Jesus and the Woman at the Well

John 4:5-42

What do you need?

When I came back from the foreign desert many years ago, I “needed” a new car and a host of other expensive toys. Just a few months prior to my return, however, my needs were much simpler. I did not even need a roof over my head, a flush toilet or fresh food. Even a cot was a luxury that I could live without if I had to – and did quite often. I could sleep just about anywhere and eat my food from a plastic bag. I didn’t need clean clothes; I just needed to beat the dust out of the shirt on my back. I didn’t need a shower – hot or cold; I just needed to wash the dirt away with a damp cloth, shave and brush my teeth.

And what I needed most of all … in the stifling heat … was water to drink. Any water would do, but water cooler than my own body temperature would be really nice.

Jesus, too, needed a drink of water.

Jesus is leaving the unfriendly environs of Jerusalem. He’s headed from Judea to Galilee and he has to go through Samaria. It’s 75 miles as the crow flies from Jerusalem to Capernaum. Unfortunately, there are no roads like that. Jesus is on at least a hundred-mile road march.

It’s noon. They call it the sixth hour because the day starts at our 6:00 am. He’s been walking for 6 hours, and Jesus arrives at the place called Jacob’s Well.

Jacob’s Well is at a crossroads. Surrounding it are vast fields of wheat. About a mile away is the town of Sychar (formerly called Shechem). The well itself is about a 100 feet deep and lined with rock. Jesus decides to sit and rest at the cross roads while his disciples detour into town to get some food.

The land is filled with Jewish memories. Abraham had pitched his tent there and built his first altar to God. When Jacob returned to the land of promise from his ancestral homeland, he buried his idols there under an oak tree. Jacob eventually bought the land and dug the well. One of Jacob’s daughters was assaulted there, and Jacob’s sons defended her honor by massacring the local residents. Jacob’s bones were buried there when the Israelites came out of Egypt and entered Canaan.

While Jesus is sitting there, a woman comes to the well with a jar for water. Why is she there? The town is about a mile away, it’s the middle of the day, and there is water closer to town. Is she an outcast, as many presume? Or, maybe she’s just getting water for the people working in the nearby fields.

A Drink of Water

The gospel of John is funny. No gospel emphasizes the deity of Jesus more than John, but also no gospel that emphasizes his humanity more. What’s the shortest verse in the Bible? “Jesus wept.” (John 11:35) What is Jesus after a long journey in the midday sun? Tired and thirsty.

Jesus asks the woman for a drink of water. Ordinarily, the rules of hospitality say you honor such a request, but the woman says, “What? Are you talking to me?” Maybe she’s a little snappish because she’s hot and tired, too. Maybe she’s wary because she’s a woman and he’s a man, and the social divide between the genders was very strong. Maybe she’s afraid that she will get in trouble for talking to him. For a woman to be alone with a man who is not her husband is a punishable act in some parts of the world even today. Or maybe she’s afraid that he will do her harm. A woman alone would be very vulnerable. Maybe she’s defiant because she’s a Samaritan and he’s Jewish. Jews and Samaritans didn’t even use the same dishes. That’s what it means when it says Jews had no dealings with Samaritans. An armed force from Judea had even marched into Samaria a hundred years previously and burned down the Samaritan temple. For many reasons, then, the woman is surprised that Jesus expected to have anything to do with her. “Why are you talking to me.”

And then ensues this conversation about water. “You know, I could give you a drink, too” Jesus says. The well is about 100 feet deep, and Jesus has no bucket or rope, so the woman wonders just how Jesus can do this.

Jesus says that he can give her water that she won’t have to fetch every day. He says that he can give her living water, and she likes this idea. That sounds good to her, because she has to tote water back and forth to her home every day: every drop that she drinks, every drop that she uses to cook and clean, every drop that she uses to wash herself or clean the dust off her clothes. It’s the middle of the day, and a hot time to be carrying water.

I can tell you, running water is a great idea! When I was in the desert, I filled a 5-gallon can every day and carried it across the compound to my my own little spot in the shade. I could also usually get dusty box of bottled water to tote back to my truck. I learned something that I didn’t know before: clear plastic bottles in a sunny environment make terrific water heaters. I dreamed of a day when I could walk in my house and turn on a faucet! And dang – water is heavy. What does a five-gallon can of water weigh? I don’t know what the can weighs, but the water weighs about 44 pounds. The woman had to carry her water a lot further than I ever have.

Jesus offers the woman “living water,” which was the best kind. Most water came from cisterns – an open pit into which rain water was directed. And leaves fell. And animals fell into and died. It wasn’t great water. Well water, like this, was a little better. But the best of all was running water, like from a spring. They called it “living water.”

She doesn’t quite believe it and she makes a little fun of Jesus. You don’t have a bucket. How are you going to get any water? Are you greater than Jacob who built this well? Sure, give me some of that living water, mister.

Jesus takes her up on her request, as lame as it is. But of course Jesus wasn’t talking about physical water.

A Spiritual Image

Jesus wasn’t the first one to use the symbol of water to describe spiritual things. The entire Bible is filled with the imagery of water, from the very first page. The spirit of God hovered over the deep. God delivered Noah and his family from the flood. He led the Hebrews through the Sea and gave them water in the desert (that’s the Old Testament reading for today from Exodus 17). He led them across the Jordan into the land of promise.

