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It’s a Perfectly Good Well

The Reverend Matt Gaventa

March 19, 2017
John 4:5-42

A Reading from the Gospel

So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.

A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink’. (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’ (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink”, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?’ Jesus said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.’

Jesus said to her, ‘Go, call your husband, and come back.’ The woman answered him, ‘I have no husband.’ Jesus said to her, ‘You are right in saying, “I have no husband”; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.’ The woman said to him, ‘I know that Messiah is coming’ (who is called Christ). ‘When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am he, the one who is speaking to you.’

Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, ‘What do you want?’ or, ‘Why are you speaking with her?’ Then the woman left her water-jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, ‘Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?’ They left the city and were on their way to him.

Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, ‘Rabbi, eat something.’ But he said to them, ‘I have food to eat that you do not know about.’ So the disciples said to one another, ‘Surely no one has brought him something to eat?’ Jesus said to them, ‘My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. Do you not say, “Four months more, then comes the harvest”? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, “One sows and another reaps.” I sent you to reap that for which you did not labour. Others have laboured, and you have entered into their labour.’

Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He told me everything I have ever done.’ So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there for two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, ‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Saviour of the world.’

This morning I want to talk to you about cast iron. Some of you already know that I like to cook, and there are few things I care about as much as I do a good kitchen tool, and there is no better kitchen tool than a good cast iron pan. The thing about cast iron, if you don’t know, is that it distributes heat perfectly around the pan, and it gives a great sear on the edge, and you can basically do anything with it because it’s basically indestructible — use it on the stovetop, stick it in the oven, stick it on the grill. Use it as a defensive weapon if necessary. Cast iron will outlast everything else in your kitchen. The only thing you have to watch out for is rust. You can’t just throw it in soapy water when you’re done and let the dirt get eaten away, because water’s no good for it. You just wipe it down with a paper towel. Spread a little oil in there. Stick it back in in the oven. And over time that oil will fuse with the iron and give you this amazing cooking surface and it will last forever.

So, the three advantages of cast iron. 1 — it cooks great. 2 — it lasts forever. And 3 — because it lasts forever, you get sentimentally attached. We have other pans in our kitchen, nice pans that we registered for when we got married and I have no idea who gave them to us but I remember exactly the consignment store in Iowa City where I bought my cast iron skillet for a dollar and it’s as perfectly good today as it ever has been. And I remember exactly the day when I was moving into my first college apartment and my mother took me to the store to buy the five things you need in your first kitchen and I don’t remember three of them but one was a packet of wooden spoons and the other was a cast iron pan. And right now in our new Austin home both of those pans are resting comfortably on some wire shelving we have sitting in the garage, waiting to be called into duty, and on top of them, a bit smaller, a bit less severe, a small cast iron cornbread pan, like a small frying pan with a sheer wall and wedges cut into the iron, segmented so that each piece of cornbread comes out with its own perfect crust. And I don’t make a lot of cornbread. I can’t quite convince myself that we need a specialty cornbread pan. But I do get sentimentally attached, and I’ll never let go of this one.

This one has a story. This is the cornbread pan of my people. When I was a child, visiting my grandparents at their home in small town west Tennessee, my grandmother would make cornbread — sometimes we would dip it straight into buttermilk — and she would make it out of this pan, in that old southern cornbread style, where you preheat the pan and then scoop a little lard into each wedge and let it sizzle and then pour the batter right onto it and stick it back in the oven and it tastes like what bacon would eat if bacon needed a snack. My mother grew up eating the cornbread that came out of this pan. And as we now know, this stuff lasts forever, so I don’t know where my grandmother got the pan, maybe out of a Sears Roebuck catalog, or maybe it was handed down, her mother from her mother before her, at some point the trail runs cold. But I can still close my eyes and be sitting at granny’s kitchen table in the summer of 1987 and smell the fresh okra and the fresh lima beans and the fresh cornbread and the smell of the hot oil in the cast iron — and the privilege of being the only grandchild is that when my grandfather passed four years ago, and the family descended on that same west Tennessee house, I knew that somewhere I would find that cornbread pan. Cast iron lasts forever. And I knew that I would bring it home.

