3 Lent, Year C Lindsay Hardin Freeman
Give me that living water!
From the Gospel of John, chapter 4: “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?”
And so says the Samaritan woman — a skeptical, assertive, and bright woman — who argues with Jesus as does no one else in the Bible. Authentic and brutally honest, she is both prosecutor and evangelist — a great attorney general, if you will. Her conversation with Jesus is long and deep and reveals two people that had much in common with each other.
Why does she matter? What might we learn from their conversation? As the world seeks to deal with wide-ranging and scary effects of the corona virus, how might she speak to us? At a time when many churches are shutting their doors, how does this moment in Scripture give us a clue about our next steps?
God has a sense of humor, for both Jesus and the Samaritan woman are models of self-quarantine and social distancing. Clearly they keep their distance from others. So we’ll start there.
She is there by the well outside the town of Sychar because she’s despised by her neighbors for the fact she’s had five husbands — and as Jesus points out, is living with a sixth man who is not her husband. Had she been liked by the girls and women of the town, she would have been at the central town well early in the morning, catching up, laughing, checking in. But we find her by herself, having walked to the well a half a mile outside the city at one of the hottest times of the day.
Why all the husbands? Most likely, she’s married five brothers in hopes of having a child, a common tradition back in those day to insure that once having married into a family, a woman was basically guaranteed the right to bear children.
We’ll never know for sure, but it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that she is an outcast.
And Jesus? Clearly he’s hot and tired and perhaps sick of being around other people, because his disciples have gone off and left him alone. And he’s thirsty.
When he sees her, he’s direct, abrupt. “Give me a drink.”
Her answer is defensive at best.
“How is that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?
Not a normal conversion. Both are breaking rules: Jesus by talking to her, and the woman by challenging him. But they are not total strangers, at least biologically. Both Samaritans and Jews were children of Abraham. Both held Mosaic law in common. Both believed in the Torah, and knew their sacred history.
Yet enmity abounded on both sides, with rancor and hatred present for centuries. In 720 BCE, when the Assyrians invaded the northern kingdom of Samaria, most of the Hebrew people were carried off to Media as slaves, and never returned to their home — i.e., the lost ten tribes of Israel. The few Hebrew people left behind married those of other races and belief systems. Racial purity was compromised and seen as a betrayal by those who had not married others. The Samaritans were seen as less than… less than Jewish… less than whole… less… less… less…
And is why the woman challenged Jesus with those first words. “Why is that you, a Jew, ask me, a Samaritan woman for water?
The banter begins.
“Forget THAT water,” he says. “I’ll give you living water instead!”
“Sir, you don’t even have a bucket! Where do YOU get that living water? Sure give me some. I’ll never be thirsty again!” You can hear the sarcasm in her voice.
Ah, I love these two. She’s one of my favorite women in the Bible. No apologies for who she is. You can almost hear and see her say: “I am who I am who I am. Don’t give me trouble.”
Back and forth, they go. Advantage: Samaritan woman. Advantage: Jesus. Deuce. And then advantage Jesus as he says: “Hey, go get your husband. Call him here.”
From her … maybe a little squeaky at that point,
“Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet.”
Hmmm… The veil is lifting.
“I know that the Messiah is coming,” she finally says.
“I who speak to you am he.”
Game over! And as soon as she realizes it’s not a game, she throws down her water jug and runs to town to share the news, transformed, filled with passion, filled with joy. There’s more to the conversation, do read the whole encounter.
In these troubled days, what can we learn from this conversation?
First, truth matters. This woman wants answers and goes after them. She seeks the truth from Jesus and she does not back down. She is persistent, articulate. Given that this is the longest recorded conversation that anyone has with Jesus, it tells tells us that seeking the truth is not only our inviolable right, but it is an endeavor that God values deeply.
In this time of chaos and uncertainty, ask questions of the medical community, the government, the church. Keep the conversation going. Don’t settle for less than what you know is right. Be the one who does not sit back, who does not settle. This Gospel conversation affirms questioning, believes in truth-seeking.
Second, show up with God as you are, and God will be there. Authentic and cryptic, this woman does not put on airs. She brings who she is to the conversation with Jesus — and Jesus is there, in that space. We too are called to bring the whole of who we our to relationship with God. If we’re hurting or tired or bitter or cynical — that’s where God meets us. No airs, no defenses, no apologies. God wants no less and God will be there.
Third, do not underestimate the power of everyday routines. Jesus finds the woman as she comes to a task she has done hundreds, if not thousands, of times before. And he finds her because she has not given up. She is putting one foot in front of the other, doing the best she can. She’s hasn’t given into chaos or despair or worry, but by living her life and doing what she needs to stay alive, she is found by Jesus. Something about structure rings true here; something about how living into routines and discipline — even added discipline in this time of corona virus can show us the way to Christ.
Fourth, she shares the joy of her newfound faith. When she has that epiphany moment that she has indeed seen the Messiah, she throws down her water jug and runs back to town to share the news. She guesses correctly that the townspeople will not listen to her — in fact they tell her two days later that they don’t need her opinion. But she gets it and she tells why she knows. Verna Dozier once said, “Don’t tell what you know. Tell why you know.” And she did. Having been transformed by joy, having seen the Messiah, the Samaritan woman is on the move, sharing the good news. We too are called to be God’s messengers in this time, however we can. Perhaps it means praying for someone. Perhaps it means giving supplies out of our own kitchens. Perhaps it means staying in touch with homebound neighbors. We do that because of our faith, the joy of our faith.
Jesus was asking for more than a drink from the woman. He gave her a way to rise above the darkness and chaos in her life. He reached out a hand, affirmed her for who she was, and made the point that life is about more than survival. And she drew out the best from him. Without her tough questioning, he would not have proclaimed his identity as the Messiah.
I wish for all of us the joy that the Samaritan woman found, and the authenticity she brought to her encounter with Jesus. And I wish for all of us the knowledge that we are never alone — that we too find will find Jesus at our own wells, and drink of the living water he so faithfully offers.