March 17, 2019
Jesus: Living Water
We are continuing to read through John’s gospel in this season of Lent. Last week I spoke about the miracle of Jesus turning water into wine at a wedding, from chapter 2. It could be considered one of the lesser known miracles of Jesus, compared with, say, the feeding of the 5000. Chapter 3 contains one of the most familiar verses in the Bible – John 3:16. This comes from Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus, who was a Pharisee.
Now today in chapter 4, our scripture lesson tells of Jesus’ encounter with a woman from Samaria. There’s a lot going on here, as usual. I deeply appreciate those who have studied John’s gospel and share some of what they have learned. I hadn’t thought about it before, but the conversation recorded here between Jesus and this woman is the longest conversation anyone had with Jesus in the Bible. This story gives us some insights on his humanity. He was tired from the long journey. He was thirsty. It also reveals how Jesus listened to the Holy Spirit in caring for a woman who was a social outcast. Jesus teaches one person, but she in turn comes to influence a whole town. Feel free to open your pew Bible to follow along – I’m on page 1651.
John begins the chapter by mentioning some problem with the Pharisees because they perceived Jesus was gaining more disciples than John the Baptist and was baptizing them, even if this wasn’t apparently true. Because of this controversy, Jesus left Judea to go to Galilee. John tells us that Jesus traveled through the town of Sychar on his way to Galilee. If we look at a map, clearly going through Samaria was the most direct route north from Judea to Galilee. That’s the route marked in blue. It was around seventy miles, about a two and a half day walk. But the Jewish people did not like the Samaritans, for a variety of reasons, so many travelers chose to go out of their way and take a longer and more difficult route along the Jordan River, to avoid Samaria.
John uses a Greek word to indicate how Jesus felt compelled to go through Samaria. We read it as “He had to go through Samaria.” John used this particular word to say that Jesus was following God’s will. Jesus took this route because God asked him to go there – it was no random choice. There are a number of places in this gospel where John records Jesus speaking about doing God’s will. Further in this chapter, Jesus is talking with his disciples about food. He tells them his food is to do the will of him who sent him and to finish God’s work. John writes in chapter 3, verse 34 that “the one whom God has sent speaks the words of God.” In chapter 5 he says, “By myself I can do nothing… I seek not to please myself but him who sent me.” This is also true in chapter 8, where Jesus says he does nothing on his own but speaks only what God has taught him.
Jesus went to Samaria because God said he should do so. Jesus sat down beside Jacob’s well and there met a woman who was hardly a leading citizen of the town. Why did God send Jesus to meet her? She was living with a man who was not her husband, though she had been married a number of times before. We see time and again that Jesus does not conform with social and cultural norms of his time. He would associate with lepers, beggars, Roman soldiers, tax collectors. He was kind to an adulterous woman and a prostitute, and now he has this conversation with a Samaritan woman. Hold on to this thought, because we will come back to this.
Jesus initiated conversation with her, asking her for a drink. We can guess John was writing to a wider audience than Jews, since he felt it necessary to explain that normally, Jews and Samaritans would not talk together. Jesus said that if she knew the gift of God and who it is who asks her for a drink, she would have asked him for living water.
Naturally, she is confused by his words. How can you give me water when the well is deep and you have nothing to use to draw out the water? Can you be greater than our ancestor Jacob? She is speaking of physical water, which our bodies need to survive. But Jesus is speaking of spiritual water, which is just as essential for our wellbeing. He tells her that everyone who drinks from water in this well will become thirsty again, but drinking the water Jesus gives will quench one’s eternal thirst. “Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
There’s several things going on here. Jesus reveals that he has come to give eternal life. This is his promise to us. Jesus speaks about the nature of God who is spirit, and how we must worship him in spirit and truth. God is not tied to any particular geographical location – we need not go to a holy mountain nor Jerusalem. It is the state of our hearts that counts for worship in God’s eyes, rather than where we are. Jesus shares something significant when he tells the woman he is the Messiah, the Christ.
Three things to take away from this episode of Jesus. First is on how to let God work through us; how to allow God to direct us and guide us by his Holy Spirit, to become channels of living water for others. As we consent to grow in a closer relationship with God, so we are able to listen to God urging for us to go a certain direction, engage in conversation with a certain person, be open to God’s leading in some way. Nothing is random when we are willing to let God use us for his good purposes. God will not thrust himself into our lives without our consent. God’s purposes will be done, if not through us then through another person.
We are not going to know God’s will unless we choose to forge a closer relationship with God through worship, reading the Bible and spending time with God in prayer. This is one important purpose for us in Lent – to be recommitted to the Lord as we carve out some much needed time with him. There are so many things that can and do keep us busy. But like anything else that we commit to, we find a great reward in being immersed in God’s word and listening to God’s direction for our lives.
Secondly, the woman questioned whether Jesus was greater than Jacob who gave them the well. She’s talking history and tradition, whereas Jesus is talking faith and living by God’s Holy Spirit. We can get stuck on externals that are peripheral to faith. You’ve heard it said, “We’ve always done it that way.” The church is thus and so, because it has a tradition of being such. Well, maybe Jacob’s well is important for some things, but it’s not the same as being the living water of Jesus.
There is a great difference between trusting in things – traditions, habits, material goods versus trusting in God. We appreciate our technology and usual comforts, no doubt, the regular stuff of life represented by Jacob’s well. We commiserate with the people in Venezuela who experienced widespread power outages last week along with political upheaval and economic hardships. No doubt they are facing difficult times right now. We know we are not fulfilled by smart phones or technology, by traditions or other externals. Jacob’s well is not greater than Jesus. Jesus longs for a relationship with us, not an empty religion symbolized by Jacob’s well.
Thirdly, let’s turn back to the Samaritan woman. We can, and often do, judge a person by how a person looks, one’s clothing or speech, one’s ethnicity, sexual preference or educational background. Certainly this woman was judged in her town because she was living with a man with whom she was not married. She was the only one at the well. Maybe she planned it that way, to avoid the censure from others.
Going farther in the chapter, John tells us the disciples were surprised when they returned to find Jesus talking with this woman. But they did not question Jesus why he would do such a thing. Read through the entire account and you will not find Jesus condemning her in any way. You will not hear Jesus demanding that she clean up her act before he could guide her to worship God in spirit and truth. Jesus reminds me that we also should not look at what is presently going on with a person or perhaps unsatisfactory in one’s character. Jesus was able to past that to see what future God has in mind for her.
We say, “Meet them where they are,” and here we see Jesus modeling this approach. Jesus was never patronizing; he never acted superior to another. Instead he focused on her need. Jesus perceived this woman needed God’s living water to meet the great thirst within her soul. He talked about a gift that God has for her. He told her it’s a gift God is ready to give when we ask, a gift that lasts into eternal life. This is the gospel in miniature! He talked about the satisfaction from having a spiritual spring of water welling up from inside one’s soul, a wellspring that never goes dry. He invited her to worship the Father in spirit and in truth, because God is seeking worship from her.
John tells us in verse 28 that the woman left her water jar at the well when she went back to the town. She wanted to invite others to come see Jesus. People came to believe in Jesus because of her testimony. She didn’t need her water jar. Do you hear the implied truth that she realized Jesus’ living water was far superior to her need for drinking water? Jesus and his disciples ended up staying two days with the people of that town, and many more came to believe in him. They said, “We have heard for ourselves that this man really is the Savior of the world.” May we also put our trust in Christ our savior. Amen.