Throughout Lent we are working with the worship materials in a magazine called “Leader.” Leader is produced by MennoMedia, and the editors go around to various conferences and invite creative people to give input for worship services.
For instance, each week during Lent, the writers of the Leader material have suggested that the preacher offer a tangible item that will assist the congregation in the process of worship. Two weeks ago I gave you all Reece’s Peanut butter eggs. This week, I offer you all your own bottle of water. But last week, I decided to skip the tangible portion of our worship service. You see, last week’s story included the call of Abraham, and the text tells us that Abraham built an altar out of stone when God called him. The worship resources suggested that we give you all stones.
I’m not making that mistake again. I learned my lesson when I gave you all rotten fruit and vegetables before a sermon a few years back.
I’m told that you can only go three days without water. Between 60-66% of your body is made up of water, and it is necessary for many of your bodily functions. Without water, there is no life. Not just human life, no life at all. About 71% of the earth’s surface is covered with water, so you might think that it really shouldn’t be too hard to find. But in some climates and some areas of the world, water is really difficult to come by. Especially clean, drinkable water.
Time and time again, the writers of the Bible use water as a metaphor for how we thirst for God. We know something is missing. We know that this isn’t the way that the world is supposed to be. Deep down, we know that something better is possible. So on this third Sunday of Lent, we will explore this common, universal experience of thirst.
In our Old Testament reading this morning, we find the story of the Israelites wandering through the wilderness. Dry. Hot. Thirsty. I can just hear the children, “Are we there yet? Are we there yet?” At least they had water back in Egypt, where they were kept as slaves. They begin to accuse Moses of leading them out there to die. Not only them, but their children and their livestock. This, it would seem, was a bad idea.
Nobody thought to fill up their Nalgene water bottle before they left. In fact, they left in such a hurry, they couldn’t even wait for bread to rise. And now they are questioning their decision to leave.
While I can be pretty critical, I also understand where the Israelites are coming from. They are thirsty. They are worried about their children. A bad life back in Egypt is better than no life in the desert! So Moses goes to God in prayer, and God tells him to use his staff and make a spring of water burst forth from one of the most unexpected places. A rock. I assume that God asks Moses to hit the rock because this is just further proof that God is there with them. Yeah, if he hit the ground and water came up, it could be coincidence. Kind of like when Jed Clampett was shooting at some food, and up from the ground come a bubblin’ crude. Oil, that is.
Nope, this is God’s doing. And later, in 1 Corinthians 10, Paul says that that rock is Christ. Jesus is the one who satisfies our deepest longing. He is the rock. He is the very thing that we most deeply thirst for, and he is the foundation. So build your house on the Lord, Jesus Christ.
Our New Testament text for this morning is a big one. I’m told that this is the longest story in the Bible, or at least in the New Testament, taking almost the entire chapter to tell.
We find Jesus traveling through Samaria in the middle of the day. It is hot, and he is thirsty. So he does what anyone would do. He asks a Samaritan woman for a drink of water.
But notice that as he tells this story, John makes sure to include information to remind his readers that Jews and Samaritans did not get along. Verse 9 says, “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.)”
In case you didn’t pick up on it from the Samaritan woman’s response, John adds the parenthetical statement that Jews don’t associate with Samaritans.
Obviously, the Jews and Samaritans don’t get along because they are just too different. They come from a different family, a different place, and worship a different God. Right? No, actually, they are quite similar.
The Samaritans trace their ancestry back to Israel as well. Notice what the Samaritan woman says in verse 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?”
Jacob, also known as Israel, is their forefather. The Samaritans trace their lineage back to Ephraim and Manasseh. They are the descendants of Joseph, the guy with the coat of many colors.
The Samaritans were a part of what is commonly known as the Northern Kingdom of Israel. The Northern Kingdom fell in 722 BC to the Assyrians. The tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh appear to have married Assyrians and continued to occupy the territory together.
