Gracious God, may your word to us this day be like living water to nourish and refresh our thirsty souls. Together, in this time of worship and reflection, may we open our hearts to your Spirit’s wisdom and be renewed. Amen.
Today, we continue our Lenten sermon series, Close Encounters of a Personal Kind, with the story of this exchange between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well. Jesus and his disciples had been traveling through Samaria and stopped for a lunch break. Jesus was tired and thirsty, so he sits down near the well while his disciples go off to get food.
Jesus didn’t have a bucket, so when this woman comes to the well, he asks her for a drink.
Now, for us, the setup to this scene might not make us raise an eyebrow. But for John’s first audience, there are a couple of important details that would have caused them to listen up and pay attention.
For one, as the story quickly makes clear, Jews and Samaritans “do not share things in common,” to use John’s language. That’s putting it lightly. Though they shared a common ancestry, there was mutual animosity and a long and rough history of division between these two peoples. So, just as Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke’s gospel would have gotten a reaction from his original audience, this story probably did too.
Second, there’s the setting of this encounter at Jacob’s well. There are a lot of stories in the Bible about husbands and wives first meeting each other at wells, including Jacob and his wife Rachel. John’s audience surely knew these stories. So, if they were expecting this story to unfold like all the others they knew, they might have been wondering if Jesus was about to get hitched.
That’s not where this story goes, of course. But the wedding imagery is important. Remember the wedding at Cana, just a little earlier in John’s gospel, where Jesus turned water into wine? And maybe you remember Jesus’ parable in Luke and Matthew of the wedding feast to which all are invited? Weddings are used in the gospels as an image of the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God. And the Kingdom of God is where this story is headed. So, I think John wants to make sure we realize this encounter is happening at Jacob’s well.
And so, at this well, the conversation between Jesus and the woman quickly turns from literal water to metaphorical water, as Jesus speaks about the living water that will quench the thirst of all who drink deeply of it – the living water of God’s transformative and liberating love.
Want to know what the Reign of God is like? It is like living water that replenishes parched souls. It is like an ever-flowing spring that bubbles up in abundance, enough for everyone, bringing new life to all who thirst.
At first, the woman is still operating on a more literal level – Yes, please! Give me this living water so I don’t have to trek to this well every day. I don’t blame her! That’s an exhausting chore. It’s easy for us to take access to clean running water in our homes for granted. But for the ancient world and for many in our world today, that’s not the case. If we, who can satisfy our literal thirst fairly easily, can understand something about what it means to be really thirsty, how much more did John’s original audience. Thirst as a metaphor for deep spiritual longing is used throughout the Bible for that reason. And it works on us on both an intellectual and visceral level. Think about being thirsty for a few minutes and you may find yourself feeling pretty thirsty.
And so, knowing that this woman’s thirst is more than literal, Jesus gets a little more personal to help her understand the message he has to offer.
Now plenty of hoopla has been made throughout history about this woman’s five husbands and her current unmarried relationship. In particular, plenty of commentators have called her a sinner in need of forgiveness. But that isn’t actually in the story. Neither Jesus nor the gospel writer say anything about her sin. She’s as human as the rest of us. So, surely, she’s made her mistakes. But we don’t know her whole life story. Is she younger; is she older? Does she have children? What if she has been married and widowed multiple times? What if some of these men left her for other women? Perhaps she’s someone who has endured one tragedy after another in her life and is in need of compassion? What if this sixth man is someone who ought to marry her by cultural convention, but has refused to? Maybe she’s not the sinner, but the one being sinned against? There are a lot of things we don’t know. And even if she did bear some responsibility for the endings of her relationships, Jesus’ words to her are not words of condemnation. They are words of hope and new life.
And the point of this whole discussion about her husbands may actually simply be that Jesus knows her. He sees her. He’s not judging her. He’s demonstrating that he knows her story.
How does he know my story? She must have wondered. He must be a prophet! This guy’s not just chatting me up at the well, he’s the real deal. He knows the things I long to know. He might have answers to my questions.
She’s beginning to realize that this talk of living water is something bigger. And one of the things she wants to know is how to connect with God, including how and where to worship. We worship here on the land of our ancestors, she says, but your people claim that the temple in Jerusalem is the right place to worship. Which is it?
And Jesus’ answer is that the place doesn’t matter. God can’t be bound to one mountain or another, one temple or another. And the fact that he’s having this conversation with a Samaritan woman means that Jesus believes that the living water of God’s love is for all people. God isn’t bound by the barriers we put up between ourselves and others. This living water can spring up all over the place.
Where we worship, how we worship, with whom we worship… none of those things are as important as the intention of our worship. Worship “in spirit and truth,” says Jesus. That’s what’s important.
After this exchange, the woman goes back to town and tells everyone about it. Could he really be the Messiah? He knew all about my life! You have to meet this guy! As a result, Jesus ends up staying two more days in the village, at their invitation, and picks up more Samaritan followers.
