The Third Sunday in Lent
19th March 2017
St. Paul’s Within the Walls
Growing up, I often spent a few weeks in the summer at my grandparent’s cottage. It was what you might call “rustic”: no electricity, boat-only access, propane lights, no drinking water. Every morning, we would take the little tin boat across the river to where a fancy hotel once stood, some 100 years ago. We’d tie the boat to a tree and wade through the overgrown beach to all that remained: a perfectly in tact well.
As I pulled off the cover, peered down over the side, and slowly lowered my bucket, I was stuck by how many people before me had done this exact thing, and how many people, years from now, would also be leaning over and gathering their water right here. The cool, clear water was just as it had been more than 100 years ago. It tasted fresh, crisp and thoroughly refreshing.
Was this living water? Was it the work involved in gathering the water that made it taste so refreshing? Was it the connection with people from generations ago? Or was it just that I was thirsty and needed a drink?
The Israelites were all too aware of the importance of water. Even though they had escaped captivity in Egypt, their freedom was not without stress and fear. They left everything they knew including the security of food and water, to follow God into the wilderness. The lack of food and water were serious threats to their very existence. No wonder they were cranky with Moses – they were unbearably thirsty and in that thirst, probably terrified for their survival.
In John’s Gospel today, Jesus also begins with this most basic human need. He is traveling from Judea to Galilee, passing through the region of Samaria.
It’s high noon and it’s hot. Jesus and his disciples have likely been walking for many hours. The disciples go off to buy food, and Jesus, tired, hungry and thirsty, sits down at a well.
But not just any well. Jacob’s well, the ancient, deep well where our ancestors relieved their thirst and changed their futures.
In this moment, Jesus embraces his vulnerability. He turns to the woman at the well and asks for her help. His very human needs begin an encounter that goes far beyond the physical need for water.
The woman at the well is unnamed, and yet, the encounter is so essential to Jesus’ ministry that it warrants 38 verses. We just heard a play-by-play of their entire conversation, which is particularly striking when we consider that the specifics of Jesus’ Q and A with the teachers of the Temple or Jesus’ conversation with Moses and Elijah on the mountain are left to the imagination.
The unnamed woman comes from Samaria, the part of Israel that lies in between Judea and Galilee. The people of Samaria and the people of Jerusalem did not like each other. Although they held much history in common, both communities recognizing Jacob, the builder of this well, as their forefather, they developed animosity toward one another around the time of the Exile because of disagreements on what were considered holy books, proper worship practices, intermarriages with Babylonians, and the location of the Temple. Five hundred and fifty years later, at the time of Jesus, relations had hardened into bitterness and hostility.
Who might the Samaritans be in our lives? Sometimes it’s the people with whom we have much in common that we resent or fight with the most.
Add to this the fact that she is a woman, which at the time, and unfortunately still today in many contexts, means that she would be seen as somehow “less than”. When the disciples return to the scene, they are perplexed that Jesus is “wasting his time” talking to a woman.
She is probably also a social pariah, perhaps because of her five husbands, or perhaps for other reasons. Why else would she be coming to the well at high noon, the hottest time of the day, when all the other women of the village would be long gone after their morning water gathering?
Yet, despite the clear social and cultural disadvantages of the woman, at the beginning, Jesus is the vulnerable one because of his physical state as a weary traveler. This woman has the power because she has “home court advantage” and, as she duly notes, is the one with the bucket.
Jesus asks her for a drink. Why? Simply because he is thirsty? Perhaps. But I think there is more to it.
Placing himself in the position of vulnerability and focusing on this concrete, basic need is a way to begin to engage a woman who he knows has value and importance, even if his community, and maybe even the rest of the world, doesn’t see it yet.
The woman is cautious, perhaps caught off guard. Why are you asking me for a drink? Our communities hate each other and won’t share eating or drinking utensils.