Look at what this woman says. She believes in the Prophets. She believes that God will send the Messiah. I’m sure that there are plenty of differences, but I don’t think that the differences between the Jews and Samaritans was really that significant. They seem pretty similar to me. What seems to be the biggest difference between the groups is which mountain, and therefore which temple, is the right one.
The Samaritans and the Jews don’t get along, but it isn’t because they are so very different. It is because they are so similar, with a few minor differences.
I’m finding a lot to connect with here. It seems to be easier for me to connect with people who are vastly different from me than people who are similar, but yet just different enough. I can sit down and have a good conversation with an atheist or a person from a different religious group and be quite comfortable. My secular humanist friend and I talk about music, food, culture, sports, and politics. But heaven forbid I chat it up with a Baptist or a Methodist! They don’t give any credibility to the Christus Victor atonement theory!
Jesus says it isn’t about some mountain or city. We worship God in spirit and truth. And when the woman asks Jesus about the messiah, he tells her, You’re looking at him. Or literally, he says, “I am,” which any good Jew or Samaritan would recognize as the response that God gave to Moses from the burning bush.
Who thirsts? Everyone. That seems to be the point. This isn’t just a Jewish thing, and it isn’t a Samaritan thing. It is a human thing.
Let’s dig deeper. What else do we know about this woman? Jesus mentions to her that she has had five husbands and the man that she is living with now is not her husband. Too often we assume that this woman is a prostitute, but there is nothing in this text to support that. It is possible that she has married men who have died and their brothers have married her in an attempt to provide offspring. This is called the Levirate tradition, and it was practiced among the Samaritans as well as the Jews. And let’s be honest, if five previous husbands had died, and you were the sixth in line, you might be a little hesitant to make it official, too. We don’t know her story, but Jesus does. And he doesn’t seem to condemn her for it.
We also know that she was at the well at noon, the hottest time of the day. It would have been common for the women of a city to go to the well early in the morning, before it got too hot, because water is really heavy. Notice that nobody else is around. It is possible that for whatever reason, this woman was an outcast in her own community. The other women did not make her feel comfortable or welcome. So rather than working together in a communal and social way, this woman chose to go to the well at noon when she assumed she wouldn’t have to interact with others.
Now consider the way John sets this story up and remember that one story would have flowed directly into the next. Last week we looked at the previous chapter, John 3, which includes the story of a respected Pharisee named Nicodemus who comes to Jesus at night.
Compare that story to this one: Nicodemus is a Pharisee, respected and admired by many. The woman at the well is a Samaritan, despised by the Jews and rejected as a heretic. Nicodemus is an educated man, who studied the Torah and taught it to others. The woman is a woman, second class in her society just because of her gender. Nicodemus comes at night, the woman comes at noon. And though he uses different metaphors to connect to Nicodemus and the woman at the well, in both stories, Jesus offers eternal life.
Who thirsts? Not just Jews. Not just Gentiles. Not just the old, or the young, or the somewhere-in-betweens. Everyone thirsts, by literally and metaphorically. When you see that this world is not as it could be, as it should be, you thirst. And the Samaritan woman realized that Jesus would quench her thirst.
So the woman keeps this bottled up insider her. No, Jesus sends her back to the city to tell others. She, a marginalized woman, is sent to the city where she tells the people what she saw. John will go on to tell his readers that she left her water jars there as she hurried back to the city.
So many parallels to what we find in John 1, when Jesus calls his first disciples. When Andrew meets Jesus, he goes and tells his brother Simon, “I have found the Messiah.” Then Jesus meets Philip, who then runs to tell Nathaniel, “We have found the one Moses wrote about!” And these men leave behind their nets.
Whether it is a water jug or a fishing net, when these people meet Jesus, they drop everything and go to tell others. Whether we are fishermen, Pharisees, or Samaritans, we thirst. We all need Jesus.
So just what do we learn from these interactions? Blogger Melissa Bane Sevier reminds us, “Don’t be afraid to ask for the things that support life. Don’t be afraid to share the things that give life.”
Jesus asked for water and he offered living water. Crossing over boundaries of gender, religion, nationality, and social status, Jesus reached out when he needed something, and offered what someone else really needed.