Questions and Encounters: Where Do You Get That Living Water?
A sermon by Rev. Aaron Fulp-Eickstaedt
At Immanuel Presbyterian Church, McLean VA
On March 23rd, 2014
Today I’ll be continuing my Lenten series of sermons that I’m calling “Questions and Encounters with Jesus.” In this morning’s text from John’s Gospel we’ll see what happens when Jesus encounters a Samaritan woman at a well. Picture the scene as it unfolds and listen for the questions that this woman asks Jesus as they interact with one another.
So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.
A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink’. (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) 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.)* 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.’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?’ Jesus said to her, ‘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.’ 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.’
Jesus said to her, ‘Go, call your husband, and come back.’ The woman answered him, ‘I have no husband.’ Jesus said to her, ‘You are right in saying, “I have no husband”; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you* say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.’ 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.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am he,* the one who is speaking to you.’
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?’ Then the woman left her water-jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, ‘Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah,* can he?’ They left the city and were on their way to him.
Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, ‘Rabbi, eat something.’ But he said to them, ‘I have food to eat that you do not know about.’ So the disciples said to one another, ‘Surely no one has brought him something to eat?’ Jesus said to them, ‘My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. 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. The reaper is already receiving* wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, “One sows and another reaps.” I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.’
Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He told me everything I have ever done.’ So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there for two days. And many more believed because of his word. 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.’
“How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” That’s the very first question the woman at the well has for Jesus, right after he takes the initiative to approach her and ask her—actually command her—to give him a drink.
“How is that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” That’s a good, honest, question. You have to have some basic sense of the cultural norms of that time and place to appreciate just how boundary-breaking it was for Jesus to speak to a Samaritan woman who was at the well at midday for a drink.
First of all, a good Jew would probably not have been traveling through Samaria in the first place. Oh, passing through Samaria was the quickest, most direct, route between Galilee to the north and Jerusalem to the South, but you could go around it, and many Jews on pilgrimage did, because when you went through Samaria, you were likely to–how can I put this?–run into Samaritans. And Jews and Samaritans, as John puts it, did not share things in common with each other.
That’s not strictly true, of course. Actually, Jews and Samaritans shared a lot of things in common—They understood themselves to be worshipers of the God of Israel. They read the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures. They understood themselves to be descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They knew that they themselves were human beings and that they themselves were children of God.
But when John says that Jews and Samaritans didn’t share things in common, he means to say that they focused on their differences, not their similarities. So they didn’t eat together, they didn’t drink together, they didn’t worship together, and they sure as heck didn’t try to understand each other.
Yet here was Jesus, a Jewish man, asking a Samaritan woman for a drink.
It’s been said that one way to make a friend is to ask them to do a favor for you. I’ll let you judge whether that’s always true, but sometimes it is.
Regardless, it is true that the only way to make a friend, a deep friend, is to have a conversation, to talk with them and not just at them, to move beyond what makes us different to what we share in common.
At the Presbytery meeting Tuesday night, our theme was multicultural worship and work. As a member of the theology and worship committee it was my responsibility to coordinate a special communion service at the end of the meeting where we had different pastors in our presbytery lead the liturgy in their own language—Spanish, English, Korean, Taiwanese, and an African language spoken in Ghana, Twi. Let me tell you that gathering all the pastors together for that was like herding cats. Earlier in the meeting, Jacqui Lewis, the dynamic African-American pastor of Middle Collegiate Church in New York City, was our preacher.
Her congregation is truly, I mean truly, multicultural—African-American, Asian, Latino, Middle Eastern, Anglo, immigrant, straight and GLBT. She shared with us in the course of her sermon that all of us in the room that night and people in her church share more DNA in common than two species of fruit fly—99 percent of our DNA is the same. And yet, all over America, 11 o’clock on Sunday morning, or the worship hour, remains the most segregated hour of the week. Interesting, isn’t it? Particularly in light of this story from John.
I think it’s because we focus on what makes us different rather than focusing on what unites us.
One way we focus on what makes us different is through labeling. Labeling can be quite handy when it comes to canned goods. It can help you to sort them, to know what it is inside. I don’t want to accidentally open up a jar of pickles, for instance. Labeling helps you identify what’s in the can, what its expiration date is, and whether it is safe to eat or not.
When it comes to people, however, labeling is most of the time, less than helpful. Yet we do it all the time. Sort them out. Or in. We figure out who we can associate with and listen to on the basis of labels—which is one thing in middle school, (it’s not good then either, by the way) it’s one thing in middle school, but quite another when it comes to adult interactions. In a world that desperately needs to move towards unity. It’s getting worse. We label each other Liberal or conservative. Progressive or evangelical. Republican or Democrat. Christian or non-Christian. White or black. American or foreigner. Immigrant or long standing resident of the U.S. My side or the other side on whatever issue happens to be before us.
That is not to say that we don’t have legitimate differences as human beings. We do. But when the focus is always on what divides rather than what unites us, what we share in common, we miss something essential. We miss the living water. We can pour and pour and pour from an empty pitcher if we don’t understand what we share in common.
In answer to the Samaritan’s woman’s question as to how it was that he, a Jew asked a drink of her, a woman of Samaria, Jesus replies, “If you knew who it is that is asking you for a drink, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water!”
