I have a confession to make. A couple of you know this already, and I think it probably came up in one of my meetings with the Search Committee around this time last year, but it doesn’t come up a lot, so I think it’s time for me to lay it out there. I’ve been here almost a year, this is a safe place, right?

Here goes. I didn’t get my driver’s license until I was 26. That’s right. I did not know how to drive a car until my mid-twenties. I was in a driver’s ed. class in Connecticut with people ten years younger than me. Sure, the instructor thought I was just a tired-looking 19-year-old, but I get that kind of thing a lot.

Now, in say, the 1920s or ‘30s it wasn’t that unusual for someone not to get their license in their teens. Driver’s licenses were new, and cars weren’t everywhere like they are now. But somewhere along the line it became a right of passage for everyone in America to get their license just as soon as they could manage it.

Me, I didn’t really need a driver’s license for a long time. I had plenty of friends in high school who got a car right out of the gate and wanted to drive everywhere. And I was like, “Score, I don’t have to make car payments or understand insurance.” Also… I didn’t really love the idea of hurtling through the world in a heavy metal deathtrap that would kill or irreversibly maim anything it came in contact with. At 16 I didn’t know how to dance or calculate a tip… how was I supposed to trust myself with the lives of literally every other person in the state of Connecticut?

So, through the circumstances of my life and a growing fondness for walking and the principle of the public transport system, I didn’t really find the need to push for a driver’s license for another ten years. Finally, though, I had to succumb to the pressures of American society, and work my way up to the Driver’s Test.

Now me, I didn’t mind the fact that I had to take a driving test. I knew that if I failed the test, it would mean that I wasn’t ready to be trusted with a huge, poorly designed projectile weapon powered by explosion. The way I saw it, a failed test would protect all of you from me. So I took the class and I practiced a lot. At 26 years old I had to pressure my father into coming with me to a deserted parking lot to yell at me if I was about to destroy something.

Now, parking was not my thing. Anyone here who has been driving for decades might not get this, but from a relatively new driver, here’s my main problem with the design of the modern motor vehicle. Why isn’t the driver’s seat in the middle?? Now bear with me, because I know this goes against everything you’ve ever known, but think about it. We are driving a large piece of opaque metal. That means you can’t see through it. If you’re sitting on the left hand-side, you can’t see the front-right corner of the car. Not only that, but because of the way depth perception works, it legitimately looks like the opposite side of the car is way farther out than it actually is. Really, look at it next time you’re in a car. The line on the left side of the lane looks just fine, because it’s right there next to you, and you can pretty much tell at a glance whether you’ve crossed over it or not. But to a new driver, who doesn’t have years of experience tricking their brain into compensating for perspective, the line on the right side of the lane could be anywhere. To this day, I still find myself edging too far to the left because I’m terrified I’m going to hit a Jersey barrier or a jogging organist.

Now, if the driver’s seat was in the center of the car, then you could tell if you were in the middle of the lane easily. No guesswork, no accounting for the bending of light, nothing. Are the lines on the left and right the same distance away from me? Yes? Perfect. I won’t be maiming anyone today.

Needless to say, learning to drive brought out some neuroses in me that were really out of character. So I would drive through that parking lot for hours, trying to get the hang of turning into a parking space. Because you can’t see the lines! There’s a door in the way! And don’t get me started on turning into a space in reverse. I don’t have X-ray vision!

This is the 21st Century, how have we not improved this? Why isn’t the material that makes up our cars see-through in strategic places? I’m looking at you, frame on the left edge of the windshield! And, I’m a student of the video game, so if I had like a top-down camera angle where I could see a bird’s-eye-view of where my car was, this’d be easy! Maybe if the throttle control was a button or a dial I could control with my fingers instead of using my foot on a series of pedals that I also can’t see!

Horse and buggies, man… where did we go so wrong?

Anyway, long story only slightly less long, I did pass my driver’s test—written and practical—and on the first time even!

But I say all of this to say, it makes real good sense for there to be a test. You did not want someone like me out on the road without setting a pretty high bar to reach. Tests like that make sense. I had to earn my driver’s license. Otherwise you’d have some terrified whack-job who doesn’t understand geometry ranting and flailing about on I-95.

It’s basic logic, right? Common sense. It’s how the world works. You do a thing, you get paid for it. You pass an exam, you get an A—maybe get into a good school. You complete a test, you get a license.

This concept is so fundamental to our existence, it’s baked into our thinking. Let me show you what I mean. Countries have citizenship tests… so of course Heaven will have one, right?

You rarely hear it said quite like that, but the sentiment should be familiar. I’m sure many of you have said something like it to your children. If you are a good person, you’ll get into heaven. If you do the right thing, Saint Peter will let you through the pearly gates.

And that’s not the only citizenship test Christians have used. The most common “salvation theology” you’ll see throughout Christian history uses Jesus as the citizenship test. Believe in Christ—have faith, confess your sins, and claim Jesus as your personal savior—and you will earn all the bounties God has to offer.

