a sermon based upon John 4:1-42 & 7:37-51
It was the sixth hour of the day, which means it was about noon. Jesus was passing through Samaria on his way North to Galilee. Jesus, wearied as he was with his journey from Judea, sat down beside a well. His disciples went away into the city of Sychar (a half-a-mile away) to buy food for lunch.
The Palestinian city of Nablus is there nowadays, built on the field that the Old Testament Patriarch Jacob bequeathed to his most successful son, Joseph (Genesis 48:52). This is a hallowed place because it is where the Patriarch’s body was buried (Joshua 24:32). Jacob himself had dug a well in that field nearly 5,000 years ago. The well was more than 100 feet deep, and it tapped into a spring which percolated and gathered water all through the year. It took a very long rope to get a container of spring-water up from the deep well. It’s still in use.
At noon, the heat was at its zenith, and Jesus was thirsty. A local woman came to draw water. Now, before we go any further, you need to know that -- in the Bible -- when a woman and a man encounter each other alone at a well… well, the well is more than just a well (if you catch my drift).
For example, in Genesis: when Abraham sought a wife for his son Isaac, he sent his servant back to the place where he and Sarah had left so many years earlier. The servant met Rebekah at the well at Nahor and asked her for a drink of water. (!) She offered to water his animals as well. By the time the scene ends, Rebekah has a gold ring weighing half-a-shekel, bracelets for her arms weighing ten gold shekels, and a fiancé!
Apparently that match-up worked so well, that when Isaac’s son Jacob went in search of a wife, he, too, traveled up to the same old homeland of his grandparents Sarah & Abraham (Paddan-aram). There he, too, found a well, and a wife – actually, two wives Leah & Rachel, who were sisters – daughters of his mother’s brother, Laban. Jacob’s two wives, who were also his cousins, strike us as “polygamous” (if not downright “incestuous”), but in the Old Testament “bloodlines” and “kinship” mattered.
Those stories were well known in Samaria, especially at the very site of Jacob’s own well. The “betrothal” of native girls who are caught alone at a well by a traveling stranger was a familiar story in Genesis. The woman might well wonder: is Jesus “trolling” the wells of Samaria to meet someone?
Jesus asked her to give him a drink. It’s a natural request, don’t you think? No problem. He was hot and tired, thirsty, and he had no scoop to tie to the rope to draw water from the well.
But Jesus’ request triggers a reaction. The woman turns in astonishment when he speaks to her. “You are a Jew!” she says. “I am a Samaritan. How is it that you ask for a drink from me?” The narrator goes on to explain that Jews have no dealings with Samaritans. (John 4:9) Apparently there was a cultural divide between the two nations as deep as American racial prejudice. (!) If there really were no dealings -- no trade, no barter, no “come & go”, no sharing of utensils -- between Jews & Samaritans (as John’s Gospel asserts), I wonder how well the disciples are doing trying to buy lunch in the city!?
Be that as it may, the disciples (when they returned) were surprised that Jesus was talking with a woman – because most Jewish Rabbis would not do that (it was unseemly) – let alone that it was a Samaritan woman… an unmarried one at that! (Maybe they thought Jesus was trolling, after all!) And yet, none of them asked the woman “What do you want?” nor did they ask Jesus “Why are you talking with her?”
What we have in this story (which takes up more than 30 verses in total, the longest dialog Jesus has in any Gospel) is a deep conversation. However, I am sure that Jesus and the Samaritan woman had a much longer and more detailed conversation than what John reports here. If I may use an analogy, these highlights are like the Minutes of a Board meeting where only the most salient points of the discussion are recorded. I think this woman (meeting Jesus alone at the well at midday) must have unburdened her soul to this very human, very approachable, apparently wise and holy man. How else could Jesus have known of her tangled domestic affairs – having been five times married, and then (one after another) either been rejected by the men through divorce or widowed by their subsequent death.
After her personal trauma of five abandonments, she has landed now in the care of someone who either cannot or will not marry her. This part of her story -- the personal stuff -- begs to be unpacked, but the woman wants to talk about something else. She says to him: “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet.”
And so they talk about worship – where is the right place? Is God here in Samaria, or is the Lord only available at the Temple in Jerusalem? – and about theology – “the hour is coming, and now is,” says Jesus to this woman, “when true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth... for such the Father seeks to worship Him. God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in Spirit and truth.” (John 4:20-24)
I wanted to get into all these fascinating disclosures about God that Jesus give to this woman, but my sermon is already going to be too long as it is. My primary focus is the metaphor that seems most natural under the circumstances… Sitting together at a well in the midday heat, Jesus asks the woman for a drink. She says a few off-putting remarks about him being a Jew and her being a native Samaritan, to which Jesus responds “If she knew the gift of God, and who he was asking for a drink, she would have asked him to give her Living Water. Aqua Viva.”
