Some years ago, writer Eugene Peterson found an analogy for modern spiritual quests in, of all things, a Winnie the Pooh story. In one of the many tales from the Hundred-Acre Woods, Christopher Robin and company decide to set out one day in search of the North Pole. At one point along the way, young Roo falls into a stream and needs to be rescued. Pooh Bear eventually uses a long pole to fish his friend out of the water. Once this emergency had passed, the animals stand around and discuss what had just happened.
As they are talking, Christopher Robin notices that Pooh is standing there with the rescue pole still in his paw. “Pooh, where did you get that pole?” “I just found it earlier,” Pooh replies. “I thought it might be useful.” “Pooh,” Christopher Robin says excitedly, “the expedition is over! You have found the North Pole!” “Oh,” says Pooh, “I did?” Eventually Christopher Robin sinks the pole into the ground and hangs a flag on it with this message: “The North Pole, Discovered by Pooh. Pooh Found It.” Then they all go home again, satisfied that this quest was successful.
This story, Peterson suggests, bears some resemblance to the way many people in recent years have gone about their various spiritual quests. Everyone knows that despite early-twentieth century predictions that spirituality would retreat as technology and science advanced, quite the opposite proved to be true. The very generation of people that was raised in a technological world of computers, DVD players, the Internet, and cell phones proved to be one of the most spiritually hungry generations in recent times. In fact, people today use one of the most dazzling of all technological innovations, the Internet, to explore spirituality by visiting the startling array of religious websites that exist in cyberspace.
People are in search of something quite grand but, like Christopher Robin and company, they seem quite willing to label the first thing they find as being “it.” They are hungry and thirsty for something more, so they go to Barnes & Noble, stumble on some Thomas Moore book called The Re-Enchantment of Everyday Life, and they think they’ve arrived at their destination. They see that someone has slapped a label of spiritual authority onto this work–you can, after all, always find someone with a “Rev.” in front of his name or a “Ph.D.” after her name, to write glowing blurbs for such books. And suddenly, like Christopher Robin’s flag, people think this label authenticates the books of dozens of best-selling writers who produce pop pablum like The Celestine Prophecy, Touched by an Angel, Chicken Soup for the Soul, and Conversations with God.
One estimate claims that there are nearly 10,000 different books currently in print that dole out spiritual advice. Many of these have been best-sellers over the years, which means that some of the same people are buying different books all the time. But that only means that the spiritual pole they confidently labeled as “the North Pole” six months ago must not have turned out to be the end-destination after all. If it had been, they wouldn’t have made yet another expedition to the bookstore in search of newer, fresher, different answers.
All of which, quite obviously, brings us right into the middle of this week’s passage. For here Jesus proffers a living water of such eternal significance that he promises that those who imbibe this sacred drink will never be thirsty again. That is the core truth of this story, but rather than wondering about this in the abstract, let’s dive into the narrative itself to see how the deeper meaning of all this emerges from the story’s details. This story in chapter 4 is in many ways a companion tale in John 3 and Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus. So we’ll want to make some comparisons.
In general, the setting and central character of this story could scarcely be more different from what you find in John 3. John 3 features a religious insider, a spiritual VIP. Today we see a social and religious outsider, a spiritual loser, encounter the Lord. John 3 focuses on a famous man, Nicodemus, who uses the cover of darkness to hide himself. Today we see an infamous Samaritan woman use the heat of the noontime sun as a way to avoid contact with others. Nicodemus initiated the conversation by delivering to Jesus the verdict as to who the religious authorities deemed Jesus to be. Today we see Jesus initiate the conversation through the simple request for a drink of water.
Those are some of the differences, but there are similarities, too. In both John 3 and John 4 the subject of water comes up: Jesus told Nicodemus that the spiritual re-birth he needed comes through “water and the Spirit.” Now the conversation with this woman centers on living water. Also, despite the huge disparities between Nicodemus and this woman from Sychar, both of them are hiding. Nicodemus hid in the darkness, this woman hid in the daylight, and neither wanted to be seen by other people.
Both were hiding, running, but finally also seeking something. That’s because they both need the new life that only Jesus can give. Nicodemus was at the top of the religious heap and this woman was at the bottom. But Jesus was the answer for both, which tells you a lot about the gospel and who needs it. Clearly, everybody needs it. A final similarity between these two stories is that both Nicodemus and this woman are at first very confused by Jesus.
