(John 4: 1-30)
And to think, it all begins with a simple request:
Can I have a drink of water?
When I was a kid, those seven words were my secret weapon. Go to bed, it’s past your bedtime! said my parents pretty much every night. But I didn’t want to go to bed, because when you’re six and seven years old, sleep is an inconvenience. It gets in the way of all the good stuff. But still, it wasn’t like I had any say in the matter. I was the kid, they were the parents. They made the rules, I followed them.
Ah, but I had an ace in my pocket – or pajamas. So my request, offered up in the sweetest voice possible, no less than ten minutes after being tucked in:
Mom, Dad, can I have a drink of water?
And I’m telling you, the success rate was pretty high! What loving parent would ever deny their child the essential sustenance of life? Even if it’s a trick, it’s not like you’re asking for a Coke. I didn’t know it at the time, but where the human body can go for weeks without food, death is imminent if deprived of water after just a few days. So my late-night request was more than just a sleep-avoider – it was a matter of life and death!
Since becoming a parent myself, I’ve learned that history has a way of repeating itself and that there is such a thing as poetic justice, which would explain why one of my own children used to excel in this same ritual every night himself. I didn’t have to teach it to him. He knew it already.
Can I have a drink of water?
I try to put myself in the shoes – or sandals – of the Samaritan woman in our passage today. The woman who Jesus makes this request of. Of course, she didn’t know Jesus. To her, he was nothing than a stranger passing through town.
It’s around noon, we are told. The Galilean sun is at its apex, bearing down mercilessly on those underneath. No respite from the intense heat. So it was perfectly normal for this stranger Jesus to ask for a drink of water.
What is terribly abnormal about this request, though, is not what is asked but who it is asked of. Even the woman knows full well that men in her day and time, in her culture, do not talk to women, especially women they don’t know. They don’t just launch into a conversation with some strange woman at the local watering hole. They don’t ask favors from them. The gulf, the divide between the sexes, fully pronounced in ancient Palestine.
But more than that, the even greater divide: she a Samaritan, and he a Jew! Samaritans, a race of people long before part of the Jewish nation but separated by the kingdom split. Making their home in the north where the capital of Samaria was. Seen by their Jewish counterparts as less-than: they worshipped Yahweh, but not like we do. They read the Torah, but not the whole thing. Jews never spoke to Samaritans because they saw themselves as above them. Samaritans never spoke to Jews because…..well, why would they ever want to? The gulf, the divide between these Samaritans and Jews, fully pronounced in ancient Palestine.
Can I have a drink of water? the sleep-avoiding child asks his parents. Can I have a drink of water? a Jewish man asks a Samaritan woman.
We are, as you know, continuing in our Lenten sermon series, Encountering God. Looking at instances in the Bible where people like you and me have interacted, engaged, conversed, even wrestled and fought with God; trying to glean something for our own story, our own conversations with the Almighty; and how these encounters can lead us into deeper relationship with the One who created us and calls us beloved.
And up until now in this series, these encounters have been of, shall we say, an interesting variety – wrestling with angels and talking donkeys and things like that. But now, now we encounter God in human form, in Jesus – a real living, flesh-and-blood person meeting us at the local watering hole, making a simple request and crossing all kinds of divides in the process.
And it’s almost as if this woman at some level senses there is more going on here than a simple request for water, don’t you think? There has to be for this Jew to reach out to a Samaritan woman. A woman he seems to know in ways a stranger would not. You’ve had five husbands, he tells her, and the one you’re with now is not your husband. You know, it’s interesting to me, over the years, how we’ve taken this simple observation and scripted a narrative around it – a story of a sinful woman whose infidelity Jesus exposes.
Have you noticed that we tend to do this with women who find themselves around Jesus? Mary Magdalene? The woman anointing Jesus’ feet? And now, this woman at the well? Why do we do that? I’m just asking because nowhere in this passage does it say anything about infidelity – certainly not on the woman’s part. For all we know, the men could’ve been the unfaithful ones. For all we know, this woman could’ve been unable to have children; and that’s why the men abandoned her, one by one by one by one by one.
Jesus’ statement here is not condemnation, but loving observation: You’ve had a hard lot in life, I can tell. You are thirsty – but not for this well-water. Let me tell you about the kind of water you’re really thirsting for. Jesus gives it a name: living water. The Greek word: zao, meaning “to be alive, possessed with vitality.” Running, bubbly, free-flowing. I mean, even the word itself sounds alive – zao!
It does not take a lot of convincing for the Samaritan woman: Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty again, or have to keep coming back here to draw from this well.”
John’s gospel can be a challenge to read – Jesus always speaking in broad, ethereal strokes, metaphor, double meaning. But through the poetic prism, the central message of John’s fourth chapter is as clear as the water in that well: Jesus wants very much to have a conversation and be in relationship with this woman. This Samaritan woman. So much so that he’s willing to throw aside all protocol, all cultural norms, and reach out to someone that society would not expect or even want him to. To cross barriers and divides for the sake of the gospel and his love. To drink deeply from the gushing, bubbly living water he provides.
And Jesus knows the truth of it all, better than we know it ourselves: we need this water. We need it because only living water can quench the deeper thirst within us, within our communities, within our societies, within our world. We are thirsty, so thirsty for this kind of water.