Jesus doesn’t answer her question directly but instead gets right into the heart of the matter. “If you knew the generosity of God and who I am, you would be asking me for a drink, and I would give you living water.”
Her response is skeptical, maybe even a bit sarcastic, “but you don’t even have a bucket?”
Then, she reconsiders and adds, “where do you get that ‘living water’?
She recognizes something in Jesus, and can’t help but ask. She lets her guard down, just a bit, and allows herself to be drawn into the conversation.
And Jesus talks to her like an equal. He does not condescend, he does not coerce. He tells that the water he gives will make her never thirst again.
Jesus knows her unseemly personal history, and knows that her people are not welcome in his circles. And yet, Jesus chooses to go beyond simple pleasantries and engages her in a thoughtful theological discussion.
It may seem as though Jesus is arguing with her, and in fact, that’s exactly what he’s doing. But this should not be mistaken as a sign of rebuke and dismissal. It’s a sign of respect.
Jesus recognizes her as someone who is capable of deep understanding and reflection, and responds to her questions with consideration and seriousness. They discuss important theological issues: how and where to worship God, the coming Messiah, things that many would have considered men-only topics.
And finally, after she says that she is waiting for the Messiah, Jesus reveals: “I am he.”
This is the first time that Jesus reveals himself in the Gospel, and I think it’s noteworthy that it is both to an outsider and to a woman.
This does two radical things. First, it includes and legitimizes women as equal and respected disciples.
After Jesus’ self-revelation, the woman goes to her town square and witnesses to all those present. “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did.”
It doesn’t sound like much, but her personal testimony brings other people to faith in Christ. Whatever she said, whatever she did, people took notice. Her fellow Samaritans were able to look past her status as a woman and social outcast, trust her testimony and believe.
That’s powerful. She is a witness to Christ just as much as the other disciples, and in fact, she is the first to go off and evangelize on her own.
As Jesus later tells the disciples, “you will be reaping the harvest that others have sown.” There’s an important lesson there: evangelism is not a competition nor is it reserved for an elite group – it’s a team effort, and we are all on the same team.
Second, the whole encounter, and particularly Jesus’ self-revelation, attest that God’s love is not for a closed community.
Jesus breaks down social and racial prejudices, and goes outside his supposed “community” to reveal himself. He is not just the Messiah of the Jews and not just the Messiah of the Samaritans.
The Samaritan townspeople come to faith and proclaim Jesus as the “Savior of the world.” They get it spot on.
I wonder if this encounter helped the disciples to rethink their previously held ideas of “community”?
In the Great Commission, Jesus tells them: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.”
He calls them, and us, to dismantle the walls that are so easy to build around ourselves, out of fear and for supposed security.
Jesus also didn’t wait for the Samaritans to come to him, and likewise, it is not enough to wait comfortably in our homes or churches for people to seek us out. Jesus calls us to actively “Go”.
The living water that Jesus promises does more than quench physical thirst. It transforms us. We become children of God in all of our infinite diversity.
And through this transformative, life-giving water, we are able to quench our old resentment, fear and anger, and to replace them with compassion and humility.
It can’t have been easy to counteract the centuries of hostility between the Jews and Samaritans, but being in right relationship with our neighbors near and far, is how we can start to bring about the kingdom of God here on earth.
It’s not always going to be as smooth or certainly not as quick as in today’s Gospel, but working toward this goal is what it means to be a follower of Christ. Jesus gives us the example and the grace to transform difficult and hostile relationships into relationships based on respect and love.
St. Paul reminds us of our unity in diversity in his letter to the Galatians, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
This unnamed woman and her brief, yet intense interaction with Jesus helped the early Christians recognize the unity and inclusiveness that the Kingdom of God is all about.
May our reading of it today, help bring us to not only recognize the importance of unity in the theoretical, but empower us to actively work, day in and day out, to bring about inclusion and unity, in our cities, in our Church and “to the ends of the earth.”