Sunday, March 19, 2017
Jesus meets the Samaritan woman at the well: can you recall other people in the Bible who meet at a well? Jacob meets his wife Rachel, Rebecca meets her husband Isaac, Moses meets his wife Zipporah – one of the commentators I was reading this week described men and women meeting at the well as the Biblical version of “match.com!” A well – and in particular, Jacob’s well – was the place for men and women to meet and get to know one another in a socially acceptable way. But Jesus doesn’t go to the well to catch a date, or find a mate. He’s there to rest, he’s there because he’s thirsty, and he’s also there to tell this woman and others about this special kind of water he has – living water.
Just this week, if you could catch it amidst all of the political news, we heard reports of a widespread famine that will affect at least 20 million people in four countries: Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia, and Nigeria. In particular, the United Nations estimates about half of the population of Somalia is in danger of starving to death. That was staggering news when I read that! To put it closer to home for us, our bishop sharing at our synod staff meeting that Bishop Shoo of our companion Lutheran Church in Tanzania asked us directly for assistance, because Tanzanians are also suffering the effects of a failed winter crop. The winter crop failed because of drought – they simply didn’t get the rains they needed to grow adequate food. They’re hopeful for the next crop to bring relief as they do have rain now, but as you know human beings can’t live without water and food for a few months to wait for another crop to come in. Living in farm country in Stromsburg for three years, I learned what it meant to really pray for rain, or to pray for the rain to stop. But our farming technology, irrigation systems, and land wealth is such that farmers would worry about having a failed crop, but insurance would probably cover it – a big hit to the savings account or even bankruptcy was possible, but I don’t think anyone was actually worried about starving to death. Here in the city, we’re that much more removed from our dependency on water. It struck me as I heard this news of famine in Africa that Jesus is talking to people for whom thirst, hunger, and the threat of starvation was much more real than it is for us. The community needed that well – for water, for crops and livestock, even for matchmaking and relationship building. If we think about it in this way, this well being literally a source of life for the Samaritans – we can see how this woman is confused and intrigued when Jesus talks about “living water.”
Listen to how Jesus describes this living water: “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.” The Samaritan woman wants that water – she’ll never have to go to this well again. She won’t have to worry about if the well runs dry, or if the water gets contaminated. But what Jesus offers her goes deeper than meeting her physical thirst for water: Jesus knows her and what she’s done. He offers her a different way of life where she is no longer defined by her past—by how many husbands she’s had or her work to bring her household water. Jesus calls her to be a disciple – to follow him, to worship God, and to share what she’s learned about living water with others, which she does.
We take water for granted. All we have to do is turn on a faucet, and it’s there, usually drinkable right from the tap. I’ve had the opportunity to travel to countries where you need to use bottled water even to brush your teeth in hotels because the sanitation and plumbing systems are inadequate. When I was in Guatemala staying with a host family, we were told explicitly to shut off the water in the shower when we shampooed and soaped up and limit our shower time to less than five minutes because using the water was so expensive, and the family only could get so many minutes of hot water a day. It’s only times like these, if you’ve gone primitive camping or travelled as well, that you are grateful for the gift that water is for us – this gift God gives us that ALL of us need to survive.
I wonder, then, if we can so easily take something as basic as water for granted – something that we use every day—if we also take Jesus’ offer to us of living water for granted. Jesus has given us the gift of salvation – a relationship with God that lasts eternally – something even more precious and life-giving than water. How often do we stop to thank God for that gift? How often, like the Samaritan woman at the well, do we tell others about it?
God uses water throughout Scripture so that we can pay better attention to God through something we have to use every day. Every day, when we use water – when we get a drink, wash our hands, wash the dishes, or take a shower, when it rains, we can remember God’s overwhelming, abundant, gracious love for us through Jesus Christ. When Jesus meets with the woman at the well, Jews AND Samaritans would recognize the familiar biblical stories – hey, that’s where Rachel met Jacob, and Isaac met Rebecca – God loves us enough to meet us at the well to give us life-giving water, too. Noah and the flood, Moses and the rock, the Israelites crossing the Red Sea, the baptism of Jesus at the river Jordan…the Bible is full of God saving people with water. This isn’t because the water itself is particularly special, but because God acts and saves all the time with ordinary things. God promises us salvation at our baptism, with ordinary tap water at this font, or maybe it was a pool, or a lake or a river for you: God used that water to offer you living water through Jesus Christ. God said, “I know who you are, and what you’ve done.” But that’s not the end of the story for us, just like it isn’t the end of the story for the Samaritan woman. With ordinary water, God saves us from ourselves, from all we might do or leave undone, so that we would know apart from whatever we’ve done, we belong to God, that we were created by God to worship him in Spirit and truth. Just like the water we use every day, we’re surrounded by reminders of God’s gracious and saving love for us. May Jesus’ reminder to look to him for living water inspire us to see that grace, to thank God for it, and to respond. We can respond in all kinds of ways: whether it’s building a well like we did for our anniversary project to give more people access to water, using the water we have more wisely, sharing our faith with someone else like the woman at the well, simply praying for all those who are affected by drought and thirst – physical and spiritual drought. May ordinary water remind us of the extraordinary living water of Christ. Amen.