Contrary to my usual practice, I am putting the scripture after instead of before the blog. The passage is almost blog length by itself. It is the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well. The account is very detailed and and I encourage you to read it. I, however will primarily focus on just two points. I want you to notice how Jesus teaches and to notice what Jesus is teaching as he speaks with the Samaritan woman about living water.
First, how Jesus teaches. It may seem odd but Jesus creates and uses confusion to teach. A common complaint in the church is why can’t the bible just say what it means. I’m pretty sure both Nicodemeus and the Samaritan woman thought likewise. Last week, Nicodemeus is understandably confused by Jesus’ reference to being born again. This week the confusion arises over ‘living water’. I’m also pretty sure if Jesus simply ‘said what he meant’, fewer people would listen. As with Nicodemeus and the Samaritan woman, when what we know and expect is the physical, the spiritual is incomprehensible. It is no surprise that Nicodemeus is confused by ‘born again’ and the Samaritan woman is confused by ‘living water’. Learning requires an openness to new possibilities and confusion leads to curiosity and to questions. As Jesus put it: “Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.”
Jesus takes ordinary words and transforms their meaning and application. He routinely uses paradox, parable and unexpected definitions to create space for new ideas. Our assumptions interfere with understanding and unless we can interrupt those assumptions, we will never be able to hear the radical newness of the gospel. Jesus is very good at creating such interruptions.
In real life, the same phenomena occurs in ordinary conversation. Whenever we start telling someone what they mean, we almost certainly are not listening. It is often as simple as saying (with some insistence): ‘But that’s not what you said.” The biblical version is to say: “But the bible says….” It may be enormously frustrating but what is said is very often not what was meant. It is true in conversations with each other and it is true with our conversations with the bible.
Also, the brain is often like a self sealing tire. A new idea can sometimes get in— but it is rapidly sealed off. The typical retention rate in a counseling session is usually under ten percent. Even, when in the moment, people fully agree with what is being said, their ability to recall is severely limited—not to mention their ability to actually apply the new information to their lives. And of course, many times, and for many reasons, the new information is dismissed or ignored entirely. Both Nicodemeus and the Samaritan woman react out of their own frame of reference and basically say “yes, but…” to Jesus. We do the same thing. ‘Plain English’ rarely is sufficient to open our minds.
So, moving on to the content of the passage, what is Jesus talking about when he speaks of ‘living water?’ And how does this idea fit into real life?
Jesus’ simple request for water was the indicator of the living water he was offering. The scripture tells us that Jesus arrived at the well tired and thirsty. Even if it was highly unacceptable for a Jew to seek aid from a Samaritan woman, Jesus needed help. The well was deep and he had no bucket. We may have trouble imagining such a Jesus, but flesh and blood humans need help and Jesus was no exception. In the face of need, Jesus consistently put people over social convention. Such regard is at the heart of the good news. If someone needed help on the Sabbath, he offered it. Human needs were more important than religious obedience. The same inclusiveness is evident when Jesus needed care. When Jesus offered care or when Jesus sought care, ethnicity, religious affiliation, gender nor moral turpitude simply did not matter. But, such care was so contrary to what the woman ‘knew’, she had trouble accepting it.
The Samaritan woman’s response was to question what Jesus was up to—“How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” In the moment, it never occurred to her that Jesus was offering her a gift—he must have some other agenda. His acceptance of her could not be simply regarded. She was bound by what she knew—stereotypical disregard. Jesus challenges all of her assumptions about herself. When Jesus says: “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 defaults to the literal. Even when Jesus explains himself, she can imagine living water only as a fantastic labor saving device. (“Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”)
Her assumptions and her literalism prevented her from receiving Jesus’ gift of acceptance. So Jesus tried another tack. He asks her to get her husband and she answers that she has none. This is when Jesus tells her ‘everything she has ever done.” She is so startled she leaves her water jar and rushes to tell the townspeople: “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”
In real life we cannot be loved unless we are known. We must be known beyond the roles we play and the labels attached to us. And we must be accepted. Jesus offered acceptance in his first interaction with the woman but she could not begin to receive the gift until she was known. Almost every one of us has a silent “Yes, but…” when we are complimented, appreciated or even simply noticed when we did not expect such notice. Even when we have been taught to simply say thank you, the interior doubt often remains. We are so busy comparing ourselves and measuring our acceptability by secular standards, we lose the simple truth that God is wider and deeper than we can imagine. God’s love is saving.
The capacity to accept and love without our hundreds of preconditions and exceptions is living water. This water is as essential to our spiritual life as physical water is to our bodies. Without it, we die. Even when it is freely given, it is so unfamiliar that we, like the Samaritan woman, have a hard time accepting it. But if you can remember a time you have been deeply known, you’ve had a taste of this water. And if, God willing, you have ever felt safe and embraced while you have been known, you will be transformed. The woman leaves her jar and rushes to tell others. It is no accident that the people who do not expect love are the most excited when they recieve it.
Everyone of us goes about our day worrying about our inadequacies and our ‘failing’. Jesus loves differently. Even a taste of such water satisfies the soul. Let it be so.
So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6 Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.
7 A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” 8 (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) 9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) 10 Jesus answered 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.” 11 The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12 Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” 13 Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14 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.” 15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”
16 Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” 17 The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; 18 for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” 19 The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” 21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” 25 The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” 26 Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”
27 Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” 28 Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, 29 “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” 30 They left the city and were on their way to him.
31 Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” 32 But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” 33 So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?” 34 Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. 35 Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. 36 The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. 37 For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ 38 I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”
39 Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” 40 So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. 41 And many more believed because of his word. 42 They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”