I found it in the oven. Of course I did. My grandfather was never quite the cook that his wife had been, and she had died years earlier, but he had persisted with the cornbread, and he knew how to take care of the pan. No soap, no water, just a wipe with a paper towel, a layer of oil, put it back in the hot oven and wait. And my grandfather was dedicated to the process. You could tell. That pan didn’t have a speck of rust anywhere in sight. But. If I’m honest. It wasn’t exactly appetizing, either. Over time. Over how many hundreds of wedges of cornbread baked over how many decades. Over time, each of those little slivers in the iron had built up quite a bit of crust and burn. It wasn’t hard to see, once you took the pan out of the oven — layers of oil and grime and cornbread, fused together over the decades, welded into the metal. I mean, it’s one thing to eat cornbread out of the same pan that your ancestors used, but it’s quite another to eat cornbread coated with the burned residue of the same cornbread your ancestors ate. Still, you could use it. He clearly was using it. And besides, I was attached. And it fit in my carry-on. So I brought it home, and I put in on the shelf. I can’t turn down a perfectly good pan.


But let’s leave the cast iron aside for a moment and instead talk about this perfectly good well. In the first part of our reading from John’s Gospel this morning, Jesus and his disciples cross the ancient border from Galilee into Samaria, and they encounter this Samaritan woman hanging out at the town well, drawing water, and by all accounts it’s a perfectly good well. The woman comes to the well and draws out her water, like she does every day, it works perfectly fine, it’s a perfectly good well, and then Jesus comes up and stirs up trouble. I mean, he’s already trouble, just being there — Jews and Samaritans haven’t seen eye to eye for generations. Just his presence in the neighborhood is trouble. But then he asks her for a drink, which is a violation of all the unspoken protocols, and she knows it: “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” But Jesus likes to get into a hole and keep digging, so here we go: “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” In other words, if you know who I was, lady, you would have realized the problem. You may have a perfectly good well. You may be sentimentally attached. But I’ve got the upgrade.

The woman, of course, is unfazed. It’s not just a perfectly good well. It’s the well of her people! “Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” And of course Jacob doesn’t just belong to the Samaritans; he belongs to the Jews, too; she’s playing on Jesus’s sentimental attachments as well as her own, like someday years from now when I thrust that cornbread pan into the hands of my grandchildren and say “you know, this belonged to your great-great-grandmother” while they stare blankly at me. This well isn’t just about water, she says, it’s about people, Jesus, people you claim as your own ancestors. This well is an institution. This well has a history, and it’s your history, too, Jesus; this well has a story, and it’s your story, too. This is a perfectly good well. And it comes from perfectly good people. And I picture her saying all of this holding a bucket of this perfectly good water in her hands, and in this moment it’s hard to argue with the evidence. As local watering-holes go. If it was good enough for Jacob. It’s everything you could want in a well.

Honestly, it sounds like everything you could want in a church, too. You know the kind, the kind of church where you find your people, the kind of people who like the same kind of water you do, they like the taste of it, they like the smell of it, they like the temperature of it just right, you know, Jacob’s people. When I first became aware of the pastoral search here at UPC, one of the things I will confess to having done is that I went on Facebook and looked up the church and saw there in the corner where it identified all of our mutual friends. All of the folks who liked this church on Facebook who were also in my circle — a few colleagues who had come through the seminary, a few friends in the denomination who had come through these doors sometime over the years. And you’re only allowed to judge me on this one if you didn’t do exactly the same thing to me. And much to my relief and joy I found that our mutual friends were people that I quite liked. And I thought. Well. How bad can this church be? We both know Jacob! It’s the sort of place where I could get sentimentally attached. And of course this is the game that we play over and over again; we want to know if I’m your sort of people and if you’re my sort of people and if we have the same stories and if we have the same histories and we both want to know that the water tastes good and that the water smells good and that the water feels perfectly good when it runs through your outstretched fingers. Everybody here this morning wants this to be perfectly good.

