You Could be Drinking Living Water
I have always believed that the story of "Jesus and the Woman at the Well" can only be told properly at a place like a country store. I began my ministry in the edge of the mountains where people would gather in country stores at the end of the day to pick up a few items, to catch up on the news of the day, and to talk things over. The closest town can come to the society of a country store is the regular breakfast crowd at McDonalds or Hardees; Panera Bread is too sophisticated for this kind of community to break out. Even if you are not part of that regular breakfast crowd, you know what I'm talking about because you have seen them on any Saturday morning. People are there for more than groceries or breakfast; they come to talk; they come to listen. In the society of such places, there is a lot of common sense.
In my imagination, followers of Jesus are sitting around a country store when the subject turns to Jesus' call for his followers to tell others the Good News of the Gospel and lead others to faith in Jesus. To use the big word of the church, Jesus called all of his followers to do the work of “evangelism”. Someone in the circle says, "I couldn't do that. I'm not an evangelist like the Preacher. Or, I don't have my life together like... [you fill in the name]." Soon, many heads are nodding in agreement. Leading others to Jesus is surely what Christians are supposed to do, but I could never do that either." And the great call for every Christian to share the Good News will stop right there unless someone can answer this objection.
Now, someone in the circle clears his throat and says, "Listen up; I have a story for you. Maybe it'll help." The storyteller begins to tell the story of Jesus and the Samaritan Woman. He tells about a woman who definitely does not have her life together: she has had five husbands and the one she lives with now is not her husband. She is such an outcast in her own village that she goes to get her water in the heat of the day when the righteous women are busy at home.
On this day, Jesus is traveling through Samaria on his way home to Galilee when he stops to rest by Jacob's well. The woman finds him there without a bucket, and he asks her for a drink. She is sassy and teases him about failing to keep his own Jewish rules about not touching anything that Samaritans have used. And a conversation unfolds between them: about living water, about her life and all those husbands, about real worship, and about her hope to see the Messiah when he comes. Finally, Jesus' disciples arrive from the village; she takes this as her opportunity to escape his penetrating honesty. She runs back to the village and tells everyone, who does not make it a practice to speak to her, "Come see the man who has told me everything I've ever done."
For most of the villagers, their first response to her awkward claim is something like: "I'll bet that took a while." Then she says or maybe asks, "He couldn't possibly be the Messiah, right?" This woman is no Billy Graham. Her life is wreck; her message recalls all the things her neighbors criticize about her. Then, in John 4.39, the result of her "evangelism" is reported:
39 Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman's testimony, "He told me everything I have ever done." 40 When the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. 41 And many more believed because of his word.
Then, the one who is telling the story to those who believe they could never share the Gospel with anyone at all, stops and looks around at all the complainers. The message is clear: If that bawdy, train- wreck of a woman can lead her entire village to Jesus, you can do it, too.//
As the bumper sticker says: "Friends lead friends to Jesus."
[Sally] It was an ordinary workday morning at the church office. I was serving a church in another city at the time. It was located in the old, downtown part of the city – the part most people miss on their way to the marina or the lake or Walmart. This was a church where the staff consisted of one preacher and one part-time secretary named Janie. It was a morning like this one, as I recall. A woman came into the church office with the man with whom she lived, a rather odd-looking couple: She the older one; he was several years the younger. Obviously they were going to ask for a handout. You could see it coming as soon as they stepped through the door.
She introduced herself: "My name is Sally; I'm the ugliest person in the whole city." Her candor took my breath away. To be honest about it, her face was badly disfigured. As she explained it, her Daddy had thrown her out the window of the shack where they lived. The fall left scars and actually changed the shape of her face. But, because her family could not afford a doctor and her mother was too ashamed to explain what happened, she never got medical care. Now, they were poor, and constantly in need of a handout.
Sally was very quick. Her eyes checked out every detail about the office. As soon as she saw the secretary's candy dish, she asked for a peppermint. Then, she went on with her story while her husband listened. Obviously, he never tired of hearing her retell their desperate situation. I recently checked with Janie to make sure I had this story right. She reminded me that Sally told us that day that “she” suffered from “prostate cancer”, and it was inoperable.
They were “local poor” in that they did not travel around; they stayed in our little and made their way as best they could. So many years have passed now that I cannot remember exactly what kind of help Sally asked on that particular day. When their visit was finished, Sally called her husband and they went out. After they were gone, Janie, my Secretary, caught my eye and pointed at her desk. The candy dish had been cleaned out.
It was a pattern that would be repeated many times over the following years. They would come in needy every few months; the situations run together. Over the years that passed, Janie and I got to know them well and actually grew to care for them. And each time they came, Janie would quickly hide the candy dish, lest it be empty by the time they made their way to the door.”
For me, Sally was the personification of the Samaritan Woman. Because of her poverty, her violent past, her questionable marital status, her reputation for picking up anything that wasn't nailed down, and of course, her untreated prostate cancer... she was forced to live on the edges of polite society. I never knew her to hold a job, and she had no marketable skills. Like the Samaritan woman, she was the woman who had to take care of her business when everyone else was busy somewhere else. Like the Samaritan woman, she was the last person I would expect to address and lead our little city. So, every time I read the story from the Bible, I imagine the Samaritan woman's name was Sally, and I can imagine her squirming as Jesus looks deep into her soul.
