In the Name...
Several years ago, I was conducting a rehearsal for a wedding where the bride had asked a friend to read from the First Letter of John, chapter 4, beginning at verse 16. It's a very moving and poetic text about love. Well, I wanted to test the sound system, so I asked her friend to go and read from the lectern Bible. I'm glad I did, because she looked confused when confronted by an actual Bible and she turned, not to the First Letter of John, but to the Gospel of John and proceeded to read the 16th verse of the 4th chapter, "You have had five husbands and you're living with a man who is not your husband." It really happened.
In some ways, our Gospel text today is too well known. How often have we been told about that immoral Samaritan woman - much married and shacking up? That's why she's drawing water by herself in the middle of the day. She wasn't welcome, you see, in the early morning company of proper women. And, that's partially true. She is a social outcast, but, perhaps not for anything she's done. Nobody says her husbands divorced her as an adulteress. In fact, she'd have been stoned to death long ago were that the case. And Jesus never tells her she has to repent of anything. No, we might consider that tragedy, not immorality, may be her curse. All her husbands may have simply died. Such things happened back then, and happen today. Maybe she's considered bad luck. An innocent victim of circumstance and prejudice.
And it is with this shunned woman that Jesus has his longest conversation recorded in the Scripture.
It's a strange story for St. John to give us, not least because it's so untypical of the concise style he usually uses. The story is full of unnecessary detail and footnotes. It’s hard to read aloud with all the parenthetical phrases. I mean, do we need to know that the woman left her water jar leaning up against the side of the well? And it's awkward. You can imagine great gaps of silence.
It starts with some banter about drinking and then, when Jesus mentions her sex life, she changes the subject to a discussion about liturgy. I'd tell him to mind his own business. It is strange, but, it's a counterpoint to the story we heard in the Gospel last week, that other conversation which was also a bit strange.
Last week, we heard how Jesus met Nicodemus, a prominent Jewish leader, privately in the dead of night. Today, he meets a nameless and outcast Samaritan woman in a public place at high noon. Nicodemus is the sort of person you'd expect to have a deep understanding about Scripture and theology - far more than a peasant who belongs to a heretical sect. And yet, Nicodemus leaves his encounter perplexed and troubled. The Samaritan woman, on the other hand, is so excited by what she's heard that she can't wait to tell everybody she knows.
A man and a woman; night and day; private and public; insider and outsider; pensive and enthusiastic; these are all contrasts we're drawn to consider, but, the two conversations also have a common element, an imagery which ties them together and is key to understanding everything Jesus says in both of them. It is the imagery of water.
To Nicodemus, Jesus said, "No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit." And to the Samaritan woman he said, "The water I will give will become a spring of water gushing up to eternal life." In both cases, Jesus associates water and life and with good reason. Water is not only central to both conversations, it's central to life itself.
Three-fourths of our globe is water and 80% of our bodies. Water supplies energy to power our industries and technologies. Agriculture depends on rain and irrigation. Cooking, cleaning - it's hard to imagine anything which doesn't involve it. We can even go without food for weeks on end, but, without water, a few days, at most.
That may be why humans instinctively sense a sacredness in water. The gods of Egypt came from the Nile. The Ganges remains holy to the Hindus. The idea of a Fountain of Youth enticed Europeans to cross an ocean. Indeed, the early Christians regarded water as a symbol of the Trinity because of the beauty and power found in its three forms - as snowflakes and icicles; in waterfalls and ocean waves; and as mist and rainbows.
And the Bible tells us that God likes to play with water. In Genesis, the Spirit hovers over the waters and life begins. In Noah's time, a deluge purifies the world and makes a new beginning. Moses brings his people to freedom through the Red Sea, and, as we heard this morning, God sustained his people in the desert with water flowing from a rock.
John the Baptist called people to repentance with a washing ceremony and Jesus turned water into wine, walked upon waves, stilled storms, and caused the sea to produce fish in abundance. By showing himself, then, to be the master of water, Jesus showed himself to be the master of life and we, like the Samaritan woman, can believe him when he says, "If anyone thirsts, let him come to me."
For that woman of Samaria has a deep thirst. Her life had not been good. However her five marriages had ended, each event had no doubt been emotionally devastating. Jesus took her spiritual thirst and connected it with the life-giving water that only God can provide and she responded. Nicodemus, on the other hand, didn't realize how dry he was and it troubled him when he found out.
There are times when everyone is thirsty. There are times when life seems shallow and without purpose, when we can find no peace of mind, when doubt or fear paralyzes us, when anxiety seems to tear us apart. For such times, Jesus offers us what he offered the Samaritan woman.
He knows we thirst for acceptance in a desert of rejection, for forgiveness in a parched land of sins, for hope in the dry despair of our frustrations. And, to each of us who comes to him, Jesus provides living water to see us through the drought and bring us to the peace that can be found only in the presence of God.
The Samaritan woman found that peace and couldn't wait to share it. That's why we're told that seemingly unimportant detail that she left her water jar behind. You see, she had become a jar herself, bringing living water to the people of her city.
To be like the Samaritan woman, though, and be water jars, we have to remember water takes the shape of its container. To be life-giving to others, we need to adapt our words, our approach, our tone of voice, everything about us, to convey Christ's peace to young and old, introvert and extrovert, sick and healthy, faithful and faithless, self-consumed and the generous of spirit. That's how we'll reach them.
After all, in the words of the 16th verse of the 4th chapter of the First Letter of John, "God is love and those who love God, must love their brothers and sisters also."
May we show that love in all we say and do and bring many to Christ's living water.
In the Name.