23 March 2014

Our Thirst for Living Water

John 4: 5-30

Third Sunday in Lent/ 23rd March 2014

Every day was relentlessly the same, a trip to the well with an empty water jar and home again.  She went alone.  It was about noon, the hottest hour of the day.  It was probably the only time she felt safe to go.  There were fewer people around.  They all knew who she was even if they didn’t know her name.  The city of Sychar wasn’t as big as some of the other cities in the region. Yes, they knew who she was.  And she knew the looks.  She knew about the gossip. She knew that people could be cruel.  She felt the shame of the community. That’s why it was safer to go at noon. She wouldn’t have to meet anyone.  She could just get to the well, fill her water jar, and then be on her way home.  Home—if that’s what you want to call it.  It wasn’t much of a home life.  It certainly wasn’t conventional.  She was married once—then again, and again, and again, and again.  Maybe she wanted the neighbors to think she was married because she’s going home to someone.  But he’s not her husband.  The shame she carried was great.

            That journey to and from the well summed up the monotony of her life: every day, going to the same old well with empty jars. Going to the same old well, empty. Tired and empty.

            One day, which seemed like every other, she went to the well with her empty jar.  He was waiting for her.  Just sitting there.  He was exhausted, tired from his journey.  He was sitting on the edge of the well in the heat of the day.  Seeing a strange man at the well, a well that belonged to their ancestor Jacob, and no doubt nervous, she approached with caution.  She could tell he was a Jew.  And that added to her concern. She knew that Jews considered Samaritans as unclean, subhuman, and she could only imagine what he thought of her as a Samaritan and as a woman, a woman like her, full of shame, unclean.

            He was alone.  His friends went to buy food.  He stayed there to rest.  But he was thirsty. 

            Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink” (John 4:7).  Not even, “Please. ” Did you notice that?  No, “Would you mind giving me a drink?”  Not very polite.  She was probably used to people talking that way to her.  We can’t blame Jesus too much, though.  He had to be direct, to the point.  Jews didn’t talk to Samaritans and certainly not to Samaritan women in public.  She was puzzled by this request.  Was it a trick?  “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a Samaritan?” (Jn 4:9), she said.  A Jew could not even touch something that had been handled by a Samaritan; they could not share anything.  Nothing.

            Jesus replied, in a cryptic way, “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 [,that is, for a drink] and he would have given you living water” (Jn 4:10).  If you knew what I had to give, you would be asking me for water.

            Very confused at this point, she says, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?” (Jn 4:11).  She’s right.  Jacob’s Well was about 100 feet deep, fed by a fresh spring. He had no way to retrieve water from that well on his own, no bucket, nothing, nothing clean that is.  And then she became defensive, “Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” (Jn 4:12).

            Then Jesus said, mysteriously, “Every one 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” (Jn 4:13-14).

            Never thirsty again.  The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I will never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water” (Jn 4:13). Never again, she says to herself, will I have to come to this blasted well, lugging a heavy jar of water.  Never again will have I have to subject myself to the shame and humiliation of coming to this well.

            Then, from out of nowhere, Jesus said, “Go, call your husband, and come back” (Jn 4:16).  “I have no husband,” she said.  “You’re right, you don’t.  The one you do have is certainly not your husband.” How did he know such things about her?  A prophet? 

            Now the conversation deepens. They move from talking about practical things to even really practical things, such as theology!  She begins to like him, but wonders why his people treat her with so much disrespect.  “Where we worship on Mt. Gerizim is not good enough for you, because it’s not Jerusalem?”  And then she really becomes confused when he says, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountaintop nor in Jerusalem….the hour is coming, and now is 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” (Jn 4:20-24).  She knows he’s talking about a future time.  The Samaritans, too, are waiting for the coming of the Messiah. “When he comes,” she says, “he will proclaim all things to us,” (Jn 4:25), he’ll settle our differences, he will tell us what is true.

            Then, Jesus said, “I am he, the one who speaking to you” (Jn 4:26).

            “Just then” his disciples return with the food, shocked to see him talking to her. No one dared to question him.  Then, leaving the water jar behind, she slipped away from the men and ran off into the city, proclaiming, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!  He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” (Jn 4:29).

            That day the endless, monotonous daily routine came to a surprising end.  She didn’t return home, instead, she ran into the city, without a desire to be isolated, cut-off from the community; she didn’t care what people thought of her—in fact, she had become an evangelist.  She didn’t return home with a jug of water, instead, she left the clay jar back at the well —as the text says, one has to pay attention to every detail in John’s Gospel—and she ran into the city to tell others what she discovered about this man—and about herself.

            Sadly, we’re never told her name.  And, yet this nameless Samaritan woman is the first person in John’s Gospel to spread the news that the Messiah has come.  Christian tradition later gave her a name: St. Photine of Samaria. Photine means “enlightened one.” That works. 

            While respectful of the tradition I think we could imagine other names for her.

How about Desire?  Not, Desiree, which means to be desired, but Desire (which was a favorite name among the Puritans, by the way).  Desire reflects her deep—deeper than Jacob’s Well—yearning for a different life, something more. When she heard that there was another water source that meant she wouldn’t have to go to the well, she said right away, “Sir, give me this water….”  That’s desire for something more. It says something about the state of her life on that day.  She goes to the well to satisfy her thirst. But all the water in the world won’t slake the deeper thirst of her soul that cries out for something else, a life beyond the shame and humiliation.  Jesus knows her, knows what she needs, and in order for her to receive what he has to offer he has to take her out of one frame of reference into another.  His cryptic responses do that.  They throw her into confusion.  A statement from Jesus yields a question from Desire and then another response from Jesus.  Jesus is trying to see what she really desires. He’s trying to get her to see what she’s really thirsty for.  Jesus is intentionally stirring the water, as it were.

