A Well Story

preached Sunday at Lighthouse Free Methodist Church (St. Louis, MO)
John 4:5-42

Have you ever experienced the loneliness of a crowd? You are at an event – maybe one you didn’t want to attend to begin with – and you are surrounded by people, but feel completely alone? There is a lot of speculation about why the woman in our story was walking alone to the well. Many suggest that trips to the well were typically communal – and most certainly not at noon when the sun would be beating down. Quite often, we are told that the woman’s character isn’t so pearly… that perhaps she sleeps in because her main activity is at night – after all, she has had 5 husbands and is now with a man she isn’t married to – she is traveling alone because reasonable women would have nothing to do with her. And perhaps that is true.

More recently, however, scholars use what we know of life in the ancient near east to piece together a different story. They tend to see the woman as the victim. She has had five husbands because women are traded as property. Perhaps she has been divorced or abandoned. Quite possibly she is barren. The law at the time allowed a man to divorce his wife if it were determined she could not have children. She kept marrying because women in ancient times could not survive alone – remember all the mandates in the Bible to take care of widows? Women didn’t have that many rights. Perhaps this new non-husband is a relative – or the brother of a deceased husband – someone who has merely taken her in, not at all the makings of a soap opera. We don’t know – the text doesn’t tell us.

So why was the woman alone? I wonder if the woman is tired. Tired of people floating in and out of her life. Tired of well-meaning but invasive questions. Tired of putting on a face for the crowd. Tired of being misunderstood. Tired of feeling desperately alone when surrounded by so many people. And so she waits until she knows everyone else has finished fetching water and she ventures out — alone at last. Alone with her thoughts. Alone with her questions. Alone with her dreams. Perhaps she is looking out at the mountain and talking to God as she walks to the ancient well of Jacob.

When she arrives at the well, someone else is there. And, perhaps worse, the someone is a man. Now, in the ancient near east, the well is where you meet people. It is where a man would often go to meet a wife. The good folks at Unvirtuous Abbey tell us that Hebrew stories would often use wells to signal that we are entering a love story. And this isn’t just any well — this is Jacob’s well, where Jacob first saw Rachel – the woman he worked for 14 years to marry.

And this woman wants nothing of that. She has had her share of marriages and they don’t end well. Not for her. But she approaches, because her household needs water and she traveled all this way in the noon heat to collect it. There was no turning back. She almost has her bucket ready when he speaks – “Give me a drink.”

And from here everything changes. While the request seems a bit demanding, it is amazing that Jesus, a Jewish man, speaks to her at all. Judeans do not think too highly of Samaritans, as separation was important to their identity as the chosen people. As our text shows, Samaritans have their own place of worship – and that just didn’t work for the Judeans, because true worship can only take place in the temple. So just like many with religious differences of opinion today, they didn’t talk to one another. In fact, our text tells us that Judeans wouldn’t have even taken water from a Samaritan bucket.

Think of the scandal when Jesus talks to our nameless, isolated woman. And while we’re on that, how about we call her Tina, short for Photina, the name the Eastern Orthodox Church has given her as a “bringer of light.” Jesus does what he is so good at – he sees and understands the folks who are lost in the crowd. He sees Tina and lets her know in four words that he thinks she is valuable. No matter what Tina’s situation – whether she is a “woman of the night” or barren or has lost a series of husbands to unfortunate circumstance – she doesn’t have a very high place in society. She is likely seen as unlucky. Plus, she’s a woman. After five marriages, she perhaps has a low view of herself. But Jesus doesn’t. He sees her and needs her help to satisfy his thirst.

And so a conversation begins – the longest conversation with Jesus that is recorded in Scripture. Jesus and Tina begin to talk about faith… and water. My New Testament professor, David May, describes the Gospel of John’s depiction of Christ as “Zen Jesus,” because in this gospel, Jesus often speaks in a very cryptic way. He tells the woman that he can offer “living water.” In John 7, we are told that “living water” is a reference to the Holy Spirit, but Tina is obviously confused. “Sir, you have no bucket – and you just asked ME for water, remember?”

Water might seem a strange image to us. If we are thirsty, we don’t really have problems finding a drink. It is as close as the kitchen faucet. And honestly, how often is water your first choice of beverage? But Tina and her neighbors didn’t have the same experience. They had to travel – our text tells us that this well was not in the city. This could mean a journey of a mile… or more. And that is just to get to the well. Women would then carry water back to the village. Gallons of water carryied for a mile or more. Can you imagine? Depending on the size of your family, one trip might not be enough. And what if you have guests over? You’d be expected to wash their feet and give them a refreshing beverage. Cooking? You need water. Water is life. And when you have to bear the literal weight of that life on your shoulders every. single. day., you are aware of just how desperately we need it. “Ask me, and I can give you living water. You will never thirst again.” I’m listening.

They keep talking. He knows things that he shouldn’t know – and still talks to her even when the things he knows are the things that keep everyone else away. Could this be the Messiah? Is it any wonder that Tina returned to the city – and I’m assuming she ran – without her water jar? She may have been out of breath and short on water, but she had new confidence – “Come,” she said. “Come see a man who knows who I am. Who saw to my very soul. Who has given me a new view of life. Who has made me believe that I matter. Could he be the one we’ve waited for?”

The people of the city see something different in her. They go and convince Jesus to stay with them for two days. Tina is transformed. The Samaritan city is transformed. Maybe this well story is a love story after all — the story of the transformative power of a loving God.

I can’t help but wonder. Who do we see? Who do we offer living water to?

This week was World Water Week, a week when the United Nations and not-for-profit organizations, such as water.org remind us that there are still Tinas in this world. Water.org tells us that 884 million people – 1 person for every 8 in the world – do not have access to clean drinking water. In just one day, women spend more than 200 million hours collecting water for domestic use. And even then, the water back to their homes is contaminated and causes disease. More than 3 million people die every year because they don’t have clean water. Who will provide living water for them?

This week we heard the continuation of the devastating crisis in Japan. The news reported that the water in Tokyo was not safe for toddlers due to increased levels of radiation. At last report, the radiation levels had begun to decrease, but can you imagine the panic of parents? Water bottles across the city were sold out immediately.

Jesus is sitting at the well, thirsty, waiting for us to come with our buckets. We are asked to see. See the hurt in people who live in countries we may not have visited, whose names we may never know. We are asked to see those living next to us who, for whatever reason, aren’t “our kind of people.” And we are asked to empower them by loving them – even when no one else is paying attention.

I’ve placed a handout on the back table with some practical ways to provide literal water (readers, visit water.org for ways to help) to save the lives of real people whom Jesus loves. I ask that you remember those 884 million when you notice that you are thirsty. When we remember the life-giving power of water, may we remember the Spirit who is living water, the God who is transforming our lives and our communities with the love of Christ. Amen.

(photo credit 1, 2)



Filed under sermon, water

2 responses to “A Well Story

  1. Hi ,

    I think that this is a beautiful piece that you have written and describes one of the most powerful stories that Jesus left us .
    Not to judge
    Not to discriminate
    Recognise the pain of lonliness
    Step outside of our comfort zone and embrace the stranger in our midst
    Build people with low self esteem
    Never think that you are better than anyone else
    See those lost in the corwd in our busy world or suffering in silence
    If we show love to people they will usually respond in a positive way
    Water of life is much more than the physical need for water and that need is all around us.

    Its passages like this that keep scripture relevant because so much of it applies to our world today whatever corner of the planet we happen to be on


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