Water is essential to life. The human body is somewhere between 55% and 78% water, and water covers about 70% of the earth’s surface. Although we can go a while without water, eventually we’ll die without water. Water and life – they go hand in hand.
Two of the texts for this Third Sunday of Lent focus on water. Moses has to deal with a people who complain vociferously because they don’t have water to drink, while Jesus finds himself tired and thirsty and sitting next to Jacob’s well. He doesn’t complain, but he does ask for water! As we think about water and thirst we might want to look ahead for a moment to Jesus’s cry from the cross – I Thirst (John 19:28). Paul’s not quite ready to get to the water (Baptism appears in Romans 6), but he deals with the issue of suffering and hope, ideas that are present in the other two texts. Each of these scriptures remind us that no matter how difficult the journey, God is present and faithful.
In the Exodus story, the people have again grown cantankerous. Although God provided food for the journey – not that they enjoyed the menu – now they’re thirsty. This leads to quarreling and complaining to Moses – why, they ask, have you led us out here into the wilderness so that we might die of thirst. You would have thought that they preferred slavery in Egypt, and perhaps they did. We often prefer the misery we know to the potential misery that might face us in the unknown. With all the harping and complaining, Moses grows frustrated with this people God had entrusted to his care. They were never satisfied, no matter what God did – whether it was the rescue from the clutches of Pharaoh’s army or the manna from heaven – they weren’t satisfied. Wanting water they begin to quarrel amongst themselves, and Moses cries to God – “What am I to do with this people? They’re ready to stone me.” As I read this, I’m reminded of political leaders, especially Presidents, who find that they can never satisfy the populace, no matter what they do. It’s never enough!
But God is gracious and hears Moses, telling him to gather the Elders and then go out ahead of the people. God tells Moses to meet at the Rock at Horeb, and there in front of the Elders, Moses does as God commanded. He strikes the rock with the staff he had used to strike the Nile, and from that rock sprang water to quench the thirst of the people. God had provided, but in a bit of frustration, Moses calls this place Masseh and Meribah, because the Israelites “quarreled and tested the Lord saying - “is the Lord among us.” I sense that the word we need to hear in this story concerns typical human behavior – even in the church – in spite of our complaining and insolence, God is faithful. So instead of complaining, let us give thanks to God.
Before we turn to story of Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well, we must heed Paul’s discourse in Romans 5. The chapter begins familiarly – “Since we are justified we have peace with God through the Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to the grace in which we stand.” In Christ we’re justified, saved, and reconciled. I’m afraid it’s easy to read this passage in a very transactional way. We’re sinners who face the wrath of God, and Jesus’ blood substitutes for our blood. For centuries theologians have interpreted the cross in a quid pro quo fashion – the life of Jesus for my life. But why does God need blood to be satisfied? What is it that I have done that requires the death of another, especially one who is innocent of all changes? I struggle with the idea of divine wrath. I don’t have space to delve into this question here in this place, but perhaps there is another way of reading this text. Maybe the issue is one of separation between Jew and Gentile – in the cross a way has been created that brings the two together. I don’t know, but what I do hear in this text is a promise that no matter what happens there is hope. Suffering, which we all experience, produces endurance, and endurance leads to character, and character builds hope, and as Paul says – this hope doesn’t disappoint. That is because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit. That is the message we need to hear – not that we’re miserable sinners who need someone to suffer our due punishment so that God will accept us. No the word we should hear in this text is that God’s love will transform our lives in ways that lead to hope. That is a word of salvation.
Finally we come to the story Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well. According to John, Jesus is sitting by the well because he’s tired. He’s on his way to Jerusalem, where he will taste suffering The disciples have gone into town to get some food. It’s about noon when a woman comes to the well to draw water, and so Jesus asks her to draw him some water to drink, because he’s thirsty. This woman is caught off guard because Jesus is a Jew and she’s a Samaritan (and a woman) so why is he asking her for water? My guess is that he’s thirsty and she has the means to get him a cup of water, but that’s too simple an explanation. The point isn’t the physical thirst, but the spiritual thirst that lies within. The request for water leads to a theological discussion, but first Jesus has to overcome the woman’s literalist mind set, just as he had to do in John 3 with regard to Nicodemus. That’s just the way we are – we think literally first and only later are we able to move onto something more spiritual in nature.
Having asked the woman for a cup of water, Jesus in turn offers the woman living water. At first she can’t comprehend what he’s saying. How can Jesus offer her living water when he doesn’t have a bucket to draw water with. But, when Jesus says that once she drinks this living water she’ll never thirst again, she becomes intrigued. How does this happen? But, besides that, this well belonged to Jacob. How could any other water exceed it in value? Still, water that fulfilled thirst eternally, that was worth pursuing. Having such water would eliminate the need to come to the well. As she’s contemplating this reality, Jesus tells her to go and get her husband. Of course, she’s not married, but apparently he already knows this. In fact, although she’s been married five times, the man she’s with whom she now lives isn’t her husband. Not only is she a woman and a Samaritan, but it would appear that she’s also a sinner, but Jesus doesn’t make anything of that. He seems to understand that she has lived a life of suffering – probably at the hands of the men who have been in her life. Perhaps she has become ostracized, which is why she was at the well at the height of the noon day sun. I don’t know any of this for sure, but it does appear that Jesus has pricked her heart. His revelation of her life causes her to move from her focus on getting water to understanding whom Jesus is.
How do you know this about me? You must be a prophet of God, but then there’s this theological problem. We worship here on this mountain, and you worship in Jerusalem. We’re divided, separated from each other by our theologies of worship. We think God is present here in this place, you think God is some place else. And yet he has spoken truth to her and so she’s intrigued. But Jesus has a surprise for her – place doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if it’s Sychar or Jerusalem, Wittenberg or Rome, the point is that God is Spirit and those who would worship God must worship in Spirit and truth. What a freeing thing this word must be, though still she’s not ready to receive it. How often do we resist a word of liberation and freedom? We stay locked within the box that we’ve built for ourselves. The box may have its use once, but now its time to move on, to grasp that God is bigger than the box. The woman who is now a theologian says to Jesus, well when the Messiah comes, then we’ll know what to do. Yes, when the prophet comes who we’re expecting, that person will make this all clear. And Jesus says – “I am he.” I’m the one you’ve been waiting for.
As Jesus makes this claim, the Disciples return to find him deep in conversation with this woman. They’re surprised at all of this. I’m not sure whether this is because the conversation partner is a woman or a Samaritan, but they’re not prepared. This interruption gives the woman an opportunity to return to the village, where she spreads the news about the one who revealed her life to her, and her testimony draws out the people to the well. While she’s doing her evangelistic effort, the Disciples talk to Jesus about the food they’ve procured, but Jesus says – “I have food you know nothing about.” Yes, once again it’s a question of literal versus spiritual. And the Disciples are confused – where did he get the food, but the food he has to offer is spiritual food. As they discuss what to eat, the Samaritans gather around Jesus and invite him to stay a few days and teach them. Afterwards they say to the woman: We no longer have to rely on your testimony, we’ve heard enough to know that he is the savior of the world.
Our thirst is physical, even as our hunger is physical. We are physical beings and we need food and water – whether we’re in the desert of Sinai or at Jacob’s Well. But we’re more than physical beings who need food and water. We’re spiritual beings, who need spiritual food and spiritual drink. Each week, at least in my tradition, we gather at the table of the Lord and take bread and cup. It’s not enough to stave off our physical hunger and thirst, but it is a reminder that our hope is found in the one whom we worship in spirit and in truth, the one who is faithful and who provides what we need, so that we might grow into people of hope.