The Way of Searching for Water

Sometimes, a story tells you everything in the very first paragraph.

This is that kind of story.

Scripture can be found here....

Jesus “had to go through Samaria,” the gospel-writer tells us.

Well… strictly speaking, the fastest way from Judea to Galilee is the road through Samaria. But in Jesus’ day? Jews didn’t travel that way. They crossed the Jordan, and traveled along Samaria’s eastern border, and avoided going to that place. Filled with those people.

Jews despised Samaritans, and Samaritans despised Jews. They did everything they could to avoid being in close proximity to one another. It was an old, old story, a family feud, like so many of the stories that grip us… so many of the stories in the bible.

But Jesus had to go through Samaria.

And, when in Samaria, Jesus finds himself sitting by Jacob’s well.

Well, well, well.

That tells us, what we are about to hear is a love story.

In the book of Genesis, when he is on the run from a brother who’d like to kill him, Jacob comes to this very well, in this very town (though its Hebrew name is “Shechem”), and he meets Rachel. They “meet cute,” you might say, Rachel needing an intervention from a strong guy, to get an enormous stone cover off the well—this very well—so that she can water her father’s flock. And what happens next is like a dream… it’s like a movie! Jacob kisses Rachel, and there, it’s done. It’s love. It’s a love story.

Jesus is sitting by this well. And then, a woman shows up. And we now know exactly what’s going to happen. Jesus had to go through Samaria, because this is a love story.

But there’s something odd, too. The woman isn’t there at dawn or dusk, when it’s coolest. She’s there at noon, when the sun is high and no one—but no one—wants to go carrying around an enormous stone jug.

It’s almost as if she’s hoping not to run into anyone.

Jesus asks her for a drink.

Just to be clear, this is a woman, and there’s a pretty strict code of behavior in place that has just been violated.

Also to be clear: this is a Samaritan woman, so remember: these two have been socialized to despise one another.

“How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?”  She has a point. She has several.

Then, in parentheses, the text tells us, “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.” What it says in Greek is, “don’t use the same things”… like cups, or utensils. Drinking from the same cup is an intimate act.

And Jesus replies playfully. He’s asking for water, but there is an irony here: Jesus understands himself to be the living water. “If you only knew,” he says, a twinkle in his eye, “You would be asking me for water.”

At this point, the woman may well have been thinking something like, O, fine, I’ve got a live one here. She points out the plain facts of the situation: She has a bucket, and Jesus has none. Unless… and she remembers the story of Jacob… falling in love at the well. Jacob is her ancestor, too, the patriarch of both Samaritans and Jews. “Are you telling me you are a bigger deal than Jacob?” she asks.

And, just like in the love stories, they spar verbally with one another, even as they are drawing closer… Jesus describes the living water to the woman, and it is a description designed to arouse the desire for water, even for someone who doesn’t know they’re thirsty. “Those who drink the water that I will give them,” he says, “will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”

Captivated, the woman is ready. “Give it to me,” she says. “Give me what will slake my thirst forever.”

Our church has entire litanies devoted to water. Every time someone is baptized, or every time we ordain or install someone as a deacon or elder, we remember the gift of water as it is described throughout scripture. The waters of creation. The waters of the flood, buoying the ark to safety and a second chance for humanity. The waters of the Red Sea/ Sea of Reeds, which the Hebrews cross as they run from slavery and towards freedom. The waters of the Jordan, across which the Ark of the Covenant is carried, and later, in which Jesus is baptized. Water tells the whole story of salvation.

I’ve been watching “The West Wing,” a wonderful series with terrific acting and storytelling, and in one episode I saw not too long ago, there was a crisis in the Middle East. President Bartlet is meeting in the situation room all the military leaders, and all the national security leaders, and, suddenly, out of nowhere, he tells them a story. It’s about his daughter. He says,

Ellie had a teacher named Mr. Purdy, who had no interest in nuance. He asked the class why there's always been conflict in the Middle East and Ellie raised her hand and said, “It's a centuries old religious conflict involving land and suspicions and culture and...” “Wrong.” Mr. Purdy said, “It's because it's incredibly hot and there's no water.”[i]

Water is life. Water is salvation. Without water, there is no life, no salvation. And the living water, as Jesus embodies it, is eternal life—life in which the love of the living God is revealed to us both, in the here and now, and forever, always.

I told you: It’s a love story.

And, as in all love stories, there is a bit of a dance, a bit of a posture, a bit of a stance. Instead of saying, “Sure, here you go, drink up and keep the faith…” Jesus suddenly throws down a conversational gauntlet that… well, it does that thing that happens on successful first dates… those times when you meet someone for coffee, or maybe a drink, and you start talking, and suddenly, oh my gosh, you’ve told them your whole life story, they’ve told you theirs, and you’ve decided to have dinner, too, and then it’s five hours later. And you’re still talking. And you don’t ever want to stop telling your story, or hearing theirs, because it’s love, and you are positively thirsting to hear more, and more, and more.

Jesus tears down the Samaritan woman’s carefully constructed emotional wall, “Go get your husband,” he says…. and then she is telling him, and he is telling her… everything. The current situation. The ancient history. The parts that are embarrassing. Maybe humiliating.

Women in Jesus’ day didn’t get married and then decide it wasn't working out, and move on. They were given in marriage by their closest male relative, usually a father, and then they became the property of their husband, for all legal purposes. The husband was entirely in control of whatever happened next… and this woman, who has been married five times, I can promise you, has been divorced five times by her husband, most likely because she is can’t have children. If she is unmarried now, it’s most likely because she’s seen as damaged goods. But nothing—nothing—that has happened to her, in terms of her marital status, has been her direct choice or within her control.

Jesus knows all that, and more.

And Jesus doesn’t care about any of it. The living water is hers for the asking...

But she’s still talking, now she’s on to the Messiah, because, I think, the hairs are standing up on the back of her neck, because suddenly she understands this is not, emphatically, not, about buckets—or, about buckets alone.  It is about buckets in this sense: Jesus is teaching love. Love one another. Put down your weapons and share the water. Put down your guns and share the food. Put down your lives for your friends and enemies alike, and forgive and welcome one another. So, it is about the buckets… and it is about so much more.

Jesus had to go through Samaria. My friend miller reminded me this week of a quote by the medieval Islamic poet Jalaluddin Rumi: “Not only do the thirsty seek the water, the water as well seeks the thirsty.”

Jesus had to go through Samaria, because there was a woman there who was dying of thirst, though she may not have known it, and Jesus needed to show her his way of searching for water, his way of sparking love, which is: you let it find you, because it has been looking for you all along.

In the end, the woman from Samaria becomes this gospel’s first evangelist. She runs, runs from there, leaving behind a jar she no longer needs, to tell everyone and anyone who would listen: “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!” And then, perhaps, with a twinkle in her eye, “He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”

Jesus had to go through Samaria because another disciple awaited him there, ready to become part of his love story… a story of connection, and recognition, and a thirst that reveals itself, bit by bit. He had to go, because he was the living water, and the water seeks the thirsty.

This is a love story. It’s our love story. In Jesus, God offers us connection and recognition, and awakens in us a thirst for God’s love, which, of course, can only be quenched by being poured out, for any, and for all.

Thanks be to God. Amen.


[i] “College Kids,” Teleplay by: Aaron Sorkin; Story by: Debora Cahn and Mark Goffman; The West Wing, Created by Aaron Sorkin, Episode first aired October 2, 2002.