Thirsting for the water of life

She is a woman with a long past and little future, but Jesus accepts her as she is and draws her closer to the water of life.

Full Text: 

Quenching your thirst for life

February 2, 2014 – John 4:1-30


            For the last eight weeks, on most Thursday mornings, I have been going to the Columbia Correctional Institution in Portage.  Together with other volunteers and inmates, we sit in a circle and talk about our spiritual lives.  There are no questions about why the men are there or what they have done to be in a maximum security prison or even when they might be getting out.  There is only talk about our faith – from whatever tradition we claim – Christian, Buddhist, or Islam.  It’s a way of encouraging them – in the midst of their difficult lives – to find strength and courage and healing from their faith.

            Each week, we take a different question – Who first brought you to your faith tradition?  What are your present spiritual practices?  How do you connect with what is sacred?  What does your tradition have to say about death?  Last week, however, a UCC pastor led us in a slightly different exercise.  We were each given a postcard.  On cue, we were to turn them over and then, after reflecting on the picture, share how that picture was connected to our faith tradition.

            When I turned mine over, I was surprised to see a pioneer family from maybe 150 years ago.  It was a black and white picture and conveyed a hard life.  The people were standing in a row in front of a sod house. They were dressed in black clothes.  They were dusty and dirty.  My first thought was, “What does this possibly have to do with my faith?”  But then I realized that my ancestors lived that life – or something like it – after they came over from Scandinavia.

            Then I looked at the picture more closely.  Along with the people there was also a table.  On top of the table there were melons – watermelons – that had been cut open and they had been eating.  I realized that, even in the midst of that hard life, they had taken time to quench their thirst and to enjoy watermelons.

            It’s hard to remember, in the midst of this very cold and snowy winter, what hot and dry is like.  That’s how many of our ancestors lived 150 years ago.  It’s also how our spiritual ancestors in Israel lived much longer ago than that.  Where they lived water was a precious resource, so precious, in fact, that our desire for God was most often described as thirst – a thirst for God.


            So it is that Jesus comes to a well in the midst of a hot and dry land.  Not just any land, mind you, but Samaria. 

            Now, as you remember, after the death of King Solomon, the northern tribes split away from the south.  The capitol of the southern kingdom was Jerusalem and the name of that kingdom was, “Judah.”  So, their descendants were called, “Jews.”  The northern kingdom that had split off had its capitol in the city of Samaria.  So, their descendants were called, “Samaritans.” 

            In ancestry, Jews and Samaritans were “kissing cousins.”  But they are in no way affectionate with each other.  Jews regarded Samaritans as renegades, as betrayers and as half-breeds.  Or, to use a term from Harry Potter, “half-bloods,” rather than “pure bloods.”  There has been much intermarrying between Samaritans and other peoples.  They were closely related, and yet they were bitter enemies.

            Perhaps, for that reason, but not for any reason of geography, Jesus had to detour through Samaria on his way from Jerusalem to Galilee.


            Although she is a woman, although she is a Samaritan, and although she has no name, she has the longest conversation with Jesus that is recorded in the New Testament.  When Jesus asks her for a drink, she doesn’t mutely dip a cup in her bucket and bring it to him.  She presses him.  She digs deeper.  She asks, “Why?”

            “How is it that you – a man of Judah – are even speaking to me – a woman of Samaria?”

            So Jesus also pushes deeper – passed issues of gender and race and religion.

            “If you knew what God freely gives and who it is that is offering it to you, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water. “

            “Sir, you don’t even have a bucket to draw from this well and it is deep.  It is, in fact, Jacob’s well.  Are you more important than Jacob?”

            She doesn’t quite get where Jesus is going, but she doesn’t give up.  She seems determined to follow him.  She invokes their great common ancestor Jacob.  He watered his livestock at this well. He provided water for his family.  He even drank from this very well himself. 

            If you drink this water – as good as it is – you will get thirsty again and again.  If you drink the water that I offer, you will never be thirsty again.  You will have tapped into an endlessly flowing river of life.

            Now that’s a kind of water I could really use!

            The woman still doesn’t get it.  In fact, Jesus seems to be staying one step ahead of her.  But she keeps at it.  Still, she probably couldn’t have guessed what is coming next.


            Go call your husband and come back.

            I have no husband.

            Indeed!  You have had five husbands and the one you live with now is not your husband.

            Many commentators take this as proof that the woman is a prostitute.  Yet there is no evidence that she is.  Jesus never mentions sin, never calls her to repentance, and doesn’t say (as he does in chapter 8) “Go and sin no more.”  She could easily have been widowed, abandoned or divorced.  Five times would be heart-breaking, but it wouldn’t be impossible.  And even if it just happened once, in that culture, she would not have had a leg to stand on.

            Jesus does not judge her or condemn her.  He accepts her as she is.

            Then she says, “Where do I find God?”  This is not an idle question, a way of avoiding talk about her past.  It is the basic human thirst – Where do I find God?  It is also the core issue dividing Jews and Samaritans – the place of true worship.  Where do I go to worship God?  For Samaritans, it was on that mountain.  For Jews, it was in Jerusalem. 

            Jesus acknowledges the differences.  He even claims the priority of the Jews – he and the disciples are Jewish, after all!  But he says, “A new day is coming!”

            The day is coming and now is when it won’t matter who you are or where you come from.  It will only matter that you bring your whole self – who you simply and honestly are – to God.

            The woman is still unsure.  Perhaps because she has had so many husbands – her past is so filled with grief and rejection and disappointment and pain – she is not ready to commit.

            I don’t know about that.  I do know that the Messiah will come one day and we’ll get the whole story from him.

            I am.  I am the one you are waiting for.


            Jesus, for the first time, uses the ancient name for God revealed to Moses – I am who I am.  It is not the last time he will use it – I am the bread of life.  I am the light of the world.  I am the good shepherd.  I am the resurrection and the life.  But here – with this unnamed Samaritan woman – he uses it for the first time.  I am.

            And he does so at noon.  Yes, in contrast to Nicodemus, it is in the light of day in which she comes to the well and finds Jesus.  But it is also the hour that Jesus is turned over by Pilate to be crucified.  And after he dies, just to make sure that he is dead, a soldier pokes a spear in his side.  And out of his side comes blood and water, the living water that comes from God, the living water that satisfies all thirst, the living water that leads to eternal life.

            You may feel as though no one could ever love because of what your past has been like.  You may feel as though no one could ever love you because of where you’re likely headed.  The truth is that God knows all that.  God knows where you’ve been.  God knows where you’re headed. God has seen it all.  And God loves you.  God has always loved you.  God will always love you. 


            And when you have tasted that love in Jesus, then you will have found the never-ending water of life!