Again she is a bit sarcastic, pointing out that Jesus did not have anything with which to draw water. “The well is deep. Where do you get that Living Water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us this well, and who drank from it himself, as did his sons (the 12 tribes of Israel), and his cattle?”
“Everyone who drinks this water will thirst again. But the one who drinks the water that I shall give, will never thirst! The water that I give will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” Now she is interested! The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, that I may not thirst, nor have to come here to draw.” (John 4:10-15)
The very first song our Salt & Light singers perform in concert is: “I’ve got a river of life flowing out of me! It makes the lame to walk and the blind to see. Opens prison doors and sets the captives free. I’ve got a river of life flowing out of me… Spring up, O well, within my soul. Spring up, O well, and make me whole. Spring up O well, and give to me that life abundantly.” That’s the metaphor I want us to explore today.
I suspect that some of you are already ahead of me on this. After all, back on Nov. 24 of last year, Rev. Ginny Titus preached about “the Woman at the Well” in a sermon titled “Ever-Living Streams”. So the metaphor is probably very familiar to most of you. Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman was also the subject of the solo I sang a moment ago.
What may not be quite so familiar is the second time that Jesus spoke about “rivers of living water” in John, Chapter 7:
On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and proclaimed, “If anyone thirsts, let them come to me and drink. He who believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.’”
The Pharisees heard the crowd muttering about Jesus, because many people believed in him. (John 7:31) The chief priests sent officers to arrest Jesus. It was under those conditions that Jesus stood up & proclaimed: “If anyone thirst, let him come to me and drink. He who believes in me, as the scripture has said, out of their heart shall flow rivers of living water.”
Jesus says that he is fulfilling a promise given in Scripture. So, this “Living Water” metaphor is not a new idea to the Jews in Jerusalem. It is already in the Bible! This made me wonder just what Old Testament Scripture promised “Rivers of Living Water”? I looked it up in my Concordance and found that the Prophet Isaiah used that metaphor three times.
So, some folks in Jerusalem that day may have thought Jesus was referring to the prophet Isaiah’s words in Chapter 44: “Fear not, O Jacob, my servant… for I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour my Spirit upon your descendants, and my blessing on your off-spring. They shall spring up like grass amid the waters, like willows by flowing streams.” (Isaiah 44:2-4) It was one of the promises the Lord God made to the Jewish Exiles in Babylon, reassuring them that they would have a future when they returned to Judea and rebuilt the ruins of Jerusalem. The image Isaiah used here was to imagine a flowing stream on dry ground.
Then again, maybe some of the crowd thought Jesus was referring to Isaiah, Chapter 55: “Yo, every one who thirsts, come to the waters! And he who has no money, come and buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. … Incline your ear, and come to me [says the Lord]; hear, that your soul may live; and I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast sure love for David.” (Isaiah 55:1 & 3)
Again, the image of water to quench one’s thirst, like the earlier metaphor of streams flowing on dry land, promises to refresh (to bring life) to people who are parched, thirsty, & poor. In the first quote, it is the land of Judah itself that will be revived; in the second, it is the “chosen people” who will benefit from the everlasting covenant with King David. These are very strong nationalist promises regarding the land of Israel and the people of Judea, appropriate for the last day, the great day of the feast.
However, there is also a third time that the prophet Isaiah makes use of the image of a spring of water -- which is what makes it “living” water … flowing water -- in Chapter 58: “If you take away from the midst of you the yoke [of oppression], the pointing of the finger [of blame], and speaking wickedness… If you pour yourself out for the hungry, and satisfy the desire of the afflicted; then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday. And the Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your desire with good things, and make your bones strong. And you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters fail not. And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations. You shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to dwell in.” (Isaiah 58:9-12)
In this image, the spring of water is used to irrigate a flourishing garden. The city will be restored -- rebuilt -- on the basis of justice this time… if the people will lighten the load of the oppressed, stop the finger-pointing which gets nothing done (I call it “fixing the blame instead of fixing the problem”), and stop spreading bad news (speaking wickedness). When they start acting like that, says Isaiah, then their light will rise in the darkness, and the Lord will satisfy their needs. Then they shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters fail not.
In my opinion, it is this image -- which requires acts of justice and mercy, compassion and advocacy -- that would have been in Jesus’ mind when he referred to the Scripture, saying: “out of their heart shall flow rivers of living water.” The first two quotes from Isaiah only served to bolster the arrogance and exclusivity of the Chosen people and their Capitol City. As I said a moment ago: in the first, it is the land of Judah that will be revived; in the second, it is the “chosen people” who will benefit from an everlasting covenant with David’s monarchy.
The third citation, however, requires a change of heart in the people of Jerusalem. It is not as self-affirming -- patting themselves on the back, preaching to their “base”. (!) No, in Chapter 58, Isaiah was very explicit about what needed to change in his day (and it still sounds relevant 2,500 years later).
