Third Sunday in Lent
We all have ours. It is different for different people, but each of us has something for which we long, a craving that drives us, a thirst that wants to be quenched. Some thirst for money, some for power, some for knowledge. The deepest thirst of some is to find a place where they belong. A place where they will be understood and accepted for who they truly are. Some thirst for a deeper purpose in their lives. Others thirst to love and be loved.
We thirst for that which we want, but do not have. Many people in the world have a literal thirst for clean drinking water. We, on the other hand, do not have that particular thirst; we can go to the tap at any time and get all the water we need. But just because our thirsts are not as literal does not mean they are any less real. A body denied water will die. A soul denied love will likewise wither and die.
The trouble is, very often we don’t even know what we’re thirsting for. We can’t articulate our needs, so it follows that we don’t know where to go to get our needs met. And sometimes we find the answer to our thirst in unexpected places. Like water flowing from a rock in the desert. Like a dusty, tired, thirsty Messiah sitting by our well in the middle of the day.
The woman of Sychar comes to the well to draw water. It is noon. This is significant, because women did not usually go out to the well in the heat of the day. They went in the morning before the sun was high, or else in the cool of the evening. At those times, the village well was not just a place to get water for cooking or bathing or watering livestock, but a social gathering place—a place for catching up with one’s neighbors, exchanging gossip, and so forth. Think of it as a first century water cooler.
This woman, though, comes at noon. This leads us to believe that she is some sort of outcast. The other women do not welcome her company at the well, so she must come alone when the sun is high. We learn later that she is not what one would call a “respectable” woman. She has had five husbands, and is not married to the man she is now with. Before we jump to any conclusions about what sort of woman she is, however, let us consider the differences between that culture and ours. For a woman to have been married five times and now to be living with a sixth man without even the veneer of respectability that comes with a marriage certificate means one thing in our culture. It meant something entirely different in first century Palestine.
In our day, women have the right to initiate divorce proceedings. Not so then. Women were at the mercy of their husbands; marriage did not provide even the opportunity for equality and the full flowering of both partners’ humanity and spirituality, as good marriages today are expected to do. Marriage at that time was part of a patriarchal system in which the husband had all the power and the wife was often little more than chattel. The Law of Moses allowed men to divorce their wives under certain conditions; unfortunately, this law, like many others, was abused. A husband could divorce his wife if she did not bear him any children. If she did not bear him any male children. If she did not bear him enough male children. If she talked back to him. If she displeased him in some other way. If the man saw another woman who pleased him more. One famous rabbi around the time of Jesus, Rabbi Hillel, even suggested that it would be within the Law for a man to divorce his wife for burning his dinner. Jesus was on record as objecting to this trivializing of the marriage covenant and the dehumanizing treatment of women that followed from it.
We cannot know for sure, but it is entirely possible that the woman Jesus encounters at the well outside Sychar has been a victim of this dehumanizing treatment. Richard Foster says of the woman of Sychar, “[She] had had no say in [her] divorces. She had been ‘thrown away’ five times, and she had become such ‘used property’ that a man no longer needed to marry her to have her” (Foster, Challenge, 147). That she should still be shunned by the other women of the village, who knew firsthand how powerless she was to prevent what had happened to her, is ample testimony to the power of systems of domination to perpetuate themselves by gaining the cooperation of the very targets of their domination. It is a strange yet common phenomenon: the victims of certain forms of oppression often become the most vocal proponents of the oppressive system. Some of the most strident anti-feminists I have ever met have been women.
So we have a woman who has been mistreated, used, and discarded time after time by the men in her life, who is likewise made to feel unwelcome among the “respectable” women of the town. Apparently the women of Sychar were not familiar with the proverb, “There but for the grace of God go I.” As a result, this doubly rejected woman must lug her water jar to the village well in the dust and oppressive heat of the noonday sun.
Triply rejected, really, for she is a Samaritan. The Jews hated the Samaritans. They had a grudge against them that went all the way back to the eighth century BCE. The Assyrian Empire, after conquering the northern kingdom of Israel, had settled foreigners in the land. Those foreigners had intermarried with some of the Jews still living in the land, and their descendants became known as the Samaritans. The Jews of Jesus’ time considered them half-breeds and heretics, and wanted nothing to do with them. As you know, memories are long in the Middle East, but to hold a grudge for 800 years seems a bit excessive. But that’s the nature of bigotry; it yields very slowly, if ever, to good sense.
The woman of Sychar thus has three strikes against her, and as she trudges through the midday heat, thirsting for the cool water of Jacob’s well, she is also thirsting for something else. She may not be able to put her finger on it; she may not even realize it consciously; but she is thirsty for something. Wholeness, maybe. Acceptance. Forgiveness. Liberation. Love. Something.
She doesn’t know it yet, but she is in luck, because Jesus has come to town.
