The day that Jesus travels through the region of Samaria and strikes up a conversation with a woman at the well is, for many people, one of the most engaging and fascinating examples of Jesus’ ministry in the whole New Testament. It’s a long story by most New Testament standards: it takes up almost the entire fourth chapter of John’s gospel, and unlike with so many other encounters that Jesus has with people, we don’t feel that we’re getting a quick summary of some event; we hear almost their entire discussion, line-by-line. This story is so engaging and fascinating…and yet, so much of what really makes it that way is in danger of being lost on us for two big, glaring reasons: one, by and large, we don’t get water at wells anymore, and, two, we don’t have Samaritans. So much of what occurs between Jesus and this woman is meaningful because of the place where this conversation occurs and the social and gender boundaries that Jesus is crossing in order to have it.
In the ancient world there was a rhythm to life involving the access to water that we can’t really appreciate nowadays. From our perspective, it was like people were constantly in “Survivor” mode, always concerned about the availability of a reliable source of water. We see evidence of this in the first lesson from Exodus when the Israelites get into the wilderness and quickly can’t find a water source. Things start to go downhill for Moses pretty quickly. By the time of Jesus, technology for accessing water has not advanced much. The people in this particular Samaritan village are still using the same well that their ancestor Jacob did centuries before! Every day—or maybe every other day—people of that village and the surrounding area would have to make a trek to a well to fetch water to use for drinking, bathing, and cleaning. All kinds of folks would be around there at some point. The area around the well was a community melting pot because people understood that this space was vital for everyone. Although this is still a reality of life for many people across this planet, we in twenty-first century America aren’t concerned with that ritual. As a result, the effect of this story is a little lost on us.
The only comparison I can think of today to a well in Jesus’ time is the pharmacy counter at some drug store, especially for those who have daily meds that keep them alive or functioning. I suppose those cell phone charging stations in public areas like airports and train stations also come close. Oftentimes you have all sorts of different people from many walks of life all sitting relatively near each other, their devices plugged in next to each other. I had to chuckle: when we were making our way to and from New Orleans on the charter bus with the youth group in 2012, people would drain their batteries down pretty low. Whenever we’d stop to eat, youth and adults would all make a mad dash for the wall outlets in Wendy’s or Chik-Fil-A. Sometimes they’d end up sitting and eating wherever they plugged their phone in, even if it was a table with people not typically in their close group of friends. A fully-charged cell-phone battery is not nearly as vital as water, although some of us may act as though it is.
So there they are, Jesus and this woman, sitting at the same cell phone charging station, waiting in line at the pharmacy counter. It’s a common, community place where people routinely—almost ritually—return time and time again to get something important, something they need to live. And it is here where Jesus introduces himself to her by describing himself as the living water that gushes up to eternal life. This isn’t stagnant water, like the kind you’d draw from a deep well. It has motion to it. It is an ever-flowing stream that replenishes itself and never is tapped out.
How does Jesus give you life? Why do so many of us return here, week after week, month after month, to participate in worship or to volunteer in service projects? Why do so many of you read the Bible or daily devotions? Is it because somewhere along the way someone told you that this is what you’re expected to do, that respectable West Enders go to church on Sunday mornings? Is it because there are all kinds of benefits to being active in a congregation? It’s a place to get married or have your kids married one day. It’s an excellent place to network and meet people. But, really, why are you plugged in and charging up here, as opposed to somewhere else this morning, like the gym, or the James River Park trail system, or the local coffee shop? Could it be because at some point you’ve happened upon that source that never dries out, you’ve drunk of the living water that never leaves you thirsty? Could it be because somewhere along the line you’ve found yourself introduced to the person who satisfies that deep spiritual need for mercy and love and joy that lies deep within you? Could it be because there is someone here on whose arrival you sense the whole world has been waiting?
|Jesus and the Samaritan Woman (Njase Secondary School, Zambia)|
This brings me to the second reason why the effect of this story is somewhat lost on us. The well where Jesus shows up is not just any old well. It is a well in a region known as Samaria, and the people of Samaria were long known to be hostile to Jesus’ people. The Jews and the Samaritans despised each other for historical and ethnic reasons that are far too detailed to go into here. John does allude to this at several places in the story…for example, when he tells us that Jews and Samaritans did not share things in common. Suffice it to say that Jews and Samaritans were perfectly content to let each other alone.
Nevertheless, Jesus shows up in Samaria and approaches this solitary woman at this well, and in doing so crosses all kinds of boundaries that you and I probably would have left alone. He doesn’t just charge his cell phone next to the person in class who everyone has labelled “off limits,” the person no one ever talks to, but he starts talking to him and wanting to get to know him. He doesn’t just stand in the pharmacy line with the Hispanic single mother on welfare, but he treats her with respect and honor, extending mercy and love to her and asking if there’s something she needs.
As it turns out, I was wrong about one assumption with this text: we do have Samaritans nowadays. We have plenty of them, more than we care to admit. Some of them may be sitting on our pew this morning, or in our family. In fact, each of us is someone else’s Samaritan, each of us is someone who feels beyond the conventional boundaries of love, each of us has things in our lives, in our past decisions, in our personalities that have estranged us from God, that make us feel unworthy. What great news, then, that the very Son of God—the one who can put back together these broken lives, this broken creation—loves so unconventionally! What incredibly amazing news, then, that the source of all life shows up to strike up a conversation with you and me.
Another aspect of this encounter that is so fascinating is the process by which this Samaritan woman gradually comes to realize just who Jesus is. It’s not an instantaneous event; she talks with Jesus, asks him direct questions—even doubts him!—all as a part of the process of coming to know him. She eventually leaves her jar by the well (the jar she had brought to fetch water), in order to return to her village and share the source of living water that was gushing up to life in her. This woman teaches us an important lesson: in order for Jesus to satisfy our thirst, we need to be willing to let Jesus engage us and hear what he says about us. We need to be willing to come to terms with our own brokenness, our own shortcomings—to admit our tendency to drink from so many other wells—before we can truly receive the living water that Jesus offers. Beginning and continuing a relationships with Jesus, the living water, involves laying bare our lives, too, but ultimately trusting that it is ultimately all held in his care.
Several years ago I was leading a children’s sermon and trying to teach them something about baptism and how in the water we become redeemed children of God. I explained that just as they were born by their mother in a hospital, they may consider the baptismal font another birthplace, the place where they were born of God. To make this a little more concrete for them—as we know, concrete object lessons are helpful (most of the time) for children’s sermons—I removed the bowl of water from the marble font and passed it around so they could see the water and touch it. One by one, they did as I asked them to: they reached their hands in the water and touching their wet hands to their head, until I got to one little three-year-old girl named Erica. Instead of placing her fingers in the water and tracing the cross on her forehead, Erica cupped her hand and scooped out some to drink. She drank the baptismal font water! Who knows how long it had been sitting in there!
Yet…what a brilliant idea, and what a timely reminder for this self-sure pastor: little Erica, tapping right in to that ancient rhythm of survival, reaching in, wanting more. What else should someone do with water, but drink it, especially when they’re thirsty? What else would we do with Jesus but let his words and presence satisfy our thirst and begin to put back together that which broken? What else would we do with this living water that gushes up to eternal life, this person on whom all of creation has been waiting, but pass around a bowl of it to everyone who shows up—Samaritan or otherwise—at the charging stations of life and hope that they, too, will scoop some of it up…and live.
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.