Every classroom, they say, is a microcosm. Within its walls exist the good and the naughty, the rich and the poor, the motivated and the lazy. Within that limited, confined space, some will exceed and some will subsist. Some will reach out and others will simply vegetate. As a bit of verse states:
I bargained with life for a penny,
only to learn dismayed
That whatever I had asked of life,
life would have gladly paid.
Some, of course, will have more with which to deal. Most of us have average intelligence and comparable abilities. The exceptional person is the Einstein. Some things in life are simply beyond pure choice.
But every teacher can verify that more often than not two students plod similar paths to graduation. One does the bare minimum to pass; the other works hard and gets a good education. One bargained for a penny; the other asked for more.
There is a scene in John’s Gospel which shows the difference in human expectations. Jesus was passing through Samaria when he asked a Samaritan woman for a drink of water. There was racial hostility between the Jews and the Samaritans and the simple request shocked the woman who was more content to live within accepted standards. Socially, you just didn’t do such things.
Today, she would say, “Hey, what is this? Don’t you know what you’re doing? This is the way things have been and always will be. Don’t buck the system. Get in step with the flow.”
She had bargained with life for a penny. Jesus was asking for more.
And what was that? Jesus saw that essentially all human beings are alike. They have the same basic physical and spiritual needs; they are all children of the universe, images of God, and deserve the same respect.
The woman at the well simply expected too little — of herself and of life in general.
Doesn’t that happen to us at times? It’s as if we get stuck in ruts. Marriages fail, children rebel, and our jobs become a bore. It’s easy to conclude, “So what?” Life becomes limited to the act of survival, rather than seeing it for the challenge that it is. As the expression says, the tail ends up wagging the dog.
It’s true that “self-preservation is the first law of nature.” But Jesus knew it was too limited a goal for which to exist. He could turn to the woman and ask for water. But his dialogue thereafter would speak about living water. Just as water satisfied the thirst of the body, so God satisfies the thirst of the soul. What does the psalmist sing? “As the heart longs for flowing streams, so longs my soul for thee, O God” (Psalm 42:1).
The point is, if our horizons remain limited and fixated, what we reap will bear the same limitations. Pursuing a goal, studying hard, sacrificing for a dream, praying exert a cost. But what a sad thing it would be to go through life and be satisfied with the purely physical demands of life or the structures of what ought to be as determined by someone else’s definition. Jesus dared to challenge the Samaritan woman. What is, need not be. A penny isn’t worth too much. “If only you recognized God’s gift and who it is that is asking you for a drink, you would have asked him instead, and he would have given you living water.”
Don’t settle for less.