The Rev Cynthia KR Banks; Lent 3—Year A; Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 95; Romans 5:1-11; John 4:5-42
Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well. There is a lot going on in this story, a lot. Jesus is on his way back up to Galilee, and he has to pass through Samaria to get there. He comes to the city of Sychar. It was a well-known place; near there, Jacob had given a plot of ground to Joseph, and Jacob’s well was there. So, it’s about noon, and it’s hot, really hot. Jesus is tired out from his journey, and he plops down beside that well.
A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” Whoa. Stop. Problem here. Jesus is interacting with a) a Samaritan and b) a woman. He’s alone, she’s alone; it’s just not the done thing. And Jews didn’t interact with Samaritans. Jews thought Samaritans were an unclean people and that goes back all the way to the time of exile some 600 years earlier. At that time, most of the Jews were carried off to Babylon, but some were left behind, and they married other peoples of the land, and a mixed race developed. When the Jews returned from Babylon, this mixed-race people wasn’t pure enough for their liking, and the Samaritans worshiped at the wrong place—they didn’t worship in Jerusalem, but on Mount Gerizim near Shechem in the heart of Samaria. Good Jews didn’t mix with Samaritans, and they certainly didn’t share things in common. It’s hard to imagine such disdain for another because of their race or where they worship, until you remember that whites and blacks didn’t drink from the same water fountains in the south as recent as fifty years ago. But back to our scene in Sychar—this Samaritan woman knows this man should not be asking this of her, so she asks Jesus, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?”
Jesus doesn’t even answer her question; he completely dismisses the barrier that should have existed between them; he doesn’t even acknowledge that societal barrier, but he goes straight to the heart of the matter. “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 is intrigued; this guy isn’t trapped by society’s boxes. She wants to know more. “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?” She has a keen eye for survival, and deep wells and no buckets do not make for flowing water. But Jesus isn’t interested in mere survival; he’s interested in so much more than that. He responds, “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.”
It didn’t make logical, rational, practical sense, but that woman knew that Jesus had something that she desperately wanted, something that would change her life, forever. She’d been coming to this well for a long, long time, but wells can go dry, and so she had to keep throwing that bucket deeper and deeper and deeper to draw up any water at all. Ever been there? Ever felt like the well is starting to go dry, and you’ve got to dig deeper and deeper and deeper to find that water that can replenish your soul? Have you ever known the fear that that well might go completely dry, and then, where will you be? That’s scary stuff. But Jesus is promising something radically different, and she wants it more than she has ever wanted anything before—“Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”
Last year, I heard this quote from St. Bernard of Clairvaux who lived in the 11th century. He said, “If then you are wise, you will show yourself rather as a reservoir than as a canal. A canal spreads abroad water as it receives it, and a reservoir waits until it is filled before overflowing, and thus without loss to itself communicates its superabundant water. In the church at the present day we have many canals but few reservoirs.” Bernard could be living in 2014; Bernard captures perfectly what Jesus is offering to the Samaritan woman and to us.
So many of us try to be good canals, letting God’s love pour through us, and this is a good and noble thing. Of course, we want to pass God’s love along, but it can easily slip into this seductive place—“if I’m just a good enough vessel of God’s grace, if I am just a clear enough channel, then God’s love should be able to just flow and flow through me to all these places of need in the world, and I’ll never get tired out because it’s God flowing through me, or Jesus flowing through me, and I’m just the vessel.” It’s a good theory, a theologically sound theory, but it just doesn’t seem to work out that way in real life. Why doesn’t it work out that way? Well, partly, because we are infinitely human with lots of cracks, and partly, because we confuse who the Savior is—that would actually be Jesus and not us, but we forget that when we are out in the world trying to do the work. And so, we often find ourselves depleted by constantly giving, and we have to throw our bucket down farther, deeper, and our bucket feels like it has holes in it, and there’s just not enough water to quench the thirst in the world.
