By Danielle Jones
Sunday, November 27, 2011
This week, we have yet another take on water, this one from the gospel of John. This story is a familiar water story- an interaction between Jesus and a woman around a well.
Jesus, in the process of heading back to Galilee- decides to take a detour through a Samaritan city called Sychar. As he is walking through Samaria he makes a stop (around noon) at Jacob’s well to rest and in hopes of getting something to drink. While there, he finds a Samaritan woman who has come to draw water and he asks her for a drink.
A simple enough situation to begin with but much more complex than at first glance as we read on. Jesus first appears to be the one who is thirsty and in need but we quickly see it is the woman who is truly thirsty. Jesus is a Jew- someone who shouldn’t want to set foot in Samaria and he finds himself if the center of town talking to a Samaritan- someone most Jews would have gone out of their way to avoid.
Jews and Samaritans were notorious enemies. While on a journey to Galilee from Judea- an average Jew would have avoided the direct route through Samaria and would have gone to great lengths- even adding hours to his trip- just to avoid coming in contact with a Samaritan.
The differences and disagreements between Jews and Samaritans were religious in nature. Samaritans took over a central section of Jewish ancient territory and then claimed to be the true descendants of Abraham while the Jews believed they were the true descendants.
Jews and Samaritans sometimes fought but more often they simply did all they could to avoid one another. And so this woman is shocked to be asked for water from first a Jew, who was supposed to try and avoid her, and second a man, who was supposed to disrespect her and stay away from her.
Listen to these words from one rabbinical writing to help shed light on the ways men and women interacted in those days- the instruction by the rabbis read “one should not talk with a woman on the street, not even with his own wife, and certainly not with somebody else’s wife, because of the gossip of men.” Some teachings went even further to say- “don’t even talk with your sister in public for fear of what others might say”.
So when the woman says to Jesus- “How is it that you , a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” Jesus answers “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.”
Irony abounds in this story, as it does in so many stories in John’s gospel. What looks at first like a thirsty man needing a drink from a woman who is drawing water from a well- instead becomes a woman in need of water, living water, from a man without a bucket at that same well. God is like that isn’t he? Ironic. Surprising. Unexpected.
The truth of God’s surprises always stare us in the face during Advent as we retell the story of a virgin mother who bears a son. And this first Sunday in Advent is no different. This seemingly inconsequential birth- becomes the first in a chain of events that God will use to transform the world. At first glance, who would have known?
Likewise, this offer of living water to a woman at a well- is another event in a long chain of life changing and world changing events that Jesus set into motion- through his life, death and resurrection. The water that Jesus has to offer isn’t found in a well at all- but is instead found through the power of the Holy Spirit- often referred to as living water throughout scripture. We see the human thirst of Jesus, the heart thirst of the woman and the quenching power of the Holy Spirit, come together in this scene, at the well.
When Jesus offers living water to the woman she responds by saying, “give me this water- so that I may never be thirsty again or have to keep coming here to draw water.”
I have a feeling this woman likely loathed drawing water from that well. The well was the meeting place for the women in town. Early in the morning and later in the evening the women would come-each and every day- to get water for their families, yes, but also to exchange gossip, to tell stories and to share news. Not the place you want to hang out at- if you are the outcast in town.
This woman tired out by her story and ashamed of how she was living- avoided the social aspects of the well- by going to draw water in the middle of the day. Upon hearing that she could have this “living water” her first response is- please can I have it- then I won’t have to keep coming here to draw water day after day and I can finally- once and for all- avoid being humiliated.
The woman is missing the point. Instead of giving the woman the water HE was talking about on the spot- Jesus says, “Go, call your husband and come back.” The woman replies- with a somewhat ironic reply- saying-I have no husband. Jesus says “True you don’t have one husband- you have had five husbands and the one you have now is not your husband.”
Jesus cuts through to the real issue by confronting the woman with the truth of her life circumstances and the truth of her sin.
What is amazing to me in this interaction, isn’t the love of Jesus. If you have ever read the gospels straight through- by the time you get to the gospel of John, you have already seen story after story of the love of Jesus played out in peoples lives- what is amazing to me about this story is the response of the woman when Jesus exposes her sin.
For most of us, our worst fear is to be found out and to have our sins exposed.
