Sunday, February 13, 2022

Sermon: “Fettered and Blessed”, Jeremiah 17:5-10/John 4:4-15 (February 13, 2022)


I’ve been to the Emergency Department exactly once in my life. It was (I think) about 8 years ago. I woke up with a slight twinge in my side, which slowly grew worse throughout the day, until I figured it wouldn’t be a good idea to ignore it any longer. By the time my dad drove me to the hospital, it had developed into full-blown, excruciating abdominal pain. I had to sit in the waiting room with this pain for far longer than I would have liked, but the hospital staff eventually got me set up in a room and immediately hooked me up to an IV as they began to run tests.

Within minutes, I was feeling MUCH better. I’m sure that this was mostly thanks to the morphine that they’d given me, but while the substitution of euphoria for pain *was* a pleasant change, it surprisingly wasn’t what I remember most vividly about this experience. No, the first thing I noticed when the IV started was how grateful I was for the saline drip. You see, I’ve always struggled to stay properly hydrated—I have chronically dry skin, my throat always feels a just little bit parched, and even the slightest exertion has me gulping down as much water as I can. I try to keep a water bottle on hand at all times, but even when I sip it throughout the day, it never quite does the trick. It’s just something I’ve gotten used to over the years. So even though I’d never had morphine prior to that day, it’s not the pain relief that I remember most vividly; it’s the satisfaction I felt knowing what it’s like to have my body’s needs fully and completely met for the first time.

Given my hydration issues, I can relate to the Samaritan woman at the well. *She* knew what it’s like to be thirsty; water was precious in the desert. Since households didn’t have indoor plumbing (or outdoor, for that matter), the local well was the only source of water for the whole community (and I use the term “local” lightly—some people had to walk for miles to find a well). Usually, women would come to the well first thing in the morning, while it was still cool, to collect water for the day and socialize with their neighbors, but the woman in this passage waited until noon. Some theologians speculate that this is because she was ostracized for her marital history, but regardless of the reason, she would have been extremely thirsty after traveling to the well in the middle of the day.

So, when Jesus suggests that he can give her living water such that she would never thirst again, it must sound especially appealing to her in that moment. No more trips to the well. No more avoiding the judgmental stares of her peers. No more back-breaking work of pulling the water out of the well and hauling it back home. Never again would she have to do these things, and yet she would never feel thirsty again. She thinks Jesus must be offering her some kind of magical water. As skeptical as she is, she’s willing to give it a shot: “Sir, give me this water.”

Now, hold that thought for a moment. We know (or at least we suspect) that Jesus isn’t talking about literal water. But just as the human body fundamentally needs to remain hydrated in order to survive and thrive, there’s something that only God can provide us that we need in order to be healthy and whole. Call it mercy, call it goodness, call it love, call it grace; whatever you call it, all human beings experience a deep “thirst” for this God-given resource.

There are two different ways that we can deal with this need; Jeremiah describes them using botanical metaphors. On the one hand, we can choose to remain as self-sufficient as possible, like the desert shrub, only seeking out the living waters when our thirst becomes unbearable. The desert shrub can grow far away from the nearest stream, but because it doesn’t have a steady source of water to rely on, it must carefully ration every bit of moisture it takes in. It can’t bear fruit because it has no resources to spare; dehydration is always just around the corner. Like me under normal circumstances, the desert shrub can never quite satisfy its thirst completely.

On the other hand, we can instead choose to prioritize our connection to the source over our independence, like the tree planted by a stream. The tree isn’t able grow very far from the bank, but its roots connect it *directly* to the water. It draws hydration up into itself around the clock, so it never even gets the chance to feel thirsty. Its physical requirements are generously met, and it bears abundant fruit. It’s not that drought is no more, it’s that the tree’s direct connection to the source of its most basic need means that drought no longer carries a threat for it. Jeremiah describes those like the tree planted by the stream, those who rely on God, as “happy” (or in the NRSV translation, “blessed”) because full dependence on God means complete freedom from worrying about their thirst for grace. Like my experience with the saline drip, the tree by the stream feels safe and satisfied knowing that this need is perfectly met.

Which brings us back to the Samaritan woman at the well. She wants to stay like the desert shrub and thinks that Jesus is offering her magical water that will change what she needs in order to make that possible. But Jesus is actually offering a transformational exchange. “If you will trust in me,” he’s saying, “cleaving to God and leaving behind the things that keep you separate from us, you will become like the tree planted by the stream. You will never again be without the living water that sustains you.” In other words, in order to be completely freed from this thirst, she must choose to give up the life of a desert shrub and directly tether herself to the source of relief.

Now, I know that the prospect of voluntary fetters doesn’t sound especially appealing. If I’d had to stay hooked up to an IV for the rest of my life because of what wound up being a sneaky kidney infection, it would have complicated things immensely. I would have been stuck in the hospital with limited mobility (and a very large medical bill). Fortunately for me, once the doctors were able to identify the problem, a simple course of antibiotics fixed me right up. I went back to intermittent hydration like everyone else. Even though it still doesn’t quite do the trick for me, it was the best option that allowed me to go back to living a full life.

Fortunately, the tether that connects us to God doesn’t restrict us in the same way that an IV does. We don’t have to sever the bond in order to move about in the world; we can live full lives while remaining fully connected to God. And yet, this divine tether does place other limitations on us. It requires a great deal of maintenance on our end to ensure that the link doesn’t break down. We must truly foster a continuous connection with God through prayer, engagement, and action in all aspects of our lives.

If we don’t let the living waters permeate our whole lives—if we try to restrict it to our minds, for example, but don’t let it flow through the actions of our hands and feet—then the bond will atrophy from disuse. In the same way, if we treat the connection as a spigot that we can turn on and off at will according to our whims, then we might as well still be going to the well with the Samaritan woman every day—we can’t rely on a constant conduit that we don’t allow to stay constant.

And of course, the few times that the tether DOES hold us back from something, we shouldn’t interpret that as divine tyranny. It’s in our best interests. A well-maintained connection will let you know, on no uncertain terms, when something you want to do is a threat to your relationship with God. You’ll feel a tugging at your heart, a nagging voice in your head that says, “Is this REALLY the best way to handle this situation? Are you REALLY going to say that? Is this REALLY how you want to spend your time?” Although it can be unpleasant to examine our impulses like this, it’s part of the package when we choose to trust God and put down roots next to the living waters.

But ultimately, this fettered life is worth it. Certainly, there are costs, but that’s the case with anything worth having, right? Most of us are perfectly happy to be invisibly tethered to our phones in exchange for the steady stream of information and access it gives us, even though it’s an additional responsibility to pay for, protect, and keep track of it. And a phone doesn’t even meet any of our needs; it merely makes life a little more convenient. How much more, then, should we be willing to maintain an ongoing connection with God in exchange for continuous blessing? A connection that meets one of our most basic needs as beings created in God’s image.

So maybe, in this case, being fettered isn’t so bad. When we think about being inextricably bound to God, let’s not imagine it as a set of shackles that keeps us prisoners, but as the IV that banishes our thirst so long as we’re connected to it—the life-giving stream whose endless provision is worth being rooted in. Whenever you find yourself resisting the tether that Jesus offers, I encourage you to borrow this prayer from Rev. Robert Robinson, these words that eventually became a treasured hymn: “Let thy goodness, like a fetter, bind my wandering heart to thee. Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it; prone to leave the God I love. Here’s my heart; O, take a seal it, seal it for thy courts above.” Friends, may your heart be sealed, your wandering minimal, and your fetter a blessing to you always. Amen.

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