Have you ever been tired and thirsty? I mean dog tired and bone dry? And I don’t mean just physically thirsty or tired. Have you ever been so inwardly tired and thirsty that no matter how much sleep you get or how much you have to drink or eat, nothing seems to refresh us or fill us? That’s what we have today, in today’s Gospel: Two thirsty people who meet at the well one day. One gets a drink of water (well, at least he tries to!) and the other gets a drink of life.
One comes up to get a jug of water…but is deeply thirsty inside. The other is tired and thirsty and needs a drink…and is the well of life. The woman at the well has the water, but she is thirsty. Jesus who is thirsty, knows the woman’s thirst and because he is the Christ, he quenches it where it really counts…down deep in her spirit. It shows that we all need watering!
This is one of those Gospel stories where there’s a whole lot is going on. But it is a lot like another encounter Jesus had…the one we heard last week, the encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus. In the Gospel of John, we are being taught that to know Jesus is to know God; and to believe in Jesus—to trust him, to understand him, to listen to him—is to know God in a way that changes us from the inside out. Which is why he puts together these two stories of these encounters from two very different people.
The first one, in John chapter 3 is with Nicodemus. The second one is with the woman at the well in Chapter 4.
Here is a piece of trivia for you that will, I am sure, astound and amaze your friends: There are only three times that Samaritans appear in the Gospels: twice in Luke and once in the Gospel of John. But those Samaritans, they sure do get around! Whenever you hear about a Samaritan in the Gospels, a little light should go off and say “Difference Ahead!”
Remember that last week we heard the famous encounter between Jesus and the Pharisee Nicodemus? He came to Jesus and learned that if he was to really understand what God was up to, he would need a new identity, a new way of being, a new way of seeing and knowing both God and the world. This new identity, if he took it on, would feel like being born from above. It would feel like the breath of God.
Today, we hear of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well and we hear the same thing again: if she is to really know how to worship God in Spirit and truth, then she will have to put on a new identity…one grounded in God. This would feel like drinking new, fresh, cold water from a well that never ends. It would be refreshing and clean and new.
In Nicodemus, we saw a man who was at the heart of traditional Judaism, a leader of the Jewish temple council who would have to put on this new identity. The woman at the well is a person, a so-called foreigner, whom Jesus should not even be talking to, who would have to take on this new identity.
Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night. Jesus comes to the woman at the well at noon.
Nicodemus begins the conversation with Jesus. But at the well, Jesus is the one who starts the conversation.
Nicodemus has deep a theological conversation with Jesus. No big surprise there. They are both rabbis and they are peers. Today, Jesus has an intense theological conversation with a woman, far from the center of Jewish life and tradition!
We don’t know where Nicodemus goes after his talk with Jesus, John’s Gospel doesn’t say, but the woman goes and brings a whole town to Jesus.
In John chapter 3, we hear Jesus talk about the spirit blowing where it will and for the need for people to be born from above. Today, in John chapter 4, we hear of the spirit welling up inside of us and quenching our deepest spiritual thirst.
Both the woman at the well and Nicodemus understand that Jesus is a prophet. They both understand that he has special insight and a connection to God. Nicodemus knew that…he heard the stories that tickled his curiosity. But for the woman at the well, this was new information. She needed a little help. Let’s see what happens here.
Tired from his journey through Samaria, Jesus sits down at Jacob’s well, but he has no cup or bucket with which to draw water. The disciples have gone off to buy food and has left him alone.
Enter the woman, carrying a bucket—actually, both a bucket and a water jar. She is about to fill this heavy clay jug…about a meter high, holding between 5 and 10 gallons of water, and then carry it back to her village in the middle of the day. That is five pounds per gallon plus the weight of the big clay jar. In the first century, as in much of the world today, hauling water is woman’s work. In most of the world today, people—mainly women—must walk one, two or more miles two or three times a day to get safe, usable water. Jesus asks her for water, he is doing what is normal. He is a man asking a woman for water. Because getting water is woman’s work.
But she and Jesus get into a discussion as deep as that well and as important as his conversation was with Nicodemus. They talk about their different backgrounds, their different religious traditions. And while she can give Jesus some water, he is offering to quench a much deeper thirst in her. He meets her at the point of her greatest need…and he breaks down a few barriers in the process.
Jesus knows her story…he knows her heart…but he is meeting her as an equal. No matter how matter how complicated her past is….it doesn’t matter. She can drink from living water. No matter what mountain she thinks God is to be worshipped on, she can worship in spirit and truth.
She may be the opposite of Nicodemus in every way…there are alike in the way that really matters: they are both in need of life deep down inside. They both need birth from above and living water.
And as different as the two people are, there is one difference that counts: she not only gets who Jesus is, she is the one who does something about it. She is the one who tells people.
To this day, the Samaritan woman is honored in many cultures. In southern Mexico, La Samaritana is remembered on the fourth Friday in Lent, when water flavored with local fruit and spice and is given to commemorate her gift of water to Jesus. The Orthodox know her as St. Photini, or Svetlana in Russian, which means "equal to the apostles," and she is honored as apostle and martyr on the Feast of the Samaritan Woman.
She is remembered because when she recognizes the Christ her identity changes. She leaves her water jar behind and goes and finds her friends and neighbors.
And another funny thing happens in this story: did you notice? Jesus never got his drink of water!
Or did he? We see here that as Jesus breaks down the barriers of gender and nationality and the woman is bold enough to both remind Jesus of what separates them -- he a Jew and she a Samaritan -- and of what connects them -- their ancestor Jacob, a whole lot of thirst is being quenched. Even in her audacious verbal sparring with Jesus, she experiences him as prophet and, more than that, the Messiah. And she takes that news to her village, her family, her people. Both in the encounter and in the telling, she is changed from the inside out.
And she quenches his thirst, as the living Word of God, to bring God’s love, power, and saving grace to all people, even people outside of his own community of faith. Two people met each other at the well and quenched thirst that really matters.
We all need watering. And it comes in a variety of ways. On another day, also about noon, Jesus will face death and again confess his thirst. On that day, only vinegar will be offered -- in mockery. The gift of his living water will not be apparent to the one holding that sour sponge. But today, when Jesus and the Samaritan woman meet at the well, they conspire to bring life out of death. The water they offer each other, water that quenches the thirst of body and soul, holds the gift of life for all.
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