John 4: Mattering

What is it that we need, really?

I was at a (secular) conference this week, and one of the speakers, a distinguished 93-year old “aging rebel,” talked about what older people need, using a term born from research that began with juvenile delinquents: Mattering. 

We need to feel like we matter. Whether we are a child or whether we are an old person, if we think that what we do and who we are matters to someone, we will thrive; if we don’t think that, we’ll wither. 

Mattering is a combination of love and purpose. If I am known and loved by someone I love in return, and if I have a purpose that matters to that loved one, I matter.

This was all very familiar to me. I had a dream a few years ago of pulling together a conference I was going to call “Disrupt Despair”. It was going to focus on the fact that the people who study our society’s major pathologies – addiction, violence, mass shootings, gang membership, criminality, suicide, extremism – all seemed to point to a lack of healthy connection and purpose – a lack of mattering, as a root cause of their particular pathology. My thought was, if we could identify who might be likely to think they didn’t matter – through Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) scores or online activity or whatever else is knowable – caring people could intervene in ways that communicated to those at risk of despair, “you matter.”

That was 2019-2020, and I just couldn’t pull it together before the pandemic hit, but I did have the opportunity to talk to enough experts and do enough digging to see that, at least to some degree, the hypothesis was correct. Mattering matters. A lot.

John 4 has a lot of layers, and, yes, there are some frustrating things I could poke at. But the main part of the chapter, the story of the Samaritan woman at the well, made me think of mattering, so I’ll focus on that tonight.

For all that is going on here, the themes that stick out are about water and food, maybe the two things people would put first on their list of things we all need to live, things at the base of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Jesus asks the Samaritan woman, alone at the well in the heat of the day, to give him some water, and then in their ensuing discussion reveals that He gives “living water,” which satiates every thirst. Then the disciples ask him if he’s hungry, and he says he has his own food, because “My food is to do the will of the one who sent me.”

Jesus’s food is the work that He does. His purpose.

What about the living water?

Let me suggest that what God offers through the story of Jesus, above all, is the message that we matter. All the theological debates about the mysteries of faith are important, I’m sure, but at its essence, the idea that a monotheistic God would create everything and then choose to become one of us to be with us is nothing if not a message of mattering. 

People are awesome. (Some more than others.) People are limited. (Some more than others.) We can and do matter to each other, and we are better and worse at communicating that effectively.

But the living water that Jesus offers at the well? I’ll suggest that it’s nothing more and nothing less than that, at the very deepest level of existence, to the one unshakable Lover, we matter.

By the way, the Samaritan woman at the well? Many commentators point out that she was probably there in the heat of the day to get water because she was an outcast (maybe because of her history). She was often used, but not loved. She wasn’t acceptable to polite company. She didn’t matter.

And if the Disrupt Despair idea had any truth to it, or the mattering research has any validity, that ultimate backstop of mattering to God is indeed living water that can carry us through the heat of any day and give us the reservoir to pursue the food Jesus talks about. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that the outcast woman ends up as John’s most effective evangelist. From being fully known and loved, she did the will of the one who knew and loved her, and did it really well.

So what do we need? We need to matter. And the heart of the Gospel is that we unshakably do.

PS – If you haven’t already gone there because you’re not a Sara Bareilles or Broadway fan, look up her song “You Matter To Me” from the soundtrack of her musical “Waitress.”

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