March 19, 2017 – Thirst

Lent 3  March 19, 2017 Ps 42:1-8,  John 4:5-42 Thirst


Jesus and his disciples are heading home to Galilee by way of Samaria. Taking the road less traveled – the much shorter road that most Jews avoided if at all possible. You could save about two days of travel by going through Samaria, but Jews and Samaritans had a lot of bad history. We’re talking family feuds bordering on civil war, going back more than 700 years…

But now we’re in the heart of the province of Samaria (once also a name for Northern Israel) – and now the disciples of Jesus have gone into town to buy food, and Jesus is alone, tired from the journey.

A Samaritan woman comes to the well. Jesus asks, “give me a drink.”

The woman says,“What’s a Jewish guy like you doing, asking a Samaritan woman like me for a drink?”

Jews and Samaritans normally don’t drink from the same vessel. And – most Jewish religious leaders would avoid being alone with any woman – (from any nation) – any woman they weren’t closely related to. (Jews and Samaritans were relatives, historically – but they usually related to each other like family you haven’t seen on purpose, for a reason, for a long time…) This encounter at the well comes with a lot of history attached. And some serious biblical symbolism is also in play here….As we remember –

Water is often a metaphor for spiritual nourishment in the bible. In Isaiah (12) we hear: “with joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation…” In Psalm 42 today we’ve heard: “As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.” Water and thirst… are words often used as metaphors for spiritual thirst. And it takes awhile, but then this woman does catch on – understands – Jesus isn’t talking about just H2O water and physical thirst… And the wellspring of living water he’s talking about is much deeper… than Jacob’s well. (A deep well, supposedly over 100 feet deep. But just a puddle compared to the wellspring of Jesus..)

And Jesus and this woman are both aware… this well carries the names of Jacob and Joseph – common-ground ancestors of both Jews and Samaritans. When Jesus says to her, “if you knew who it was you are talking with…you’d ask, and he’d give you living water…” She says, “Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob who gave us this well?” (Like ‘Who do you think you are?’)

And yes, of course he is – a whole lot greater… than great-great-grand-uncle Jacob…. But Jesus seems to enjoy the irony… of letting her figure this out for herself…and…

(Biblical History note:) Wells were informal community life centers. People went to the well for water, that basic bodily need. They also went for social networking, to be part of the community. A basic spiritual need. People met, exchanged greetings, shared news, etc at the well… And in the first books of the bible, wells are very strongly associated with courtship and marriage. Abraham’s servant meets Rebecca at a well – it’s a rather long and dramatic scene (in Genesis 24) – after which Rebecca is quickly married to Abraham’s son Isaac. A generation later, Isaac and Rebecca’s son Jacob meets his bride Rachel at that same well (in Gen 29). Still later, Moses meets his wife at yet another well (Exodus 2). If you’re watching a western you expect a gunfight. If you’re reading bible stories with a well scene, you expect a marriage…

So when Jesus tells the woman “go, get your husband” – he’s letting her know – the story’s different now. This isn’t about courtship and marriage. (Except the biblical metaphor of the marriage of God and God’s people. A metaphor we get hints of several times in John’s gospel…Here, and in chapter two where Jesus saves a wedding party that’s run out of wine, also chapter three, where Jesus is called the bridegroom…)

And here’s Jesus, also, letting this woman know he knows her life story. (As he knows all our life stories.) But Jesus, notice, doesn’t pry. He lets her know he knows… Then leaves it to her to decide what, if anything, more to say about it…(If she wants to say more, that’s fine. If she wants to change the subject, that’s fine too…)

Unfortunately, not all preachers and teachers over the centuries have been as generous as Jesus. Many have assumed she’s a woman of loose morals. (Reasoning…) Why else would she have so many men in her life? Why else would she be here at this well in broad day light? (People usually go to the well at cooler times of day, early or late in the day, in warm climates.) And yes, we learn from listening to Jesus, she’s been married five times, and the guy she’s with now isn’t her husband. But Jesus doesn’t seem to judge her by this. Should we? (Do we know her story better than Jesus does?)

