More than a few preachers consider this to be one of the best stories in the Bible. Anna Carter Florence, who teaches preaching at Columbia Theological Seminary, writes, “If I were to choose one story that shows us the most about who Jesus is, it would be this one.” (Feasting on the Word, Year A) The story is 37 verses long, characteristic of John, who writes a lot of longer stories, but this one is still longer than most of his. Anna Carter Florence says it’s a story for “thirsty” preachers—and by that I think she means thirsty people—people who have some thirst, some yearning that needs to be met by faith, and they’re willing to do the work of letting the bucket down into the well and drawing it up, in the hope that its coolness will wash over their parched lives and leave them thirsty no more. The story itself is better than much of anything that I can do with it as a preacher, so this morning, I’m going to share it with you at its full length, just pausing to make some observations along the way.
Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard, ‘Jesus is making and baptizing more disciples than John’— although it was not Jesus himself but his disciples who baptized— he left Judea and started back to Galilee. But he had to go through Samaria. So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.
The story begins by telling us where we are and what’s going on; from what it says, we know that Jesus is in unfamiliar territory. The text says that Jesus left Judea for Galilee and had to go through Samaria. Samaria was not home for Jesus and his people. It’s not that it was hostile; the text just says they didn’t share things in common. You might imagine that it says, “Jesus left Hyde Park and went over to the west side of town.” Right away, the idea that Jesus is in Samaritan country tells us that he is out of his usual element, and from that I want to remind you that we live in a world that is broken in ways God did not intend for us, with places we might go that may not feel familiar or comfortable or like home for us. There is a signal right at the start of this story that we are starting from a where things are not quite as they should be, a place of brokenness…a place of thirst. In this story, that thirst leads Jesus to a well. The story says: 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.)
This part is really interesting to me, for right away, we find out that Jesus is thirsty. In the Gospel of John, pretty much everything is a metaphor, so we know right away that Jesus doesn’t just need a drink. Jesus apparently has thirst in his life that goes beyond the long walk he’s just completed from Judea to Samaria—he has yearning in his life. Thirst, yearning, this feeling of not being quite whole, not quite at home…we sometimes think of that incompleteness as a bad thing, but this story says not so. Perhaps, out of your comfort zone on the west side of town, you could actually learn something, discover something you didn’t know before. The Son of God and Savior of the world is thirsty too, so maybe thirst is recommended for us too. But, the Samaritan Woman, like many in the Gospel of John, does not realize Jesus is speaking in metaphor:
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.’ This sounds like a metaphor to us, but the woman isn’t tracking with that just yet. For a person in her time, the expression, “living water,” was simply “flowing water”—not a spiritual matter, but just a stream or a river as opposed to a pond, so she continues to ask questions: 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.’ Now it clicks for her: Jesus is offering something much greater than plain old water. And she is intrigued. 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.’
Now we will hear why the woman is thirsty:
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!’
Here, it needs to be said that having a husband is not necessarily the best way to achieve wholeness! I read this week that the great Spanish mystic Theresa of Avila, for instance, first chose the monastic life as a favorable alternative to marriage. But in this story the exaggerated character of this woman’s story—five, maybe six husbands—is supposed to tell us something. This woman is either searching hard for love and connection, or she is caught in some kind of deep economic vulnerability that causes her to keep looking to men who might save her, or something else. It is not a healthy situation, and it is certainly a metaphor for brokenness.
Remembering that we are in a story full of metaphor, you might ask yourself this: What is my brokenness? What is the thing in my life that is not “living water?” People try to quench their thirst in all kinds of ways. What do we keep drinking, only to be left feeling thirsty again? Perhaps a few obvious things come quickly to mind: alcohol and drugs, retail therapy, unhealthy relationships, wealth, bigger house, better salary, better seats at the game, children who are more well behaved… There are plenty of things in life that we want, and when we get a taste of them, they only leave us wanting even more.
Do you wonder if there’s really so much brokenness in comfortable community such as Knox Presbyterian Church. Listen to some of the titles of our Lenten small groups, led not only by members of the staff but some by members of the church community: “The Gifts of Imperfection,” “Lent of Liberation,” “Being Mortal,” “Breathing Underwater,” “Do I Stay Christian,” and “Walking to the Cross.” I stumbled upon this list accidentally in the midst of shuffling things around on my desk while writing my sermon, but for goodness sake, could you imagine a list of titles more uniformly focused on the reality of brokenness and yearning? Brokenness is not just out there in the media, in statistics about depression and anxiety, addiction, and lowered life expectancy. Thirst is not just someone else. This is us, folks. We are the woman at the well. What will Jesus tell us about our thirst?
Here, I will admit, the story seems to go down a bit of a wormhole that is hard to follow in the literal translation from the Greek, so let me read from another translation, it’s called The Message:
19-20 “Oh, so you’re a prophet! Well, tell me this: Our ancestors worshiped God at this mountain, but you Jews insist that Jerusalem is the only place for worship, right?”
21-23 “Believe me, woman, the time is coming when you Samaritans will worship the Father neither here at this mountain nor there in Jerusalem. You worship guessing in the dark; we Jews worship in the clear light of day. God’s way of salvation is made available through the Jews. But the time is coming—it has, in fact, come—when what you’re called will not matter and where you go to worship will not matter.
23-24 “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 the Father is out looking for: those who are simply and honestly themselves before him in their worship. God is sheer being itself—Spirit. Those who worship him must do it out of their very being, their spirits, their true selves, in adoration.”
25 The woman said, “I don’t know about that. I do know that the Messiah is coming. When he arrives, we’ll get the whole story.”
26 “I am he,” said Jesus. “You don’t have to wait any longer or look any further.”
Did you see what Jesus did there? He took her question—her wondering about who this strange man was and about all of the things that divide them—and he made the connection between brokenness in the culture and the brokenness in this woman’s very own life. God loves us in the midst of both, and wants to lead us toward a greater wholeness. In our own time and lives, the cultural epidemics of loneliness and anxiety and addiction—they are also at work in our very own lives—we all need for a Savior. What does Jesus tell us about our thirst? That he is thirsty too, he knows how it feels to be us, and he loves us in the midst of it. He wants to give us living water.
The story says: 27 Just then his disciples came back. They were shocked. They couldn’t believe he was talking with that kind of a woman. No one said what they were all thinking, but their faces showed it. But as for the woman, the text continues: 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?’
Jesus and his disciples will now have their own lengthy exchange about food—in which we realize that the disciples too are hungry. 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 labour. Others have laboured, and you have entered into their labour.’
The disciples are hungry; but they too don’t quite get it that Jesus want to give them the kind of food that will never leave them hungry again. Meanwhile, as for the woman, she went and told others what she had experienced, and it says: 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 [Jesus], 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.’
The story concludes in this way, coming back around to the Samaritans (the strangers) in the city seeing that this Jesus, this foreigner passing through their community, has come with a message of love, a message hope, a message that we’re not really as disconnected as we thought we were, a message that begins with something as simple as a request for a drink of cool water, but it’s actually an offer to quench the real thirst, the deepest yearnings in each of our own lives. The woman told her friends, Come and see a man who told me everything I ever did…and loved me anyway! Aren’t we all people who have brokenness in our lives and are just hoping that someone who knows that might love us anyway? Jesus says, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”
Being thirsty and broken does not make us unlovable. This is the good news of Jesus Christ. Amen.