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“High Noon at Jacob’s Well” — John 4:5–41– March 23, 2014


There is so much standing water still around, in the form of old snow banks and drifts and ice, and then there’s mud season still to come, that it’s hard for us to imagine that there’s a shortage of water in much of the world.  But just this week it was reported that over 99% of California–where we get so much of our off-season fruits and vegetables– is officially in a drought.  Of course, in other places, there’s too much water, or at least the wrong kind of it, as the ice caps are melting and sea levels are rising.  Here’s the summary that Bill McKibben offers in his book Eaarth–

The planet we inhabit has a finite number of huge physical features.  Virtually all of them seem to be changing rapidly: the Arctic ice cap is melting, and the great glacier above Greenland is shrinking, both with disconcerting and unexpected speed.  The oceans, which cover three-fourths of the earth’s surface, are distinctly more acid and their level is rising; they are also warmer, which means the greatest storms on our planet, hurricanes and cyclones, have become more powerful.  The vast inland glaciers in the Andes and Himalayas, and the giant snowpack of the American West, are melting very fast, and within decades the supply of water to the billions of people living downstream may dwindle.  The great rain forest of the Amazon is drying on its margins and threatened at its core.  The great boreal forest of North America is dying in a matter of years.  The great storehouses of oil beneath the earth’s crust are now more empty than

full.  Every one of these things is completely unprecedented in the 10 thousand years of human civilization.  And some places with civilizations that date back thousands of years–the Maldives in the Indian Ocean, Kribati in the Pacific, and many other island nations–are actively preparing to lower their flags and evacuate their territory.  The cedars of Lebanon–you can read about them in the bible –are now listed as ‘heavily threatened’ by climate change.  We have traveled to a new planet [thus the new spelling of the name Eaarth] , propelled on a burst of carbon dioxide.(Eaarth, p. 45)

It has been suggested that our planet be called “water” instead of earth, since 75% of it is covered with water, and life, from the cellular level on up, is mostly water.  We can go longer without food than we can without water, and, as one environmental chant goes, “No blue, no green; No green, no you!”  Water means life, and it was that life-giving water that both Jesus and the Samaritan woman were seeking at the well that noontime.

“Jesus had to go through Samaria,” John says, to get to Jerusalem, which isn’t exactly true.  He could have gone around it, around what to many Jews was “enemy territory,” but there he was, with his disciples, at noontime, in Sychar, “near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph.”  The disciples had gone into town to get some provisions for lunch, but Jesus, “tired out by his journey,” John tells us, was sitting by the well, when a lone Samaritan woman came with her water jug to draw water.

It was a completely unlikely encounter–this “necessary” route through Samaria, and then for a man to speak to an unknown woman, let alone a Jewish man speaking to a Samaritan woman, in public.  But he was thirsty–”Give me a drink,” he said to her.  The woman could hardly believe her ears–”How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” and John tells us, in case we didn’t know, “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.”  This “set up”–this impossible situation at Jacob’s Well at noontime–is clearly John’s way of alerting us to something as radically new and mind-blowing as the new birth we had just heard about last week in another one of Jesus’ conversations–that one with the Jewish leader Nicodemus.

But unlike that conversation, which was initiated by Nicodemus, who came seeking Jesus out at night, this one is initiated by Jesus, in the harsh, hot light of noon.  “Give me a drink,” he says to the woman, for he is genuinely thirsty, and he knows that she is too, not only for water   from this well, but from a source that is even deeper, the spring of eternal life.  It is fitting and ironic, as one commentator says, “that this scene unfolds by a deep well that provides the thing most necessary for our physical survival.” (Kate Huey, sermon seeds, 3/23/14)

What follows is the longest conversation–and one of the more complex–that Jesus has with anyone anywhere in the gospels. When Jesus has a theological conversation, he never uses words like “theology” or “systematic” or “hermeneutic.”  He uses words like water, wind, salt and light, seeds, bread, wine.   “If you knew the gift of God,” Jesus says to the woman, “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 comes right back at him, “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?”  “Jesus said to her, “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.  The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”

The woman touches the grooves in her shoulders where she has carried her water jar each day.  She feels the sun beating down on her, here at noontime, instead of early in the morning, when the other women come.  “Sir,” she says to him, “give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”

And then Jesus lets her know that he sees her and knows her.  “Go, call your husband and come back.”  Here we go again, she thinks.  He is like all the others.  “I have no husband.”  “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’” Jesus says to her, but not like the others.  There is no judgment in his voice. “For you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.  What you have said is true.”

