Gospel John 4:5-42
Jesus defies convention to engage a Samaritan woman in conversation. Her testimony, in turn, leads many others to faith.
5[Jesus] came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph.6Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.
7A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” 8(His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) 9The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) 10Jesus answered 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.” 11The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” 13Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14but 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.” 15The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”
16Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” 17The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; 18for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” 19The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. 20Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” 21Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. 24God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” 25The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” 26Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”
27Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” 28Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, 29“Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” 30They left the city and were on their way to him.
31Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” 32But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” 33So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?” 34Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. 35Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. 36The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. 37For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ 38I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”
39Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” 40So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. 41And many more believed because of his word. 42They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”
Thirst is the theme that ties our human experience to both the scripture from Exodus and the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman. Over two thousand years later, and our bodies are still 70% water and need water to survive. I can’t be the only one here that forgets to drink enough water during the day – despite our culture’s insistence that we carry with us fancy water bottles. Sometimes we don’t even know how thirsty we are, when we are sick or stressed, and suddenly we end up dehydrated – and then all manner of things can happen to our body and our mind when our system is craving fluids.
For the Israelites traveling in the wilderness there was no predictable water source. As they set up camp at Rephidim, there was no water sources nearby. They turn to their leader Moses to blame him – as if he can magically produce water. Give us water they cry. For our children and our livestock! The desperation is real, the blame is a product of desperation. Access to clean water will be what determines their survival. Is the Lord with us or not? Will we survive or not?
For the Samaritan woman and her village, there was a predictable water source, but certainly not convenient running water that we have today. Getting enough water to cook and clean, and make sure your household was hydrated would take multiple trips to the well. Carrying buckets and jars, physical labor, likely for the women of the household to manage. If she was coming to the well in the middle of the day, that likely meant there was an issue. She needed more water than she could get in her trip first thing in the morning. You know those days when the kids are sick and you do more laundry than you expected. When a huge mess happens and you find yourself scrubbing things you’ve never scrubbed before.
In our own time, for most of us, getting clean water is not a problem. But we also know, communities in our own country, who do not have clean water for themselves or their children, or who cannot trust that the water that comes to their homes is clean. Other places in our country are facing shortages and drought. The desperation there is very real too.
But I’ve not known that desperation – in our country, the norm is an expectation that when you turn on the taps, you get water. As much as you want. We fill up pools and run sprinkler to take care of our plants. We let the water run until its the exact temperature we want. We take access to clean water for granted.
Our relationship with water is very different from our biblical ancestors in the faith, and yet, we are also 70% water and rely on it for our very survival. How can we read these texts, keeping those differences in mind? That’s the question I have today. Jesus is talking about life itself, what is necessary for survival.
Jesus was human, he knew thirst, but when Jesus asks this woman for a drink, she first asks him a question, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?”
We are helpfully given the brief explanation, “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.” Remember its a family fight, and the similarities between the Jews and Samaritan only intensifies the differences. Jesus is crossing several social boundaries at once here – a religious teacher approaching a woman alone to speak with her, and asking to share her cup, and a Jewish rabbi having a normal conversation with a known heretic blasphemer Samaritan.
The questions in this conversation point out a curiosity. This woman could have simply said no and left it at that. She could have avoided any scandal, and gotten her water, and left this strange Jewish rabbi to fend for himself. She could have told him off – listed any number of reasons why she couldn’t give him a drink, why she shouldn’t – but she doesn’t. Instead, she questions “Why do you ask me?” Questions open up conversation.
One of the things I’ve learned when I don’t have an answer to a pointed question – is to respond with a question, “why do you ask?” Even if I don’t have a satisfactory answer in that moment, the conversation opens up in a bigger way. Thus begins the longest recorded conversation Jesus has with anyone in the gospels.
One of my colleagues reminded me this week that this conversation is set up as a parallel to Nicodemus. Nicodemus starts off as a know-it-all, but then barely utters anything useful, this woman keeps pace with Jesus all the way through, and that she is the first to whom Jesus reveals himself as I AM. Jesus rewards her willingness to ask!
She’s curious, or maybe just brazen – daring to question this stranger.
But Jesus is also speaking to her boldly. There’s no judgement in his comments, just truth and honesty. Contrast that with the disciples who show up and are astonished, but no one says anything, and no one asks the question they are all thinking.
The Israelites question “Is the Lord with us or not?” Who of us has not asked it? In times of chaos, conflict, or suffering, do we dare to speak our questions? “It’s worth remembering that the Gospel of John was written after the Roman armies had destroyed the Jerusalem temple, a period when both Jews and early Christians were struggling to make sense of the world without what they had considered its sacred axis.” ( )
Is God with us or not? Is God present here in our world? Where is God present? This woman is not only bold enough to converse and ask, but bold enough to speak her truth – even though she is not 100% certain. After the long conversation, this revelatory experience – the Samaritan woman left her bucket and immediately went to tell people what happened. ‘Come and see….. He cannot be the Messiah, can he?’ The Samaritans then in turn were brave enough to ask Jesus to stay with them, and the story closes, with the rest of the community confessing their faith. They said to the woman, ‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.’ Seems like they were brave enough to ask the questions too.
We may take it for granted that we have access to water – but we know it is life-giving. Jesus uses this ordinary source of life to speak to something extra ordinary. Just as he uses bread to speak of the ways God provides spiritual sustenance to the people. While we may not know starvation or desperation for water in our own life experience, we know in our heads and hearts that without bread and without water, we will not survive. This is the sort of need and survival that we have a hard time wrapping our head around. While our ancestors were very familiar with that experience, we think of ourselves as self-sufficient. And therefore, is hard for us to think about God providing what we need to live.
Until the wheels fall off. Until up is down, and the diagnosis comes, or the plans fall through, and the world seems to be just wrong. Practicing curiosity and brave inquiry before that will lead us not out of these moments, but through them, honestly questioning where God is working in the midst of it. Paying attention to your body and your spirit, in the times when access to that living water feels easy and natural – will lead to knowing when you are dehydrating and in need of the water of life. Jesus may be right in front of us, God may feel far from us, but it is the questions where we will seek him, and he will find us.