When I was five years old I had a little sin of my own that was exposed. On a warm summer day my mom had promised to take me to the pool to go swimming. Anxious and excited to head to cool off on a warm summer day I was driving my mother crazy- asking her over and over again how much longer until we left. And so my mom told me to go wait in the front yard for her as she finished gathering what we would need for the afternoon.
I ran outside to our driveway where a gold Pontiac something or another sat begging me to jump in. That car was literally bigger than the living room in the house I currently live in. Somehow I got that car door open and climbed in to the front seat and I did what any five year old would do- I cooly slid over to the drivers seat where I pretended that I was driving the car and that we were already off to the pool.
My pretending to move the car became me literally moving the car as I pulled the gear shift into reverse and that giant, gold Pontiac started rolling backwards down our driveway. And didn’t stop until it had rolled right smack into our neighbors 100 year old silver maple tree. Terrified- I did what any five year old would do- I jumped out of the car and ran right back into my house and- hid under my bed, for almost an hour.
My physical, visceral response to my sin- was to hide- immediately. Some days- my response to sin is still that way. I think to myself that my worst fears will be realized if my sins are “found out” by the people in my life.
So many of us find ourselves thinking things like- “if she only knew what I said about her” or “if he only knew what I did to him” or how about “if he sees that bill before I get home” or “if she sees those text messages on my phone”… well we can’t even bear to think what would happen with our loved ones and we certainly don’t even engage the thought of “what would God think about all of this”.
But this woman was different. She didn’t go and hide, she didn’t even walk away. The woman’s response to having her sins exposed by the son of the living God- was not even to deny that she has had five husbands, but instead she says “Sir, I see that you are a prophet.”
Wanting to test her prophet theory she decides to ask Jesus to settle a dispute the Jews and Samaritans had when she says “Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.”
Face to face with her past and present life and sin- the woman ironically changes the subject to an age old debate between samaritans and jews- the debate about where and how to worship.
At this point, Jesus is done with irony in this conversation with the woman and he says- don’t worry about where to worship, that is not the point of all this- the day is coming when the true worshippers will worship God in spirit and truth. You can almost hear Jesus thinking- don’t miss this- I said living water- where you worship doesn’t matter anymore- it is what is in your heart that is really going to matter now.
Just then, the disciples are back- ironically- with food, when what Jesus had been wanting was water and in fact all he has been talking about is water. When given food he says to them “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work.” And then he says to them- join me- the harvest time is now- go and reap the harvest that has been sown for you. Leave it to Jesus to turn something nice that someone did for him into a teachable moment.
It’s not time to eat just yet- it is time to harvest- and in fact, as the story shows in the end someone had already started that harvest and was leading the way for them. The woman from the well has gone to tell her story saying “come see this man who has told me everything I have ever done.”
No hiding under the bed for this sinner- and no more hiding at the well at noon either. This woman moves from the kind shame and embarrassment that would cause someone to avoid everyone she could by drawing water in the heat of the day, and turns her into someone who goes as fast as she can to find any one who will listen to her- to not only to confess her sin to them- but to tell them about Jesus, the Messiah, the living God and this living water that she can’t live without.
And in response to her story- The people go to see and hear the word of Jesus and John’s gospel tells us that they too, end up believing.
This is a familiar story- probably because it is one of a handful of stories about Jesus interacting with a woman and probably because of the tabloid nature of a story about a woman that had five husbands and was living with another man who wasn’t even her husband. That makes someone like Kim Kardashian look like back page news.
Most often when we have heard this story we hear that it means that Jesus is for the oppressed. We know it to mean that God loves everyone, regardless of race, religion, gender, or sin and no doubt about it- all that is true.
But perhaps what is extraordinary about this story is not that Jesus loves even this woman, BUT that this woman ends up loving Jesus.
Most of us spend a lot of our lives hiding our sins. We cover up. We pretend. We try to bury. We do everything we can to distract ourselves and to forget the things we have done and the things we have left undone that have separated us from God. Here in a simple interaction between Jesus and a woman at a well- we see what it truly looks like to come into contact with the living and loving God.
Priest and theologian, NT Wright tells the story of the reaction a friend of his received when he went home as a young teenager, and announced to his mother that he’d become a Christian. Alarmed, and not a Christian herself, she thought he had joined some kind of cult. “They’ve brainwashed you!” she said. He replied, ‘Mom, if you had seen what was in my brain- you would realize it was in need of washing!”
