“Give me something to drink,” Jesus says to the Samaritan woman at the well.
The writer of John’s Gospel has noted that Jesus is tired. For the first time in this Gospel Jesus seems vulnerable, all too human. We don’t have the desert temptation in this account of Jesus’ life and up until now Jesus has seemed invincible, turning water into wine, calling quick-to-follow disciples, cleansing the temple, schooling a Pharisee in the middle of the night. But here, in these first few verses of this very long pericope, we get a glimpse into the fully human Jesus. He is tired. He is thirsty. He is resting, finally alone, by the well in the high noon heat of the day. The Master, the Messiah, looks up at this double outsider – a Samaritan and a woman – and asks her to give him a drink. It seems a rare role reversal for the One who will serve and heal and pour himself out time and time again.
A vulnerable, alone, thirsty Jesus, asking an outsider for help, is appropriate foreshadowing of the Passion narrative this third Sunday of Lent. The next, and only other, time Jesus will thirst in John’s Gospel will be from the cross, moments before he breathes his last. Perhaps among the many images that come to mind in this story, a powerful one should be that of Jesus hanging from the cross. It is easy to get lost in the twists and turns of these 30-some verses. Water, living water, thirst, spring of life. Food, the kind needed to make it through the day, and the food Jesus has that the disciples don’t know about. The relationship between Jesus and non-Jews. The boundaries between men and women and the many boundaries Jesus disregards. Jesus’ identity as the Messiah and who recognizes him, and who doesn’t. The disciples’ obtuseness and the woman’s perception. The role of experience and testimony in conversion and belief. Worship, where it happens and who is involved in it. The sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The list of theological themes that might be explored this week is as long as the text.
Finding a focus will entail taking into account context: liturgical, cultural, congregational and so much more.
First and foremost, remember that we are in the season of Lent, on the road to Holy Week and Easter. The foreshadowing of the Passion is evident in several ways. As we’ve noted, Jesus is alone, vulnerable and thirsty. Jesus’ ministry will not be a victory march from glory to glory. Remarkable signs will give way to unspeakable suffering. Do we still want to follow?
Jesus is the Messiah; some will recognize and acknowledge this truth, others will not. Often those you think will call him Lord don’t, and other unlikely people will. Will we listen to the testimony of those we’ve heretofore dismissed and believe them and Jesus? Or will we grumble that if Jesus were in fact the Messiah, he would know better than to associate with those kinds people? What kind of Messiah do we expect? Will our expectations preclude our belief? Do we want to be associated with the people Jesus associates with?
Being this far into the journey of Lent demands we ask these difficult questions of ourselves and our communities, and this story opens the door to such self-examination.
This story also prods us to consider not only Jesus’ vulnerability, thirst and need, but that of those around us and even that of our own. The Samaritan woman at the well is alone, thirsty and vulnerable, too. Her backstory is not neat and tidy, nor socially acceptable. She is multiply marginalized and could be easily exploited like so many in our world: refugees taken advantage of by smugglers, impoverished youth trafficked, people living from paycheck to paycheck charged exorbitant interest rates on small loans. The list of contemporary Samaritan women is too long to recount. Taking note of how Jesus interacts with her reveals much about who the Messiah is, what he has come to do and how his disciples are to respond in kind.
Jesus doesn’t shame or exploit. He talks to her as if she were his equal and offers her that which she most needs, living water. She is aghast that he will interact with her, a Samarian. The disciples are shocked he would interact with her, a woman. Jesus recognizes neither category as a barrier to being in relationship with her. Perhaps we could do likewise.
Given our current propensity to categorize, exclude and even demonize those unlike us, taking to heart Jesus’ radical boundary crossing in this story would be timely. Letting go of the need to shame and judge and instead sharing that which is life giving would be a faithful practice this Lent and beyond. Taking the time to talk and listen to those we encounter at the well or the laundry mat, the school or on the corner wouldn’t be a bad place to start.
Considering the extent of thirstiness in our lives and world, we would do well to imagine what Jesus’ life-giving water truly might look like. There is a wonderful interplay in this text between literal and metaphorical and I think that is instructive, too. Yes, Jesus is talking about the waters of baptism, the spring of the water of life, the font of every blessing. But isn’t Jesus also talking about the justice that rolls down like a river and never-ending stream and the cups of cold water given to the little ones as an act of tangible hospitality? Yes, Jesus is talking about food that is the bread of life, the bread from heaven, his body given for us. But is he not also talking about the five barley loaves that feed the 5,000 and the meals shared with tax collectors and sinners? There is a seamlessness in this story between symbolic and physical sustenance, an unbreakable connection between metaphor and the material. An experience of Jesus Christ has real world consequences.
This was true for the Samaritan woman. Her life is transformed through this encounter with Jesus. She goes from exponential outsider to apostle, evangelist and leader. Her belief in Jesus Christ changes her life in radical, real ways that impact an entire community. Is that true for us, too? It should be.
- The Samaritans urge Jesus to stay longer. Are there other places where people urge Jesus to stay longer? How about Paul? How do they respond to these requests?
- Who do we believe and why? Are there people whose testimony we dismiss? Why?
- Take a look through John’s Gospel and make note of who recognizes that Jesus is the Messiah and who does not. Do you notice any common traits between those who do or do not recognize who Jesus is?
- Have you ever been in a situation where you could not turn on the tap and get potable water? If so, what was that like? How does that experience color your understanding of this text?
- If you took on a Lenten discipline, how is it going? What have you learned as a result of this practice?
- Try a discipline of centering prayer this week. Each day, use a word taken from this John text.
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Grace and peace,
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