Scripture passage: John 4
Meditation Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters… Incline your ear and come to me; listen, so that you may live. (Isaiah 55:1 & 3)
Children A brother and a sister were walking along. They were walking with a crowd of people so big they could not see the beginning of it, or the end of it. As the walked, dust swirled up into their noses and throats. They coughed and blew their noses because everything was so dry and dusty.
The brother and sister and all the people had been walking every day for a long time. They carried bundles and bags. . They had no home. Together, they had a left the place where they used to live, which the brother and sister remembered as a place of hard work and cruelty. In the old place, they had carried heavy bricks all day, and they had to be very careful to avoid the whips of the men who suprvised the brick work. Now, the brother and sister were not sure where they were going. They only knew that they had been walking every day for a long time.
That night when the people set up camp, the brother and sister sat down to rest in their families tent, and they heard the grown ups start to argue. “We need water, and there is no water here to drink,” voices shouted. “Why isn’t there water? Is is God’s plan for us to die out here in the desert?” The voices sounded very angry. They began to chant, “Moses, Moses, give us water!”
The brother and sister crept from their tent, around the edges of the crowd. They knew what Moses looked like, though the didn’t get to see him often. He usually walked at the front of the crowd, and they were usually closer to the back. But today they wiggled around tents and through the legs of grown-ups until they could see Moses and the other leaders. Moses was talking in a loud voice to God.
“God,” said Moses, “What am I going to do with these people? They’re so angry I think they’re going to start throwing stones at me in a minute.” Moses must have heard some kind of answer from God, because he picked up his walking stick and started marching away from camp. His top helpers followed him, and so did the brother and sister. They wanted to see what would happen.
Moses came to a very large rock. He lifted up his walking stick, and held it like a spear. All of a sudden, he hit the stick hard against the rock. Something broke, or shifted in the rock, and water began pouring out of it. The people let up a cheer, and ran to get their cups and buckets. Everyone drank as much as they needed. The cool water felt wonderful on the dusty, dry throats of the brother and sister.
Later, somone was brave enough to ask Moses how he knew which rock to hit. “God was standing on top of it,” he explained.
Dear God, thank you for the gift of water, which keeps us alive and healthy. Thank you for the gift of water that causes the plants to grow. Thank you for the gift of water which we use to keep our clothes and bodies clean. Thank you for providing what we need. Help us to remember your grace and mercy always. Amen.
Perhaps it will be helpful to begin our reflections this morning with a consideration of how precious and essential water is to life. Like the people of the ancient lands described in the Bible, we too live in a relative desert and can appreciate how unusual a thing it is to have reservoirs filling up and water overflowing from the dams. We are well acquainted with times of drought, worry and conflict over water. Although not this year, there have been many years when we longed for rain.
On the other hand, because of the all the conveniences well established in our lives, we probably have a tendency to take water more for granted than we should. We turn on the tap, and out comes clean water. We cook, we drink, we wash clothes and dishes, we water lawns. We know we can look forward to a hot shower in the morning to gently wake us up, or a hot bath in the evening to soak away the trials of the day.
In other times, and in other lands even today, water has not necessarily been so easy to come by. Donna Sinclair recalls traveling from the US to Kenya and staying in a small village. This is her report. “Every morning in Dumbeni, when I went to the bathhouse — a tiny roofless brick enclosure — a large basin of hot water was waiting for me. I could stand and wash the dust out of my hair, and pour hot water over my head and all down my body. Every morning [this sign of hospitality was waiting for me]. The women of the village had to carry water for a long distance. They had to collect firewood piece by precious piece. There were no taps, no water heaters, and there was no electricity. Every basin of water, heated over an open fire, represented hours of work.”
Donna is describing a world like that of the Samaritan. A world in which endless trips are made to the well to get drinking water for people and animals, cooking and washing water for the family. A world where plants grow or don’t grow, famine comes or is staved off, depending on a small amount of rain, or a trickle of water from a well. A world where water is literally life, and health, and hope, and every drop is precious.
Even today, even here, we know that good health depends on clean water. And though we have elaborate systems of water storage, water treatment, and water transport which allow most of us to spend our time on other things besides getting water, we have not found a way to live without water, and it doesn’t take long being without water to remember that our lives depend on it. So when Jesus says, “I want to give you living water,” we can understand that Jesus is saying, for God, that he wants to give us a never-ending supply of life and peace, health and contentment, hope and strength. We can realize that Jesus’ offer is consistent with how God has acted in the past, providing water from a rock for his people in the wilderness, and using the voice of the prophet to beckon, “Come, all you who are thirsty. Listen to me, and live.” And we can hear his words addressed to us, because by including and incorporating the Samaritan woman in his ministry, Jesus eliminated any distinction between “included people” and “rejected people.”
Jesus, the Word of God, the Lamb of God, the Son of God, the Annointed One (these are the titles used so far in John’s gospel to make clear that Jesus is sent from God, represents God, and shares essential being with God) … Jesus says, “You could have asked me, and I would have given you living water.” This is the holy scripture. Jesus is speaking to us. The offer still stands. And yet so often we go through our days dried up to the point of desicated, thirsty and weak, parched and in despair. What keeps us from lowering our buckets and filing our cups with God’s love, grace, and mercy?
