Sometimes, you need to throw the plans you had out the window and run with something different. So we’re going to hit pause on our Lent series for today, and instead we’re going to take a look at our Lectionary gospel reading from John 4.
Scripture: John 4:1-42
Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard, ‘Jesus is making and baptizing more disciples than John’— although it was not Jesus himself but his disciples who baptized— he left Judea and started back to Galilee. But he had to go through Samaria. So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.
A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink’. (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’ (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink”, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?’ Jesus said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but 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 woman said to him, ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.’
Jesus said to her, ‘Go, call your husband, and come back.’ The woman answered him, ‘I have no husband.’ Jesus said to her, ‘You are right in saying, “I have no husband”; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.’ The woman said to him, ‘I know that Messiah is coming’ (who is called Christ). ‘When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am he, the one who is speaking to you.’
Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, ‘What do you want?’ or, ‘Why are you speaking with her?’ Then the woman left her water-jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, ‘Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?’ They left the city and were on their way to him.
Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, ‘Rabbi, eat something.’ But he said to them, ‘I have food to eat that you do not know about.’ So the disciples said to one another, ‘Surely no one has brought him something to eat?’ Jesus said to them, ‘My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. Do you not say, “Four months more, then comes the harvest”? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, “One sows and another reaps.” I sent you to reap that for which you did not labour. Others have laboured, and you have entered into their labour.’
Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He told me everything I have ever done.’ So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there for two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, ‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Saviour of the world.’
To a first-century Jew, everything about this story is wrong. Jesus should never have been in Samaria—faithful Jewish leaders would actually go a couple days out of their way to avoid Samaria. He should never have been hanging out at a well alone. He shouldn’t have been talking to a woman—nevertheless a Samaritan woman. He shouldn’t have known her story or engaged her in theological debate. He shouldn’t have taught there, and he shouldn’t have stayed with them, and they shouldn’t have been the ones who get it. Everything about this story is wrong, which is what makes it perfect for John’s gospel—it’s just full of irony.
Last week, we saw Jesus engage with Nicodemus, who is the exact opposite of this woman. He’s educated, he’s Jewish, he’s got a reputation to uphold, and his reaction to Jesus’ attempt to deepen his understanding is “how can these things be?”—and then he leaves.
We don’t even get this woman’s name. To the gospel writer and the people for whom this was written, she was nobody. She was as good as a prop in this story.
But not to Jesus. He sees her and he treats her as an equal. He engages her questions and her debate and doesn’t chastise her for being too bold or asking too many questions. She, unlike Nicodemus, engages with Jesus on his terms. She asks the questions and Jesus answers her.
And it’s this curious, persistent woman whom Jesus offers living water.
There’s been a lot of speculation over the last 20 centuries that this woman was sleeping around, so she was a social outcast, and that’s why she was carrying water by herself at noon on a hot day. But there’s no evidence of that. Women couldn’t divorce their husbands, so it’s just as likely that she had been widowed, that she had been divorced, that she was living on someone else’s charity.
And it’s this woman whom Jesus offers living water.
Jews and Samaritans hated each other for a lot of reasons—they had been fighting for centuries and that’s a whole big long story that would take too long to tell here—but suffice it to say that the battles boiled down to heretics and politics. Each thought the other was wrong, and each wanted ultimate control over their land and their worship.
And so the Jewish rabbi offers the Samaritan woman living water.
Everything about this story is wrong, but that’s exactly what makes it gospel—good news. For a moment, Jesus skips the fighting and the divisions and even the reconciliation – and we get a glimpse of God’s kingdom, where the thirsty are rewarded with the water they need, whether physical or spiritual, no matter who they are or what they’ve done or how they came to be in that place.
Throughout scripture, from Genesis to the prophets to Paul’s letters and the book of Revelation, you will find references to the River of Life. It flows from the throne room of God, out into the world, and it’s this river that brings, well, life.
But the prophet Isaiah gives us a slightly different perspective on that river in his vision of the last days.
The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.
In days to come
the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
Many peoples shall come and say,
‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.’
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.
O house of Jacob,
come, let us walk
in the light of the Lord!
For Isaiah, the River of Life isn’t water—it’s people.
All the nations of the earth stream to the mountain of the Lord, gathering in the house of God to listen, to be taught, to ask their questions. And the Word of the Lord goes forth, and God brings justice and the tools of death and destruction are transformed into tools to cultivate, to bring life.
And then the people stream out from Jerusalem, to the ends of the earth.
The people who showed up armed—they didn’t go home to get their swords and their spears—they go home to cultivate life, to walk in the light of the Lord.
This woman shows up thinking she’s going to lower a bucket into a well and carry some water home. She’s a little defensive, and rightfully so. But then, she encounters the Word—and Jesus doesn’t give her any physical water, but something in her soul is set alight. She runs back to the village to tell everyone else what she’s just encountered.
And so, without any fanfare, this unnamed Samaritan woman becomes the Living Water she wanted so desperately from Jesus.
I grew up next to the Mississippi River – the largest river in North America – and lived next to Lake Michigan for another five years, which is probably why ‘living water’ fascinates me so much. From the Mississippi to Lake Michigan to the Licking River and the creek I can see from the living room window in the manse—there is something wild and holy about the water that flows with such persistence—the water that can be slowed or diverted or walled in, but cannot ever be stopped.
And so it is with the steadfast love of God.
Just as living water cannot stop flowing, the love of God cannot be stopped by social distancing or cancelled events. The love of God compels us to continue to offer food and water to those most vulnerable. The love of God cannot stop praying and connecting and binding up wounds and bursting through our phones and our computers with mercy and grace and hope.
We may not be able to share cups of actual water right now, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t called to be the living water for our neighbors and our families and for perfect strangers.
Fear and scarcity and a need for control can hem in that river for a little while, but trust me—it will not stop flowing.
Over the last couple of days, I’ve been thinking about the song we often teach our little ones:
I’ve got a river of life flowing out of me
Makes the lame to walk and the blind to see
Opens prison doors, sets the captive free
I’ve got a river of life flowing out of me.
This is my prayer for all of us, especially in these uncertain times: that a river of life would spring up inside each of us, and flow out into the world to offer comfort, calm, and hope.
Spring up, o well, within my soul
Spring up, o well, and make me whole
Spring up, o well, and bring to me that life abundantly.
May it be so.