Come Now to the Water
Come Now to the Water
Robert P. Hoch
First & Franklin Presbyterian Church
Baltimore MD 21201
March 15, 2020
5So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph.6Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.
7A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” 8(His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) 9The 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.) 10Jesus 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.” 11The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” 13Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14but 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.” 15The 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.”
16Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” 17The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’ 18for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” 19The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. 20Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” 21Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. 24God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” 25The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” 26Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”
27Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” 28Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, 29“Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” 30They left the city and were on their way to him.
31Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” 32But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” 33So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?” 34Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. 35Do 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. 36The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. 37For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ 38I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”
39Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” 40So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. 41And many more believed because of his word. 42They 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.”
Our narrator tells us that Jesus was tired. And, evidently, he was also thirsty. He was taking an unusual path — ordinarily, a good Jewish teacher like Jesus would avoid going through Samaria. Samaritans and Jews shared a common ancestry, represented in this well, Jacob’s Well, but they were not on speaking terms. Differences in religion, differences in geography, some bad behavior on both sides of the family tree. Short story, Jews would ordinarily take another path to get to Galilee, perhaps to avoid just this kind of scenario.
That’s one odd piece of this text, the particular path of Jesus. He takes it deliberately. But the thing here that Jesus was tired, so tired maybe he had sat down on the ground, that should get our attention, too. Imagine, if you can, the image of Jesus, tired.
To the woman approaching, he might have just been a slumped figure; there was probably no shade because it was the middle of the day. Hot sun beating down. Maybe his head hung low. Apparently, he had nothing to draw water with. His disciples had gone into the city to buy food. And he found himself alone, at this ancient well.
Maybe he wasn’t the only one. The woman at the well speaks to me that way. Somehow, it’s not difficult to imagine her feeling a little footsore, shoulder sore, soul sore. The narrator does not give her a name. The narrator stresses her gender, identifying her as a Samaritan woman twice, and as a woman twelve times. She carries a water jar, which would have been work associated with women generally and poor women in particular. Water for drinking, water for washing, water for animals, water to keep all kinds of human thirsts at bay. She was always pouring out — but never really filling up. Jacob’s well. It’s got a name because it’s usually reliable . . . except, maybe it doesn’t go quite deep enough.
These days, we don’t go to Jacob’s well for our needs. Maybe closer to our existential place is the grocery store. Wegmans, Save-A-Lot, Safeway. You go to these wells today and you’ll see things you haven’t seen in a long time: Empty shelves. Bread aisles, reduced to a few stray, unhappy loaves. And . . . no toilet paper anywhere to be found in Baltimore. I’m not sure what COVID-19 has to do with our bowels, but it’s a thing apparently. We drove to two different stores looking for toilet paper on Friday night. You probably didn’t need to know that, but, in my defense, today’s text is personally disclosive! It seems as if the things we rely on are maybe only partially reliable. Or they are only partially satisfactory.
Sometimes I run to relieve stress. And my neighbor, Daniel, does, too. It’s his passion and my pass-time. But we like to run for many of the same reasons: it’s rejuvenating; it’s cardio exercise; he says it’s a form of mindfulness. But the other evening, Wednesday, he was coming down our street, finishing the run and I said, “Good run?” — it was half question, half statement. He looked disappointed. “No,” he said. “All this is really getting to me.” “All this” meant the COVID-19 pandemic. We talked about it, on the sidewalk outside our homes. We talked about the university’s response, our government, Italy under a national quarantine, the lethality question, why cancelling so many things might make sense, and why it might not, what we know, and what we don’t know. The run is usually so reliable, but on Wednesday, we were still thirsty. Maybe if you’d looked closely, you’d have seen those runner’s endorphins leaking out onto the sidewalk, sipped up by the bone-dry thirst of worry, of not knowing.
Maybe you came to the well of church today looking for a drink, to refresh. If we did, we might be a bit taken aback that Jesus is as thirsty as we are and perhaps less well-equipped for drawing water than we would expect.
