So the Psalmist writes, "As a deer longs for the flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God."
We are born thirsty and longing. In the beginning, our thirst is merely for survival, and is slaked by bottle or breast. Later, the deeper longing aches at our center. Preoccupied with the process of learning, growing and discovering how to get along in the world, we forget the thirst. But it remains.
Our parents before us were thirsty too, and their parents and grandparents before them. And so, in an age-old effort to quench us, mother and/or father may have taken us by the hand and steered us into buildings with stars and crosses out front, and incense, candles
and Hebrew, Arabic or Latin inside,
to drink from the deep waters of tradition,
to sit by the well and hear the stories and sing the songs,
and to make offerings to the gods who bless the wells and make the waters sweet and healing and powerful.
Are you satisfied? Is your thirst abated?
No; probably not. Neither was theirs, most likely. In moments, oh, most certainly! If not for the moments of golden, magnificent water delighting the soul and the senses, no one would return to the well. But they do; they return because they have tasted, however briefly, of the living waters and they desire their fill.
What is it like to taste of the living waters? Profoundly, cosmically refreshing. Nourishing in a way that no human being and no twist of fate can take from you. Filling to the extent that no banquet set before you could possibly provide. When the waters of life run through the pilgrim's veins, she is connected through tradition and substance to the thirsty souls who were healed and filled before her. That's what I gather, anyway. Like most seekers, I have my moments with the perfect waters, but I don't drink from the holy source every day, no matter how much I might wish to.
We gather as participants in a living faith; a faith that seems sometimes to be more a process than a religion in the more customary sense. Unitarian Universalism is a way, a path, that proclaims your inherent dignity and mine, that expects us to investigate the holy sources available to the human family and that is not troubled by the fact that you may find one source and I may find another. "Deep calls to deep." The faith we share will not necessarily have the same source or tradition, but our peacefulness, kindness and justice-seeking together will reveal that we are centered in depth and nourished by the living waters.
Unitarian Universalism holds that there are many wells, many sources for that which will sustain and nourish us at the deepest level. My concern over the years has been that we tend to invest a lot of time and energy bricking over old wells because we feel the waters are too muddied to satisfy our thirst. This done, we dig new wells, or gather at one fashionable source after the other, or travel on pilgrimage to wells far enough away to feel exotic and exciting, but rarely staying long enough to drink of the deep.
A wise person once said, "If the water is sixty feet underground, you won't reach it by digging six ten-foot wells."
If the water is sixty feet underground, you won't reach it by digging six ten-foot wells.
My ministry among UUs informs me that many liberal religionists have begun to doubt that the water is there in the depths at all,
and are digging their spades into the earth with sore hearts and callused palms,
sipping frantically at the first bit of moisture they find,
then assuming that that is the extent of the nourishment to be yielded by that well and then running off to dig somewhere else.
Don't say there is no water. The well, unlike the dramatic wind and voices that often signal the presence of the divine in religious stories, is quiet and hidden. The well is gentle, deep and tranquil and it awaits your discovery. The well does not call out your name in a booming voice, does not appear as a burning bush, does not fly out at you as a dove or raven. The well is there, the water runs deep, but the water runs silently.
Join me at the well for a moment. Consider the well provided in a time of drought by God in the Haitian story we just heard told to the children. This is the first lesson we receive from the Deep Place: The Well is for everyone, because the well is God's; it belongs to the Ultimate. The story suggests that even God might even come to the well to try the waters now and then -- it is a holy gift, and it not meant to become the private possession of any one creature or one people.
But while the Haitian folk tale gives us a surprise personal appearance by "Mama God" to save the day, Tom Harpur's parable of the Place of the Living Waters insinuates that we must save ourselves, as it is we who have built obstacles around the well of life and deprived ourselves and others from drinking directly from it. His parable is a gentle and poetic way of critiquing the problems of the modern Church and the history of Christianity, but it also speaks to a universal reality: All humans everywhere require water to survive, and we are often drawn to the well together on our shared journey. When a Nigerian woman was told that North American women pipe water into their homes, she grew somber. "How do the women speak to one another? If I didn't talk with the women at the village well, I wouldn't know about their lives.'"
So let this be the second lesson from the Well: The well is both a literal place and a spiritual location that not only nourishes and sustains us as individuals on our own private quest for the living waters of spirit, hope and meaning, it is a communal experience.
Congregational life is kind of "village well" for our times. We come not only for the water but for the company -- to, as the Nigerian woman so eloquently and simply put it: "know about our lives."
Wells have attracted the gods, or stories about the gods, from antiquity. All over pagan Europe holy wells were revered and their waters thought to issue forth from gods, goddesses, nymphs, fairies. Throughout world mythologies we find countless divine guardians of wells whose healing powers gushed out with the water and cured the sick. So we should not be surprised to find plenty of wells in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, too. Here is one from the Gospel of John.
On his way to back to Galilee from Judea, Jesus stopped in Samaria, in a town called Sychar. Tired from his journey, Jesus stopped at the "well of Jacob" about noon. The commentaries remind us that Samaritans and other Jews were not on the best of terms; in fact, there were "long-standing hostilities between them."