In the case of this woman, there were lots of things bombarding her senses that day. First of all, she didn’t expect to run into anyone at the well, much less a Jewish man. In fact, avoiding other people is precisely why she did the foolish thing of drawing water at the hottest hour of the day. At six pounds per gallon, water is heavy stuff to tote around. That’s why in villages like Sychar people gathered at the town well in the cool of the early morning and then again later in the cool of the evening. Noontime was too scorching for such work.
That’s why it was this woman’s favorite time to get water: she didn’t have to run into anyone because in the past whenever she did encounter other people at the well, she withered under their judgmental stares. The heat of the noonday sun couldn’t hold a candle to the heat of social opprobrium and disapproval. For you see, this woman “had a past,” a bad reputation. She was the village whore, the five-time divorcee now rumored to be shacked up with man #6. She wasn’t “good people.”
Across the centuries people always gather where beverages are available. Even today we sometimes call a restaurant or lounge our favorite “watering hole” because it’s the place where we go after work to unwind with our friends over a glass of wine or something. In fact, even the phrase “scuttlebutt” has similar origins from the maritime world of ships and sailors. If you “scuttle” a ship, it means intentionally cutting a hole into the bottom of the boat so it will sink. Also, on board old cargo ships, those big fifty-gallon casks or barrels that were once used to transport various goods were known as “butts.”
So if you “scuttled” a “butt,” you cut a hole in the top of one of those big barrels so that you could then fill the barrel with fresh water. Sailors could then gather at this scuttled butt and dip in their cups for a drink. While standing around and sipping their water, the sailors would also swap shipboard rumors. Hence, “scuttlebutt” eventually became a way to refer to gossip. (A latter day equivalent is “the water cooler syndrome” in which water coolers become the place where employees gather for a cool drink and a bit of office gossip.)
It was probably not a lot different at village wells back in Jesus’ time. It was the town watering hole where everyone gathered two times a day and so where people lingered a bit to tell some tales, catch up on news, and also stay current on all the juiciest town gossip. This Samaritan woman had no doubt long been a favorite subject of such scuttlebutt. Needless to say, when she used to show up at the well in person, a lot of conversation ceased, eyes were averted, maybe even a few dirty looks were directed her way.
So eventually she’d given up. She stayed home when everyone else was out, and she went out only when everyone else was home. In the past, we have maybe assumed that she got what she deserved. We’ve chalked her up as a sleazy, sinful woman. But she may have been a victim, too. Don’t forget that in Jesus’ day, women had almost zero social standing. They certainly could not be the initiators of divorce. All a man had to do was haul his wife out into the street and then say to her three times, “I divorce you, I divorce you, I divorce you” and that was that. The women didn’t have much say in the matter. And so perhaps this woman was the kind of person who, desperate for some attention and affection, hooked up with all the wrong men who, in turn, used her and then discarded her like a dirty tissue.
We don’t know that this was so, but one thing becomes clear in the course of her conversation with Jesus: she is not a religious ignoramus. This woman knows some theology! This woman has thought about spiritual matters. She’s aware of the promised Messiah, knows something of the controversy between the Jews and the Samaritans about where God may (or may not) be appropriately worshiped. The town long since wrote her off as a bad sort of person, but inside her skin beat the heart of someone thirsty for God.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Long before any of that becomes evident in this story, this woman first has to overcome her shock at having Jesus talk to her at all. As I indicated a few minutes ago, her heart no doubt sank when she saw that on this particular day, her plan to avoid all contact was failing. Someone was there. Worse, it was a man. Doubly worse, it looked like a Jewish man. You didn’t see too many Jews in Samaria most days. Jews rather assiduously avoided that area, willingly adding a few extra days to their journey so they could take the long way around that greasy stretch of land called Samaria.
Jesus had opted against that and so cut straight through the heart of Samaria. So when this woman saw him, she perhaps averted her eyes, grit her teeth, and hoped to get through this as painlessly as possible. But then the man cleared his throat, and she no doubt thought, “Here it comes!” But no, there is a kind timbre to his voice. He even asks her for some water, instead of barking out a demand to her. Probably she should have kept her mouth shut but she is so taken aback that she blurts out, “What in the world is going on here!? You, a Jew, are not supposed to talk to me, a Samaritan!”
