Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
29 January 2012
St. John United Church of Christ
St. Clair, MO
Living Water for All
Based on Isaiah 55: 1-11 and St. John 4: 1-30, 39-42
By Rev. James Semmelroth Darnell
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer.
Samaritans were not popular in Judea. That’s why whenever they are portrayed positively in the gospels, it would have been jarring for early Christians. Today, Samaria is located in the Palestinian West Bank. Samaritans once numbered over a million people, but as of last year have been decimated to only 745 left. But 700 years before Jesus was born the Assyrians invaded Israel. In the area of Samaria, some Samaritans mixed with the Assyrians and other foreigners, which recent DNA evidence actually confirms. The Judeans in their part of the country found this repulsive and repugnant. They wanted nothing to do with ethnic mixing, and especially these Samaritans. They believed that Samaritans also corrupted and altered the Jewish faith, while in reality the Samaritans actually practiced an older version of the faith than the Judeans themselves. The Samaritans also had their own temple, since the Judeans did not regard them as fellow Jews, a temple which the Judeans destroyed 100 years before the birth of Jesus. Samaritans today still worship at the ruins of that temple. So the Judeans and Samaritans had been fighting for 700 years when Jesus met this Samaritan woman. The view of these people was so low, that this is why in the other more popular story of the Good Samaritan that it is surprising that a Samaritan would help another person. Like often is the case today, Judeans, the people around Jesus, were afraid of what they did not know. If it all possible they would avoid traveling through Samaria, by taking a longer route elsewhere. Yet this morning’s gospel reading tells us that Jesus “had to go through Samaria.”
So Jesus goes through Samaria on his way home. He’s tired and thirsty from his walk along the dusty roads. He finds himself at a well in Sychar. Today it is the town of Nablus, a populous city in Palestine. The well is still there – in fact I was lucky enough two years ago to visit the well, and even drink from it myself. This morning, we will use water from that very well in this morning’s baptism. The Greek Orthodox St. Photina Church is built above the well. The sanctuary is full of glorious Greek icons all over its walls. In the crypt of the church is the well. It’s a large square masonry fixture, with the cylindrical hole going down 135 feet. There is a crank with a bucket to bring up the water. This ancient well was dug by Jacob of the Old Testament, and has become deeper over time. Samaritans, Jews, Christians, and Muslims have all considered this well to be a holy site for thousands of years.
It is there that Jesus meets the unnamed woman. Jesus says to her “Give me a drink.” But remember Jews are not supposed to associate with Samaritans. Further, no respectable male Jew spoke to a woman in public. This is doubly shocking. So no wonder the woman is offended and insulted and replies, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” She is understandably shocked that this man has even spoken to her, let alone ask a favor of her. But Jesus doesn’t respond in defense or really answer her question. Rather he changes the conversation to another plane, and says “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 thinks Jesus is talking about literal water here, because the phrase ‘living water’ can mean flowing water, like that in a stream, rather than well-water. She smartly replies that “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 asks good questions – for after all, who is this man who thinks he can one-up the well of patriarch Jacob? Jesus tells her though that “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.” Intrigued, but still taking Jesus literally she asks Jesus to give her the water so that she doesn’t have to keep coming back to the well day after day. Jesus has an interesting response. He tells her to get her husband. But she has no husband she says. Jesus astonishes her by saying that is true, and that she has had five husbands, and the man she currently depends on is not her husband. Now here, some people try to interpret to mean that this is a woman of ill-repute, a harlot, even a prostitute. But where does it say that in the text? Nowhere. More likely is that this woman has been widowed, divorced, or abandoned (or any combination of them) by five different men, and now is dependent on a relative of one of them. This was the fate of most women who had little power and had to depend on often unreliable men. It is out of Jesus repeating this woman’s personal history to her that she declares, “Sir, I can see that you are a prophet.” She then begins a theological discussion with Jesus about proper worship, a discussion in which Jesus and this woman, who he’s not supposed to even be seen with, engage with one another on equal footing. At the end of it, she says, “I know that Messiah is coming. When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Ok, fair enough. How does Jesus respond? He says, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.” Now this might not sound strange to us, who have already accepted Jesus as the Messiah. But remember how often in the gospels Jesus evades the question of the whether or not he is the Messiah? Yet here is a direct, cut and dry answer: “I am he.” And who does he say this to? He says it to a powerless woman who has been advantage of time and again, and not just any woman, but a woman of a people Jews refused to tolerate. This is the one and only time in the gospel according to St. John that Jesus openly says that he is the messiah – and once again it is to someone who is marginal, unexpected, and unlikely. Jesus has come for people just like her, to give the living water that truly satisfies.
