Some Other Level
Third Sunday of Lent
Romans 5:1-8; John 4:5-42
More and more as I walk around campus I hear students telling their stories of getting drunk. Their narratives of inebriation.
I heard four or five the other day as I was walking to my office. “I got so hammered last night,” a young man said. And another: “when I woke up this morning I didn’t even know who she was.” Or I heard a young woman say this, to another young woman. “Dude,” she said. “I was on some other level.”
I don’t mean to eavesdrop. These stories are just in the air. They’re everywhere. We seem to need to tell them, they seem to be very important to us, and I think it’s because deep down they’re really stories about our thirsting for God. There’s something missing in our lives and we know it. Deep down we really do want to be on some other level.
Natural Law theory is at the heart of our Catholic tradition and what Natural Law theory says is that human beings are naturally good and so human beings are naturally drawn to what is good, the way plants are drawn to light. In a way what Natural Law theory says is that the key to living a good life is to do what we really want to do, to follow our bliss.
The problem is that often we’re confused about what will make us happy. Our desire is mistaken. We think that drinking will make us happy, and there’s some truth in that. It’s good to relax. It’s good to be with friends. But of course when we lose control and go too far all we really get is a hangover. Like the woman at the well, our real thirst isn’t quenched.
The woman in the gospel today is a Samaritan, and she has had five husbands, and she is living now with a man who isn’t her husband, and I think her going to the well every day in her weariness and despair is an image of how futile her life is, and empty, and sad. And I’m no different, not from her or from the students I overhear.
I thirst for fame: for attention, for praise, for reputation. But fame doesn’t satisfy. I thirst for order: for my life to be neat and clean and perfectly arranged. But order doesn’t satisfy. I thirst for certainty: never to be troubled, never to be confused, never to have to wrestle with things in my mind. But certainty doesn’t satisfy, not really, and it’s not possible anyway.
None of this water is clean and pure. None of this water is the living water.
So the first thing, I think, is to stop and be scientific about our lives. To stop and be empirical about all these experiments we’ve been running. Let’s ask ourselves, honestly, what’s really happening here? And then let’s think about what is working, what really does give us happiness. Because the fundamental assumption of Christian faith is that we’re supposed to be happy and that we should follow our happiness and that happiness, true happiness, is itself a sign from God, is evidence of the presence of God.
For me that’s the only question: does God exist, and how do we know that God exists? And the answer, as Paul says to the Romans, is that God is in us. “The love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit,” he says. So it follows: when we feel love, that’s the Spirit.
And I think that’s what’s going on with the Samaritan woman today, in this long, wonderful dialogue. I think she knows somehow from the beginning that this man is special, is unique. She intuits this, even though she doesn’t understand until the end, but she feels it, as we often do when we’re talking to certain people or doing certain things, and she follows that feeling, as we should, she keeps talking, she keeps going deeper and deeper, and the feeling builds and builds, and finally the woman gets it, she is changed, she becomes joyous and confident and clear, as we can be.
It’s a paradox, isn’t it, because really what Jesus is giving her is inside her. She’s had it all along. Everyone who drinks the water from the well, Jesus says, will be thirsty again, but “whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst; the water I shall give will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” That spring is in us. It wells up in us. It responds to whatever is really good in the world and in people, it begins to flow in us whenever we come into contact with beauty, with excellence.
So what should we do?
Whatever makes the water flow. Whatever really works.
And that means reading the scriptures, of course, always the scriptures, and going to mass and entering into the Eucharist--we feel it here, we know it here--and participating in all the sacraments, in the whole sacramental life of the church, from baptism to confirmation to reconciliation. And it also means paying attention to our own lives, to what happens to us day to day. Because that’s finally what the sacraments are for: to make us more aware of what is always already true.
Another drinking story.
The elderly father of a friend of mine has moved in with her, and at first he was driving her crazy.
My friend is a busy, driven, accomplished woman, she has a lot to do, but her father, though he’s in good health, takes a long time to get in up in the morning. To put on his slippers. To walk down the hall. He’s 86 years old. He’s careful. He’s deliberate.
And then—this really bothered my friend at first—and then he slowly starts to make his tea. He fills the kettle with water. He puts the kettle on the stove. He puts the tea bag in the cup. He gets the milk from the refrigerator. All of this slowly. Carefully.
And then he stands there and he waits for the water to boil, looking out the window. He notices the birds. He looks up at the clouds.
Half an hour to make a cup of tea! I don’t have time for this, my friend said.
But then she realized. She does. This is good. This is what she’s been thirsting for all along and didn’t know it: not the tea but the silence. The awareness. What her father is teaching her is a careful attention to the things around us, and a pleasure in them, a joy, and what could be more important? What could more important than chatting over tea on a rainy winter morning?
Suddenly, my friend understood, and she felt it herself.
Dude, she was on some other level.