Although Christian tradition has often characterized this woman as a “loose woman,” a prostitute perhaps, there are other explanations for her situation, no less tragic.  She could have been divorced or widowed, and thus passed down to all the brothers; or she could have been barren, unable to have children for these husbands, who would have felt entitled to get rid of her. To be barren was as shameful as being a prostitute–it was thought to be a punishment from God–and the other women might have avoided her for that reason alone.  “Sir, give me this [living]water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”

She is not ashamed of being Samaritan, however, and engages Jesus in that central question that separates Jews and Samaritans.  “Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem” [on another mountain]. Mountains were important for local watersheds–the people living there were dependent upon the mountain for the water that flowed down from them and so worshiped God–the source of life– there–at mountains.

Jesus answers, as Peterson imagines it, saying “The time is coming–it has, in fact, come–when what you’re called will not matter and where you go to worship will not matter.  It’s who you are and the way you live that count before God.  Your worship must engage your spirit in the pursuit of truth.  That’s the kind of people God is out looking for: those who are simply and honestly themselves before God in their worship.” (The Message)

Can this be? the woman wonders.  Can I be honestly myself and be accepted and loved by God?  “Sometimes being listened to is so much like being loved,” Barbara Pine writes, “it is impossible to tell the difference.”  Can this be?  “I know that the Messiah is coming.”

“I am he,” Jesus says, or really, what the Greek says simply is I am, which is the name of God.  Then, as the disciples return, the woman leaves her water jar, no longer needing it, and goes back to the city, shouting out, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!  He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” Her evangelism is so refreshing, so not triumphalist.  Fred Craddock suggests that “in [the woman’s] mind, a God whose nature it is to embrace all people in all places [like Jesus has just spoken about] is a Messiah.” [Christian Century, 3/7/1990]

“Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He told me everything I have ever done.’  So when the Samaritans came to him they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days.  And many more believed because of his word.”  Like so many other women in the bible, this Samaritan woman is unnamed, but in the Orthodox tradition, she is named, “Photina,” or “Svetlana,” in Russian, which means, “Equal to the apostles.”  She is the first person to be offered the cup of Eternal Life, as one commentator points out, and she receives it and shares it…in her joy at being loved.” [Nancy Rockwell, The Bite of the Apple, 3/23/14] This turns out to be a love story after all. [Richard Lischer, Christian Century, 1990]

In the “vulnerability of this interdependent moment [at a well], in the insistence upon relationship, in the breaking down of barriers,” [Patricia Farris, Christian Century, 2/13/02] Jesus and the Samaritan woman model for us not only the way to the abundant life which God’s Spirit offers us, but also the way ultimately to  preserving the waters that are life for all beings on earth.  Water management and finding ways to slow or stop the atmosphere’s warming must become sacred duties, actions that are essential if life in all its beauty and diversity and abundance is to be preserved. Some problems have solutions already; it is only the political will we lack.  Other problems involve conflicting claims between human needs and the needs of other creatures, between urban and rural populations. But our problems are not essentially engineering problems.  They are theological–what do we give “worth to,” i.e. what or Whom do we worship?

Like the woman coming to the well, not knowing what she was really thirsty for, we are too often unaware of what it is that we thirst for.  Is it really more stuff?  A “perfect” appearance? “Success”?  Money? The “perfect” family?  More convenience?  Or is it the living water that gushes up to eternal life, “eternal” not because it lasts for a long time but because it is infinite in this moment?  Vulnerability, interdependence, relationship, breaking down of barriers, this is the only way that leads to life; and this is the only way that leads to life for our planet.

May this prayer by the Chinese poet Wang Weifan be our prayer–

My Lord is the source of Love; I the river’s course.

Let God’s love flow through me.  I will not obstruct it.

Irrigation ditches can water but a portion of the field;

the great Yangtze River can water a thousand acres.

Expand my heart, O Lord, that I may love yet more people.

The waters of love can water vast tracts,

nothing will be lost to me.

The greater the outward flow, the greater the returning tide.

If I am not linked to Love’s source, I will dry up.

If I dam the waters of Love, they will stagnate.

Can I compare my heart to the boundless seas?

But abandon not the measure of my heart, O Lord.

Let the waves of your love still billow there!

[Imaging the Word, vol.2 , p. 159]


May it be so.   Amen.

Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark


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