by Kathryn Huey, United Church of Christ
Third Sunday in Lent Year A
Focus Scripture: John 4:5-42
Theme: Thirsty Voices
Prayer: Enduring Presence, goal and guide, you go before and await our coming. Only our thirst compels us beyond complaint to conversation, beyond rejection to relationship. Pour your love into our hearts, that, refreshed and renewed, we may invite others to the living water given to us in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacobs well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water 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.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”
Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”
Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” Then the woman left her water-jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” They left the city and were on their way to him.
Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?” Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”
Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there for two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”
All readings for this Sunday:
1. How are Nicodemus and the woman at the well similar? How do they differ?
2. If “salvation” is healing, what needed to be healed in the Samaritan woman, and in her people?
3. What needed to be healed in the disciples, who came upon the scene?
4. What needs to be healed in your community, in your family, in your own spirit?
5. What barriers do you experience to healing for yourself and for others?
by Kate Huey
Last week, we had the cool dark of night, full of shadows and questions, resistance and doubt. This week, the bright noonday sun tells the truth about who we are and where we’ve been in our lives, not just the beautiful, shining moments (remember that mountaintop Transfiguration three weeks ago?), but each little wrinkle and every large failure, our regrets, our wanderings, the losses we’ve known–the broken places in our hearts and lives. We can’t hide things so easily in the noonday sun.
In Chapter Three of John’s Gospel, we eavesdropped as Jesus talked with Nicodemus, the “big shot” religious leader, a learned, respected figure in the community. Though Nicodemus could go anywhere he wanted any time he wanted (as long as he didn’t anger the Romans), he felt he had to sneak in to visit Jesus in the dark of night. Maybe he sensed that this Jesus was trouble, so it was better not to be seen talking with him. In any case, Nicodemus, the learned and thoughtful one, just could not get his mind wrapped around what Jesus was saying with that exquisitely human, earthy image of being “born again” to describe our spiritual transformation. Nicodemus remained a “concrete” thinker.
This brief, nighttime exchange was frustrating for the Pharisee, but, for John’s early Christian community, it was a sermon on God’s love and purposes, and the grace we need to respond openly to them. Perhaps it was a sermon about spiritual hunger, and the way God feeds us.
This week, we sit with Jesus in the bright heat of the noonday sun beating on our heads, and we get thirsty. In the first century, there are rules about how Jesus, a Jewish male and a teacher, too, should interact with people, especially Samaritan women. The Jews and the Samaritans could be seen as feuding cousins. Like all feuds, there are probably many different, complicated reasons for it, but religion helps to make each group feel more justified in judging and avoiding and maybe even hating other groups of people.
It’s ironic, and fitting, that this scene unfolds by a deep well that provides the thing most necessary for our physical survival–after all, we can last longer without food than we can without water. But the disciples have all gone into town for food, and Jesus, tired from his travels, sits there, with no bucket, needing some help to quench his very human thirst. A woman walks up to the well, arriving at the noon hour when no one else is around, an unusual time of day to visit the well. The other women would have visited during the cool hours of the day, and the men were busy in the marketplace, talking politics and religion. This woman had no companionship to ease the burden of her work.
When Jesus asks her for a drink of water, she responds, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” Jews didn’t share things in common with Samaritans, things like water cups and conversation. And this woman is “other” in many senses of the word, as a Samaritan, but also as a woman and one with a questionable past. Her husbands have divorced her or died, and she has perhaps had to marry her husband’s brothers (it was a religious law) or, at least, she had to get remarried in order not to suffer the harsh fate of an unattached female in that society. You had to have a husband, a father, or a son to take care of you, or you could end up a beggar or a prostitute, or both. (That’s why the Bible keeps telling us to look after the widows and the orphans: Life has always been hard for them.)
Layers of meaning
So Jesus asks this Samaritan woman for a cup of water. Jesus often speaks with words that we can understand, but words with layers of meaning. Rather than using “big” words to convey his meaning, he turns to the basic, elemental things of life, water and bread and the harvest, salt and light and being born again. He goes to the desert, and he knows what it feels like to struggle and wander and resist despair. He feels pain and frustration, and he knows what it feels like to be abandoned and betrayed. He has friends that turn away, so he knows rejection and loneliness, human suffering and human need.
