Text: John 4
Water, as we know, if something no living creature can do without. Plants will soon wither and die if they don’t get it. Our pets may eat only once or twice a day, but they constantly need fresh water, especially on hot days. For humans, if we were left alone on a desert island, we would die of dehydration long before we would starve.
Water means life. Scarcity of water means difficult times are ahead. While the East Coast and the Midwest have seen the most snowfall in recent memory, an under-reported fact is that drought conditions in California has persisted for so long, the cost of many of our fruits and vegetable will rise because the harvest was not nearly as plentiful as in years past. Water is something we take for granted until it is suddenly not abundant.
Our Gospel reading this morning tells a familiar story of Jesus meeting a woman at Jacob’s Well near Sychar, a town in the region of Samaria. Jesus was tired and needed to rest, so his disciples went on ahead into town for food while he recovered from the journey. Around noon, a woman comes up to draw water, and Jesus says to her, “Give me something to drink.” She is shocked, to say the least. You can almost imagine her looking around, thinking surely he must be speaking to someone else. And she asks him, “Are you … talking to me?!?” It cannot be understated all the social conventions that just went out the window. Not only was Jesus a Jew and the woman a Samaritan (two groups which had nothing to do with each other), but men and women simply did not speak to one another except within the context of family settings. But as we have seen before, Jesus has no qualms about breaking all the usual rules and creating his own.
We can also surmise that this woman is also fairly low on the social ladder in town. People normally went out to draw the days water early in the morning. It was also quite a social time to catch up with neighbors. But no one would go out in the heat of the day. Think about it. Would you start a back breaking project around lunch time in August? Of course not! For myself, I was hard pressed to carry my laundry three blocks to the Laundrimat at any other time except right when they opened! So something must be going on for this woman to avoid the rest of town while she went to the well for the days water.
It is also appropriate here to do a very quick study in contrasts between Jesus meeting the woman at the well and Jesus meeting Nicodemus, whose story we heard last week and comes right before this story in the Gospel of John. Nicodemus was a man, a Pharisee, well respected, and part of the religious establishment. He had it all going for him. But when he came to talk to Jesus, he felt the need to do so under the cover of darkness so he wouldn’t be found out. He used flowery and flattering language to even butter Jesus up. The woman, on the other hand, does not even have a name. She was also a Samaritan and an outsider among her community of outcasts. In short, she was a nobody. Not fit polite society. Someone to be avoided. When she goes to draw water at noon it is because the heat of the sun is easier to bear than the shame of her embarrassment. But Jesus meets her. He engages with her, and they have this wholly remarkable conversation. Whereas Jesus brushes off Nicodemus’ questions and poo-poohs them as if to say, “You should know better than to ask questions like that!” he takes this woman seriously. He is very patient as he explains what he is talking about, and she finds out she is not a nobody after all. She MATTERS.
Often in the Bible it seems that people don’t know quite what to make of Jesus they first meet him. Sometimes they are even dismissive or even have no idea who it is they are talking to. One of the disciples even ridiculed Jesus’ upbringing by asking the question, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” But the woman at the well was amazed that Jesus actually spoke to her. He initiated the conversation with no prompting of her own.
And as they talk, Jesus speaks to her of living water that comes from a well that never runs dry. He names the source of her same that she has had five husbands over the years and the man she is with now it not her husband at all. She realizes there is more to this man than meets the eye and calls him a prophet. Then they start to talk about God and what it means to worship God. Finally, she says that when Messiah comes he will reveal everything and all will be made clear. It is here that Jesus reveals himself, who he REALLY is by saying two of the words that God used to reveal to Moses exactly who he was and what kind of God He is: “I AM.”
The Gospel of John is famous for, among other things, several “I am” sayings that Jesus uses to describe who he is. “I am the bread of life.” “I am the light of the world.” “I am the resurrection and the life.” It appears for the first time here in the most direct terms possible. He doesn’t reveal himself to a learned man of polite society like Nicodemus. He reveals himself as the Messiah, the Son of God, to someone polite society considers to be a nobody. He reveals to her that he knows exactly why she is living on the margins of her community and still he accepts her. He respects her. He loves her.
Lent is a season when we attempt to be more aware of the parts of ourselves which separate us from God and take steps to change them. Some people sacrifice something; other take on some volunteer work or add a meditation practice to their days. As we reflect on our shortcomings, we have even want to hide under a rock or cringe in shame when we think of the wrongs we have done to ourselves and to each other. The woman may have even wanted to run away when she realized she was talking to a man “who knew everything she had ever done.” But Jesus loved her anyway. He loves US anyway.
The living water he offers us is a love that cools the burn of shame when we feel the need to alter our daily routines just to avoid others. It is a love that brings peace and joy to sustain us when times are tough and we don’t know where to turn. We might think that we are nobodies and that we have nothing to offer anyone. But Jesus thinks otherwise. Jesus reveals himself to the very people that the world has written off and wants nothing to do with. It is a living water that quenches our deepest thirst for a sense of belonging and community. It sustains us as we go through the valley of Lent, under the shadow of the Cross, and to the other side at the empty tomb.