The Gospel of John is likewise filled with the imagery of water. John baptizes in water, and so does Jesus. At Jesus’ command, wine is drawn from the jars of water used in cleansing rituals. Jesus tells Nicodemus that one must be born of water and the spirit. Jesus offers living water to a woman at a well in Samaria. And that’s just the first four chapters.

John’s gospel, in fact, is the only one that tells us that Jesus and his disciples baptized. The story of Nicodemus ends with John telling us that Jesus and his disciples baptized, and the story of the woman of the well begins with John telling us something very similar.

Jesus heals a man who is waiting for the waters to stir in chapter 5. In chapter 7, he is at the feast of Tabernacles, which featured rituals with water from the pool of Siloam. Here, he proclaimed: “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink.”He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, ‘From his innermost being will flow rivers of living water.'” (John 7:37-38) He washes his disciples’ feet in water and from his side water and blood flow after his crucifixion.

With the woman at the well, Jesus uses the image of living water in the same way that the prophet Jeremiah used it: “For My people have committed two evils: They have forsaken Me, The fountain of living waters, To hew for themselves cisterns, Broken cisterns That can hold no water. (2:13)

So we get it, Jesus is using water here as a metaphor, as a symbol. Jesus is saying that there is a human need even more significant that the water we drink, and that he is the one who can fill that spiritual need.

A Living Reality

So, OK, Jesus, let me have it…..

Uh, what does it look like when Jesus is giving us this living water? Do I just raise my hands to the sky, lift my head and soak it in? Does God pour some sort of magical stuff into my soul, and boy, it just makes me feel really good?

The woman didn’t know it, but Jesus was giving her a drink from the moment she walked up. Jesus encountered her on many levels, and he was watering her spirit with every word he spoke.

First, he asked for a drink of well water. A cold cup of water is a spiritual matter. A watered soul learns compassion. There is living water for me in acts of mercy for others.

Jesus spoke to her, a woman, a Samaritan and a person apparently disconnected from her community. Jesus broke down more social barriers than you can imagine. There is living water in our fellowship, in our being one people in Christ, undivided by race or gender. There is living water in Jesus’ gracious openness to all, regardless of circumstances. There is living water in Jesus’ overcoming every form of alienation in our lives.

Jesus spoke to the woman about her husband … her five husbands, that is, and the man that she is living with now who is not her husband. I want to know more, so I can judge. Is she guilty? Is she innocent? Is she a little of both? I’ve heard so many sermons that jump to conclusions here, but we don’t know any more than the text itself says. Whatever the reason for her many marriages, there is surely a story there with heartache, grief, anger, and broken dreams. Whatever her story happened to be, she was certainly a person that had been ground down more than a little bit by life. In his encounter with her, Jesus lifted her life story into the presence of God where forgiveness and healing take place, where hope never fails and where new life is possible. There is living water for broken lives in the presence of God.

He spoke with her about worship. Samaritans and Jews had different centers of worship. Jesus and the woman had a theological discussion, which itself is quite surprising. There is living water seeking the truth with Jesus.

Our word worship comes from the English word “worthship”. You worship something because it is worthy. The ancients bowed down and built fires and burned incense and sacrificed animals and did a lot of stuff that seems strange to us today. The idea of bowing down before something seems just wrong to us today, but we all do worship! Whatever is most important to us, we worship. Jesus told the woman this: God is looking for people to worship him in spirit and in truth, regardless of where it takes place.

What was the most healing thing I did after I returned from the desert? Worship. Behind a battered building by myself. In a congregation, in which I couldn’t get through a hymn without weeping. Worship watered my soul. Worship is giving God the honor and praise due him, but it is also a fountain of living water. There is living water in worshiping God.

The woman told Jesus that her community was expecting a messiah – a Christ – to come and make the truth known to them. Jesus declared that he was indeed the one she was expecting, so she ran to her village. Her testimony was simple: He told me about my life. Her invitation was simple. Come and see for yourself. Her profession of faith tentative: He couldn’t be the messiah, could he? The people came and they believed. Have you ever been part of the excitement of a growing body of believers? There is living water in even the most basic, unformed immature faith in Christ. There is living water in a living community of faith in which belief grows and spreads.

Jesus says, “I am he.” He claims to be the messiah, the Christ. Now from time to time people come along trying to tell us how to live our lives. By and large, we resist such people, although we’re bigger suckers than we like to admit. Who you follow can make your life better, or it can make your life worse. But Jesus is doing more than claiming to be the best leader, the best adviser, the best guide, or the best teacher. He claims to be God. I can give you living water. I can give you a spring of eternal life. Who can do that except God?

This hot, tired, dusty and thirsty man is God! In her encounter with him, this woman has a divine encounter that fills her most basic need for life. It is truly living water that Jesus offers.

Compassion for others. Acceptance and healing for yourself in the presence of Christ. Worship for God in Christ. Belief in Christ that engages the mind and the spirit. Living in Jesus’ community of faith. These are all aspects of Jesus’ living water in our lives, and I need a drink.

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