We don’t need to go into the details of the story; I read it earlier and we know it well. What I want us to notice this morning is what Jesus has to say to the woman about her thirst. But the first thing he has to say is about his own thirst. “Give me a drink of water,” he says. No preliminaries; he is thirsty and he asks for a drink.
We can draw at least two encouraging lessons from this. First, Jesus himself thirsts. He was a human being, and he experienced weariness, hunger, thirst, pain…all the feelings and experiences that go along with being human. That means he is not remote or aloof; he empathizes with us because he has been one of us. Second, we learn that Jesus’ thirst is tied to our own. As he tells his disciples later in the story, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” He goes on to explain, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work.” Jesus hungers and thirsts to do the will of God. And the will of God, as Jesus understands it, is to bring life to the world. Abundant life. Eternal life. His great desire, or thirst, is to quench our deepest thirst—the thirst for God.
If we look at it that way, it is understandable that he would ask this woman—this burdened, weary, rejected woman—for a drink of water. It is a surprising request on one level, in that it simultaneously breaks a number of taboos. A man speaking to a woman in public; a Jew talking with a Samaritan; a Jewish man being willing to drink from the jar of a Samaritan woman. But it is more than all that. Jesus recognizes the woman’s need—her thirst—and wants to quench it. So he asks for a drink, knowing full well that he is the source of refreshment and satisfaction for her soul. His spirit thirsts for the chance to quench the thirst of her spirit. His food and water is to do the will of the one who sent him.
The woman is indeed surprised—startled, even—and more than a little suspicious. She says, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?”
Jesus responds by saying, “If you only knew what God is willing to do for you, and who it is you’re talking to, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” When she asks how he proposes to get this living water—he doesn’t have so much as a teaspoon to draw it with—he lets her know he’s talking about something more than well water: “Everyone who drinks of the water from this well will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (vv. 13-14).
It is important to note that Jesus is not offering some sort of magical substance here, as the woman rather cynically pretends to believe: “Hey, that sounds cool. Why don’t you tell me where to find this living water, so I won’t have to keep making this long walk out to the well every day?” Jesus doesn’t even respond to her mocking tone; he is talking about something far more profound than magic water that you only have to drink once and you’ll never be thirsty again. He is talking about the source of life; the Spirit; the very presence and power of God that wells up within you when you encounter Jesus and follow him in discipleship. It’s not a cistern or a reservoir with a limited supply of water; it is a spring that bubbles up perpetually. It can’t be stopped and it never runs out. When Jesus says that those who drink this water will never thirst again, he doesn’t mean that you take one swig and you’re set for life. On the contrary, he means you can keep coming back again and again. You need to keep coming back again and again. But once you’ve tasted that water, nothing else will ever satisfy your thirst.
The true answer to our thirst is this spring of living water that comes from the Spirit of God dwelling within us. The woman of Sychar finally got it. We know this because John tells us she left her water jar and went back to the city to tell the people about her encounter with Jesus. This could mean two things. It could mean that she was in a hurry to get back to the town, and she left the jar because she planned to return soon with others. But it could also mean that her focus has finally shifted. She is no longer concerned about the mundane realm of wells and water pots; she is now concerned about spiritual realities. She has had a taste of the water Jesus gives, and she will never again be satisfied by anything less.
Water is a major theme in John’s Gospel. Jesus turns the water of the Jewish purification rites into the new wine of the kingdom at the wedding in Cana. He tells Nicodemus that one must be born of water and spirit to enter the kingdom of God. He heals a man next to the pool of Beth-zatha, where the angels used to stir the waters. He walks on the water of the sea. And on the final day of the feast of tabernacles, during a ritual in which the priests bring water from the pool of Siloam to the altar to offer prayers for rain, Jesus stands up and says, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water’”(John 7:37-38).
At the end of our Lenten journey, we will come to the story of Jesus’ crucifixion and death. When John tells the story, he adds a detail that does not appear in the other three Gospels. He says that after Jesus “gives up his spirit,” a soldier stabs him in the side with a spear, “and at once blood and water [come] out” (John 19:34). Modern physicians tell us that these are signs of the rupture of Jesus’ heart as a result of the trauma of the crucifixion; the blood comes from the right atrium or ventricle of the heart and the “water” is actually pleural or pericardial fluid. It means, basically, that Jesus was unquestionably dead.
But it means something far more significant than that. What comes from Jesus’ heart is the blood of the new covenant that offers forgiveness and liberation to all who believe, and the water of the Spirit that wells up as a never-failing spring to give life to the world. This is the water that will quench our thirst. This is the well to which we can return again and again to satisfy the deepest longings of our inner being.
Come and drink the water of life. Nothing else will do.
Foster, Richard J. 1985. The Challenge of the Disciplined Life: Christian Reflections on Money, Sex & Power. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.