Grace Presbyterian Church

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Sermon: The Way of Water

Grace Presbyterian Church

March 12, 2023, Lent 3A

John 4:4-42

The Way of Water

When you think about it, water is actually awfully prominent in scripture. The second verse of Genesis speaks of how “darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” The last chapter of scripture, Revelation 22, starts with John being shown by an angelthe river of the water of life, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city” (that is the Holy City, the New Jerusalem that had just been introduced in the previous chapter. And there’s a lot of water in between. The Hebrew people cross through a sea to escape Egypt and then through the Jordan River to enter the Promised Land. Jonah flees across the waters to avoid God’s call to prophesy to Nineveh; the Assyrian general Naaman is told to dunk himself in the Jordan to cleanse himself of leprosy. Today’s Old Testament reading also has an interesting interaction with water. Even the psalmists have a thing for water on occasion, such as the famous Psalm 23 and its description of the Shepherd who “leads me beside still waters.” 

Things don’t change that much once we turn to the New Testament. Jesus is baptized in the Jordan, calls fishermen as some of his first disciples, and crosses the sea of Galilee a time or two in his travels. The Ethiopian persuades Philip to baptize him after hearing the good news. The Apostle Paul spends much of his vocation traveling across the sea we know as the Mediterranean in his missionary journeys. 

Even wells, such as the scene of today’s reading, have some history in scripture. Both Rebekah and Rachel, eventually wives to Isaac and Jacob in Hebrew story, were first met at wells, and Moses also met his future wife Zipporah while waiting by a well. One might wonder if those readers of John’s gospel might have wondered at such a setting here, but if they had any thought of such a trope repeating itself those thoughts were dispelled quickly here. Something much better was in store.

It’s hard not to notice some similarities and differences between this reading and the gospel reading appointed for last week’s lectionary, from the previous chapter of John’s gospel. You probably remember that reading for The Most Famous Verse of Scripture in the Universe, but one of the key features of that passage was the befuddlement of the important religious figure Nicodemus when Jesus crosses him up by talking about being “born again” or being “born of water and spirit.” Nicodemus was down for the count quicker than Mike Tyson used to knock out some of his earliest boxing opponents. 

In the case of this week’s dialogue, Jesus crosses up his dialogue partner by starting up a dialogue at all. There are multiple reasons this is non-typical; for one, men typically disdained to speak to women in public, except perhaps their wives, and probably not even them. For another, this was a Samaritan woman. I had to type that word in italics – Samaritan – to make sure and emphasize just how wrong and misguided and, well, icky it would be to a typical Judean even to be in Samaria, much less to speak to a Samaritan (and a Samaritan woman at that!). The most likely reaction to a Judean reader of this passage, particularly what we have as verse 4, would have likely been along the lines of “no, he didn’t. He didn’t have to go through Samaria. In fact that is the one thing he absolutely did not have to do, or had not to do, or to not do or something. Why is he going through Samaria???” 

A third factor has to do with the time of day. Much like it was, well, odd for Nicodemus to come to Jesus by night in chapter 3, it was odd for this woman to be at the well at midday. Most water-drawing took place early in the morning, before the day got so unbearably hot. 

A caution needs to be vocalized here. Much of the lore that has accrued around this story assumes that this woman has to come at midday because she was somehow outcast or “shamed” in the town. This of course leads to more assumptions; that this woman has somehow divorced the five husbands she has had (as will come out in the dialogue later) and is probably, as one might say today, “living in sin” with the man with whom she now lives who is not her husband. This is not supportable by anything in the reading. Given how little agency women had in being “married off” at this time, it’s not necessarily likely that a woman divorced once would have much of a chance to marry again. An alternate possibility, not necessarily any more unlikely, is that she had been passed down from one brother to another, according to the supposed law about levirate marriage, whereby a woman whose husband dies without a son then marries the next brother to provide an heir for her original husband. It’s a thing the Sadducees try to trip Jesus up about in Matthew 22. As to the man who was not her husband, it could have been a father of one (or all) of the husbands, or even her own father. The shameful behavior shouldn’t be assumed, even if the locals might have done so – how many times have folks been completely wrong in their assumptions about a person’s behavior or morals? Don’t be those people, right? 