“Is not this the fast that I choose [says the Lord God]: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?
“Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily.” (Isaiah 58:6-8) “If you take away… the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness; if you pour yourselves out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted… then… you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters fail not.” (Isaiah 58:9-11)
The prophet Amos brought similar judgments against the house of Israel, ending his litany of complaints in Chapter 5 with this plea from the Lord God: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream!” (Amos 5:24)
When the promise of rivers of living water springing up within the people is associated not with the Promised Land nor the Covenant with David, but with the prophetic critique of what God wanted changed in Judea, you can see why the civic authorities became so belligerent as to seek to arrest and kill Jesus. (!) They did not want God’s blessings to be considered contingent on doing justice toward the poor, the hungry, the thirsty, the needy, the afflicted, the naked, and the rest. They wanted to rule the status quo under their priesthood and their laws, keeping their cultural traditions and elite families secure.
Jesus’ words inviting the thirsty to come to him, to drink the Living Water he offered freely -- which “would become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life” and “out of their heart shall flow rivers of living water -- caused some people (like the woman at the well) to see Jesus as a “prophet”, because his message resonated with the justice-demands of Amos & Isaiah & the others of old.
Others said: “This is the Christ [the Messiah].” There was a division among the people. Some of them wanted to arrest Jesus, but no one laid hands on him. (John 7:43-44)
The guards who had been sent to arrest Jesus got into hot water with the chief priests and Pharisees when they returned empty-handed. First, they accused the officers of having been led astray by Jesus’ words. Then they made a blanket statement of disdain: “This crowd, who do not know the law, are accursed!” (John 7:49)
That statement sums up (in my opinion) their fundamental opinion of people other than themselves. “This crowd, who do not know the law, are accursed!” It shows the judgmental arrogance and narrow-mindedness of the religious authorities. The chief priests and Pharisees assumed that they alone were knowledgeable of the things of God. They alone were meticulous and faithful. They alone knew and understood the Torah Law and kept it perfectly (in their opinion). They believed they were saved… and the masses, the crowd, the hoi polloi, were under God’s curse, because they did not know as much, and they were not as fastidiously faithful. Do you hear the religious arrogance in that? God forbid that Christians think that!
The crowd was responding positively to Jesus, as did the Woman at the Well and the other townspeople in Samaria. Some were calling Jesus a prophet; others suggested that he was the long-awaited Messiah/Christ. Even the guards who had been sent to arrest Jesus had been listening to him. All that is dismissed by the religious authorities with a curse!
The priests and Pharisees said the guards had been “led astray” and pointed out that no one in authority (no one among them) believed Jesus; none of them ever asked for living water!
By contrast, Jesus’ invitation is respectful and wide-open. God’s gift of new life is offered freely, without any conditions attached, without qualification of any kind, extended to all people: “Whoever you are, and wherever you are on life’s journey…” Jesus says: “Whoever is thirsty should come to me and drink… and then rivers of living water shall flow out from their heart.” It is as though God is saying: “Come to me… Come alive in a new way, and flourish! My Spirit is yours for the asking. Free for the taking!”
Many in the crowd said: “Yes, I want that!” Even the Temple guards thought: “Yes, we need that!” But the priests and religious scholars said: “No, thank you. We’re not thirsty. We’re not interested.” It was their choice, of course, to refuse Jesus’ offer. (We all have free choice!) Jesus has no authority to “compel” anyone’s faith. Like the old saying: “You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make him drink.” You can lead people to Jesus, but you cannot make them think!
If a person has no “dry spots” in their spiritual lives, they wouldn’t thirst for living water. If they already know (for a fact) in their hearts that God knows them and loves them (and that God is involved in their daily lives), the Good News Gospel that Jesus brought would be “no news” to them. If you’re not thirsty, because your needs have been met, the Gospel of Christ is quite unnecessary. (!) It is, as Jesus put it, as though he had come as a doctor… whose task is to seek out the sick, to tend their wounds, and to heal their hurts… a repairer of broken hearts and restorer of broken relationships. Jesus says: “The healthy have no need of a physician.” So if you (or I or anyone else) have no spiritual “dry spots”, Jesus’ life-changing, spirit-enhancing invitation will simply pass over our heads and bless someone else sitting behind us who does need help.
I think what riled the religious rulers is that in Jesus’ use of the metaphor of the “living water”, the source is no longer attributed to the altar in the Temple or the wisdom of the Bible scholars. Instead, the fountain has become much more personal. The source was located in Jesus himself and he was making it much more available to all people – even women, yes, even Samaritans; even the crowd, yes, even the guards. Jesus said that once you believed -- once you drank the living water he provides -- it would be in you! The “aqua viva” spring of living water would come alive in each person’s own heart!
I encourage you to bring the dry spots of your life, those places where you thirst, to Jesus Christ, the source of Living Water, which can revive and renew and refresh our spirits. Amen.