Just then, the disciples come and the woman runs off into the city and leaves her water jar behind. She’s completely forgotten what she came for – but it’s precisely because she now knows of Jesus’ living water that she forgets all about the water from the well. She goes into the city and says “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” She isn’t quite convinced by her own question. She is astounded by Jesus’ ability to describe her life and is pondering if he could be the one come to save all the people. She considers what this living water could be. She wonders how it can quench thirst forever. And meanwhile, by her witness, many come to see Jesus and they later tell her “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.” It is out of this woman’s own testimony that others come and see Jesus and are able to confess him as the Savior. Once again God has chosen an unlikely messenger.
Listen everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labour for that which does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.
Isaiah’s call to come to the water is like Jesus’ telling the woman at the well that she should be asking him for the living water that quenches all thirst. Like Jesus who says that the water from the well will not quench the inner, spiritual thirst, Isaiah asks “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread and your labour for that which does not satisfy?” They both remind us that we are more than just our physical bodies, that we have a spiritual hunger as well, that only God can quench. John Wesley said that this thirst is “For the grace of God and the blessings of the gospel. This thirst implies a vehement, and active, and restless desire after it.” He said that when Isaiah said to come buy and eat, he merely means to “receive that which is freely offered. Wine and milk – All gospel-blessings; in particular, that peace and joy in the Holy Ghost, which are better than wine, and that love of God which nourishes the soul, as milk does the body.” The living water of which Jesus speaks is the very same – this living water offers us newness of life each day, and eternal life with God which has no end. This is the water that is poured out in baptism – today here and everywhere the sacrament of baptism has ever and ever will be offered. As we baptize with water we remember not only the woman at the well and the living water that Jesus offered and the waters Isaiah calls us to, but also how at the beginning, “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the waters,” and how with Noah during the flood the “the waters increased, and bore up the ark, and it rose high above the earth,” how the Pharaoh’s daughter found a baby in the river and “he became her son; and she named him Moses, for she said, “Because I drew him out of the water,” and how Moses himself “stretched out his hand over the sea; and The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided,” of the water of Mary’s womb, the water of the river Jordan in which Jesus was baptized, the water on which many of the disciples made their living as fishermen, the water of the sea of Galilee on which Jesus walked, that Jesus said “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter The Kingdom of God,” of the turbulent waters on which St. Paul and Timothy traveled to spread the Good News, and the great vision of revelation which tells us that “he showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.” God was flowing through all these waters, to make them living water, water that is life-giving. In baptism, we pour water to remind us not only of its great importance and symbolism in scripture and Christian faith, but also to remind us that God is present to us in the commonness of our world. After all, what is more common than water, which makes up the majority of our bodies and the very earth? This is the very closeness of God. As that water is poured, the Holy Spirit is poured out upon us. In this act of baptism, of thirsting and coming for this living water that truly satisfies, we are bonded in relationship to God. We affirm our life in God and God’s life in us. We are intertwined with the Holy One and cannot be separated. Remember the psalmist who said,
Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night’,
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
We affirm this closeness of God to us in baptism, and begin on the path of discipleship. Our United Church of Christ baptismal liturgy, which we will share soon reminds us too that “Out of this water we rise to new life, forgiven of sin, and one in members of Christ’s body.” In baptism too, we are forever knit into the Body of Christ on earth, the Church. The Church may be broken into various forms, but it is still one Body, one Church. Through the living waters of baptism we are united with everyone everywhere who has thirsted for this living water and the eternal life it grants us. We are united with all Christians everywhere. All Christians – not just in the United Church of Christ, but Congregationalists, Reformed, Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Pentecostals, Disciples, Assemblies of God, Nazarenes, Mennonites, Quakers, Brethren, Catholics, Apostolics, Orthodox, Churches of Christ, Anglicans, Christian Scientists, Seventh-Day Adventists, nondenominationals, evangelicals, fundamentalists, mainliners, restorationists, progressive Christians, and many more – we’re all a part of the Body of Christ together. We live in this world together as Christians, and for the sake of our witness to the world ought to remember our common baptism. We may do it in different ways, we may even use different words – but the same Holy Spirit is poured out, for the same longing for God in each of our hearts. Baptism unites us into one common Christian family. In baptism, we are knit into the Body of Christ forever. We claim God’s blessing and we promise to nurture each other as we grow into that blessing. Nothing will ever change this. Nothing we can ever do or anything anyone else ever does will ever remove our threads from the tapestry of the Body of Christ – each one of us is in there forever. Baptism is forever. Its promises can never be taken away. It is irrevocable. It is eternal. In a world that is ever-changing, this lasts beyond this changing world, into life beyond this place. So come to the waters! Come! Just as Jesus came for the Samaritan woman and offered her hope and new life, he offers the same to us. Say to Jesus, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” And Jesus says to us “The water that I give will become in you a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”
+To God be the Glory, Amen.