As this dialogue goes on (it turns out to be the longest Jesus has with anyone in any of the gospels), the Samaritan woman might be caught off guard, but she never dissolves into a puddle the way Nicodemus did. Her response to Jesus’s naming of her current marital status is to press him right back: OK, you’re a prophet. So explain this… and “this” is nothing less than the very thing that divides Judeans and Samaritans. Her reward for this questioning, for not backing down, is nothing less than being the first person in this gospel to whom Jesus directly names himself as the Messiah, the Christ. 

She goes back to the city and tells everyone what she has seen. It’s not as if she’s giving some kind of lead-pipe cinch “testimony” – she’s still asking “he cannot be the Messiah, can he?” and this witness persuades the whole city to come and listen, and ultimately to be persuaded of Jesus. First she, and then the people of the city, found living water.

Yes, let’s go back to that early part of the exchange. It all starts off with Jesus asking her for a drink of water. One might suspect that, in Jesus’s mind, the fact of the Samaritan-Jew conflict and the male-female division and the time of day potential scandal, there was something more important at play: he was tired and thirsty. If we truly believe that Jesus lived a fully human life, we have to believe he could get thirsty, right? And if you get thirsty enough, you’ll break whatever taboo you have to break to get something to drink. 

So he asks for a drink, she quite logically wonders why a Jewish man would speak at all to a Samaritan woman, and then comes the curveball. If you knew who was asking for water, you would ask himand he would have given you living water.

The woman doesn’t really get it, not unlike Nicodemus, but she keeps pressing. OK, how do you draw this water with no bucket and no rope. You know whose well this was, right? (referring to the ancient patriarch Jacob). Perhaps impressed by her composure, Jesus actually explains himself a little more than he did to Nicodemus, and she’s ready; so give me this water, so I don’t have to keep coming back here for water in the middle of the day. From there Jesus diverts the conversation to the husbands, and we see how it goes from there. 

The image of “living water,” though, is worth unpacking. What happens to water that stands still too long? Particularly out in nature, still water isn’t necessarily the most appealing thing. Who knows that is growing in it or infesting it? Even today water that has been sitting in the refrigerator too long can seem unappealing, even if we can’t say why. 

I think our cat Mickey gets this better than we humans do. Every now and then he might resort to drinking from the water that is in one of the bowls we keep for the cats in the kitchen. More often he’ll drink from the cat fountain we also have in the kitchen. Most of all, though, he clambers up onto the counter in the bathroom, positions himself by one of the basins, and yowls piteously until one of us comes running to turn the faucet on and provide him running water. Even Mickey knows that running water, moving water, is better. 

Jesus even plays on that image a little bit in verse 14, when he speaks of this living water that he gives, saying that it “will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” From a wind from God blowing across the waters of the primordial deep to the River of Life flowing from the throne, living water moves. It’s not static. It moves, it flows, it springs up, it gushes. It moves.

I wonder if sometimes that frightens us about this living water. It moves too much. It’s not stable, it’s not predictable. It’s changing. Better to stick with that nice safe water in the big jug in the fridge or on the counter in the big dispenser, stuff that doesn’t move unless we pour it or open the spigot. 

No, living water moves, and if we’re doing it right we move with it, as unpredictably as it may flow. And we don’t thirst anymore. Like the unpredictable wind in John 3, the living water fills us and refreshes us in ways we can’t predict or explain. 

This is the water that Jesus offers. We won’t be the same after we drink of it. It might just move us to places we don’t expect. But this is what Jesus offers us, living water.

Drink up.

For living water, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #81, Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken; #53, O Lord, Who Gives Us Life; #65, Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah

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