Preacher: The Reverend Dr. Cathy S. Gilliard
Third Sunday in Lent
John 4:5-24; 39-42
Our gospel lesson this morning gives us a window into the life-giving potential each of us possesses when we are willing to step outside of what seems comfortable, “normal”, and we are able to open ourselves to the true potential of encountering others. Do you believe that about yourself – that you have the ability, capacity, and potential to give life, as you yourself receive life, if you dared open yourself up – perhaps just a little bit more – to such possibilities? I think it’s true.
In the first few verses of our gospel lesson, Jesus reaches across geographical, cultural, and theological boundaries and extends himself; and amazing things happen.
We find him alone, tired out from so much travel, sitting at Jacob’s well in a Samaritan city. It was the middle of a hot day and a woman comes to draw water. Jesus reaches across the barriers that separate the two of them and initiates a conversation: “Give me a drink.”
By doing so, he breaks through every concrete and personal expression of prejudice. The Jews had no dealings with Samaritans and everybody knew it. Furthermore, she is a woman who for whatever reasons found it necessary to draw water in the middle of the day rather than the early morning like most of the other women. She is a Gentile woman on public display having what seems to be a casual conversation with a Jewish man. Why, it would have been scandalous – the talk of the town!
She too is thirsty in her own way though she may not know it. I think in the ways that all our lives are often thirsty, dry, parched. Alone in her own life, she stands in for all of us who sometimes hunger and thirst for something more while yearning for our soul to be fed.
“Give me some water.” What could be more ordinary than water? Jesus simply invites her into a mutual exchange, a dialogue about a common need; their shared humanity: water. And right there the door is flung open.
Given the complexity of the situation and the shared hatred between these two cultures, there surely must have been another route for Jesus to get where he wanted to go other than going through Samaria. Why not make preparations ahead of time – bring, borrow, or purchase your own bucket? And most assuredly, we know that Peter, James, and John or any number of other disciples would have gladly taken care of this minor detail.
But no, Jesus sends them on ahead and engages this woman at the well. He meets her where she lives and in the reality of her human need. He asks for water because drawing water is what she does; it’s what she knows.
Jesus does not condescend. He does not try to convert. He simply states his own conviction. Water is available.
In the Old Testament passage, the Hebrews say to Moses, “We want water.” They are out in the wilderness having launched out on a journey of faith trusting that the One who brought them out is the One who is able to keep them and provide for them. They grumble and complain and in a crisis, their fear is exposed. “We have left the slavery and bondage in Pharaoh’s house only to be led into this dry and desolate land with no water. Now our sons and daughters are at risk. We are thirsty. Give us some water. Give us something that will sustain us.” They ask for physical water but the larger crisis is spiritual water. Is that not also our cry from time to time? Aren’t we all looking for sustenance for the journey? For whatever we can get that will help us press on further?
Jesus seemed to understand. He sees her deeply perhaps beyond her own capacity to see herself. “Give me some water,” he says. And the walls came tumbling down as they do when we begin to see one another. No longer isolated. Or objectified. Now called into a response. Yes, I will give you water; or no. Yes, I will embrace this conversation or no. Yes, I will participate in this invitation to see, hear, and know you – or not. “How is it that you, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria? For Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.” She drops her reservations. Something else is possible.
Jesus answered: “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.” “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” And the woman said what each of us has said at some point in our lives in our own way though we may not have understood any better than she: “Give me this water.”
Like the Israelites, she thinks that Jesus is talking about stagnant water – a combination of hydrogen and oxygen that comes from the sky or ground. But what Jesus is offering is living water, life-changing water more precious than anything she can imagine. He is offering truth – that there is God whose love has no bounds; love that cannot be contained in a bucket nor consumed by a drought but will last forever. Give me some water!
Sometimes, people only need an introit, a conversation, a gesture. They need someone to pay attention; to notice that they are there, alive, present. None of it is by mistake, I think, not even those experiences and those people we would rather not engage are there for a reason. Perhaps they are there to teach us some things about ourselves. Or some things about God and God’s way; or some things about who they fundamentally are; who they desperately want and strive to be.
All that kicking and screaming may very well be a cry for something else – to be better than they appear; better than they know they have been. Or simply to “be.” Perhaps deep down, they want to be seen beyond the surface, to share their own thirst, to discover who they really are.
What I am most clear about is God’s unwavering determination to embrace us all. It is God’s gift so beautifully displayed in Jesus Christ who breaks down all barriers and ushers in a new way that transcends ethnicity, geography, gender, tradition, culture, history, even religion – denominations, churches, buildings, temples. You might want to give some thought to where your discomforts lie especially during this season of Lent.
In her book, An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor writes that “…sometimes the hardest spiritual work in the world is to love the neighbor as the self – to encounter another human being not as someone you can use, change, fix, help, save, enroll, convince or control, but simply as someone who can spring you from the prison of yourself, if you will allow it.”
The Samaritan woman set down her water jar in order to run back to the village and tell others the good news. The heavy water jar can represent all of those things that we may need to set down in order to make space for ourselves and others. Anytime we are willing to cross whatever boundaries are necessary; whatever inhibits us from embracing the vision for ourselves that God has in mind; from loving another; from seeing and engaging one another and laying aside those things that prohibit honest engagement, spirit and truth – life happens for them but also for ourselves.
Come and see a man who told me everything. He knows about my life. He knows about those 5 husbands. He knows everything and sees me without judgment. He knows and loves me still.
Now let me just say that much has been written and discussed about those five husbands. We seem to have an indelible proclivity to scandalize her. It is likely in the context of those days that there could have been any number of reasons. What we do know is that 5 husbands represents a whole lot of risk and loss, grief and heartache. She knows what it is like to live in a man’s world and to be alone. We ourselves may be ready to judge her but a caution against that. For she also shows us what it is like to be open to a new thing. To not be afraid to try again. She gets what others miss.
And many believed though some would not. Because of course, all they could see is that she was a woman, a Samaritan, a person who sits at the well in the middle of the day.
How many times my friends, have blessings been plopped down at your feet but you missed them altogether because they did not appear as you had imagined? How many times have you wanted to be a blessing but someone rejected you simply because they thought that would never be possible. You could never be a blessing.
On Ash Wednesday, Isaiah and I started the day at 8 o’clock imposing ashes on the steps in front of the church. It was wonderful to be there as city workers worked on the water main just outside our doors and the drills made hearing nearly impossible. We must have blessed over 100 people that morning.
There was a service at 12:30 and another at 6:30. When I went down for the 6:30 service – Lefty came running over in pure Lefty form: “Boss, Boss 4 people came by earlier for ashes and I gave it to them.” Wow. You did Lefty? Good for you. That image has stayed with me my brothers and sisters. It has stayed with me. Because it says something about Lefty’s sense of himself around this place. It says something about his own divine agency and what he has to offer; his ability to bless. It also says something about those 4 people who stood before him and looked into his eyes and waited their turn: “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” It wasn’t as if he was perpetrating on any level. He wasn’t trying to be a pastor or minister; he did not don a robe or stole. He clearly had on his custodian sweatshirt. But he understood something very profound about himself and they did too. It occurred to me that next year we might want to set up a schedule and have as many people as want sign up to participate in this holy act of imposing ashes and saying those words of blessing.
As much as anything, Lent is about paying attention to who we are and what we have to offer and offering it full of grace and glory. It is about those encounters that happen in our lives and holding them close; calling them holy. Being water for thirsty souls.
 Paraphrase Exodus 17:3-4
 John 4:13-14
 Barbara Brown Taylor, “An Altar in the World A Geography of Faith” HarperOne, New York, p. 93.