But today, Jesus and Bernard give us a new image—you aren’t a canal; you are a reservoir. And Jesus is a spring of water gushing up within you, and the rains of God’s grace shower upon you, and you are overflowing with water. It’s not just flowing through you wearing down your heart as it passes through on to somewhere else; it begins by gushing up within you, filling you full to overflowing with superabundance, and out of your fullness, this love and grace flow out into the world, and as they flow out of you, there is no loss to you, because the flow is coming out of the superabundance. That is a mindbending, lifechanging image. It’s the difference between feeling depleted and bone dry and experiencing a fullness that never diminishes.
Wow, that would be enough right there, but Jesus isn’t done with this woman yet, nor is he done with us. He tells her to go and call her husband knowing full well that she doesn’t have a husband. But Jesus gives her the chance to name that reality and bring it to the light. In fact, once she names that reality, he brings it even more fully out into the light—“Yep, you’re right in saying ‘I have no husband’—you’ve had five husbands, and the one you have right now is not your husband.” This woman’s life was shrouded in shame—in Israel, you only come to the well in the heat of the day at noon for one reason—you’ve done something so beyond the pale that you are not allowed to be with the rest of the community. This woman is ostracized within an ostracized community. And something about her shame being brought to light sets her free to go for the big question—the issue that put her whole community on the fringe—the right place to worship issue. It seems a little nutty to us, but it was a big deal in that world. She challenges Jesus, “Our ancestors worshiped here, but you say that the right place to worship is Jerusalem.” And Jesus blows right past the right and wrong of that question to a deeper truth—“the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers 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.” It’s not about the right place because it’s not about a location; it’s about a relationship; it’s about the spring gushing up within you; it’s about being a reservoir of that grace. It doesn’t matter if it’s Mount Gerizim or Jerusalem—it’s about knowing and worshiping the spirit of God, and that spirit is free as a bird and wild as the wind and as hot and passionate as the fire—you can’t nail that down to a place; you can only let it flow and fill your being and spill out into the world.
When all this had happened, the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She didn’t need to carry the water; she had discovered the infinite source of that water that was gushing up within her. She understood that living water made it possible to bring her shame to light, and she understood why being known, even being known in the darkest recesses of our brokenness is such good news; it is the very essence of liberation. Shame whispers that we’re not worthy of the living water; shame whispers that we don’t deserve this superabundance of God’s love—and Jesus says, “I know exactly who you are and what you’ve done, and you are worthy because I love you, you are worthy because I live inside of your skin, my spirit has taken up residence in you, in you, you are a reservoir overflowing with my love and grace.”
Many people in that city believed because of what the woman said. They asked Jesus to stay in their city a couple of days. He was glad to do so. 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 Savior of the world.” They weren’t content with second-hand knowledge; they wanted to know for themselves, primary experience, first-person experience.
We can hear this story of the Samaritan woman at the well and be profoundly moved by it, but that is not where this story would have us stay—in the end, we are invited into a first-hand experience of Jesus, the kind of experience where we believe, not because we are told to do so, but we believe because we know it to be true from inside our experience.
So, on this Third Sunday of Lent, how thirsty are you?
What is the water for which you long?
What parts of yourself have you ostracized, and which parts of your ostracized self have you ostracized even further?
Have you consigned a part of your being to the noon day sun and left it there to toil alone?
Can you wrap your head around the fact that that is the very part of yourself that Jesus has come to encounter today? Can you accept that that is the very place where Jesus can make the waters flow?
Are you ready to be known as fully, deeply, and intimately as Jesus already knows you?
Are you ready to have your shame lose its power—it can’t live in the light you know? This is no small question—some of us have lived with shame for so long that we can’t imagine life without it.
And as you experience this flood of good news, and release, and liberation, are you ready to lay down whatever jar you’ve been lugging around? Are you ready to travel lighter?
Are you prepared to share this good news that has engulfed your life?
Are you prepared not to settle for second-hand knowledge of Jesus anymore? Are you ready to know these truths for yourself?
Are you ready to let the waters top over the dams you have constructed in your heart?
Are you ready to live in a state of superabundance trusting that these living waters welling up from within really are without end, eternal?
There is a lot going on in this passage, and a lot for us to experience. The woman has left her jar to go back to the city; now it’s your turn. Sit down by that well. Jesus is about to open up a conversation with you, and he is thirsty for you to know the living water he came to give. Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
March 23, 201