March 27, 2011

“Living Water”

Exodus 17:1-7; John 4:5-42



Another preacher recently told the story of visiting the World of Coke in Atlanta. At the conclusion of a journey through the history of Coca-Cola (created by a pharmacist trying to help Civil War vets cope with chronic physical pain), He watched a wide-screen video that showed people in every culture drinking the life-giving elixir. Singers chanted, “Life. . .life. . .life,” then the doors opened and he was ushered to a huge magical font. He placed a cup on its edge and water shot up from the center of the fountain, landing on a sensor above his glass so that the life-giving drink poured freely. “I could drink as much as I wanted.”[1]


Real life, as in, not Hollywood, nor dreams, is not usually this way.  In the reading this morning from the Hebrew Bible, we hear that


The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the LORD?” But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?”[2]

In the bible, there is literal thirst, as in Jesus’ desire for refreshment on the cross.[3]  There is also, more commonly, a figurative use of the term.  Thirst is also a “passionate longing for a spiritual good” particularly, salvation. Look, this same word, dipsos, can mean longing.  Thus, the idea of giving a drink to the thirsty is an act that is pleasing to God, and is common in the ancient near east.[4] 

Thirst, in the physical sense, is not something that is a common experience in our town.  For the most part we have safe water and all you need to do is go to the faucet and turn the handle and nice, cool, clean water flows.  And with its availability we are drawn to other sources to slake our thirst, preferring beverages that come in fancy containers with brightly colored labels.  Even water, so available to us, is not enough unless it comes in bottles of green and blue glass, supposedly captured on a French mountaintop or an island in Micronesia.

The issue with the Israelites is not a keen palate, but a lack of one of the most basic requirements of life.  God’s people have endured a great test, been granted their freedom, and now complain about the accommodations on the journey.

Centuries later, we read of another One on a journey, who is thirsty.  Jesus has traveled into a Samaritan town and sits quietly at the well in the heat of the day.  Because he apparently has no means to draw water for himself he waits.


And it may be a long wait.  See, he is a Jew.  This is a Samaritan town.  Back five hundred years the Jews blamed the fall of Jerusalem on their cousins the Samaritans.  Somebody had to be blamed…despite the prophet’s voice that pointed a craggy finger at the Jews themselves and the Assyrians as God’s instrument…the Samaritans are blamed for this tragedy.  This was a town full of half-breeds and pagans, as far as the purists were concerned and the animosity was palatable.  No one was likely to come out and assist this very Jewish Rabbi.  Yet he waits.

Finally, a woman comes.  She is, first of all, a Samaritan.  She is someone you don’t associate with, not only because of her ethnicity but also because she is a woman of unknown status, and more over, we learn she is a ‘fallen woman,’ a woman who has had more husbands than Elizabeth Taylor, and who (while not married) is living with a man now.

No wonder she comes now, when the cool of the morning is long past.  Now she can evade the icy stares of the other women with their judgment.  She comes in the heat of the day to get water, a necessity of life.  The reality of her life has nothing to do with promiscuity or anything other than the fact that she is a woman who finds herself as an outsider among outsiders…if you are someone like Jesus.

If you are not shocked that Jesus even speaks to her, you should be.  She is not the kind of person any self-respecting rabbi would speak to. Holy men did not even speak to their own wives in public. One group of pious men was known as “the bruised and bleeding Pharisees” because they closed their eyes when they saw a woman coming down the street, even if it meant walking into a wall and breaking their noses.  You should be surprised that Jesus even speaks to her.

You are not surprised?  Why no surprise?  Could it be that you have become so familiar with this teacher Jesus that this is just the sort of crazy behavior you expect from him?  This is really wild!  It is even wilder than the thought that after enduring all those years in slavery the Israelites would complain to their leader who somehow, by the grace of God, managed to secure their freedom!

Maybe you’ll be surprised at how long he talks to her.  Do you realize, that in John’s Gospel Jesus talks to the woman at the well longer than he speaks to the entirety of the crowds who come to see him?  More verses of conversation occur here than in all of his speaking to the disciples!  This stranger, this outsider, this woman gets more of a private audience with Jesus than with any other folk in the whole gospel.  Jesus reaches out to her and offers her one of the basic necessities of life.

The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, 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.”

The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you. “Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”

“I know that Messiah is coming,” she says, and he says, “I am he.” [5]

This is the first time he has told this to anyone.  If anything, we should be surprised at the intimacy, the connection here.  On the other hand, we should expect it.  We should expect it, I suppose because that is why anyone comes to be part of a Christian community anywhere.  We come to be part of something, not to remain anonymous, but to join with others who know us, accept us, and in this way share something of this reality of Christ in our midst.

By getting to know one another, caring for one another, worshiping God together, there is a certain intimacy present in the body of Christ that is not available elsewhere…the good and bad of it, the all of it, the hope in it. The Messiah we greet here in one another is the One who shows you who you are by showing you who He is—if we are willing, like Him, to cross all boundaries, break all nice little social rules, drop all disguises—and speak to others, welcoming them like someone we have known all our life. 

Today, more than ever, this is a real human necessity, bubbling up in our life together like a well that needs no dipper, so that we may go back to face a world we thought we could never face again, speaking as boldly as He spoke to her. “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done.”  We are but one generation away from the extinction of the church.   In terms of practice, participation, stewardship, we are on thin ice.   If you cannot get excited about evangelism because of what Jesus has done for you, can you not share the good news out of some sense of survival?  Can’t we have some of the softening of boundaries that goes on here at the well?

Today, in a world that is biblically illiterate but loves to point fingers at various bible texts to justify their own perspective, it is essential that we bring our children into this community where we take scripture seriously, but not always literally.  We need to do something about Christian Education here…just look at how low participation is.  If we hope that they will drink deeply of this water, we need to offer it to them.

Today, in a world that wants to make judgments about whoever is “other,” it is essential that we bring others to our community that can and should reflect the radical community shown there at the well; in the middle of the day barriers were broken down and reconciliation ruled. 

Today, in a world that doesn’t really know anything about practicing faith, we need to provide a place where we can not only hear about the Good News, but learn basic Christian practices.  Spiritual formation is essentially what Jesus is offering to this woman.  Can we do the same?

At its most basic level, this is a paradigmatic story of a woman coming to faith and becoming a missionary who brings others to Jesus. This leaves to the church a mandate to recognize the gifts some who we might usually consider ‘outsiders’. Coming to faith today should be marked by the living water of baptism and rising up to bring others to Christ. It is also a narrative about God wooing the outsider or, as Paul will say, “the godless.” The Samaritans, who were considered godless, end up confessing Jesus as the savior of “the world,” not simply of his own people.[6]   

When will we think about sharing the good news, what it means to truly be a community of faith, and how we can widen the boundaries of this same community?  “The Samaritan woman at the well is an example for us, not as one who claims “Jesus is for me, too,” but as one whose labor helps bring in the harvest (4:34-38).”[7]



[1] Edwin Searchy, “Blogging Toward Sunday: Thirsty for Life”, February 17, 2008.

[2] Exodus 17:2-3, NRSV

[3] John 19:28

[4] Amos 8:11; Isaiah 41:18; Psalm 42:2

[5] John 4:9-10, 26-29, NRSV

[6] Donahue, John R. America: National Catholic Weekly, “High Noon”  Feb. 25, 2002.

[7] Lewis, Karoline on “” commenting on the gospel for this Sunday.