            So, I guess, Desire works, but perhaps a better name might be Zoe.  Why Zoe?  In Greek there are two words that can be translated as “life.”  There’s bios (from which we get biology, biography), which means natural life, the period or course of life, the extension or length of natural life.  It’s functional life; existing, but not really living.

            The Greek work for really living is zōē (ζωὴ).  Zōē refers to vitality, that which animates life.  Zōē is abundant life, full-life, a life overflowing with meaning, purpose, love, and light. It’s “authentic existence.”[1] It’s vigorous life.  It’s life that yields more life, not just sustains it.  Zōē is one of John’s favorite words; he uses it 32 times in the Gospel.  We find it right at the beginning of the Gospel in the Prologue. Speaking about Jesus, John says, “What has come into being in him was life (zōē), and the zōē was the light of all people” (John 1:4). When Jesus says that he’s “the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6),” the Greek reads zōē.  Jesus said, “I have come that you have zōē and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).  When Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life,” he’s talking about zōē.  “I am the resurrection and the zōē.”  When Jesus says that he can offer the Samaritan woman “living water,” it’s zōē that’s behind that word.   It’s overflowing life, Life with a capital “L” that cannot be contained in ordinary life.  “The water that I will give,” Jesus said, “will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”  In them—in us—within the heart or soul or psyche, within our lives this new life will flow.  And when Jesus talks about “eternal life” here in John’s Gospel he’s not talking about life in heaven, but life, here and now.[2]  Jesus is talking about true life, zōē, which is touched by eternity, life with a touch of divinity, that is God’s life, God’s zōē, welling up within us, gushing up within us.  Later in John’s Gospel we find Jesus saying, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water” (John 7:37).

            That’s the kind of life, with a capital “L”, that Jesus came to offer, came to give, the kind of life Jesus still offers, still gives.  It’s so easy for us to get caught in our routine lives and fail to see that Jesus is trying to give us something more.  The woman at the well is so stuck in a day-to-day routine, so literal-minded, I sense despair, that it’s difficult for her to imagine a different way, an alternate life, something more.  The poet T. S. Eliot (1888-1964) once asked the question: “Where is the Life we have lost in our living?”[3] It’s a question that often haunts me.  For I believe that this is exactly what Jesus came to offer her—Life—and he will not relent until the scales on her eyes are washed away and she’s allowed to see him and see herself.  He offers her more, offers greater life, true life, meaningful life, God’s life.  That’s what Jesus is always extending out to you and me.  Always more Life.  Always.

            However, there’s something within us that causes us to forget this or is fearful around this.  Christian Wiman reminds us that we’re always trying to bring God down to our level. Wiman is one of the leading intellectuals of our age; he was the former editor of the esteemed Poetry journal.  He was raised in the faith, grew up in the church, moved away from it, then came back to it just around the time he fell in love and got married and then diagnosed with a very rare form of cancer.  He has written extensively about his experience and the depth of his faith.  In his memoir, My Bright Abyss, Wiman, says, “Our minds are constantly trying to bring God down to our level rather than letting him lift us into levels of which we were not previously capable.  This is as true in life as it is in art.”  When I read this recently, I thought of Desire or Zoe, our Samaritan woman at the well.  She’s stuck at one level and can’t quite connect with what Jesus is saying to her.  She responds to Jesus from within her immediate frame of reference.  Wiman continues, “Thus we love within the lines that experience has drawn for us, we create out of impulses that are familiar and, if we were honest with ourselves, exhausted.”[4]   We stay within the confines of the familiar, we allow our past to limit what the future can be, we stay close to home, keep up the routine and we end up exhausted because we’re trying to keep things as they are, trying to bring God down into our world, into our lives, trying to fit God into our experience, our expectations. 

            But Wiman then wonders, “What might it mean to be drawn into meanings that, in some profound and necessary sense, shatter us?  This is what it means to love,” he says.[5]  That’s what love does.  Love shatters old ways—ways that do not, can no longer give us life—in order to open us up to a “still more excellent way (1 Corinthians 12:31),” which is exactly what Jesus offered the woman at the well.  It’s all given in deep, profound love.  “Unceasing love, surpassing all we know.”[6]

            And so she discovered something new flowing within her soul, a new life stirring, bubbling up within her.  She is now fully known, she is recognized, she is understood by him. He knows her through and through, he knows her past—all of it—but without a word of judgment lifts her up and calls her forward into to a new way of life.  And so she leaves the water jar behind.  That clay jar and all that it represents for her no longer has to “contain” her life. It had become a symbol of her life, but she didn’t need it any more.  In leaving the jar behind she’s leaving the rest of her life behind too.  Love calls her forward.  Her body, her heart, her soul, together, now become the container for new life, the zōē-life of God gushing forth within her.  

            I like to think that when she left that jar behind, she tossed it away and when it landed on the ground it cracked. 

            Or, better…she tossed it away and when it landed on the ground it—shattered. 

            Thanks be to God.

[1] John Macquarrie, An Existentialist Theology: A Comparison of Heidegger and Bultmann (London: SCM Press Ltd, 1955), 135ff. 
[2] Macquarrie, 138: “Such life, understood not as a natural phenomenon but as man’s authentic God-given existence, is eternal or everlasting life, because, being the opposite of death, the concomitant of sin, it is therefore immune from death.  Thus the believer has even now eternal life.” See also John 3:16, 5:24; 6:47; 17:3.
[3] T. S. Eliot, Choruses from “The Rock” (1934).
[4] Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a ModernBeliever (New York:  Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013), 49-50.
[5] Wiman, 50.
[6] Michael Dennis Browne, from the text of Stephen Paulus’ anthem Pilgrim’s Hymn. 

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