Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. 2He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 3In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’
4For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, 5yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’”
6And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? 8I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (NRSV)
In his book The Kingdom Within, John Sanford tells the story of spending his childhood summers at an early 1800’s farmhouse in rural New Hampshire. The ancient house had no modern amenities and was served by a single shallow well just outside the kitchen door. Sanford remembers that well water as particularly pure, cold, and refreshing. As a boy, he was most impressed by the well’s constancy.
“Even in the severest summer drought,” he writes, “when others would be forced to resort to the lake for their drinking water, our old well faithfully yielded up its cool, clear water.”1
Eventually, the Sanfords modernized. They got electricity. They dug a deep well, and capped off the old one, figuring that they’d use it when necessary. Years later John decided to open the well and taste its familiar water, again. When he pried off the cap and peered into the hole, he expected to see his reflection on still water. To his surprise and deep disappointment, he had uncovered nothing but a dry pit. After asking around, he discovered what had happened. The old shallow well was fed by hundreds of tiny, underground rivulets where water flowed constantly. As long as water was removed from the well, more water flowed in, keeping the passageways open. But when water wasn’t removed, the passageways clogged up.
The old well had run dry because of disuse.
“The soul of a [person],” says Sanford, “is like [that] well.”2
The same is true of our spirituality. Without constantly drawing up Living Water, we run dry. There are lots of reasons we stop dipping into the well called the Holy Spirit: Busyness. Impatience. Frustration or disillusionment with God or with the Church. Influences that convince us that the life of faith robs us of freedom instead of opening us to a deeper and wider world. And to be fair, the Church often portrays faith as a restrictive set of doctrinal and moral limits to which one must submit in order to “get to heaven,” the only place where true meaning exists. And what a harsh, dry, uninviting place we create when we live that way.
Prayer is more than pious confession and desperate petition. It’s a way of life, and when we lay aside that aspect of our holy humanity, we not only dry out, we get used to dried out as a way of life.
In Jesus’ parable in Luke 18, we meet a judge who has given up on life. His lack of concern for everyone but himself has left him with a dried-out sense of justice. We also meet a woman who, without an adult male to advocate for her, must camp out on the judge’s door pleading incessantly until he finally acts on her behalf just to get rid of her. She knows that if she stops, she’ll be like the judge. The tiny streams of hope that fill the well of her faith in justice, and in her own sense of self-worth will clog up, and she will die.
Hear the good news: God is in no way like that judge. God craves our attention. And like any mutual relationship, our relationship with God requires intentional mindfulness and constant communication.
So we pray as a way of life. We watch and listen. We taste and feel, speak and sing, cry and laugh, work and play. And woven throughout such prayerful living, God reveals to us God’s presence, encouragement, challenge, and purpose. God answers not with single strands of Yes/No, Do this/Do that, but by walking with us and creating meaning through all the struggle, heartache, and joy. The fruits of a life of prayer are not simply deeper understanding, but a transformed life in, with, and for the creation around us.
Years ago I read a book entitled Faithful Travelers. It’s the true story of a six-week fly-fishing excursion a man takes with his daughter. Having paid attention to other things, the man and his wife had capped off their relationship, and it dried up. On their trip, father and daughter were trying to understand what was happening and what the future might hold. The father had enough faith to trust that in spite of his family’s heartache, somewhere and somehow something new, good, and meaningful would break through.
In the next to last chapter, the engine in the man’s pickup truck dies in the tiny town of Hinton, OK. It’ll take three days to fix. So, deciding to make the best of things, the man and his daughter settle in to enjoy the small town and its friendly people.
On their last day in Hinton, they meet an elderly woman who had survived the agonizing dust bowl days of the depression right there in Hinton. She tells them about the hardships of keeping body and soul together in a land choked almost to death by drought. Then she tells them a remarkable story.
One day the people saw a huge gray cloud moving toward them across the plains. She asks the girl, Do you know what that was?
Rain? says the girl.
No, says the woman. Birds.
A plague-sized swarm of migrating birds descended on Hinton one evening and was gone the next morning, but not before leaving a slurry, white glaze on just about everything.
Shortly after that the rains returned, and a year later folks began to notice an astonishing thing. Everywhere that the birds had been, trees began popping up.
At first the people had considered the birds a scourge, an insult to injury. A year later they recognized them as a ceaselessly-prayed-for blessing.
“We lived on scraps and faith,” the woman said. “We’re so grateful…[And] those trees are our blessing from the Lord.”2
God is always calling us to and engaging us in prayer. Even now, into our own dry wells, or into what may seem like manure piling up on us and fouling our lives–into all of this, Living Water is flowing.
Here’s the thing: A renewed life of prayer often begins not with an overwhelming sense of peace, but with dehydration. To recognize Living Water, we must name and honestly confront our truest and deepest thirst.
I pray that each of us makes room for prayer in all moments of our lives so that we recognize prayer as a meaning-seeking and meaning-making way of life, something we do ceaselessly as we interact with and care for God’s people and God’s earth.
The well that is the Holy Spirit never runs dry. So, come to the well. And may Living Water flow into you. May it restore what is dry and aching in you. And may it flow through you to make of you a fountain of blessing and new life for others.
1John Sanford, The Kingdom Within, J. B. Lippincott Co. 1970, p. 15.
2Ibid., p. 16.
3James Dodson, Faithful Travelers, Random House Publishing, 1999. (Pages not known.)