This is one of the few stories where we find Jesus alone, not surrounded by his disciples or crowds of followers (high noon is a strange time to draw water, unless you want to use it for boiling eggs). A Samarian woman comes to draw water. Jesus asks her for a drink and ... she refuses him. But Jesus starts preaching to her. "If you knew who I am, and so on and so on, you'd give me a drink." And he's very messianic here, "Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I give them will never be thirsty."
This sounds like a pretty good idea, so the woman responds "Sir, give me this water so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water."
Then Jesus reveals that he himself is the bringer of the "living water." In his customarily compelling way, he tells her that "the hour is coming" for a great spiritual revolution among true believers: "God is spirit, and those who worship God must worship in spirit and truth."
And then Jesus and the woman have this funny exchange. She gets excited by his message and he tells her "go get your husband." "I don't have one," she replies. "Yea, I know," says Jesus. "You've had FIVE husbands, and the man you're with now isn't your husband!" Well how would Jesus know that? What's more, what business is it of his? But the wonderful part is that the woman is amazed rather than enraged. She proclaims right away, "you must be a prophet!" The Woman at the Well is willing to recognize the truth when she hears it. And in this exchange, I find the third lesson of the Well: if you are willing to drink of the living and deep waters, you won't get necessarily get holy, but you might get real.
When one does not want to "know thyself" on a deep level, one will avoid the well at all costs. You've seen people do this, and so have I. Jesus, a prophet of the deepest kind of engagement with the Spirit, immediately recognizes the woman at the well in all her human frailty. She is brave enough to welcome that recognition with appreciation. When deep calls to deep, you're not messing with masquerades and pretension.
Perhaps that is why so many of us dabble in the shallows of spiritual life for so painfully long, or for our entire lives. We realize on some intuitive level that the deep waters will stir up our own depths, our fears, mistakes, weaknesses, tentative securities. Digging deeply into any aspect of life requires a level of commitment that is daunting. We muse about why church life, for instance, can bring forth the most amazing displays of pettiness from lots of folks, clergy and laity alike. "Why, " people ask, "does organized religion often bring out the absolute worst in people who are otherwise really quite decent?" Easy. Because when we gather around the well, it's tempting to distract ourselves from the "quiet song and strange power" of the living waters. We're close enough to hear it. Some of us want to fall in and be submerged. Some of us want to sip cautiously. Some of us want to run right off and dig another well. Some of us want to study the well and write theories about it. Whatever our instinct, we are close to the depths, and gathering the courage to encounter them. And that can be an intimidating place to be.
I think a lot this time of year about a man who spent his whole life swimming in the living waters. By his example, he gives us the last lesson of the well. His name was James Reeb, and by all reports he was an incredibly faithful, compassionate, giving, steadfast moral man. He was well-loved, and respected as much as he was loved. Jim served as one of the ministers of All Souls Unitarian Church in Washington, DC. His story unfolded in 1927 when he was born, and ended almost exactly thirty-six years ago.
I can't tell you all of James Reeb's life here. But I just want to express to you the essence of the man I have captured in reading and hearing about him. He was unexhausting in his quest to be quenched by deep, living waters of true spirituality and transforming faith. This doesn't mean that his ideas and his theology never changed; they did. They changed drastically, in fact, because he spent his youth as an intensely conservative Christian and ended it as a Unitarian humanist (with Quaker connections that no doubt inspired him).
With his life's sacrifice, the Reverend James Reeb teaches me the fourth and final lesson of the well, and it goes something like this: the deep is very deep, and the depths are not without their dangers.
Those who dive with head and heart into the living waters, as did Jim Reeb, may lose some of their hard-hewn individualistic edges. They may, in living so deeply, hear the cries of suffering brothers and sisters more loudly than those who keep their distance from the well. It is clear that James Reeb did. Why else would he leave a wife and four children on March 8, 1965 and take a flight to Alabama to answer a call from the Rev. Martin Luther King to march on Selma for African American voting rights? He wasn't a masochist or a fool. He was scared and unhappy about the situation that prompted King's passionate call, and he and his wife knew it would be dangerous (I note that your own minister at the time, the Reverend John Kolbjornsen, was also present at the same historic march).
This is not a story about a valiant hero marching off into combat. This is a story about a man who never avoided the call of his deepest self and his God even at the highest cost possible to him and his family.
And yes, James Reeb lost his life. He was beaten while leaving a black-owned restaurant in Alabama with two other ministers from DC who had also been marching that day. His skull was crushed by a pipe or club wielded by a man who never went to jail for his crime. Jim Reeb died on March 11, 1965. His martyrdom became a national outrage and helped galvanize the civil rights legislation that was soon made into the law of the land.
The deep is very deep, and the depths are not without their dangers. And so the Well calls us not only to mutuality, to community and to authenticity, but also, finally, to courageous witness in the world. Deep calls to deep. It always shall, and those who live deeply will always heed the call.
"This is God's well," said the frog. But the water is there for us. May we dare to deeply of it and thereby prove ourselves worthy guardians of the treasure.
So may it be, in us and through us, world without end. Amen.