This woman is clearly being lifted up by the gospel writer as a role model for faith. She is open and receptive to Jesus’ message. And she shares her experience, even if she still has some questions. As a Samaritan, as a woman, she may be seen by some, including Jesus’ own disciples, as an outsider, or at least an unexpected evangelist. But she’s the one who gets caught up in the good news, the one who’s been nourished by the living water, and she wants to share it.
And the fact that Jesus meets her at noon is actually a clue too. Throughout the gospel, John uses all this night and day, dark and light imagery. As someone who encounters Jesus in the light of day, she gets caught up in the spirit right away. Remember the Pharisee Nicodemus from last week, who came to Jesus in the middle of the night? He was an insider, one who was supposed to get it. But he struggled. He had his questions (which was fine, and understandable, if you ask me). But nevertheless, there is a contrast being made here between an enthusiastic newbie and a less sure member of the establishment. Though to be fair to Nicodemus, he seems to have stuck around, at least on the periphery, because he ends up helping prepare Jesus’ body for burial at the end of the gospel.
So, what are we to take from this encounter between Jesus and the woman at the well?
For one, this story illustrates the value of openness to others. Both Jesus and the Samaritan woman are open to one another and to seeing where this exchange might lead. They crossed the boundaries dictated by cultural convention and the bad blood between their people and the result was beautiful.
Jesus was willing to reach out and start the conversation. And the woman was willing to respond. That alone is something. That alone demonstrated their willingness to see where this exchange might take them and what new learning and growth might come from it. We can’t predict where such an encounter will take us, but we’ll never know unless we take that first step of simply being open to another person.
For us, perhaps that person is someone who doesn’t have a home; perhaps that person is someone whose cultural identity is different than ours; perhaps that person is someone whose political or social perspectives differ from our own. I think if we are honest with ourselves, there are people around who will help stretch us to be more open.
But this openness also has to be mutual. This openness had to go both ways for Jesus and the woman. It does for us too. And I know that can be hard to find at times.
And then there’s this Living Water. I really love what that image evokes. If the Kingdom of God, the Kin-dom of God, the love of God is like living water, then it is dynamic, moving, and alive. It is the spring that bubbles up from the earth that will bring transformation and liberation. It is the source of life – the nourishment that every body and soul needs.
Water takes on the shape of the vessel it fills, whether that is a glass, a jar, a reservoir, or a river carving its way through a desert valley. If God’s love is like that, how might it fill us? How might it find its way into the places in our lives and in our world that are in need of renewal, the places that are thirsting for love and liberation?
We all thirst, don’t we? Sometimes we all get weary and tired from life’s challenges. There are times in life when we find ourselves thirsting with every fiber of our being. But, even when things are pretty good, even when daily life is chugging along well, we still have our moments of stress, of sadness, of worry, of concern for those we love and for the many needs in our world.
I don’t know if this is true for you, but I know I need to drink gallons of the living water of God’s love when I’m so thirsty I can’t stand. But sometimes when life is fine, busy, moving along in a fairly predictable routine, I need to be reminded to take a sip, to sit down at the well and take a break, to take a few moments to drink deeply.
And that, of course, is why we develop spiritual practices that help us to drink of the living water on a regular basis. It’s why we come to church to worship on Sundays. It’s why we take time within our busy daily lives to pray in whatever ways most help us connect with God.
Today we’re centering our worship around the music of the Taizé community in France. All of the songs we are singing were composed because the brothers of that monastic community wanted to make their prayer life more accessible to visitors. For centuries, monastic communities have centered their lives around prayer, silence, chanting, simplicity, and work that benefits the community. They order their days by observing the canonical hours and worshipping throughout the day. It’s a beautiful way to live in many ways. And though we may not all want to live in monasteries, there is certainly something we all can learn from monastic life.
The brothers of Taizé think so too. So, they host thousands of pilgrims throughout the year and many of their programs are particularly geared toward young people. In fact, for the sixth time, this summer they are inviting young Christians and young Muslims to come together for a week-long “meeting of friendship” to pray together (including experiencing each other’s forms of prayer), to share together in small groups, to attend workshops focused on various aspects of both religious traditions. In worship, they will hear scriptures from both the Qur’an and the Bible and commentary by both and Imam and one of the brothers of Taizé.
That sure sounds like a meeting at the well to me – an invitation to openness to others, an invitation to drink deeply of the living water that is found in both traditions, an invitation to see what new possibilities of love of neighbor, of peace, of a more just future might bubble up from the source.
My hope and invitation for you today is that you find your own ways to drink deeply of the living water. Give yourself permission to prioritize this in your life (whatever that looks like for you). And may you be nourished, may you be renewed, and may it bring you strength, joy, and energy to keep walking in the way of Jesus and offering the living water of God’s love to others.