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"Will You Give Me a Drink of Water?" -- John 4 (3rd Sunday of Lent)

Artwork: "Living Water" by Lauren Wright Pittman |

A Sanctified Art LLC |

used with permission

We’re travelling through Lent with this theme: Seeking – Honest Questions for a Deeper Faith – and we come to this Scripture, seeking, and what we find is a story bubbling up and overflowing with honest questions.[1] In this conversation – the longest conversation that Jesus has with anyone in Scripture – Jesus and this Woman at the well ask each other questions – they spar back and forth. As in so many conversations that Jesus has, Jesus says something – it’s initially misunderstood – so Jesus clarifies – maybe gives an exasperated sigh – and so it goes. But here – something like that happens – but this Woman at the well – well, she holds her own. Their conversation is deep – like a well. Overflowing – like a spring. There is big truth to find here – and at the same time, their conversation is almost playful – they are enjoying each other’s company on this dry and dusty day.

And yet we know, we know – that this conversation isn’t supposed to be happening at all – not in the world they inhabit.[2] Jesus and the Samaritan Woman are two very different people, separated by categories of gender and nationality and religion. Jesus is Jewish and a man. The Samaritan Woman is (obviously) a Samaritan and a woman. The Jewish leaders and people of the time generally view the Samaritans as apostate and unclean – they have chosen the wrong way to worship God – on a hill in Samaria, rather than a hill in Judea. There has been violent disagreement over this.[3] And so the Jews of Jesus’ day have nothing to do with the Samaritans. And the Samaritans return the favor.

And, Jesus and the woman have different genders in a world that is shaped by patriarchy – where it is scandalous in this context for a man to deign to speak in public to a woman. And yet, here, in this context of power and privilege, and barriers and boundaries, we have this long glimpse of this conversation that should never happen – we get to listen in to what they say to each other – to the questions they ask. It’s just Jesus, and the Samaritan Woman, and us.

We’ve heard the story read – and seen it in the artwork. I want us to take one more look – this time through the lens of three questions. And the first one is a question that usually gets asked when we come to this Scripture: What does it mean for Jesus to enter into this boundary-crossing conversation? Because this feels big.

Jesus is travelling through Samaria; he is exhausted, and so he rests at this well, as his disciples go off to find some food. It’s just Jesus sitting there alone, tired out, in the heat of the noonday sun. (You know, it’s one of the few times we get to see Jesus entirely on his own.) And along comes the Woman, also alone, coming to the well at the hottest time of day.

Now Jesus knows the rules. He knows who he is; and he knows who she is. He knows the barriers, and the boundaries, and the prohibitions that should keep them apart. And Jesus ignores them all – he doesn’t just ignore them, he smashes through them. Jesus talks to this Samaritan Woman. He engages her in conversation. He takes her life seriously. And he offers her the gift of Living Water – on the very same basis that he would offer it to someone who was Jewish or who was male -- on the same basis that he offers Living Water to everyone else.

Here, at the very start of the Gospel of John, Jesus -- the Son of God –the fully Human One – the Word made flesh – Jesus encounters someone who has been othered by every system of power and privilege – and Jesus announces and lives out a new expansive and inclusive order: We’re not playing this “in and out” game anymore – no more talk of “clean and unclean” – of anyone being “less than.” Jesus says, “Everyone who drinks this living water that I give will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give – to everyone – will become in them a spring of water, welling up to eternal life.”

Now that is good news – it is good news for everyone – and it’s just the start of John’s gospel – by the end of this chapter 4, Jesus will spend two full days in a Samaritan village, and they will say that he is “Savior of the World” – before anyone else will say that – the separations vanish – the Samaritans are brought near – brought into one body.[4] And the good news of Jesus Christ takes off from there.

So when we ask this question – What does it mean for Jesus to enter into this boundary-crossing conversation? – that’s what we see.

