The Thirsty Woman

The Thirsty Woman

March 23, 2014
Stina Pope

This morning’s long gospel reading is about the woman at the well. It is a fascinating story, so let’s look at it very closely. Here are some of the elements to pay attention to:

Jesus came to a Samaritan city, Jacob’s well was there, It was about noon. A Samaritan woman came to draw water. Jesus spoke to her. The Samaritan woman speaks back, Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans. They talk. Jesus says: The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water,

The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”

His disciples came back, astonished that he was speaking with a woman. 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?” They left the city and were on their way to him.

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 him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. And many more believed in him.

We start off with the fact that Jesus goes to a Samaritan city. The story is already set for something interesting to happen, because it was a very strange thing for a Jewish rabbi to go to a Samaritan city. Remember, the Samaritans are the hated foreigners who used to be part of the family. Jesus goes to Jacob’s well. This is another clue, reminding us that this used to be Jewish territory, before the Samaritan faction split from the Jewish faction. It is an important landmark for the Jews, but they have to go into enemy territory to get there.

It was about noon. What is so important about this? It tells us there is something wrong with this woman, that she is there at noon, instead of early morning with the rest of the women. The rest of the women of the village would be long gone, so she would not have to deal with them looking at her sideways and making nasty comments about who and what she is. So she comes to draw water in the heat of the day.

Jesus has been walking, it is now hot, and he asks her for a drink. What is so strange about that? Everything! He is a Jewish man, she is a Samaritan woman. He would have known something was wrong with her that she was drawing water by herself instead of with the other women, but even so, men did not talk to women outside of their families. In a village, a man would be related to half of the women of the village so it would not be such a big deal – but outside of the village? Men and women did not speak to each other. When we visited a Bedouin campsite, there were two sides to the tent. The visitors were welcome on the men’s side of the tent. We could hear the women giggling as they watched us through the holes in the tent wall, but we could not see them. We asked if we could go talk to them, and the women of our group were allowed to go around to the other side of the wall. There was no way that their women would be allowed to talk to the strange men of our group.

So the Samaritan woman is naturally amazed that Jesus speaks to her. However, she is not a person who follows the rules, so she speaks back to him. Initially the conversation is superficial as she wonders why a Jew is speaking to a Samaritan, and how he thinks he is going to get water without a bucket. But she is not stupid, and listens to what he says, and brings up the notion of the Messiah.

Suddenly there it is, his self-proclamation that he is, in fact, the Messiah. And he says it to the most unlikely of persons, a Samaritan woman of ill-repute. There is yet one more piece here for us to notice. Her definition of what the Messiah will do. How will they recognize the Messiah? He will tell us everything we have done. When Jesus does that, she is clear, this is the Messiah. She goes back to the village and tells them, look, here is a man who told me everything I have done, do you understand? They understand the code, “everything I have done,” and so they come out to see this man who does what the Messiah is supposed to do. They urge him to stay, and wonder of wonders, he does, and many more believe.

I have heard this passage many, many times, and I have preached on it a lot. I like it. I like the uppity woman who talks back to Jesus, and then, when she realizes who and what he is, throws all caution to the winds and goes and tells the villagers, the same ones who have shunned her.

I like that Jesus reveals himself to this outcast, that he steps outside the box that confines him and talks to a woman, talks to a Samaritan, talks to a “bad” woman, and doesn’t just talk, he tells her he is in fact the Messiah. He does not tell her to be quiet about it. He simply tells her, and she gets it.

I like that the disciples, who have been with him for a while – it’s impossible to tell how long, but at least long enough to walk from Jewish territory into Samaritan, and that even so, they don’t get what’s going on like this woman does. It reminds me of typical Middle Eastern humor that has the little guy win over the one in power. She has no power at all, and she is given the greatest gift.

So all of that tickles me – but then I have to ask, what does this passage say to me, right now. This is not a matter of scholarship, of figuring out what those people back then were responding to, what was important for them and therefore the point of the whole thing. This is a question of how I am willing to engage and be changed by this passage in my life right now.

When I read the passage again with that question, one line pops out and whacks me on the head. Here it is: “The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” In the middle of their verbal jousting about water, about him asking for and then offering her water, and her asking how he will retrieve water and then wanting to know more about this living water, he says these words: “The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”

I grew up in California, mostly in areas that did not have lots of water. I was taught to be very conscious of water, and taught to conserve, whether or not we were officially in a drought. In the place where my family spent their summers, there is a spring that feeds both the stream and the water for the cabins. Most years, we would hike up to see the spring, that magical place where water, wonderful, clean, clear water, would bubble up out of the ground. Jesus says, I will give water that will become a spring that gushes up to eternal life.

I think about that spring I know, and I wonder, do we feel that source of life within us? Do we feel so full of life that it bubbles up and out of us at all times? If not, have we received the gift of living water from Jesus? Jesus says, if you had asked, I would have given you living water, water that once you drink it, you do not get thirsty again. This water will be like a spring in you, so that others around you can drink. Are we such a spring? Have we asked Jesus for the gift of living water?

One of my favorite books is called The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis. In one place he talks about how people say they want something, but when you point out that they are going the wrong way to get that, they can only tell you why you are wrong, even getting angry about your intervention. It makes me think about the times when I have known something – only I was wrong! One of the things Jesus does a lot is to point out to the good religious people around him that they were just wrong about some of the things they were doing. They thought they were doing the right thing, and they were working hard at doing the right thing; Jesus came along and said, no, I don’t care if you’ve always done it that way, it’s wrong!

It always makes me stop and think about what I think is right, and what I think is wrong, and how I am judging to make that assumption? This is where community is both helpful and not. We need the body as a whole to think through what is good and right for our situation right now. And sometimes the body gets caught up in issues of survival, and pride, and fear, and it takes someone from the outside to ask questions that challenge us. It is never easy!

So I come back to the question: Are we a spring of life? If not, have we asked Jesus for the gift of living water? Do we want to do that? How do we do it? I think it is very simple, we just ask, and we ask until we get an answer. We spend time talking to God, and we say, Jesus said we could ask for the gift of living water, so I want some please! Do we dare do that? Shall we try?