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"How can it be... living water?"

Updated: Mar 27, 2023

I think Jesus was not just waiting for any Samaritan; I think he was waiting for this woman.

“Christ and the Samaritan Woman at the Well” by Julio Romero de Torres
“Christ and the Samaritan Woman at the Well” by Julio Romero de Torres

John 4:5-42

March 12, 2023

Dr. Todd R. Wright How do you picture this encounter? Is Jesus dusty and worn down, parched and needy? Is the woman furtive and frustrated, dragging her jug and desperate for simple kindness? Are they just two broken people who stumble into each other’s presence? Or is this meeting something very different?

 

Brian Blount, former president of Union Presbyterian Seminary, writes, “Jesus intentionally wandered into the Samaritan city of Sychar. This thirsty man sat waiting by a well without the necessary container for drawing water because he was waiting for something other than water. He was waiting for a Samaritan.”[2] Blount is saying that this encounter was not random. Jesus had a plan. So far, he had done all his ministry among his own people; now he was intent on reaching across boundaries. Maybe it was the byproduct of his encounter with Nicodemus or maybe it was just the next stage of his plan, but either way, Blount is saying it was intentional. It was necessary. It was targeted. I think Jesus was not just waiting for any Samaritan; I think he was waiting for this woman. What do you notice about her? Pastor Patricia Farris, contrasts this meeting with the one initiated by Nicodemus. She writes, “It is about noon. There are no shadows, there is no protective cover, no nighttime leisure for theological exchange and reflection. There is only this woman, and she is insolent, defensive, strong and determined.”[3] Those are not universally flattering adjectives. And yet, Farris is saying that the Samaritan woman is not a victim waiting to be rescued or a sinner hoping to be redeemed. She suggests that maybe the reason the woman churns through husbands is not that she is barren, or that she is a home-wrecker, but that she is unwilling to fill her expected role in a male dominated society. Maybe that is why Jesus waits for her. Maybe that part of her that makes her a bad fit for one role makes her a good fit for another.

 

So, let’s reassess this meeting. If it is not two thirsty people talking about water, what is it? Why would Jesus seek out this woman? Bradley P. Holt begins his book Thirsty for God: A Brief History of Christian Spirituality with these words: “You may be dehydrated right now but not realize it.” He explains that the first signals our body gives us that we need water are not immediate and strong. We might feel uneasy or tired and head to the refrigerator for a snack when what we really need is a tall glass of water. “The same is true of our spiritual thirst,” Holt continues. “We may feel restless, anxious or depressed and try to satisfy our needs with retail therapy, a chocolate fix, or unhealthy intimate relationships when what we really need is to know that we are loved, that we belong, that we are not wandering the wilderness of our lives alone and without resources, that God is with us.” So perhaps the first reason Jesus seeks out this particular Samaritan woman is that he knows that she is spiritually thirsty – she is thirsty for God, but doesn’t know how to satisfy that craving or even how to put it into words. Do you know what that is like? For many people, Lent is a time when we slow down enough to notice that we are thirsty. That’s why it can be so satisfying to drink in the living water offered in devotionals or Bible studies, or to sit down with a cold glass of prayer, or to sip from the tradition of gathering for special services like Ash Wednesday or Maundy Thursday or even the simple act of sharing communion. Maybe Jesus sought out this woman because she was, like us, spiritually dehydrated.

 

Maybe. But I think it was something more specific. In an interview with Kate Bowler, Philip Yancey tells the story of his great-grandfather – a violent drunk who abused his oldest daughter, Sylvie. She could never forgive him. Not even after he had found sobriety, took responsibility for his actions, and begged for her forgiveness. When he lay dying, the rest of the family was there, even Sylvie’s daughter, Mildred, Yancey’s mother. With tears in his eyes he embraced Mildred, and said, “Oh Slyvie, you’ve come to me at last!” No one had the heart to tell him that he was “hallucinating grace.”[4] I wonder if Jesus waited at the well for this particular Samaritan woman because she was thirsting for grace. I wonder if the story of her life – hidden in the remark about five husbands – was full of heartbreak, and disappointment, and loneliness. I wonder if, in response to the whispers, she carried grief and guilt and gall that was even heavier than her water jar. I wonder if she had tried to fit in, tried to conform to people’s expectations; tried to hold her tongue, all for not. I’ll bet some of you know what that is like. Maybe that’s why Jesus waited in the hot sun for a chance to share God’s particular grace with her.

 

Maybe. But I think there was another reason. I think Jesus knew she would be the perfect conduit to carry living water to her village. They didn’t know him from Adam. Actually, it was worse than that. They knew he was a Jew. And that was enough to mean they wouldn’t listen to anything he had to say – no matter how thirsty they were. So Jesus sought out this woman – a woman Farris described as “insolent, defensive, strong and determined” You see it in her sharp tongue and her sharp wits. She is not afraid to talk to a stranger, a man, a Jew. I cannot imagine that she would be afraid to speak boldly to her neighbors. Maybe Jesus waits for her because he knows she will be an able evangelist! By the end of the story, many in the village believed because of her. They invited Jesus to stay with them for two more days – eating and drinking and talking together, Samaritans and Jews! Could it be that was why Jesus waited for her? Could it be that’s why Jesus waits for us? Amen

[1] “Christ and the Samaritan Woman at the Well” by Julio Romero de Torres [2] From his reflections on the text for the Christian Century, 3/11/14 [3] From “Unlikely Messenger” her reflections on the text in the Christian Century, 2/13/02 [4] From her interview at https://katebowler.com/podcasts/philip-yancey-the-scandal-of-grace/
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