John 4:5-26 (NIV 2011)
5 So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6 Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon.
7 When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” 8 (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.)
9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)
10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”
11 “Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? 12 Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?”
13 Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”
16 He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.”
17 “I have no husband,” she replied.
Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. 18 The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.”
19 “Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”
21 “Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. 24 God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”
25 The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”
26 Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.”
One of the things that I love about being a father is that I now carry with me a diaper bag. I have come to understand why women carry purses. These things are awesome! But the diaper bag is even better than a purse because I have an excuse for carrying the things that are inside. I may need them for my son. I always carry with me a water bottle (with dinosaurs on it) and we always, always have snacks. Usually we have crackers or pretzels…in case the little boy gets hungry. One for baby, two for daddy. I have tried to carry snacks with me but putting crackers in my wallet doesn’t leave them in the best condition. But by carrying a water bottle and snacks in the diaper bag these items are readily available whenever my son needs them.
Our text tells us that Jesus was traveling through the Samaritan region, specifically the city of Sychar. It is noon, the sun is beating down, and he is thirsty. The disciples are off getting some food and Jesus wanders to the well in the middle of the city and sits down.
A woman comes to the well to draw water for her household. When Jesus sees her, he asks her for a drink. Jesus is asking to drink out of the jug that she has brought from home to carry the water back in. And this woman is caught a little off guard.
First of all, she was a woman. Women weren’t really thought of as equals back in those days. A man wouldn’t just strike up a conversation with a random woman. Especially if this woman happened to be a Samaritan woman. To think that a Jew wanted to put his lips on the jug that she will take home to drink from…that is unthinkable.
Jews just did not like Samaritans, and I don’t think that Samaritans thought too highly of the Jews, either. The Jews disliked the Samaritans so much that when Jesus told a story about loving your neighbor and he really wanted to put in some shock value, he made a Samaritan the hero of the story.
But who were (are) the Samaritans? The easy answer is to say that the Samaritans are people from Samaria. Samaria is a city about 35 miles north of Jerusalem. So if Staunton is Jerusalem, Harrisonburg would be Samaria. Don’t you just hate Harrisonburgians?! The hatred between the Jews and the Samaritans had nothing to do with their geographical proximity to one another. The problem went back about 900 years before Jesus’ day.
When the Promised Land had been given to the Israelites, the 12 different tribes of Israel, or descendants of the different sons of Jacob, were all given their own section of the Promised Land. The Promised Land later became a kingdom under the leadership of King Saul beginning around the year 1047 BC.
King David succeeded Saul, and then David’s son Solomon became the next king. Solomon ruled the kingdom until he died in 931 BC when his son Rehoboam took over as king. But there was a problem. Not everyone liked Rehoboam. So there was a split, and the tribes that lived in the northern most part of the kingdom started their own kingdom with their own king and their own capital city. The capital was eventually established in Samaria.
Around the year 722 BC the Assyrians came and they marched through the Promised Land, looking to acquire some new real estate. The Assyrians were not able to defeat the Southern Kingdom, commonly called Judah, but they were able to defeat the northern kingdom, often called Israel. The Assyrians carried off the Israelites into exile and moved their own people into the territory of the northern kingdom.
About 200 years later, the people of the northern kingdom were allowed to return to the land of their ancestors. But when they got back to Samaria, they found their city populated by non-Jews. So the Samaritan Israelites lived among these non-Jews, marrying them, starting lives together, and eventually joining together in worshipping the God of the Israelites. They built a temple on the top of Mount Gerizim, the mountain which the Samaritans believe Moses received the Torah from God.
The Jews of the southern kingdom already didn’t like the northern kingdom folks because they spilt the kingdom in two. Each had their own capital, each had their own temple, each had their own understanding of who God was. And that seems to be why they didn’t get along. Which makes me wonder, are we as human beings more likely to dislike people that are almost like us, but not quite, or are we more likely to dislike people who are vastly different than we are?
So now we find Jesus, a Jew, asking this woman, a Samaritan, to do him a favor and give him a drink. And she replies in verse 9, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” Her tone even seems to imply, “How dare you ask me for a drink?”
But Jesus quickly changes the direction of the conversation by saying something very confusing. He tells the woman that if she knew who he was and what he had to offer, then she would be asking him for a drink. And he would give it to her. It is almost like Jesus is playing a little game with her, saying “I would give you a drink if you asked me.”