But I wonder – what would it be like to ask that same question from the perspective of the Samaritan Woman? A subtle shift – but a legit question – because they are different people, with different social locations, and they have different experiences. “What does it mean, for her, to enter into this boundary-crossing conversation?” Because when they encounter each other at the beginning of this story, Jesus has all the power and the privilege, and she has none. It’s not quite so easy for her. Jesus knows the boundaries that give him privilege, and he can set them aside. She doesn’t have the luxury of that choice – she doesn’t get to wake up in the morning and say, “Today, I’m not going to live in a patriarchal world.”

The Samaritan Woman comes to the well at noon, the hottest time of the day, when she expects that no one will be around. But there is this man. And a Jewish man. Someone from the enemy tribe. In this encounter, there is an imbalance of power and of privilege. He has the power and the privilege. She does not. That’s the way her world works, and she knows that from the start. That’s how she moves into this “encounter of the other.”

Let’s think for a moment what that might look like in our world. Last Sunday, we shared stories of refugees. This week, Royce, Peter, Dave, and I had a conversation with some folks in the East Bay who are housing and hosting refugees at their synagogue. As I hope you know, we are in the early stages of thinking of how we might be able to offer temporary housing for a refugee family here on our church property. We are wondering “What would it mean for us to undertake this work? To welcome a refugee here?”

But as I listened to the East Bay folks who are doing the work now – as they talked about the refugee families who are living in their buildings – the question shifted for me. Or maybe a new question rose up. And I started to wonder: What does it mean for those refugee families? To be in this strange country – having fled their own – in a new place where folks speak a different language – and where legal systems have particular power over them? What does it mean to them? What does it mean to move through boundary-crossing experiences, in an other-dominated world, when the other holds most of the power and privilege? They must experience this world, this culture, with risks and challenges I can’t even imagine.

Let’s go back to this Scripture, and read it through that lens, and look at how the Samaritan Woman – oh, I so wish that history had told us her name – how the Samaritan Woman moves into and through this encounter:

The Samaritan Woman arrives at the well, in the heat of the day, when she expects that no one will be there. But there is this man, a non-Samaritan man, a Jewish man. She slows her pace a bit, takes in the situation, and moves carefully to the well, and goes about her work of drawing water. And then the man speaks, and he says: “Give me a drink of water.”

Now, look at the first thing the Woman says: She names the power differential – the boundaries and the separation – she speaks plainly what is going on. Sir, you are a Jew and a man. How can you ask me – a Samaritan and a woman for a drink? I thought y’all didn’t have anything to do with Samaritans? She does the power analysis for both of them – and she says it plain: You have the power and the privilege; your people have nothing to do with us, treat us as unclean; and you ask me for a drink. Before we start talking, let’s just get that clear.

And then Jesus names it too – we’ve got this strange little exchange, where Jesus says, “Go get your husband”; She says, “I have no husband”; and he says “ You’re right you’ve had 5 husbands.” Now for centuries, that little exchanged has been used to claim that this Samaritan Woman is a loose woman, somehow sinful in these marriages. The problem with that reading – and it has been the dominant male reading – is that it is not anywhere in the Bible. This text doesn’t support that. Jesus doesn’t say anything about this being sinful or about repentance, that is not the point of this story (and when sin is the point of the story Jesus says so).[5]

Remember, whenever we are talking about marriage in the Bible we are talking about a property transaction. Marriage in the ancient world was about property; the woman was included in the man’s property; and she was the main vehicle for transferring a man’s property from generation and generation. In a particular type of marriage at that time, the woman might have been passed down, like property, from brother to brother.

So when the Samaritan Woman says, “I have no husband,” she is really saying, “No man owns me. If you want to talk to me or about me; talk to me.” And when Jesus says, “You’re right you have had 5 husbands,” he is acknowledging that she has been owned 5 times. Together, they are naming the power and privilege at work in their world; the power differential that comes with them into their conversation; and then – and only then – after being honest about all that – can they choose a better way.

That better way is embodied in the question that they each ask each other in this conversation: Will you give me a drink of water? Look what they do – they choose to enter into this amazing conversation of mutuality. We see this clever, engaging banter – person to person:

· Jesus asks for a drink, “Will you give me a drink of water?”