The woman, like so many other people who encounter Jesus in John’s gospel (and who have encountered Jesus since), is “metaphorically challenged.” She takes that literally, as if Jesus is talking about physical water.
So she asks him the next question. “Where do you get that living water? You have no bucket and the well is deep. Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob who built this well?”
Where do you get that living water?
As the conversation continues, and Jesus tells her that if she drinks of the living water she’ll never be thirsty, the woman tells him “Give me this water, so that I don’t have to keep coming back here where I’m shamed and humiliated to draw water.”
Jesus responds by telling her to go get her husband and come back, and in so doing, I think he’s making a masterful point about what that living water he’s talking about really is.
It has everything to do with intimacy—intimacy with God, with others, and with one’s self. And that requires vulnerability.
When I do premarital counseling with couples, I always spend some time talking about intimacy, and I break the word down phonetically, woodenly. Intimacy- into me see. Can I let you see into me? And know that you will love what you see? That you accept me for who I am. Can I see into myself? And love, really love what I see? Like God loves me?
The wonderful thing about marriage, I tell them, when it is done well—and it’s not always done well, marriages don’t always work. But the wonderful thing about marriage is that it can be
Sacramental—it can be a visible sign and seal of the way God loves us.
In answer to Jesus’ command to go get her husband and come back, the woman replies, “I have no husband.” And Jesus says, “You have spoken rightly, because you have had five husbands and the man you are with now, well, he’s not your husband.”
More than one person has pointed out that we don’t know the back story behind why the woman had five husbands. Maybe each of her husbands died and so she married five brothers in succession, following the Levirate code for marriage. But my guess is that whatever the reason she had five husbands, the woman would have carried around with her a certain amount of shame about that—a sense of “what’s wrong with me?” A feeling of profound failure and disappointment. The society would have labeled her, there’s no question. But I think that she probably labeled herself, too. This happens, too, the kind of self-labeling I’m talking about.
Think about the messages you give to yourself on a regular basis, the labels you apply to yourself… This might not be true for everyone. If any of them boil down to “not enough”, not enough to be loved. Not good enough. Not smart enough. Not in the right career enough, not strong enough because you have to rely on help; I want you to identify those labels and let them go. Because the truth is, the living water of God’s love washes over you just where you are, just as you are. You don’t have to be different to be loved. You just have to be human.
The living water flows when we move beyond the labels we place on ourselves and each other and we look and see into the core of who we are, human beings, all created in God’s image, all, all, did you get that? All children of God.
The woman became a little uncomfortable with talking about husbands, how deep the conversation was going with Jesus, so she exercised in a classic maneuver. She introduced a theological debate.
She said, “You say that people should worship in Jerusalem and we say that we’re supposed to worship here in Samaria on this mountain.”
Jesus plays her game a little bit, but then he says, “The hour is coming and is now here when true worshipers will worship God in Spirit and in truth.”
I did a little bit of that kind of worship yesterday. I was at Pleasant Grove church, on Lewinsville Road, it was founded in 1895, by and for African Americans. I was there for an event to celebrate Black History Month with a group of African Americans—and lighter skinned Americans. Black and white, we were there together. I know, Black History month was in February, but snow led to the postponement of the original event.
I can’t tell you how many times I was moved to tears as we listened to a group called the Voices of Worship sing slave songs and spirituals, South African freedom songs, and the music of Duke Ellington. They sang, and we sang along with them. They presented a tribute to Nelson Mandela, the great South African leader. At the end, John Nields led us all in a Pete Seeger sing-along. Earlier, in a tribute to the music of Porgy and Bess, written by George and Ira Gershwin, Gail Nields talked about how George Gershwin, a Russian Jew, for God’s sake, collaborated with a South Carolina aristocrat white person, named Dubose Heyward. Heyward had written a book, called Porgy, about the Gullah people off of Charleston. And together Gershwin and Heyward created an amazing folk opera, Porgy and Bess.
I thought of all the boundaries that were crossed in the production of that. I need to confess something. I have always loved the music of Porgy and Bess. But it has never moved me to tears as it did yesterday. It moved me to tears yesterday because the living water was so evident in the music and how it was created.
Gail shared the story of how the Gershwins approached a professor at Howard, Todd Duncan, to ask him to sing the lead role of Porgy in its debut (he sang Porgy over 1800 times by the way). The Gershwins didn’t want a professor to play the part, but a friend talked them into meeting Duncan. And Duncan didn’t expect much from the Gershwins because he associated them with Tin Pan Alley tunes, and he was thinking he’d not like the music at all.
When they came, they wanted to just hear him sing a few songs. But it turned into a whole afternoon of singing. Because to try to sell him on playing the role of Porgy, the two of them, George and Ira, sang through the whole play. Duncan said it was some of the most terrible singing he’d ever heard.
But it moved him to tears, because he heard in the story and the beauty of the music that these two men understood and were able to bring to voice something of the experience of the people the musical is about.
I think it was because the living water was flowing over them and in them and out of them.
So the woman left. She left her water jar behind. She went back to her Samaritan people in her village and she told them about Jesus.
Come and see a man who told me everything I ever did, she said, the subtext of that is, “Told me everything I ever did and loved me anyway.”
And she asked, “He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”
I say, the proof is in the pudding.
In Jesus’ name. Amen.