Now, when thirsty Jesus asks this person, this “other,” for a drink of water, she’s amazed. But then Jesus says even more amazing things, about “living water”–which must sound really good to someone who carries that heavy jar back to her home each day. We can hardly blame her for thinking in concrete terms when he offers such an incredible possibility.
The conversation we’re eavesdropping on this week is the longest one Jesus has with anyone (and it’s with a woman, not a religious leader). Jesus is talking about a “water” that will satisfy the deepest longings of her soul, and she, understandably, is thinking about how heavy that clay jar is each day on her way home–but before long, much sooner than Nicodemus–she grasps that this person, this stranger, this “other” is bringing her something even more central to her wellbeing and more necessary for her very life than water itself: the living water of God’s grace and acceptance of her, just as she is.
Talking theology–with a woman
And, unlike Nicodemus who keeps saying, “How can this be?” this woman, out of a keen understanding of her own need–her spiritual thirst–and a marvelous openness to Jesus and all that he offers, asks, “Sir, give me this water!” Then Jesus shows her, in an interesting way, just how powerful he is. He doesn’t need an official position or an impressive outfit–he just tells her that he knows her, really knows all about her and her life. He doesn’t judge her or tell her that she’s welcome to the living water so that she can change her sinful ways. As soon as the woman (we note that, while the name of Nicodemus is written down for us, this woman, like so many women in Scripture, remains nameless)–as soon as this woman grasps that Jesus is a prophet, for he knows “all that I have ever done,” she doesn’t worry about explaining or defending herself–instead, she engages him in a kind of interfaith dialogue. Jesus talks theology with a woman. She asks him about the most pressing question that divides the Jews and Samaritans–the hot-button religious issue that divides and alienates them and even makes them fear one another: where is the proper place to worship God? (We of course have our own hot-button issues today; we might wonder what we would ask if we had the chance.)
A different translation of Jesus’ response, from Eugene Peterson’s The Message, is helpful here: “…the time is coming,” Jesus says, “it has, in fact, come–when what you’re called will not matter and where you go to worship will not matter. It’s who you are and the way you live that count before God. Your worship must engage your spirit in the pursuit of truth. That’s the kind of people God is out looking for: those who are simply and honestly themselves before God in their worship. God is sheer being itself–Spirit. Those who worship God must do it out of their very being, their spirits, their true selves, in adoration.”
Perhaps we feel profound gratitude and joy for the way God has accepted us and loved us and showered us with grace, no matter who we are or where we are on life’s journey. Knowing God’s grace, do we go out to the marketplace (remember where the men of the town are talking religion and politics?) and share the good news: Can it be? Is it too good to be true? Come and see! Like the nameless woman at the well, maybe we’re the least likely to be called to spread the good news. Most of us are not only not perfect, we’re the wrong “something” in one way or another that would seem to disqualify us from being believed by the rest of the folks in town. And yet if we have experienced transformation, we can hardly hold back from sharing the good news.
The community well, and loneliness
Many of us live apart from the wilderness and its deprivations, so water is plentiful and readily available to us. When was a time that you truly thirsted, for water, or for new life? Who are the people in your community who will recognize the rules and restrictions, and the feelings, in this Gospel story more readily, and perhaps more painfully, than others will? Who comes to “the community well” at a different, more uncomfortable time, than the rest of the community? Who experiences this isolation and loneliness? Who are the people in your community who truly thirst for good news, for community, for salvation, for grace?
Barbara Pine, 20th century
Sometimes being listened to is so much like being loved, it is impossible to tell the difference.
Hafiz, 14th century
I wish I could show you, when you are lonely or in darkness, the astonishing Light of your own Being.
If you judge people, you have no time to love them.
William Langewiesche, 20th century
You should not see the desert simply as some faraway place of little rain. There are many forms of thirst.