Jesus was indeed breaking with convention to engage this woman, which is why the disciples will shortly be so scandalized to witness this. To show you why, let me give you a few choice quotations that were popular in Jesus’ day: “A man shall not talk with a woman in the street, not even with his own wife, on account of what others may say. He that talks much with womankind brings evil upon himself. If any man gives a woman a knowledge of God’s Law, it is as though he had taught her lechery.” Nothing subtle about any of that rhetoric! But no matter: Jesus talks to a woman. To a Samaritan woman. To a Samaritan woman with whom even other Samaritans did not deign to speak!
More, he speaks the words of life to her. He uses the well as an occasion to introduce the memorable image of living water–a new spring of water that would well and bubble up into all eternity. Needless to say, this woman wants to buy stock in the company that produces this wonderful libation! “OK,” Jesus says, “but let’s bring your husband into the deal, too.” Why did Jesus say that? To shame her, the way the other residents of Sychar would do by mentioning this? No. To embarrass her, condemn her? No, but probably as a reminder to her that she had been trying to slake her thirst in all the wrong ways. It wasn’t sex or meeting Mr. Right or finding companionship that was going to drown her thirst.
Eventually she catches on to what Jesus is saying. Unlike Nicodemus, we know how she responded: she raced back to the village and began knocking on doors whose doorsteps she had not darkened in years. Somehow she forgot that she was supposed to avoid these people. Instead she rather quickly becomes a member of the community again. Before this story is finished, villagers are actually speaking to her again (and speaking gratefully at that).
It’s all rather interesting and ultimately rather happy, too. But the disciples are confused, perplexed, even a bit distressed by it all. They don’t understand what in the name of all that is holy would inspire Jesus to talk to a Samaritan woman. When they try to press a cheese sandwich upon Jesus for lunch, he says, “No thanks. I have food you don’t know about,” and this makes them wonder if he had gotten some take-out food from somewhere.
So Jesus has to explain things to them, and what he says comes down to this in verses 34-38: there is work to be done, a spiritual harvest to gather in. The disciples’ problem is they didn’t see this. They saw Samaria as a place to pass through as quickly as possible. It never occurred to them that there were candidates for salvation living there. All their lives they had been taught to bracket all Samaritans, to write them off. Jesus had a rather different point of view. If this woman was worth engaging with the good news of the gospel, then that opened up the field of potential gospel-receivers to pretty much everyone!
Today, as we said at the outset, people everywhere are looking for something to sate their spiritual thirst. They are mostly drinking at all the wrong taps, though. They are soaking up pop books that satisfy nothing more than the publishing world’s hope that you will soon want to try a different brand of designer water. Indeed, if they ever published one book that would take care of things forever, the market would dry up!
So the task before the church today is the same as it ever was: to offer the pure, distilled, unpolluted water of the living gospel through the living Christ Jesus. What’s more, we need to offer this to everyone without distinction, starting perhaps with the people we have been subtly trained to ignore because of their skin color, socio-economic status, religious background, sexual orientation, or whatever.
The theologian Neal Plantinga once reminded us of something C.S. Lewis said in connection with World War II. Lewis commented that during times of peace and prosperity, only wise people seem to know that we live our lives at the edge of a precipice. During times of war and terror, however, everyone senses this. We are in such a time as spiritually dry people are crying out for something to quench this thirst. There are a number of spiritual beverages that get peddled–drinks that either don’t last very long or that actually increase a person’s thirst. As the church, we have living, lasting, eternal water. We ought not to be shy in offering it. It changes lives!
Surely it changed the life of this sad woman from Sychar. If I ever were going to make a short movie of this incident for a Sunday school class or something, I know what I would want my final image to be. It emerges from a tiny yet telling detail in verse 28 when we are told this woman left her water jug behind. That’s quite an image! Later in verses 39-42 as the Samaritans happily urge Jesus to stay in their village for a while, I picture the whole jubilant crowd hustling Jesus and the disciples back into town.
As the noise of their laughter fades and as the dust from their feet settles in the noonday heat, I would have a camera slowly zoom in on that abandoned water jug next to Jacob’s well. She had come to that well thirstier than she knew earlier that day. She left sensing she’d never be truly thirsty again. To encounter Jesus is to find life–a stream of living water that wells up in us now; a stream of water that will mount up over time until it becomes finally a mighty tidal wave of cleansing that will wash over the entire world, making us and all things new. That’s the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God!
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Lent 3A: Welling Up