· The Woman asks back, “Wait, you’re a Jew; I’m a Samaritan; how can you ask me for a drink?”

· Jesus replies, “If you knew who I am, you’d ask me for water, and I’d give you... living water.” If you knew who I am... I’d give you living water.

· The Woman replies with a question: “Living water? You have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get this living water?”

· “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of this water, will never thirst. The water that I give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”

· Well, OK. So she asks, “Well then will you give me a drink of that water, so I don’t have to lug these buckets of water back and forth?”

At the well, they enter into this conversation that never should have happened (according to the rules of the world) – they ask each other honest questions – they ask each other for a drink of water – and what emerges in their encounter is a new world embodied in this relationship of mutuality. They encounter each other at the well and what bubbles up – what springs forth is living water. And through this conversation of mutuality:

1. Together, Jesus and the Samaritan Woman reveal that Jesus is the Christ – she suggests – she asks – he answers. And not only that, Jesus says to her, “I AM -- the name of God – I AM – that’s who is speaking to you.”[6]

2. And then, this Samaritan Woman becomes the first person to announce Jesus as the Christ (when she goes back to the village). She becomes the first Evangelist. A Woman Apostle. One writer has said she becomes a Woman Moses.[7]

Look what happens in this conversation that never should have happened -- they have raised honest questions about the power and privilege at work in the world. They have chosen another way – a relationship of mutuality. All the boundaries – Jew and Samaritan, gender barriers – they dissolve away. And not only that – this conversation, gives them both life – life that she then goes and shares with others.

Weary in the midst of a long journey in the noon-day heat, Jesus gets a cup of cool water. He shares something of who he is and shares with her the Living Water that is for everyone. And here, in this moment, they are refreshed and free – and what flows out from this moment – as she goes and spreads the word, and as people come – is more life, and more liberation, and more life, and more liberation...

The artist who created the work we looked at earlier – Lauren Wright Pittman – says that she grounded the work in mutuality and mutual need. [8]She writes: “Jesus needs water to drink, and the woman needs living water. ‘Jesus needs her to be a witness, and she needs Jesus to invite her into this new identity.’” With contrasting color, the artist shows the separations that would keep them apart. The artist, though, places them on the same level.[9] They reach across the boundaries, and where they meet, we find the vibrant blue of living water.

We come upon this scene, and we are invited into the conversation, into new life, into a new order, into encountering the other, each other, and living life differently.

In a world fraught with power and privilege, where people live in deep division; where some are raised up, and some are kept low; where people fight daily for their freedom and their dignity – in a world not unlike our own – Jesus and the Samaritan Woman meet at this desert well – in the noontime heat – and they talk, and they ask honest questions, and they say true things, and they laugh, and they encounter each other, truly and deeply, and they pass a cup back and forth, and they share cool sips of water on a dry and dusty day; and, in their encounter, they give each other life.

© 2023 Scott Clark

[1] For general background on this text and the Gospel of John, see Mary L. Coloe, Wisdom Commentary: John 1-10 (Collegeville, MN; Liturgical Press, 2021), pp.254-66; Gail O’Day and Susan E. Hylen, John (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), pp.50-55; Michael L. Lindvall, Commentary in Connections, Year A, vol. 2 (Louisville, KY; Westminster John Knox Press, 2019), pp.72-76; Herman Waetjen, The Gospel of the Beloved Disciple: A Work in Two Editions (New York: T&T Clark Publishing, 2005), pp. 159-180. [2] See O’Day, p.51-55; see Danielle Shroyer, Commentary for Seeking – Honest Questions for a Deeper Faith. [3] See Coloe, p. 255. [4] See Waetjen, pp.159-80, exploring motifs of betrothal, romancing, and marriage, inter alia, as indicating the inclusion of the Samaritan people in the reconstituting work of Jesus. [5] See O’Day, p.53. [6] See O’Day, p.54; Waetjen, p.177-80. [7] See Waetjen, p.177. [8] See Lauren Wright Pittman, Artist’s Statement for Seeking – Honest Questions for a Deeper Faith. [9] See id.


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