Jesus asks the woman to give him, the Thirsty One, water to drink. Ironic. Jesus turns water into wine. The one who self-describes as Living Water, this one thirsts. What the narrator may be developing here is a motif that will thread its way through John’s story, all the way to the end of Jesus’ life, when he again will say, I thirst. Then they will try to satisfy his thirst with sour wine, which is to say, they miss entirely the thirst of God in this story. The thirst is for our salvation, the thirst is for life and life in abundance. The Samaritan woman may have sensed that Jesus’ thirst was somehow different to the well-known thirsts of men. Her sense of this is suggested in the dialogue. Jesus says, “If you knew who it is that is asking you, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water;” and she says, “Let’s keep it real — you’ve got no bucket, the well is deep — just where are you going to that water?”
There’s more to it than that. But you get the picture — the two tired, thirsty people who introduced this text have changed dramatically in just three verses. It’s gone from Jesus asking her for water, a closed question, to her asking Jesus “where” is this water of which he speaks, an open question.
Around this point, the text shifts from this banter to some probing that may feel complicated. The question about the woman’s marital past is a bit of red herring for some interpreters. They can’t help but pursue this as evidence that she was a sinner in need of conversion. She had five husbands. John Calvin said Jesus asked her this because she was a difficult woman, she was too talkative. Jesus wanted to shut her down.
But read carefully: Jesus doesn’t judge her for this. He’s very matter fact. He’s not condemning her. And if you don’t believe me, listen to her. She doesn’t express remorse, not even in the slightest. Sin isn’t the issue. What is the significance of this reference to five husbands? We don’t know. We can make some informed guesses. The five husbands might be symbolic, referring to Samaritan polytheism — five gods. And perhaps the man she has now, Rome, is not her husband either. What is important is that this is a theological rather than moral dialogue. Where, she asks, is the true place to worship God? —this has nothing to do with her marital status and everything to do with Jesus coming as not only God’s salvation for the Jew but also for the Gentile.
Not condemnation, but God so loves the world. And it’s about Jesus but also about Jesus with us, with our thirst, and Jesus powerful to quench our thirst, by perhaps drawing us into an awareness or a knowledge of God’s great love for us. Jesus never judges her. Instead, he self-discloses as the Messiah — the very first person in John’s Gospel to hear Jesus say these words: “I am the one, the messiah, and I am speaking to you, to you, and you alone.”
But you know what? She’s not sure. She leaves her water jar at Jacob’s well. She runs back to the village. She does not say “Behold the lamb of God that removes the sin of the world!” She does not say, “My Lord and my God!” She does not say, “You are the Christ!” She does say, “I just met somebody who knew my whole life story. He cannot be the messiah, can he?”
We will go to the equivalent of Jacob’s well. We will go frequently. And I’m sure that we may wonder if the well has finally run dry. For me, it feels like midday in the fever of a pandemic, no sign of cool coming any time soon. No relief from the news. From worry. We’re more than a little footsore, heart-sore, soul-sore.
In a way, the woman meets us at our level. On a run for water, bread. Nourishment. She’s not what you’d call a professional theologian. Not like Nicodemus was. And yet, unlike Nicodemus, she questions Jesus almost as much as Jesus questions her. And she’s got that bucket nearby. The well is still there. And her thirst, too. But maybe like her, we feel something refreshing, rejuvenating rising up in us. We didn’t expect it. Not like this anyway.
God shows up in the middle of the day, when all of us are exhausted. This story doesn’t happen in church. It’s at a well, in a public place.
Only yesterday, walking back from the park with the kids, trying to get away from the four walls, we met member of his church. She was walking her dog, a Shee-tzu puppy. Iris got down, on its level, and it jumped up on her, licking, and it didn’t take long before Iris was engulfed in a giggling thrill, which everyone noticed. A passerby said, “That’s such a beautiful sound.” Let’s not be sentimental, though. The Samaritan woman isn’t. Maybe that’s why I like her. She sees the world as it is — where are you going to get this water? You got no bucket and the well is deep! — and yet, she is not so clear-eyed that she is blind to the world God so loves.
She’s not blind to the love that God conveys first to her, and then through her, to an entire community.
I am also drawn to this beautifully tender expression of not-quite fully formed belief: Could Jesus be living water? She left her water bucket at the well. That’s a message, isn’t it? Do you wonder: did she forget it? did she go back for it? Or was it like the boats and the nets that the disciples left when Jesus called them, “Come follow me!” Did she never draw water again? Or did she go to that well, draw water, and see more than mere water?
Did she glimpse in those waters the world God so loves, which included her own tender reflection?
May it be so for all us. Amen.