Well, for one thing, maybe we don’t think we deserve it. Maybe, like the Samaritan woman, we’ve come to believe what society says about us. We’re contaminated. Our theology is wrong. Our problems are our own fault. We have some flaw that justifies people avoiding us and looking down on us. “You are asking me to help you get a drink?” the woman asks Jesus in astonishment. Jewish men and Samaritan women NEVER associate with each other.
The distinctions built up between groups of people have been replicated over and over again in human history. It wasn’t that long ago that this country had laws prohibiting people of different skin color from drinking out of the same fountain. “The preoccupation with protected boundaries between peoples is age old,” points out Gail O’Day. “People and nations define themselves over and against other groups.” She cites the history of race relations in the United States, the notion of racial purity that gave rise to Hitler’s ideology, the ethnic wars that wax and wane across the globe as examples of how people fearfully cling to and violently defent preceived privileges and advantages. It happens at the most local level as well as between nations. There is always a high cost to such behavior, including the tendency for such mindsets and false distinctions to become ingrained even in those who are hurt by them. It is not that surprising, actually, that people who have absorbed a lot of negative messages about who they are have a hard time accepting that generous and life-giving gifts could be meant for them. So Jesus takes the time to convey to the woman at the well that he knows her through and through, he knows everything there is to know about her, and still wants to give her water from the hand of God.
Worship not about Jew being better than Samaritan, says Jesus, or temple being better than mountain. Worship is about being connected to the true spirit of God, and God is looking for people who will enter into real relationship with God, no matter who or where they are. So we are encouraged to stop thinking that somehow we don’t deserve God’s attention. God likes to give, and is looking simply for someone who will receive.
I am reminded of the story of a bucket that felt like it was a complete failure in life. This bucket was attached to one side of a pole that rested on a man’s shoulders. On the other end of the pole was another bucket, which seemed to be quite perfect. Every day when the man went to the river to get water, the perfect bucket never spilled a drop. The other bucket, though, had a small leak, and on the trip back from the river to the house, about half of the water usually drained out.
“You should throw me away,” said the bucket one day to the man. You’re doing all this work, but I’m causing you to loose so much of your water. “Look closely at the path I walk,” answered the man, “my plan is quite deliberate. See all those flowers growing along the edge of the road? You leak a steady stream of water, it is true, and where the water falls, the flowers grow. Stop worrying about your flaws, and just let me fill you and carry you. Without you, the world would not be such a beautiful place.”
Self-perceived inadequacies are one reason we live thirstier lives than necessary, when so much grace is right at hand. Another reason is that we get distracted by logistics and practicalities and demands placed upon us. We panic. “I don’t have time for this,” we say. “that’s impossible.” “It can’t be done,” we say, “it won’t happen.” We close ourselves off, without ever giving God a chance. We are reluctant to imagine that God might have mysterious ways of working that bring nourishment and refreshment from what looks like a barren landscape. We challenge potential sources of goodness, saying, “Who do you think you are? Who are you trying to kid?” Notice how patient Jesus is with the woman at the well, talking to her until something gets through, some glimmer of new possibility begins to animate her expression, and she rushes off saying, “Could God’s promises be near at hand for me? for us?” Jesus is patient with you and I also.
Jesus, you see, sits at Jacob’s well — a place of homecoming and reconciliation. This is a place that Jacob purchased and made his own after God had blessed him with a large family and with thriving flocks. Jacob’s trickery and his hard work had both costs and rewards, and when Jacob set out to return to familiar territory with all he had gained through years of labor, he wasn’t sure how his brother would receive him. Jacob wrestled with God, and then risked following God’s lead. Lo and behold, his brother acted glad to see him, and upon buying this land, and claiming this well, Jacob was home, in his “right” place, at last.
This same land, and this same well, was the same place the Hebrew people came back to after their years in Egypt. They went to Egypt originally in order to survive a famine, and they owed their survival to Joseph, a betrayed member of the family and long-lost beloved son of Jacob. Over time, the people became increasingly oppressed, and when Moses finally won their freedom, they brought the bones of Joseph with them, because they honored him and were grateful to him. Joshua was the leader who finally brought the people all the way back to their original starting place. When they were home at last, their first act was to bury Joseph’s bones in this long-awaited and one true resting place.
Jesus sits at the well which signfiies “home” and reminds people “we belong to God.” He is patiently waiting for his disciples. He is ready to offer living water. He invites us not to get bogged down in literalism, but to hold out our cups and receive his life-giving presence.
The story ends with a glimpse of what happens when we allow God to fill us with life and hope. When she came to draw water that day, the Samaritan woman may have thought she was all alone, or that God’s activity in the world was all in the past, or that she was at the rock bottom of the social scale and unworthy of God’s notice. She may have been thinking only of getting her water and getting back home to her other chores. But look at her now!
The woman at the well has become a messenger of good news. She has found a place at the heart of her community. She points the way to others, so that they can have their own encounter with Jesus and their own experience of salvation. She has learned to recognize who and what is sent from God. She has tasted true, spiritual worship. Her life is fresh and green and vital. All because she said “yes” to the spring of water, gushing up to eternal life.