Like Nicodemus missed the fact that Jesus was using a metaphor about being born again in last week’s message, the woman seems to miss the deeper meaning of what Jesus is offering. She asks a very good question of Jesus. She says You don’t even have a bucket. How are you going to get this living water?
Jesus isn’t done explaining things to the woman. He explains that the water that he is offering will quench her thirst so much so that she will never thirst again. And she wants it! Who wouldn’t want to never have to worry about going to the well and carrying back heavy vessels of water day after day?
But Jesus doesn’t explain to her that she is still missing the point. Instead he tells her to go tell her husband about this living water that he is offering. And the woman tells Jesus that she has no husband. And Jesus responds lovingly in verses 17-18, “You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.”
So what is this “living water” that Jesus is offering? We westerners are very cautious about the water that we drink. We can go into any gas station, any convenience store, any grocery store and buy bottled water. This is usually water that has been purified in some way or another. We can buy water by the five gallon jug and keep it in a cooler in our home. Some people spend hundreds of dollars on water purification systems for their homes to filter out all of the impurities. We want good old H2O, and nothing else (maybe a little fluoride for our teeth?).
If you go into a third-world country, one of the first things that you are told is to not drink the water. Why is this? Let’s just say you might get sick if you do. This is because of the things living in the water; microorganisms, things that you can’t see, but your stomach will tell you is there. Living water sounds dangerous.
What Jesus seems to be offering the woman might be better understood as “life-giving water”. The Greek word ζάω is a present, active participle when used in this way. One definition is full of vigor or potency. We might say someone who lives every second of every day like it is their last has zao, they are getting the most out of their life.
Jesus isn’t offering the woman parasitic water; he is offering her water that will help her live life to the fullest. As Jesus will say in just a few chapters in John 10:10, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” or “abundantly” (NRSV). The word that we translate in John 10:10 as life has the same root as the word Jesus uses to describe living water.
We know what it is like to thirst. We know what it is like to need something to go on living. And we know that there is nothing that will substitute when we need water. I love potato chips, pretzels, and crackers. But if I am thirsty, there is no amount of potato chips that will satisfy my thirst. Bag after bag of Ruffles with ridges will not satisfy what I truly need.
We need God. We need a purpose in life. We need to be living for something bigger than ourselves. And so many people try to fulfill that need with something that does not accomplish what they are looking for. They try to eat potato chips when they are dehydrated.
When Jesus offers this woman living water, or life-giving, vigorous water, he is recognizing that she has been looking for significance in places that will never truly satisfy her deepest needs. She has been looking for her significance and satisfaction through lust. She has been looking for someone to love her, to make her feel special, to make her feel needed. She has lived with six different men, looking for something from them, looking for them to be able to satisfy her deepest longings, her deepest needs. She has been living life, but barely. And Jesus offers her a full life, a life just waiting for her, a life in full communion with God.
The woman starts to get it. She asks Jesus about the proper place to meet God. She notes that her people, the Samaritans, believe that God must be worshipped on Mount Gerizim and that Jesus’ people, the Jews, believe that God must be worshipped in Jerusalem. She wants this full life that is being offered, but she doesn’t know where she needs to go to have it. Is it Gerizim or Jerusalem? And Jesus…says…neither.
God doesn’t have to be approached on some mountain or in some temple. God is always with us, around us, and even within us. God has sent his spirit to be with us at all times. The full life being offered to the woman is readily available here and now.
To show this, I think it is helpful for us to return to how this story began. Jesus is traveling through Samaria. He goes into the place where few Jews would travel. And when he is there he goes to the well because he…is…thirsty. He is the one that approached this Samaritan woman and asked her for water first.
God thirsts. God wants us to have a full life, to live the abundant life, a life in full communion with him. Jesus thirsts and he approaches this woman, which reminds me of the story of the Prodigal Son, were the father drops everything and runs to meet his son that has wandered away and is now returning to him.
God thirsts for us, and we thirst for God. But sometimes we try to satisfy that thirst with things that are not God. And these things may help for a little while. We might feel satisfied for a short period of time. But that thirst will come back again. As Isaiah 55 asks, Why labor for that which does not satisfy? Jesus offers living water, and anyone that drinks this water will never thirst again. Man or woman, young or old, Jew or Samaritan. We need not seek our significance in things that will not satisfy. Because in God’s eyes, we already have more significance than we could ever imagine.