Bearing Living Water
Have you ever noticed how often water appears in the Bible? It is literally everywhere, from the first book to the last.
In the very first verse of Genesis, water is mentioned during the Creation story.
“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters, and God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” (Gen 1:1)
Even before light, water was there.
And then, in the last Book of the Bible, in the last chapter of Revelation, John describes the New Jerusalem, “…the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb….” (Rev 22:1)
Water is mentioned 722 times in the Bible, more often than faith, hope, prayer, or worship. Our ancestors in faith clearly knew what medical science later proved. Water is essential for life.
Today’s Gospel reading has as its backdrop a specific source of water, Jacob’s well in Samaria. After his conversation with Nicodemus, which we heard about in last week’s reading, Jesus and his disciples left Jerusalem, spent some time in the Judean countryside and are now heading back to Jerusalem by the fastest route. This takes them through Samaria.
In the Bible, the Jews and Samaritans have what you might call a complicated history. Once they were the same people, but war and exile had separated them, and differences in culture, especially worship, kept them apart. So, when Jesus and the disciples arrive in Samaria, and Jesus rests by Jacob’s well, he’s not exactly in hostile territory, but it’s not really friendly, either.
Then, a Samaritan woman arrives to draw water from the well. Which would seem likely, right? After all, it is a well. Except that it is noon, and the usual time to gather water was dawn. In fact, this was often a time when people who didn’t have the time or freedom to gather. Walter Brueggemann writes that enslaved African-Americans in this country used had twenty minutes a day to fetch water for their families. They used this time to connect with each other, and as a respite from the hard labor and dehumanizing reality of their lives. Around the world, both in Jesus’ day and now, women often gather at a well or river, to check in with each other.
For this woman to be at the well, at noon, was unusual.
Jesus makes the situation even more unusual when he engages her in conversation, especially since Jewish men of that time rarely spoke to women in public, not even their own wives. For him, as a Jewish man to talk with a Samaritan woman in public was pushing the bounds of expected behavior. Notice the disciples were surprised when they came back and saw them talking.
It’s so interesting that she doesn’t respond. They actually seem to spar a bit, Samaritan to Jew, over the correct way of worship, about who Jesus is. Her attention, though, is caught when Jesus mentions the living water.
Maybe it was because she was alone that the thought of not having to do this time-consuming chore appealed to her. Plus, going alone every day might just remind her of her isolation.
But then, their already-odd conversation gets even odder.
Jesus tells her to go find her husband and come back, and then refused to let her simple response, that she has no husband, stand. Instead, he shares that he knows. About her five husbands. About her living situation, with a man she is not married to.
I’d like to invite you to join me in a short thought experiment. Imagine that you’re at a market – maybe the QFC just over here. It’s an off hour, so not many people are there. You’re going about your business, doing your shopping, when a man asks you to help him with water. Maybe, if you are tall, he asks you to get it off the top shelf; or, if you are not, like me, he asks for help getting it off the lower shelf. Or maybe he asks you to show him where it is.
While all this is happening, instead of the usual Seattle banter about the weather, you start having this strange conversation about religion. And then, out of nowhere, he mentions something about you, something painful and difficult. Something you don’t like to talk about very much. Something that he would have no way of knowing.
What would you do?
I have to say, if it were me, I would have been out of there. Just dropped my shopping basket and vanished out the nearest exit.
But that’s not what the Samaritan woman does. She simply says, “Sir, I see you are a prophet,” and goes right on with the conversation. She doesn’t try to explain or justify or rebuke him for this extremely personal comment.
I should point out that her marital history didn’t automatically mean something sinful or scandalous. She might have been widowed multiple times, or divorced. Given that marital arrangement of that time were made by men, she likely didn’t have much of a choice.
Her arrival at the well by herself, at noon, though, did indicate she was isolated from her community. Whether that was due to her own grief, a sense that she might be “bad luck,” or some other reason, like disapproval, we just don’t know.
We do know that she gets the conversation going with a somewhat pointed question about the correct way to worship. But then, as Jesus answers her, she realizes something amazing, something life-changing. He is the Messiah, the one who is to come, the one who will explain all things.
She is so overcome, she leaves her water jug behind, and rushes to tell her community of this good news. And, despite her uncertain status, they listen.
As I think about this story, I keep going back to how undaunted and courageous the Samaritan woman was. She could have refused to engage with Jesus at all. Or left when he brought up her marital history. Or hesitated before sharing the Good News with her community. She was already estranged from them. They very well could have disbelieved, ignored, or even mocked her. But it never even seemed to occur to her.
She saw who Jesus was. She believed. And she responded.
Jesus knew her story, and shared the Good News with her anyway. And so she used it, her story, the one that kept her from her community, as a way to pass this same Good News on to them. Which is, exactly, what preachers are supposed to do.
By bringing the Living Water of Jesus to her community, the woman was transformed from isolated, possibly disgraced outcast, to a preacher and proclaimer of the Gospel and one with a sacramental role.
What a remarkable person. And we don’t even know her name.
Yesterday, while I was at the Ballard Commons Re-Opening Event, I thought of her–and not just because I was preaching today. Someone asked me about the Episcopal Church: Who we are. What we stand for. What we believe. This happens a lot at events. Many people haven’t really heard of us.
So often, people are surprised to learn that they are welcome. That they are encouraged to bring their full selves and their questions and doubts to church. That we strive to be inclusive, allowing LGBTQIA+ people and women – and LGBTQIA+ women – to serve in leadership roles. That we don’t require a statement of faith or condemn other religions. And so on. Unfortunately, our inclusive welcome is religion’s best-kept secret.
As I talked with the person, I kept thinking about how much the Episcopal Church could use a bit more of the Samaritan woman’s willingness to share our faith.
Here at St. Luke’s, we do share our story and invite people in, whether through the ministry of Edible Hope, through the invitation to participate in the Spiritual Pilgrimage, now in its third week; and through our welcome of newcomers at weekly worship.
One of the many exciting things about our upcoming building redevelopment project is that it may give us new and different ways to share how we aspire to into live our faith and share our experience with the Living Water of Jesus to an even broader community. Or as someone said to me yesterday, to continue trying to “walk the walk,” not merely “talk the talk.”
As we embark upon the next part of our shared journey, we do this knowing that the love of Jesus surrounds as, calling us, as it always has, to become more than we could ever ask or imagine.