Today has been two years in the making. Months into COVID, our church leadership decided to hold a service in this stadium as a chance for people to gather outside. A year ago we held that service here, and I can still feel the joy deep down in my bones of people gathered as a community of faith in such a beautiful place. When our leaders decided on the service, we figured life would be back to normal, but it sure wasn’t. Still, God blessed us in having the service. It was the first time many of us had been back together in person. Between the water, sun, friendly faces, and loud boats—who can forget those?—we had a wonderful time together.
We liked it so much our leadership decided to do this again, so here we are. Last year’s service ended up being about getting together in the safest way we could to celebrate our faith and our life together. This year the aim is a bit different. We’re here because we want to share the good news of God’s love for the whole world in Jesus Christ, and we’re here because we think that being a part of this community that we call First Presbyterian Church of Grand Haven is a special gift. It’s a blessing that we want to share with everyone. So, I really hope you all feel a sense of welcome. I hope you can sense God’s great love for you—no matter who you are or what burdens you’ve dragged along with you. And I hope that this service is an encouragement to you in your life. It’s my joy to be a pastor to this delightful congregation, and if you’re looking for a place to know more about Jesus with others, I’d encourage you to consider making First Presbyterian your community too.
We all need a sense of place, don’t we? We have a sense of what feeling at home is like. There’s a rootedness to it. There’s comfort. There’s familiarity. My family has moved a fair amount—Grand Rapids, Ann Arbor, New Jersey, coastal Georgia, metro Detroit, and now here. Each time we’ve landed in a new place, it’s taken a while before the spaces and the people begin to feel like home. At some point we find our favorite spots, and we find our people. For us, being deeply invested in a church has always been key to finding a sense of belonging, a sense of place.
Grand Haven and the Tri-Cities very much has a sense of place to it, particularly for those who have lived here for a long time. Some gathered here met their spouses while cruising the Grand Haven beaches fifty years ago. Some know exactly how they want to take advantage of the Coast Guard Festival—where the best parade spots are, how to see the fireworks, how to enjoy the Street Dance. Others know that they just want to get out of town that week. We see familiar faces at Mulligan’s Hollow while skiing or at the sledding hill at Pigeon Creek. Our kids play on teams together, and our lives intersect at birthday parties, football games, or just around town.
Just last week I was enjoying a few minutes in the hot tub at the Christian Reformed Conference Grounds, a few miles south of town. I was surrounded by people who come to this area for vacation, and they were discussing where they wanted to go to dinner in Grand Haven. “I think we’ll go to the Kirby Grill tonight,” one said. Another piped in, “I like that Italian place that’s across the parking lot.” Another then said, “My kids are just happy eating those corndogs, but we’d prefer to eat at Snug Harbor. It’s too bad we can’t just get them some corndogs and enjoy a dinner to ourselves while they sat outside!” These vacationers had a sense of what this place meant to them, but as someone who has lived here for a while, I kept wanting to interject, “But you should try this other place. They have really great food!” After several years here, I have a sense of what it feels like to be at home in this community. I have a sense of place. I know where I want to eat and spend time.
But sometimes we feel out of place, even in a lovely area like this. We’re not always settled and at home. There are times when we feel a little disquieted. There are times when things just aren’t quite right, and we can’t put our finger on why.
Jesus is out of place too when it comes to spaces you’d expect a Jewish rabbi to go. Our Bible story takes place in Samaria. It’s the region in between Judea (where Jerusalem is) and Galilee (where much of Jesus’ ministry takes place. It’s a place Jews generally avoided because of a long, conflicted history with their Samaritan cousins.
The woman in our text is out of place, for sure, even though she is in a town that knows her well, whispering behind her back all sorts of nasty things about who they think she is.
She comes to draw water in the middle of the day. Wells were vital to community life in this time. Typically, women would come early in the morning to draw water for the day. While they were there, it would be a chance to catch up on life. It was also a time to gossip. Where there is water—even at the office water cooler—people will gather and talk. So, it’s noteworthy that this woman comes to draw water at noon. It’s a time when no one else will be around. It’s a time she can be left alone, avoiding the judging glares of her community.
