Water = Life

Lent 3: John 4:1-41 In and unexpected place, to an unexpected person and from an unexpected source – Jesus springs forth living water.


How many of you, in your conversations with each other about the texts, talked about water?  (show of hands?)  Maybe you talked about the image and metaphor of water, the centrality of water to life.

When searching for and exploring other planets – whether with telescopes or space craft or now recently with the Mars rover – astrologists and other scientists are especially keen on finding evidence of water.  If you do a quick Google search of water/planet and a plethora of hits appear with evidence or speculation about planets that may have water.  Why?  Because: Water = Life!  Phil Plait, an astronomer and blogger at Slate writes:

While life might take lots of different forms, we know that life on Earth needs liquid water. So we want to know how many planets are out there that have conditions similar to Earth’s: about the same gravity as Earth, a composition that’s metal and rock…and the right temperature for liquid water to exist.

Water = Life.  A couple of weeks ago I joked about the overuse of ‘journey’ as a metaphor.  Water, or even living water may also be a victim of overuse.  But we continue to use water as a metaphor for the same reason that we continue to use the metaphor of journey.  It still holds power for us.

Take a look through our hymnals and you’ll see evidence of it there.  We’ve dedicated whole series of worship services to it.  We even have a concrete fountain in the worship storage space.  One youth asked me last Sunday during Sunday school when we looked at this story: Is that why we baptize with water?  How very perceptive!  Why yes, that is indeed one reason that the act of baptism is powerful.  Water = life.

Jesus was a long way from imagining that there could be other planets, never mind alien life upon them.  (Although the internet seems to believe that Jesus was in fact an alien himself).  What Jesus absolutely without a doubt did understand is that water is central to life.  Where better to understand this reality than noon on a hot day in the desert?  If water = life, thirst = suffering and death.  Jesus was also steeped in a tradition of scripture that tells the story of water springing from a rock in the wilderness (which we heard today), describes a quiet streams by which a shepherd leads, makes an invitation that ‘all who are thirsty should come and drink.’

It’s in asking for a drink, that everything gets started in this story.  Jesus’ opening line is simple: “Give me a drink.” He could have asked a little more politely.  But it does the trick.  The woman is surprised enough that he talks to her that she answers – or rather she asks why he would speak to her, you know, being a Jew and everything.

And indeed, the context is given right there in the story – a Jewish man (and a rabbi, no less) would never speak in public with any woman, much less a woman from Samaria.  It is very indeed very unlikely.

But thus begins this wonderful conversation.  When the woman responds, Jesus has his opening and the woman, for her part, totally holds her own.  He says if she knew who she was talking to, she would have asked for living water – and he could have given it to her.  Now, ‘living water’ could mean fresh or running water (as opposed to still/standing water, as in a cistern) or it could mean water that gives life (the meaning Jesus intends).  So it’s not unreasonable for her to reply with some skepticism, ‘Sir (by which she means, ‘crazy person’) you have no bucket and the well is deep.  Do you think you’re greater than Jacob who made this well.’  The irony here is: of course he is greater – so much greater – than Jacob.

Soon she will understand this, so he keeps the conversation going by saying, “This water – Jacob’s water – will leave anyone who drinks it thirsty again.  My living water will become a spring of water gushing up to eternal life and anyone who drinks it will never be thirsty.”

Now I wonder if, in her mind, this just sent him from Weirdo-ville to Totally-cuckoo-town in her mind.  Because in my mind I hear response like this: “Ok smarty pants, I’d let’s have some of this “living water”.

Sure would be nice not to have to schlep this heavy urn here every day.”  Or, maybe she really was sincere (that’s the way we usually read it) and she responded hoping to find the secret source of this fresh water spring that Jesus has access to.  In either case, she still doesn’t buy it – doesn’t get what Jesus is really talking about, that water = live but living water = true life, life in God’s kingdom.

But then they turn a corner.  Jesus asks her to bring her husband.  She responds straightforwardly, “I don’t have a husband,” and then things get real.  Here’s where the transformation begins.  It’s like Jesus cuts straight through to her center and says, “I know you.”  He knows she has in fact had 5 husbands.  Can you hear the gasp when he says this to her?

