Refreshment and Rest: Reflections on John 4 and 2020

An image has come to my mind often lately, originally from one of those great BBC nature documentary series narrated by David Attenborough. It’s an image of a barren and parched landscape that is suddenly flooded by waters flowing down from the mountains, and within a few days is completely transformed, the water unleashing the green life that had been lying dormant, in potential, in the dry earth.

Without water, there is no life. It’s as simple as that.

The reason why this image has felt so poignant lately is that I’ve been feeling pretty parched myself. Even beyond what’s been happening in the world (so much has changed even in the forty-eight hours since I posted on Friday!), it’s been a trying year, with family and friends going through impossibly difficult times, an insect problem in my apartment, and unprecedented sustained pressures at work. (I work in public health, so COVID-19 has completely upended my work-life since the beginning of January, long before the social distancing public health measures began to upend the rest of my life this weekend!) Because of all this, I’ve been exhausted in body, mind, and spirit, and so I resonate quite a bit with that image of parched earth waiting for the waters of life to refresh me.

As it happens, this image is one of many at play in today’s Gospel reading, from John 4. A Samaritan woman, ostracized in her community, we later learn, because of a rough history with men, meets Jesus at her town well. It’s the hottest part of the day under the full ire of the Mediterranean sun. I can only imagine how tired she must have been in that moment, and how her heart must have sunk to see this man, who had every social, religious, and political reason to despise her, waiting at the well.

But the story doesn’t go as she feared, and instead of reviling her, Jesus offers her “living water,” a water that never runs dry and refreshes into the deepest places of her heart.

Three chapters later, Jesus picks up on the theme of living water, calling out: “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink” (7.37f). The expression there reminds me of Jesus’ turn of phrase in the Gospel according to Matthew, where he says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Mt 11.28).

If there is a “spiritual lesson” in everything that’s happening right now I think this is it. Lent is a time when we’re supposed to slow down, make do with less, and return our focus to what matters. This time of social distancing, however long it lasts, is certainly going to be challenging (especially for those with children!), but it’s also an opportunity, if we take it, to Lenten our lives. It’s an offering of rest to a culture of FOMO, and and offering of a beautiful less in a culture of more — of efficiency, life-hacking, and maximizing time and effort. It’s what so many of us need, whether we allow ourselves to slow down long enough to realize it.

That doesn’t mean it’s easy or welcome. After spending most of the past couple years feeling a bit stalled, I had hoped this year was going to be one of bold new adventures for me, a year of new friends and community, of travel to far-away places and the beginning of the next exciting chapter of my life. But that isn’t the year I’ve been given. I am far from unique in that. So many weddings, funerals, birthdays, and vacations have had to be indefinitely put on hold in this season, and so many more are now up in the air as wait to see how things progress. In addition to the legitimate concern and anxiety surrounding a global public health emergency, it also, on a personal level for all of us, incredibly disappointing. This is certainly not the 2020 any of us had hoped for. But I think there’s the chance for it to be the 2020 we need. We can pull against the reins and chomp impatiently at the bit, or we can let go and simply surrender to the not knowing, give in to less, give in to rest, turn to the living waters and drink and be refreshed.

And so, brothers and sisters, in these extraordinary days, look for the streams of water and drink deeply. Be refreshed. Set down the heavy burdens and relax. Be rested.

Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; …
Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live.
(Isa 55.1, 3)

The Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,
    and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (Rev. 7.17)

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