I didn’t take the time to read the whole story, but if we read on, we’d hear this woman’s life has been difficult. She has been married five times, and the man she is presently with has not married her. That kind of life would generate gossip even today, but in her time it put her totally outside of her community.
This encounter between Jesus and this woman is entirely unexpected and out of place. It’s a Jew and a Samaritan. It’s a man and a woman. It’s a rabbi and a person with a bad reputation. It’s in the middle of the day, when people don’t normally go to the well. Yet, it’s in this unexpected and uncomfortable place that these two have a deep conversation and one that leads this woman to new sense of belonging—a new sense of place.
Naturally, sitting near water, they talk about water. “Give me a drink,” Jesus says to her. She’s confused. Men didn’t talk to women in public in their day. Jews didn’t speak to Samaritans. She pushes back. “How is that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” She must be intrigued by the strange nature of the whole the situation. She doesn’t get Jesus at first—which seems to be true with anyone trying to take Jesus seriously. But Jesus wants her to look beyond this moment, so he takes things further.
“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.” We hear “living water” as something spiritual, but in her world living water simply was running water. Unlike water in cisterns and wells, the movement of the water meant that it was cleaner and less loaded with sediment. But, she’s a smart one. “You don’t even have a bucket, man, and weren’t you just asking me to get you water? What are you up to?” she says.
Well, he’s up to something greater than a cup of water from a well. He’s telling her that he’s offering living water that will spring up to eternal life. It’s water that will satisfy any who drink of it through all their seasons of life. It’s water that is a glimpse of the place we all yearn for—a life without brokenness or pain.
She and Jesus have more time together. He eventually reveals to her that he is the Messiah, the One God sent into the world to make all things whole again. Our story began with a woman clearly avoiding her community, but it ends with her rushing into the town and calling out to all who would hear, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!” She had gone from feeling completely out of place to feeling a sense of belonging. Because of her, many found Jesus—the Living Water. There was a place for them.
It’s an offer not just for this one woman. It’s for any who would ask for it. “Not only will the water he is offering quench your thirst so that you’ll never be thirsty again. It will become a spring bubbling up inside you, refreshing you with the new life which is coming into the world with Jesus and which is the life of the whole new world God is making.”
So, let’s be honest. Even those of us who generally feel a sense of belonging in a place do not feel that way all the time. There is always something that is gnawing at us that we have not fully arrived. But Jesus’ offer of living water is an offer for a secure place, a place for us where we can feel at home, safe in God’s love forever.
C. S. Lewis used his imagination to picture what this is like. As he concludes The Chronicles of Narnia, the whole crew is leaving the Narnia they knew and going to a new Narnia that is similar to the old one but where everything now seems a bit different and better. The unicorn who is with them sums up what they see. “I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now. The reason why I loved the old Narnia is that it sometimes looked a little like this. Come further up, come further in!” The unicorn takes off, and they all find that running after the elegant unicorn is no longer hard. “Faster and faster they raced, but no one got hot or tired or out of breath.” They are home.
They had a sense of place in old Narnia. It was a place they cared for, loved, and in which they had many adventures. But as they enter the new one, their sense of place intensifies. They are home. They belong.
We are all searching for our sense of place. Even those of us who feel really at home right here and now do not always feel the wholeness that comes with peace with God. We seek peace in so many places, but our hearts will be restless until they encounter Jesus, the One who offers us living water.
Today is a wonderful day. I hope that you love being here, in this place with these people. These wonderful things—the joy of a baptism, the pleasures of community, beautiful music, a perfect weather day—are all a foretaste of eternity. They are surely wonderful, but they are fleeting. Eternity is not. There is a place for us there also. Eternity is present even now to those willing to ask Jesus to tap into their lives.
Life is a wonderful gift from God, but so is eternal life which we have through Jesus.
Love this life. It’s a gift and it can be so lovely so much of the time. But we are not yet home. Some day, like that unicorn, we’ll experience things in all their fullness. We’ll find ourselves saying, “We have come home at last! This is our real country!”
Friends, there is a place for all of us. Thanks be to God for all the gifts of this life. Thanks be to God that this is only a glimpse of what is to come.
 N. T. Wright, The Bible for Everyone: John, Part One, 42.
 C. S. Lewis, The Last Battle, 171.