Texts: Exodus 17:1-17; Romans 5:1-11; John 4:5-42
You can bet that the woman at the well in Sychar didn’t need to worry about social distancing. Staying six feet away or more, was something that people probably preferred to do whenever she was around. Going to the well at 12 noon tells us a lot. All the other women would have gone together, most likely in the cool of morning. Getting water was a social event after all.
If the disciples had been with Jesus at the time (rather than going off to do the grocery shopping) there would have been a scene for sure. It was disgraceful for a man to approach an unaccompanied woman, or to speak to her. Worse, this woman had a messy personal history.
Yet Jesus came near. And he invited her into a conversation. Although it may seem at first that the woman was having to give an accounting of herself, there’s more than that going on. We never know her name, but we learn early on that she’s no idiot.
She challenged Jesus right away. What was he up to? He was a Jew, she was a Samaritan. Sharing things was forbidden by Jewish law, even though Samaritans are also followers of the God of Abraham. The divide between them is complex, and dates back to the sixth century BC; the result of a separation between the Israelites who went into exile and those who remained behind.
The conversation that unfolded between Jesus and the woman was nuanced, and even theological. Jesus spoke to her in the way a rabbi would to a promising student. Replying to her, he offered a subtle invitation. “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.’”
She replied, calling him kyriewhich can mean either siror Lord. The woman caught Jesus’s meaning. This was not about her giving him water at all. He was offering herwater. Living water.
She countered with the observation that he might be someone worthy of a title; he might even be greater than Jacob her ancestor, but he didn’t have a bucket or a way to reach the low water table. He needed her help too. Then the woman claimed her honorable heritage and identity as a daughter of Jacob, “…who gave us this well” Check and check mate.
For her courage and faith, Jesus became completely present to the woman. He said he was the Onewho could give her living water to quench her thirst. In this moment, Jesus and the woman of Samaria effectively bridged an ancient divide, creating a way back to common community. What a gift!
The woman accepted, saying she would be glad to never come to the well again. But the lesson was not over. It’s a little like Peter asking Jesus to wash not only his feet, but his hands and head as well. (You may remember the gospel story.) There’s a something still to be cleared up by the Teacher. Living water is for the thirst of the soul, not the body.
Furthermore, this woman would have to come back to the well for each day’s supply. In order to do this with true freedom, she needed to be set free from her past. And to be made right with God and neighbor again. And to do that she must confess where things went off the rails in her life.
The woman revealed her complicated marital status. Duly noted, said Jesus. No blame, no condemnation. Just, “You are right….what you have said is true!”Replying this way with a double affirmative is interesting. By responding humbly, with her truth, the woman is now right. Which is the same root as righteous. The good news of Jesus is doing its work right here!
Thinking herself to be in the presence of a great prophet, the woman framed another significant question: who has got it right about properly worshipping God? Should worship be on the side of their holy mountain Horeb, where Moses saw the burning bush, or in Jerusalem? (And perhaps one might wonder about the sanctity of worshipping online as well!)
Jesus answered with a third option. Worship God in spirit and truth. That’s the place to find God. Not in a Temple or on a mountain. God is eternally present with all who worship in spirit and truth.
There’s a lot more to this gospel. The disciples returned with food and got a lesson of their own in humility and grace. But we’ll stop here for now. Because there’s something I want to say about the Exodus story.
It’s this. The Israelites were thirsty in the desert, camping where there was no water. Actually, they must have had some water. At least what they carried in their waterskins from the last oasis.
But the whole journey in the desert was a test for them. Here they founder. They complain, quarrel, and perceive themselves as dying, even dead already! They cried out for water that was fresh and living, from the ground.
As it turns out, what the Israelites lacked wasn’t water, it was spirit. Moses cried out to God with his own frustration and fear. And God replied with hope. Water from a rock on a mountainside, gushing up, restoring life! Can’t get water any more living than that!
Romans is right. It is hard when we are tested. Especially when we are not at our best. When we don’t trust God to sustain us, not really. When we betray even trust with one another. This is why it’s good to remember and tell our stories of struggle and spiritual strength. Of times when we, and others, are suffering. And somehow we endure. And we gain character. And we find new hope. In which, finally we are NOT disappointed.
We are in a story now, aren't we? We don’t know when it will end, or how. But we may learn how to care for one another better. We may finally realize that we are all bound together on this planet, and the good of everyone and everything else becomes our good too.
My prayer is that we will emerge from this unexpected pandemic as better people in the world and before God. As we walk this path together, remember always the power of God’s Spirit with us and upon us. And wash your hands often with soap and fresh, living water, for God’s sake! Amen.
The Rev. Beth Purdum Eden is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. She has served in more than 6 parishes in the Western United States for 30 years.