A meaningful life,” Stephen Covey wrote, “is not a matter of speed or efficiency. It’s much more a matter of what you do and why you do it.” The season of Lent, I believe, is about slowing down, becoming less efficient, and choosing to live a meaningful life, the kind of life Jesus said he came to offer: “more and better life than [we] ever dreamed of” (John 10:10 The Message).
Nor does a meaningful life have anything to do with having material possessions, which, though not news to anyone, has been confirmed again by a recent study. The study, by a research team led by Baylor University psychologist Jo-Ann Tsang, measured the extent to which the participants’ basic psychological needs – specifically, relatedness, competence, and autonomy – were being met.
The study confirmed earlier research findings that “materialism was negatively associated with well-being.” In other words, greater reliance on material possessions to satisfy basic human needs results in greater likelihood that life is experienced as meaningless. On the other hand, when participants relied less on material possessions, they were more likely to experience greater meaning in their lives. So Jesus was right again. “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:23), and “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20).
The story of Jesus’ meeting with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well (John 4:5-26) is a symbolic way of saying the same thing. In coming to the well, the woman was looking for something tangible: a measure of water. But almost everything in the story suggests she was really thirsty for something more, something intangible that her social and cultural environment denied her: authentic relationship, the opportunity to be known not as a symbol of a condition but as a person. A colleague of mine put it this way:
“Jesus, she later [said], ‘told me everything I have ever done.’ Clearly, he had gotten to know her. I wonder if they also talked about, not simply what she had done, but about the things that had been done to her – the being treated as something less than a person of value and worth – an object, a baby machine. Sometimes the most important question you can ask a person is, ‘Who gives you tenderness.’
“The Orthodox have given this woman a name: St. Photina – the bringer of light. She, after all, brought a whole city to meet a man who hears what you’re saying and takes the time to get to know you, who can perhaps help you say what you could not find words to say, what is too deep for mere words.
“It started innocently enough with a request for a drink of water and Jesus helped this woman discover, in the words of Psalm 63, a thirst for God ‘as in a dry and weary land where no water is.’ The beginning of assuaging your thirst is recognizing that you are thirsty.”
If the beginning of assuaging your thirst is recognizing that you’re thirsty, the end is having your thirst satisfied not by someone who clearly has water to offer but by someone who is also thirsty and asks you for help. We satisfy our deep need by satisfying the deep need of someone else and by recognizing that the one whose need we satisfy is the manifestation of God and can satisfy our deep need. “If you knew the gift of God,” Jesus told the woman, “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” (John 4:10).
When veterans leave military service, many of them leave the most cohesive and helpful social network they’ve ever experienced. One veteran noted that in the Army it mattered to someone else whether or not his boots fit properly, whether he had been to the dentist recently, if he wasn’t where he was expected to be at the right time. His greatest thirst in civilian life, he said, was for the same thing: a cohesive community in which members are deeply committed to caring for one another in every aspect of life.
If civilian life could offer more of those same virtues – accountability, cohesion, and a sense of purpose – he suspected we’d hear much less about the “problems” veterans face and much more about the achievements that come from harnessing such vast energy, discipline, and public spirit.
That’s what the church used to offer. Luke tells of a time when “the whole congregation of believers was united as one – one heart, one mind! They didn’t even claim ownership of their own possessions. They shared everything – so that each person’s need was met” (Acts 4:32-33; 2:45 The Message).
Is it within us to experience that degree of grace again? Is it possible that we might offer our version – an even better version – of the kind of community that veteran experienced in the Army? Maybe the greatest obstacle between us and that kind of relationship is that we’re too full of what we have, too full of a spiritual materialism, and too reluctant to expose our vulnerability and acknowledge our deep thirst.
If the example of the woman at Jacob’s well does anything for us, I believe it challenges us to see things differently. If we are to be healed, if we are to receive the abundant life Jesus offers, we cannot be satisfied by merely giving from our material abundance to those in need. That’s important, even essential. But we’ve got to go further, deeper, by entering into authentic relationship with them.
We’ve got to become vulnerable enough to know how deeply thirsty we are. We’ve got to recognize what an extraordinary gift of life can be offered by those who appear to have the least to give: the poor, the stranger, the outcast, the sinner. We’ve got to know them well enough to know who gives them tenderness. And we’ve got to know them not as symbols of need but as gifted and gift-giving persons who have something essential to offer us.
If we but knew what God has to give, and who it is who offers that gift, we would beg those who are thirsty to give us what they have.