March 23, 2014 – Lent 3A
Exodus 17:1-7; Romans 5:1-11; John 4:5-42
© 2014 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon is available here.
When I woke up, my whole body hurt. It was early in the morning—barely light but light enough for me to see that everyone else around me was sound asleep. I closed my eyes and relived what had happened the night before. We had eaten a nice meal around a long table set on a beautiful beach literally halfway around the world from Alabama. The wine and beer had been poured well past the point when all of us were over-served. The frustrations and personality conflicts that come with a month of travelling together rose to the surface, and we all acted more than a little foolishly. Without thinking about it, I rubbed my eyes and my temples, trying to massage away the pain. But I wasn’t thinking about my pounding head. The only thing I could think of was water.
I rolled over and looked at my water bottle—almost empty. I knew that the thirst I felt ran far deeper than that last sip of water could go. I turned the bottle upside down and literally shook it to get every last drop out. I closed my eyes and tried to sleep. It was too early to venture out of our hut and head over to the kitchen for water, so I lay there going in and out of fitful, half-conscious dreams about rivers and waterfalls and rainstorms. Every part of my body and mind was parched. I could think of nothing else. I could get no rest until I had water.
I crept out of the hut in which the other men were sleeping and made my way, tiptoeing through the island brush, toward the kitchen. No one made a sound, but, when I pulled back the curtain to the room where the water bottles were kept, I saw six people asleep across the floor. There was no way for me to get some water without waking everyone up, so I turned around and headed back to my bed. Again, I lay there, wondering how long it would be before people woke up, wondering how long I could hold out. My thirst was agonizing. It was all consuming. Minutes felt like hours. The sun refused to rise. Finally, in an act of desperation, I walked into the bathroom and stuck my head under the faucet and drank the water I had been warned several times not to drink. At that point, I would have given anything—even a week in the hospital—for some water.
Jesus, John tells us, was tired from his journey and was sitting at a well in the heat of the day. A Samaritan woman walked up to draw water, and she saw the weary Jesus sitting there. He startled her, saying, “Give me a drink.” The request itself was provocative. A man, sitting all by himself, would risk the suspicion of anyone who saw him talking to a strange woman. The fact that they were of different ethnic backgrounds made this exchange as dangerous as a white man and a black woman walking hand-in-hand on a 1950s Decatur sidewalk. Responding to Jesus’ risky, perhaps playful, advance, the woman replied coyly, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” Her coquettish response suggests that she thought she was playing the upper hand—that he was a man so desperate for a drink that he’d forego all modesty in exchange for some water. But Jesus wasn’t interested in water. And the woman didn’t realize that the thirsty one was 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.” That’s a confusing sentence—as confusing for us as it was for the woman. But, if we sit with it long enough and let it speak clearly to us, we discover what this passage is all about. Jesus wasn’t looking for a flirtatious exchange. He wasn’t hanging around until someone gave him a drink of water. He sat there and waited on the Samaritan woman so that he might show her two things: that God wanted her to have “living water” (whatever that is) and that he was the one who could give it to her. But both of those things take a while in the story to figure out.
For much of their conversation, Jesus’ words didn’t get through to the woman. When he talked about “living water,” she responded by saying, “But, sir, you don’t have a bucket. How will you get that living water?” When he said, “I’m the one who can give this living water to you,” she replied, “Who are you? Are you greater even than our father Jacob—the patriarch who gave us this well?” Then, finally, the breakthrough came. Jesus explained that the “living water” he was talking about wasn’t really water at all but a spring that gushes up within the heart and provides eternal life. And, even though things still weren’t crystal clear, the woman seized onto his offer, saying, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” She’s close, right? It’s a good thing that our God is the kind of God who gives partial credit because, even though the Samaritan woman was on the right track, she still couldn’t separate her physical thirst from her spiritual drought.
So Jesus laid it all on the line in a daring move. “Go get your husband and come back,” he said to the woman. Her eyes must have fallen to the ground. The rouse she had maintained evaporated in an instant. “I have no husband,” she said embarrassedly. “You’re right,” he confirmed. “You have no husband. You’ve had five husbands, and the man you live with now can’t be called a husband.” This was her life’s biggest failure—her besetting sin—being dragged into the light and exposed into the air. This is why the woman had come to draw water in the middle of the day, when no one else was around, and not early in the morning, when all of the other women would have come. She was ashamed. She was consumed by her sin. It was like a big scarlet “A” hanging around her neck. It forced her into hiding, and now Jesus was naming it in full, stark detail.
What do you think was on her mind now—drawing water from the well? No. By confronting her deepest and defining transgression, Jesus had revealed to the woman that he was interested in addressing a thirst that ran deeper even that Jacob’s well could satisfy. By naming her sin, Jesus had showed her that he was able to give her something even more important than water. The thirst he could quench was the one that really kept her up at night. Now she knew. She knew what Jesus could give her, so she left her water jar there at the well and returned to the town to tell others what she had found—the kind of life-giving spring that can’t be contained in a jar or a glass or a water bottle.
When you come to the well and see Jesus sitting there, what will you ask him for? Our lives are filled with thirsts. We are thirsty for financial security. We are thirsty for social acceptance. We are thirsty for the comfortable life that means we don’t have to worry about being thirsty for anything. But inside all of us there is a longing that is deeper than our physical needs—a thirst for peace with the one who made us. Jesus alone can satisfy that thirst. He alone can give us the living water that sets us right with God. But, when we get to the well, will we realize what is being offered to us? Will we recognize who it is that meets us there? Can we push aside the needs of the moment long enough to let Jesus attend to the deepest needs of our soul? Will we allow him to confront our brokenness and bring our sin to light so that we might never thirst again? Amen.