I will never forget the first time I saw a waterfall in person. When I was a child I had seen the picture of Looking Glass Falls in my mother’s old photo album. There was something about it—I always wanted to see that picture when she got out her album. Small square black and white photo, my mother and her sister standing primly beside a big stone wall, and the waterfall behind. It looked so powerful, so wild and untamed, especially in contrast to the freshly pressed and perfect little girls in the foreground. In my early twenties I went on a waterfall photography trip in Transylvania County and the first one I had to see was Looking Glass. It was even more powerful, more untamed and wild, even more beautiful than I had imagined it would be. Slick and shiny rocks all around. Fine mist in the air. Everything green and growing in the area seemed to be radiant with life. The smell like rain. And thunder thunder thunder as the falls fell and fell without end. I could feel it as well as hear it. I climbed down to the water level a bit below the falls and was so amazed at the calmness of the water there. Slow moving pools of cool water and slick brown rocks beneath the almost unbelievably clear surface. Since that time, I have experienced many waterfalls, some more powerful, some possibly more beautiful, but Looking Glass Falls has always been “the” waterfall for me.
When Jesus speaks of water gushing up to eternal life, this is the image in my mind.
That is just what Jesus is talking about today in our Gospel lesson. However, the setting here is far from the cool North Carolina Appalachians.
It was hot that day. So very hot. The sun was high in the sky when she went to the well that day. She knew no self respecting woman goes to the well at noon. Why would they? It’s so hot and if you didn’t HAVE to go then you certainly wouldn’t. All the other women of the town went early in the day, or later in the evening when it was cool. And that is precisely why she went at the hottest time. She didn’t want to be with the other women. Well really they didn’t want to be around her. Their sneers and gossip were just more than she could take. She went to the well at the hottest part of the day because she wasn’t a self-respecting woman. She wasn’t respected at all by much of anyone.
When she arrived at the well, she was surprised to see a man sitting there. Quite unusual. By this time of day she normally had the area to herself. For just a moment she thought about leaving and coming back later. But she decided to go ahead and get her water. Maybe, if she was lucky, he will just ignore her…..
Lent is a very odd season. Every year I say this and every year it still is. Lent is full of impositions, contradictions, and uncomfortable places. What to give up? Why to give it up? I’ve heard some very heated arguments in the past few years about whether or not it was “right” to give up something for Lent. Or if it was even “Lutheran” to give up anything. Or if it is more faithful to add something than give up something.
Lent isn’t a short season either; it lasts 40 days. 40 is a symbolic number in scripture and there are plenty of places we can find references to it. There is rain for 40 days and nights for Noah and his family in the floating Zoo. There are 40 long years of wandering around in the wilderness for the children of Israel before they finally make it to the promised land to which God has been leading them. There are 40 days in the desert for Jesus culminating in the Devil vs. Savior Temptation Throwdown. Symbolically, 40 is a number that means ‘as long as it takes’, kind of like when we say “that’ll take all day!” or “this just never ends!” Well, it might actually take all day or whatever it is might never end, but ultimately it is a metaphor for “as much time as is needed”. So in truth we walk our Lenten journey of preparation not merely for 40 weekdays but rather for as long as it takes.
We begin this season with a strange contradiction. Lent is a word that means spring, but the first day of Lent is marked with something very un-springlike. We begin with Ash Wednesday. On that day we use something that is, literally and symbolically, the very opposite of blooming daffodils: ashes. There is a beauty to the Ash Wednesday crosses themselves—looking around and seeing the visible cross with which we were marked at baptism is beautiful and moving. But their gritty, dirty feel is the vivid reminder of sin, death, brokenness, destruction and the ultimate annihilation that the world pronounces over us and it can sometimes overshadow the very grace with which these crosses mark us.
One of my favorite poems by T.S. Eliot, The Hollow Men, ends with these lines:
This is the way the world ends,
This is the way the world ends,
This is the way the world ends.
Not with a bang but a whimper.
This very melancholy poem, written in 1925, is a good example of many writings of this period of time right after WWI. It was an era when humanity witnessed for the first time on a global scale our capability for destruction and death; our ability to be remarkably and profoundly inhuman with one another. It was as if the whole world was marked with ash, and war and evil had the last word. The final pronouncement: life obliterated. Darkness wins.
It is in this sort of dark place that we begin this journey, a poignant reminder of our inescapable humanness, our mortality, our brokenness. This is the way the world ends.
Or is it? …..
Last weekend I was at Isle of Palms in Charleston, SC in the middle of a significant winter storm. I always think of lighthouses when I’m at the beach, especially the Carolina beaches where there are so many around, but this time I thought of them because of the terrible wind, ice and cold. I wonder about what it must have looked like to those coming in to land on the shores of these beaches long ago; to sail around the barrier islands in the middle of the night. In the middle of a storm, with bitter wind churning the sea and tiny bullets of frozen rain pelting down, what must that have been like? In good weather, there would have been stars and the moon to get your bearings, but in bad weather, there would be no light from the heavens to guide you.
As I stood in the warm, dry and quite safe Lutheran Costal Retreat Center looking out into the frigid, lightless night, I thought of what remarkable and profound hope the sight of a lighthouse must have been to sea captains and sailors on nights like this.
In our gospel lesson for today, Jesus is just getting started in what will be a roughly three chapter sermon. It began with the beatitudes from last week’s text: all those “blessed”s. Today, he continues to teach his followers about the kingdom of heaven and how the people of that kingdom act in this world. Jesus uses the symbolic image of light and it must have been one of his favorites because he uses it frequently!
In this section he tells his disciples and us: You are the light of the world! ….
Let you light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your father in heaven. We have those words in our baptismal rite. Just after the central piece of the baptism, the water part, the family or sponsors present a lighted candle to the newly baptized and say those very words. That is a very important part of our baptism and of who we are as citizens of the kingdom of heaven. We’ve all been given light; light that come from Jesus himself.
Makes me think of that children’s song: this little light of mine. Can you remember it? It is simple but it teaches a profound truth. No matter how little we are, we have light. No matter how small, insignificant, helpless or even powerless we may feel, we still have that light…..