Except Jesus.

Jesus wants it to be alive.

“Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty.” Jesus isn’t interested in the old ties that should bind him and this woman together at Jacob’s well, and he’s not interested in the customs that should obligate him one way or the other.  For Jesus, it’s not enough for this well to be Jacob’s well, it’s not enough for this well to be a Samaritan and Jewish well, no matter how sentimentally attached they get, it’s not enough for this well to be perfectly good at all. It needs to be alive. Because Jesus is far less interested in the old stories than he is in the new ones. Because his journey is ongoing. Because his task is at hand. Because Jesus is on the road and the work of the Gospel is urgent and Jesus needs disciples who are alive and the water needs to nourish those who would follow him with courage into the time that comes. Because Jesus knows you can make friends at a perfectly good well. Perfectly good friends. You can swap stories. You can get sentimentally attached. But to make disciples, living disciples, you need living water.

This is the problem with my perfectly-good cast iron pan. The pan of my people. The pan of my ancestors. The pan crusted over with bits of the cornbread that all my ancestors ate for dinner. It was good for so many things. It was a great conversation piece. It was a great piece of sentimental attachment. It was a great family heirloom. But it was not any longer particularly great at making cornbread. It just tasted like burn all the time. And so we had to do the thing that you’re never supposed to do with cast iron. We had to break the one rule that you’re never supposed to break. We had to wash it. We had to soak it in the water. More than that really, we had to put it through a fairly rigorous surgical procedure. We had to chisel off years of grime and layers of burn. It wasn’t really something you could even do with a washcloth — mostly I used a flathead screwdriver to work down and around all of those wedges cut into the iron. We had to cut away the layers of history fused to the wall of the pan, we had to reduce it to the bare metal, and I hated every second of it. I felt like I was destroying the legacy of my family that I had so unfairly inherited. But the thing is. At some point. We just wanted to make cornbread. We wanted to make my grandmother’s recipe. And so we needed a pan. Cast iron. And alive.

This is the Gospel, friends. Jesus calls us to be alive. Alive with conviction. Alive with spirit. Alive with purpose. Alive and ready to follow him into the fierce urgency of the time at hand. And surely the time is urgent indeed. The world is a broken and demoralizing place, as ever it has been. The powers of injustice and pride and capricious violence have been with us for so long it it as if they have been fused to the very metallic core of the earth itself. And the human heart is a broken and demoralizing place, as ever it has been, and the powers of arrogance and hatred and sinfulness have been with us for so long it is as if they have been fused to the very core of who we are, layer upon layer, year after year. But they are not who we are underneath. Underneath, we are children of God, born of the covenant of grace that goes from everlasting to everlasting. Underneath, we are cast iron, bare metal, passed on by the faithfulness of God each generation to the next. And we are built for a purpose, which is to love God, and to serve God, and to love one another, and to follow this Jesus Christ risen from the grave into whatever may come.

I am so glad to be here. I am so glad and so honored to be part of the story of University Presbyterian Church. I like the water here. I like the taste of it. I like the smell of it. I like the way it feels when it runs through my fingers, and I hope you will like it too. I think we can be perfectly good together. I think I will be a perfectly good pastor. I think you will be a perfectly good congregation. I can’t wait to hear more of your stories and share more of mine. I can’t wait to meet all of your people and share more of mine. I can’t wait to figure out where all the doors are that go with all the keys I’m carrying in my pocket. I can’t wait to come to this well every week and meet you here every week and drink from this water with you every week together and I think we will be a perfectly good well together. But we will only ever be alive together through the living water that is the power of Jesus Christ risen from the grave. We will only ever be alive together through the living water that will send us through all those unknown doors into stories and people and places we have not yet even imagined. We will only ever be alive together as disciples of the one who has loved us from everlasting to everlasting and who calls us from everlasting to everlasting. And so I can’t wait to love him with you. And to serve him with you. And to follow him with you into all the stories that come next.