top of page

“Out of their Heart shall flow Rivers of Living Water”

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