Maybe this woman was married and widowed five times, through illness, war, calamity, or misfortune – all of which were common then (and still common now). Maybe she was married but divorced five times. Women of that time and place weren’t permitted to divorce husbands, but husbands could divorce wives even for just burning the toast. Perhaps through a combination of widowhood and divorce, and perhaps infertility, now she’s not considered marriageable. Or maybe the guy who is with her now is just afraid of commitment.

In John’s gospel, like a good mystery, details are often clues to larger themes, and like in a good mystery, first impressions are seldom sufficient and often misleading.

Last week we saw Nicodemus, a religious leader of Israel, coming to see Jesus in the dark of night. Nicodemus turned out also be in the dark about Jesus. Now in the light of day, in the sunshine at Jacob’s well, we may remember how Jacob met his wife, Rachel, at a well. We might want to revisit that story in Genesis, to be reminded – that meeting also took place at high-noon, broad day light. And Rachel turned out to be only one part of a much more complicated family-package, with Jacob married to four women – all at once… And again, it’s good to remember…

We really don’t know the life story of the woman at the well. The bible doesn’t tell us. We don’t need to know… Yes, of course, she’s a sinner – like all the rest of us. But the bible gives us no reason to think she’s a worse sinner than the rest of us.

Yes, she starts out with plenty of mis-understandings about Jesus. Who doesn’t? But notice how quickly she gets past her first impressions – and starts letting what she hears from Jesus change her mind. Most people take years, even decades, to learn what she learns from Jesus in one conversation.

At the end of the day she still has a lot to learn about Jesus. Again, who doesn’t?  But she’s a quick study. Here, in just one conversation with Jesus, she’s already leaving her water jar behind and heading off to tell the neighbors about Jesus. “Come, see a man who’s told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?”

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all God’s people were this quick to learn – this quick to be witnesses for Jesus?

This woman knows all the cultural rules that say our people and your people – democrats, republicans– evangelicals, agnostics – first-generation immigrants, tenth-generation immigrants – your people, our people. Your people and our people are different. We need to live apart from each other. We’ll never get along. We have different values.

She knows all that conventional wisdom. But here she is – still listening to this Jewish man Jesus – who is a foreigner to her and her people – but here she is, first naming him a prophet – then asking him where best to worship – then laying down her water jar to go, tell everyone about him.

No wonder she’s the first person who Jesus tells – he’s the Messiah. No wonder, when all’s been said – this turns out to be the longest conversation with Jesus anyone ever has in all the bible. She’s our poster child for how to be sharing the good news. She listens, she learns – she acts on what she learns. She goes way beyond the letter of what’s asked. Jesus says ‘go, get your husband and come back.’ She goes and brings the whole village back… And yes…

Before she leaves we overhear the unspoken thoughts of some of Jesus’s disciples, thinking, “What’s he doing talking with her?” Reminding us – when we get involved in crossing cultural barriers for the sake of the gospel, we too can expect – some will be saying, ‘What are they doing talking with those people?…Talking with people like them?

But as we learn from Jesus and the woman at the well – never mind what people say. Just keep listening to Jesus. Keep sharing the good news of Jesus – and his great love for all people… No matter what, and no matter who doesn’t approve…

Keep listening to Jesus… Keep learning from Jesus to be good listeners…Learning to be in conversation with all kinds of people, all sorts of situations… Focusing always on… Sharing the love of Jesus…

Because when we share God’s love from the heart, some will come to realize – as that Samaritan village did long ago – Jesus really is Savior of all the world.

And others will come to know, not just because of our words – but because – the more any of us ever get to know Jesus – the more we can’t help believing for ourselves…(And…)

The more we know Jesus, the more we want to say to everyone –

Come and see. Meet this Jesus I’ve met. Listen to him. 

Get to know the one who knows everything about me and you and everyone. And loves us perfectly anyway.

Come and see

Come and see