perfectly honest for a moment. I’ve always found prayer to be extremely difficult, and I’m sure I will again. Prayer has long been drudgery for me, and I’ve often either avoided it or controlled it. I’ve known, of course, that I shouldn’t feel that way about it, particularly insofar as I am a pastor and professor of “Holy Scripture.” If I usually enjoy talking with my wife and other people—even these conversations aren’t always pleasurable!—why is it that I don’t enjoy being alone with God? I felt only worse when I realized one day when I was in the Middle East that, whereas the Koran instructs Muslims as to when to pray, what to say, and even what direction to face, the Bible offers no such rules. We followers of Jesus are supposed to want to pray. Prayer for us is to be as natural as a meaningful conversation with a dear friend. But it wasn’t for me. Prayer was often a burden, a pain, a religious responsibility to be avoided whenever possible.
During this time away, I frequently read a prayer by Norman Goodacre, trying to make it my own. It goes like this:
Lord, I am stiff and rigid in my prayers. I need to loosen up. To talk to you
as a human being. To discuss my problems and my fears with you. To behave
as a disciple and not as a distant admirer, setting you on a pedestal where I feel
sure you have no desire to be. I would like very much to enjoy my prayers. To
feel as relaxed as I do when taking a walk in the country. I would like to enjoy
my communion with you as much as I enjoy a piece of good music or a ballet
[or a football game!]. I must make my mind work at my prayer so that I can
bring everything into it. I know you are interested. It is I who am dull and
stiff and “mannered.” Humanize me, Lord.
God humanized me that day. Or at least he began to. He helped me to appreciate, perhaps for the first time, just how deeply he longs to share himself with me and with you. I realized that prayer is far more than talking. Prayer involves waiting and listening and learning to recognize the quiet, subtle, and yet genuine voice of God. “If we only knew….” I kept thinking to myself. If we only knew the intimacy that awaits us—it’s available to every last one of us, just like it was to the seemingly unworthy, sinful woman of Samaria—if we only knew, we would quickly set aside so many other things that distract us. We would wait through the silence and be far more willing to endure the darker moments that come to everyone of us. We would stick with it, not wanting to miss even a moment of God’s transforming presence.
Like the unnamed woman from Samaria, we so often spend enormous amounts of time and energy concentrating on things that are of minimal importance. Our minds are so preoccupied with the world around us that we rarely find ourselves alone with God. The life of prayer that God invites us to enjoy is far more like an evening with your best friend than it is an encounter with a judge in the local courthouse. The life of prayer that God invites us to enjoy is far more like a romantic, candle-lit dinner with your lover than it is a hurried moment on Santa’s knee. But the life of prayer that God calls us to also involves persistence, sometimes through very dark and lonely hours. This same life of prayer has its high points and its low points, its feelings of exhilaration and its cries of despair. This life of prayer, though both refreshing and taxing (like any relationship), is nothing less than an ongoing and deepening experience with God himself. “If we only knew,” I continued to wonder. “If we only knew.” God, the Lord of heaven and earth, welcoming us into his heart, longing to overwhelm us with his love and grace, all the while we are busying ourselves with far lesser things. “If we only knew.”
At some point in their conversation, the woman of Samaria got the idea. When Jesus looked her in the eye and said , “The one you are waiting for, I am he,” she dropped her water jar and high tailed it into the city. In her excitement, she actually forgot about that which had previously consumed her—water. She had just met the one who had told her everything that she had ever done. She had just met Jesus. And nothing else mattered anymore.
Over 20 years ago, my mother thought she had just been given two round-trip plane tickets to San Antonio, Texas, only to learn that they were actually tickets to a basketball game. All of her claims to the contrary, my mother was somewhat disappointed. Just over a week ago, my daughter’s friend had the opposite experience. She was quite cautious about the food on her plate, but soon found out that it was far better than she could have ever imagined. Trust me on this one. If you set aside the cares of the world and enter quietly, expectantly, and consistently into God’s presence, you will not be disappointed. Moments of exhilaration will fade from time to time. Deep struggles with the divine will inevitably ensue. You and God will surely laugh together, but you will also butt heads on occasion as well. The bottom line, however, is simply this. Just taste and see, as the Psalmist encourages us to do, and you will increasingly discover that the Lord is good! Nothing else in this world or beyond compares to him.