You want to know what this thirst looks like? Turn on the news. Open the newspaper. Scan through your Twitter feed. As if you need to be told, we’re in the middle of an election cycle right now. A presidential election, nonetheless. The vitriol always cuts a little sharper, but I have to say, this time around it just feels more pronounced. Haven’t you felt it? It used to be that dissatisfaction, disappointment, desiring change were the things that drove voters to the polls. Now? It’s deeper than that. It’s anger. Intense wrath. Seven out of ten Americans, according to a recent poll.
All of which has led to a tone and tenor, on both sides of the aisle, that has shocked even longtime political observers. So we hear about banning muslims or building walls. We hear about an economy where the haves and have-nots are pitted against each other. No longer are fellow political candidates the subject of policy disagreements – now they are open targets for crude debasing taunts about one’s height, one’s ethnicity, and yes, even the size of one’s hands.
Our political discourse has degraded to the point where divides are not lessened but widened – intentionally. And this concerns me not just as a citizen, not just as a pastor, but as a parent. I mourn the fact that the only political discourse my boys have experienced in their short lives is one where the name of the game is choosing sides and doing everything possible to eliminate the other. One not designed to bring people together for common ground, but for concocting the harshest rhetoric possible against another candidate, a race of people, an entire religion.
And it saddens me. It saddens me because our country deserves better. Our children deserve better. But more than all that, it saddens me because so much of this is done in the name of Jesus, by people who believe in Jesus, by people who actually think this is what Jesus wants. The same Jesus who started a conversation and began a relationship at the well with a Samaritan woman – precisely the kind of person that everyone, disciples included, had always avoided, discounted, demonized.
So let’s be clear here, shall we: there is no place in the Christian faith for isolationism, discrimination, bigotry, fear-mongering, or division. None at all. If our passage today tells us anything, my friends, it is this! Along with thousands of other passages in holy scripture that call the people of God – us – to love unconditionally, welcome the immigrant, reach out to our enemies, care for the widow and orphan, and leave the edges of our fields unharvested for the poor to glean from.
Granted, it’s hard to do this sort of stuff when we’re wired to do the exact opposite. When we are so, so very thirsty. That is why we need to drink deep from the living waters Jesus offers – so, with thirst quenched, our instinct will not be to build fences or walls but something else entirely.
I’m reminded of that something in a story shared by singer-songwriter David Wilcox. The story goes like this:
I don’t know how long it had been since those two neighbors had talked to each other. I think it had been a couple of years, maybe. And it started over the dumbest thing, as these things often do. It was that stray cat. I mean, one of them thought it was his, and then it went over to the other porch there across the little field, the valley. And the other farmer took it in. Each of them thought it was their cat; and every time they started talking about it, they’d start arguing about it. And then after awhile they just quit talking.
So when the traveler came through town looking for work, one farmer said, “You say you’re a carpenter, huh? Well, yeah, I got some work for you. You see that house across the field there? That’s my neighbor. My stupid neighbor. You see this little ditch in the middle? Well he calls that the creek. He dug it with his plow. He went up on the hill and changed the way the spring comes down. Well, if he’s gonna try to divide us up with that thing, I just assume finish the job. So here’s what I want: I want you to build a fence. All the way across. All the way up. I don’t even want to have to look at him. Can you do that?”
And the carpenter said, “Well, yeah, I could do that. But I’m gonna need a whole lot more wood. I guess I could get started with what you’ve got in the shed there. You’d have to go into town to get more.”
And the farmer says, “I can do that. I’ll go get it right now. Go ahead and get started. I’ll be back soon and we’ll have this thing up before sundown.”
And by the time this farmer comes back, driving up that rudded road in his old truck full of lumber, he looks out into that field where his new fence ought to be. And you know what he sees? That carpenter hasn’t built a fence. He’s built…..a bridge. Out of his wood. Across that creek. Onto his land.
And before he knows it, here comes his neighbor, walking across that bridge; hand outstretched, big old smile on his face. And his neighbor says, “You’re an amazing man, building a bridge. I didn’t think you’d ever want to hear the sound of my voice again. And yet here you are, inviting me over. I feel like such a fool. Can you forgive me?
And this farmer finds himself saying, “Aww, I always knew it was your cat.”
And the farmer looks over at the carpenter as he’s walking away, and he says, “Hey, hey you, carpenter! I got some more work for you, if you want it. Whadya say?”
And the carpenter says, “Nah. You’ll be fine. I’m needed elsewhere.”
Jesus the carpenter wants so much to have a conversation with us. But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking this conversation won’t categorically change us, won’t demand much from us, won’t call us to step outside our comfort zone and resist the urge to live and act in fear and anger. It’s easier building fences than building bridges.
Still – what do you say? Are we ready for that conversation? Are we ready to join the carpenter in the bridge-building business? Are we ready to drink deep from his living waters? For such a time as this, my friends. For such a time as this.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.
 http://www.cnn.com/2014/10/27/politics/cnn-poll-angry-voters/, visited on 3.9.2016.
 Adapted from the song “Fearless Love” by singer/songwriter David Wilcox.