He recognizes something in her – and that thing he recognized is not (by the way) that she has some kind of compromised morality.  He does not pass judgment or ask her not to sin.  It does mean that she has a complicated history and he also sees that she has the capacity to be a vessel for and proclaimer of Gospel.  And she recognizes something in him.  When Jesus names her reality, the conversation changes.  It’s not about water water any more.  The living water is beginning to seep out; the true life is beginning to become clear.

She calls him a prophet.  She asks about worship.  He tells her about the day – the day of God’s Kingdom when where we worship doesn’t matter but who.  He tells her God – who is spirit and truth, not tied to a temple or a mountain – is longing for us to recognize God’s presence in all time and space.

What true life – life in the kingdom – looks like is life in which it doesn’t matter that she is a woman, or from Samaria, or has had 5 husbands.  None of the divisions we’ve put in place matter anymore – all of that is false and all that matters is that God is God and God is truth and God is Spirit.  And (we heard it in last week’s scripture when Jesus spoke to Nicodemus, God did not come into the world to judge the world but to save it”  Living water = life for all.

Bob Eckblat tells about doing a bible study on this text in prison.[i] Right here in Skagit County jail.  He notes with his group that the woman was going to the well to meet a basic need he asks a group of prisoners, “Where do you go when you get out of here, where to do go to get your basic needs met.”  He hears answers like, ‘the bar,’ ‘my girlfriend’s house,’ ‘the crack house.’  They mention the mall, heroin, family, cars, women and Bob asks, “Do these activities satisfy you?”  “I’ve had everything money can buy,” one man says, “cars, women, drugs, money, jewelry.  I’ve never been satisfied…I know that I’m still thirsty for something.”

Bob asks them then, “So, the woman from Samaria shows up at the well to get the water to meet her basic needs to survive, and Jesus is already there.  What might this mean for us? If this story tells us where Jesus hung out back then, what does it suggest about where we might run into Jesus, now?”

The men in Bob Eckblat’s Bible Study this meant that they too could have an encounter with Jesus that was life-giving and meaningful.  Jesus’ knowledge of and desire for them is as complete as for those who had lived holy lives.  One participant, called Neeners, summarized: “Jesus come to people right where they are, no matter what they’re doing or if they’re messed up and s**t.”

And not only Neeners, who had always seen himself as locked out of the Gospel because of who he was and the choices he made.  But all people who we might like to put divisions and limitations on access to God.  Fred Phelps comes to mind as someone some of us might want to lock out of the Gospel message, just has he wanted to exclude so many.  I pray that when he met Jesus after his death, he was able to see that the divisions we impose don’t matter.  That living water is for all – even for him.

The disciples, who have arrived by now don’t yet see that, but for the woman?  The water from the well doesn’t matter anymore.  It’s all about the living water.  Water = life!   She has dropped her jar and hurried back to the city.

“Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!”  Her encounter with Jesus set the living water springing out of her and even as she is transformed, the world is being transformed.   Her invitation leads to deeper engagement with Jesus in the city and its people, and the message of living water begins to overflow beyond the boundaries of Judea and Israel into the world, as God intended.

As the Junior youth class pointed out to me: Jesus never does get his drink of water.  And come to that, the woman doesn’t get the water that she came for either.  But I think Jesus gets what he actually wanted from when he first said, “Give me some water.”  And the woman gets what she needs – access to the water that equals life.

Bob Eckblat ends his study by inviting the men in the circle to imagine that they each have a forty – a 40 oz can of malt liquor – but full up with living water.  Full of whatever they know that Jesus has seen in them that they really and truly need for life.  Then he say, pop the top, raise that can and drink.  While they do it he prays, “Jesus, we receive your gift of living water.  We drink it down into our beings.  Satisfy us with your loving, gracious presence.”

Jesus never does get his drink of water.  But the living water has bubbled up, overflowed and spread out and out and out quenching and giving new life to everything it touches.  May you too drink deeply from the spring of living water that is God.

Questions for reflection:

What resonates for you in this story of Jesus and the woman?  What makes you uncomfortable?

Bob asks his Bible study group: where do you go to get your basic needs met?  How does Jesus meet you there?  What is the answer for you?

[i] Bob Eckblat, “Jesus’ surprising offer of living cocaine,” in Through the Eyes of Another: Intercultural Reading of the Bible.