And it’s not just Jesus, either. Most religions have this kind of belief somewhere along the line as their traditions develop. Believe a certain thing, or do a certain thing, and you’re in the club. Your soul is stamped, an eternal membership card into the inner circle. You do A, and as a result, you get B. Pass the test, and you get your driver’s license.

Our Scripture today from Isaiah says something radically different.

The first line: “Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.”

Isaiah tells us that the bounty of God is for those who thirst, without price. We see it again in Revelation 21:6, “I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give unto him that is athirst of the fountain of the water of life freely.”

Isaiah doesn’t put a paywall between us and the love of God. He doesn’t put a bar for us to jump over or a test for us to pass. The love of God is there for those who need it. “Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat!” God’s love doesn’t require a transaction from us. In Advent, as we remember and anticipate the coming of Christ, we also remember that Jesus made the only transaction that ever mattered. But that’s an Easter sermon.

In our gospel Scripture for today, we join Jesus on a hike, stopped at a well in Samaria. He’s in mid-conversation with a Samaritan woman, telling her that this well water is all well and good, but she actually has access to living water. Water that quenches all thirst, so that everyone who drinks of it will never be thirsty again. And we see throughout Jesus’ ministry, he shows how freely this living water flows. It heals, it rejuvenates spirits, it changes lives.

Now, if we, here, in 21st Century America encountered a homeless man on the street who offered us endless water that would cure all our thirst… and it was free? We’d think he was crazy. You don’t drink anything a stranger offers you. Especially if he says it will solve all your problems, and especially if he says it’s free.

But that’s what Jesus came to show us… to remind us that God’s love is free. I don’t know anything about Heaven—I’m not going to pretend I know anything about the mechanisms that operate the pearly gates. I barely know anything about the mechanisms that operate cars. But I do know, everything else aside, that God’s love is free. God loves each and every one of us, and we don’t have to do anything to earn that. And let’s be real, we can’t do anything to earn it. The love of the Creator, the One who existed before time and fashioned the universe and watches over cosmic infinity with power that exists beyond the very concept of quantity… we could never be good enough to earn that God’s love.

But again and again we see that that God loves us anyway. “Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters… To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.” We experience it in our lives, if our hearts are open to it. All the times we fall short, all the times we make mistakes, the love of God is still right there with us. And that’s worth rejoicing.

Just like in Advent, the people in Isaiah’s time were waiting for God’s love to come among them, when it was there all along. And so, this December, as we wait for God’s presence to fall down upon us like a rain of living water in all new ways, we remember that that living water is here, now, among us, ready for us to drink.

Now, I’m not trying to paint some radical picture here. Church folk are traditionally suspicious of people who come at them with the whole hippy-dippy New Age "love is love, there is no evil, everything's permitted 'cause it's aaaall good man."

‘Cause that's what we think when we hear someone say God's love is unconditional, or that you don't have to do a single thing to earn it, or that God loves you no matter who you are or what you do.

Capitalism's in the DNA of our culture, and somewhere along the line our daddy told us "There’s no such thing as a free lunch." We don't trust free stuff. There's always a catch. If somebody today gave me my own mansion, the keys to a luxury sportscar, and a bag full of a million dollars... well first I'd do what the Samaritan woman did: "You're kidding me, right? This is one of those hidden camera shows or something isn't it? Who are you supposed to be?" And after that? When they said no, they're serious, my next question would probably be "Did you steal that bag of money? Like, did you rob a bank and the cops are on your tail and if they see me holding the money they'll come after me and you'll run away scot-free?" "Or is this some fine-print scam and I'm gonna get taxed into oblivion and end up worse-off than I started?"

We don't trust the free lunch, and we don't trust the people selling it. If the DMV had given me a driver's license just for standing in line, I don't think I would have felt comfortable getting behind the wheel.

So no, I'm not saying, “God loves us no matter what so we can go do whatever we want because nothing matters and everything is permitted.” And I’m not saying, “God loves us, done, now lets go do drugs and litter and burn women, kids, houses and villages because we're gettin' into heaven anyway.”

I'm not saying that… because God's love isn't a test, or a licensing process. Heaven isn't a country.

Living water isn't an exchange of goods and services.

Living water is gardening.

I want to take us back to our reading from Isaiah. “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”

Living water isn’t a transaction where we do A and we get B. It’s the opposite. We get B, and it changes us, it helps us grow, and it empowers us to do A and so much more. It’s like the old Protestant argument of faith and works… good works aren’t what we do to gain salvation, good works are the natural response to the salvation we have. It’s counter-intuitive in our economic, test-oriented worldview… but Jesus teaches us that everything about the kindom of God is counter-intuitive.

Our readings from Isaiah and John use the image of living water. Whether it is drawn from a well, gathered from a stream, or it rains down from heaven, the living water comes to us and feeds our souls. It makes us fertile soil. God’s love, God’s spirit, God’s light enters into our hearts if we open ourselves to it, and it can transform us like water transforms the most cracked, dry land. We choose what crops grow in our soil. We, each one of us, choose what we do in response to the love that God gives us freely.

And so, I have for you two things to hold as our Advent season continues and the coming of Christ approaches: a message of joy, and a question to ponder.

God loves you.

What are you gonna do about it?