II. TEXT: The Biblical story begins with a note: Jesus has just learned that the Pharisees have heard: "Jesus is making and baptizing more disciples than John." So, Jesus responds to this information by hightailing it out of Jerusalem. We tend to pass over such notes; we don't understand the local politics that shaped Jesus' life very well. The irony of the news that Jesus was not welcome in polite company in Jerusalem is that he traveled through Samaria where he met a woman who was herself not welcome in the polite company of the women of her own village.
He and his disciples come to Jacob's well, which is located outside Sychar, a Samaritan village. Jesus sits down to rest while the disciples go into the village for food. We are told that this well is located outside the village; most of the women would use the village well. It is noon, a time when the women did not usually go to get water. The Samaritan woman is making sure that she is getting her water when polite society is not around to criticize.
She comes to the well and discovers Jesus resting there. He asks for a drink of water. And now her sassy tongue gets her into trouble. She assumes he was just another man with his guard down. She didn't know this was the King of Kings she was talking with.
+In ancient times, men did not speak to women in public, not even, I'm told, their own wives.
+In addition, Jewish men would not share vessels in common with Samaritans.
Jesus asked for water, and the Samaritan woman nailed him for his social error: "How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?" She was pointing out to him that these were his rules, but he was too thirsty to keep them. Score “one” for Sally.
Think about this situation; the Samaritan woman is quite correct; Jesus has committed a social faux pas – one which has been imposed by his own people. He should be scrambling. But, this is Jesus, who theologically must always been in charge of any situation. John cannot tell this any other way. Now, Jesus responds to her.
“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."”
Of course, the Samaritan woman does not immediately get the new direction Jesus is taking this conversation. "What living water?" She thinks he is talking about flowing water such as you would find in a spring or a stream. It is interesting that Jacob's well, where they are talking, works as both a “well”, with water flowing in from the ground, and as a “cistern”, storing rainwater runoff. As such it is not particularly good-tasting water. But, more than that, we know that Jesus is talking about the “living water” of God's indwelling Spirit. She will receive this Living Water through her personal encounter with Jesus.
“He offers an invitation to the woman, an invitation to new knowledge and to transformed life. The onus of responsibility falls on the woman, because Jesus can only offer, he cannot force her to receive. If she accepts the proffered invitation, if she can identify the gift of God and the identity of the one with whom she speaks, then a dramatic role reversal will occur, an unprecedented act of transformation. If she accepts the invitation, the woman will turn to Jesus in vulnerability and need, and he will give to her. She who was asked to give will become the one given to” (1).
III. We also know that Jesus is pointing to baptism, which is the way we act out the bestowing of God's indwelling Spirit. We receive this Living Water through the sacrament of baptism.
Today at Church Street Church, we will see the sacrament of baptism acted out again in the baptism of young Ben. For him and for all of us, it will be one of God's holy moments among us.
For some reason, we, who were baptized as infants, are bothered that we cannot call to memory the moment of our own baptism. But think about it: We are not asked to recall the “event” of our own baptism so much as we are called to remember the “ongoing significance” of our baptism.
“At the beginning of the celebration of the sacrament, the pastor says, "We are incorporated into God's mighty acts of salvation and given new birth through water and the Spirit." To remember our baptism is to recognize its connection with these mighty acts of salvation. These mighty acts are the foundation of our beliefs. Thus, the baptismal covenant can help us in affirming our faith and can provide nourishment for our journey of faith (2).”
[Baptist Preacher Will Campbell] was interviewed in Alive Now! many years ago. He told this story about baptizing his little grandson:
“I baptized my grandson, although it was a very "un-Baptist' baptism. My daughter Bonnie asked me if I would baptize her three year-old son, Harlan, on Christmas. And my daddy was there. At that point, he had been a Baptist deacon for sixty years. And I was afraid. You know, in Baptist circles infant baptism is quite a scandal. Particularly if not by immersion.
So I asked him in deference to him, "Daddy, do you believe in infant baptism?" And he said, "Believe in it? Son, I've actually seen it." That was his way of saying, "Don't be silly! Baptize your grandson!" So we did it at the breakfast table. Harlan got to giggling while were doing this. And when we got finished, he said (he called me, "Papa"), "Papa, what did you put on my head?"
I said, "Water."
And he asked, "Why?"
Bonnie was squirming. She didn't want her three year-old son traumatized by her daddy's horse and buggy theology. But it was a fair question, so I was glad to answer it. I talked about guilt and forgiveness. He said, "What is guilt?" I said, "You know about the big lump you get in your throat when you and your Mama quarrel?"
When I got through with the little homily, he jumped down from the table, wiped the last of the runny egg with his biscuit, and started off toward the door to the television room. Then he came back and grabbed me around the knees, looked up, and, in the throes of a deep down belly laugh, said, "Well, well, Papa. Thank you, then."
And my Daddy looked at me and winked like, "Don't worry about it, it'll do." The rule in Baptist circles says: "You can't be baptized until you have reached the age of accountability." But I've never heard a better response to a sacrament. He gave a “BIG LAUGH” and a “THANK YOU”. If that's not what worship is – just saying 'Thank you' – I don't know what is" (3).”
No one can force us to receive God's Living Water. But, if we accept the proffered invitation, if we can identify the gift of God in baptism, then a dramatic transformation will begin. If we accept the invitation, we will turn to Jesus in vulnerability and need, and he will give to us Living Water. Imagine such a gift! That is the promise of baptism.
1. O'Day, Gail. The word Disclosed, quoted in Alive Now!, J/F '94, p. 41.
2. Vogel, Dwight. By Water and the Spirit, quoted in Alive Now!, J/F '94, p. 7.
3. Campbell, Will. "Interview with Will Campbell," Alive Now!, M/J '94, p. 32ff.