It is so interesting to me that when the woman at the well is called out and left standing with her sin out in the open- her response is not to run and hide but instead she stays, she takes a drink of the living water, and then she stops hiding once and for all and goes to share that water with anyone and everyone she can find.
She doesn’t have all the doctrine correct. She doesn’t know exactly how God does it- but she does know that for the first time in her life- she isn’t thirsty anymore. She is tired of living in hiding. She is tired of muddling through- and when faced with the living Christ- she allows herself to be changed.
Faith in Christ is not about what we know- it is instead about who we know. It is about having an encounter with the living God that offers living water to each and every one of us through the power of his Holy Spirit- and faith is about letting that water change us.
Years ago I had a friend in college who proclaimed that she was an atheist. She had never gone to church, she had studied philosophy, she was bright, talented and she decided that there was no way God could be real. Throughout college she would sarcastically say things around me like “you better not swear, Danielle’s around and God doesn’t like that.” Or she would be telling stories about what she had done the night before and she would say “Danielle, cover your ears.” I had seasons in college when I was a bit of a zealot- and I would think to myself “what can I do to save her?” I would talk with my Bible study leader and say, “if she just knew the facts about who Jesus was and what he did- maybe she would believe.”
A few years after college- this friend of mine moved to the southwest and a few of our friends who were living up north went to visit her- in the middle of february. We were headed out to sight see one day and I was struck by the incredible beauty of the Arizona landscape. I had come from the frozen tundra in the middle of February- to the dessert that was bursting with warmth and new life and I was struck with everything from the smells to the colors, to the look of the sky and the way the sun was shinning- not to mention the fact that real flowers were actually alive- outside- this time of year!
Right as I was thinking all those things- my friend turned to me and said out of the blue “Danielle, why do you believe in Jesus?” We hadn’t talked about this for years. I remember thinking this was my moment- I had always wanted her to ask me this questions- would i tell her all the Bible stories I knew? Would I recite the facts about the reliability of scripture?
What I said to her was the first things that came to mind: “I believe in Jesus because he has made a difference in my life. I told her that I can’t explain it but God has changed me. And then I told her I believe when I see creation around me- the flowers, and sunsets, and mountains that remind me that all this was created by God and that I was created as well.
That was the end of that conversation. No more questions followed- we simply went back to catching up as old college friends. When push came to shove, and I was asked the question I had been waiting for, I didn’t share my knowledge about Jesus with her- I shared what was on my heart.
That is what the woman at the well did as well. She didn’t go off to the dessert to be alone with God. She didn’t go to as many Bible studies as she could to learn all there was to be learned about God. She simply went, to her people and told her story. She knew God had changed her- and she invited others to see the one who made a difference in her life- to see if he could also make a difference in theirs.
A woman, who no one had listened to before was finally being heard- not because of who she was- but because of who she knew- the true and living God.
And so today, I ask you, are you thirsty? Have you come in contact with living God in a way that has quenched your thirst for what is true, real, and meaningful in life? If the answer is no, find someone to lead you to the water. Find someone, to tell you their story of why they believe in Jesus and why it has made a difference in their life. Those people are here you know.
If the answer is yes- if you can genuinely say “yes Jesus has quenched my thirst”- then there is simply one thing you need to do: tell someone. You don’t have to be a pastor, missionary, evangelist or even politically correct to share your faith- all you have to do is share your story. Because your story is the most powerful story you know. Most of us haven’t had five husbands, but we HAVE had real, life changing and heart shaping interactions with the living God who offered us living water and after we drank it- we were never the same.
A few years after my visit to the dessert to see my college friend she called me- out of the blue. We had lost touch but she had something she wanted to tell me. Her co-worker had invited her to an Alpha class and my friend had gone and she accepted Jesus Christ. She just wanted me to know.
To this day, I have no idea if my simple explanation of why I believe in Jesus made a difference in my friend’s life and faith. But I do know- that it was my story and I am the only one who can tell it. My story is what God has given me- and it is mine to give away. Your story- is yours- and you are the only one who can tell it.
As Jesus said to the disciples two thousand years ago-the harvest is ripe. It was ripe then- when the woman at the well began to harvest, and it is ripe today. People are thirsty. They are dying of thirst all around us and waiting to be led to the living water.
I wonder who is going to help them find that water?