Where do you get that living water?
Scripture: John 4:5-14
This has been an unusual and hectic week.
On Thursday afternoon, I was still planning to gather with you here in our sanctuary and welcome those of you who felt brave enough to do so. Less than two hours later as I drove home, the news broke that the State of Maryland as a whole would go into emergency mode. It became clear that we would need to be good neighbors to one another and to our community and follow the advice of the experts - and keep some social distance and do worship online.
Though I don’t always get it right, one of the my reminders this morning is that being a Christian and being part of the church is not about place.
When we say, I’m going to church, for instance, we aren’t making any sense - because WE ARE the church. Wherever we are. Right now, in your homes or on your back porch or out in a camping tent in a remote area of the wilderness, you ARE the church. You can’t go to church because you already ARE there.
Church is not a place or even a what - church is a who - human beings who follow Jesus.
So, today, even though we are practicing our social distancing by gathering online, we are still being church with Jesus at our center.
And it’s been a week where we need to be reminded that Jesus is at our center.
My wife took this image from our local Target. In the mad rush to stock up on supplies and fight back against COVID-19, people are raiding the shelves for anything they can find. Immune support supplements, all kinds of basic medicine, hand sanitizer, bottled water, milk, eggs, bread, meat, and even… toilet paper.
I went on my own to Aldi about middle in the week, and the place was wild. Shopping carts were loaded up out of anxiety and fear over what could happen. It was tough - because in this land of abundance, with our “strong economy”, we were reminded that a lot of us and a lot of our neighbors are worried that there isn’t enough to go around.
I don’t blame them. It’s a scary time, when we may be looking for leadership from our government and not getting clear information. It’s a frightening time, when we are told not to worry by our social media friends and then to take serious measures by health professionals in our midst. We are told not to panic - and yet when we see those carts overflowing with rolls of toilet paper, we too start to worry.
In our scripture today, we hear the beginning of an encounter between Jesus and a Samaritan woman. In the Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition, she is given a name - Photini - and marked as an early saint and leader of the church. By the end of this encounter with Jesus, you will see why - as becomes more of a disciple in the moment than Jesus’ own disciples who have already spent a good amount of time with him.
At Jacob’s Well, Jesus sits for a rest while his disciples go off to the nearest town to get some food for their journey.
While Jesus waits for his disciples to return, a Samaritan woman comes to gather water.
One of our challenges in this text is to always read it fresh, and so while we may have heard some wonderful sermons in the past claiming all kinds of things about the woman by the time of day which she came to draw water or by the way Jesus talks to her, the truth is - she could have just been thirsty or preparing for company or replenishing her supplies on a hot day.
The scandal of this encounter is that Jesus initiates. The woman may not have been interested in talking to this strange Jewish man sitting there by the well. She likely was following her own social distancing protocol - just getting what she needed to return to her home.
But Jesus initiates by asking for a drink.
What follows is another example of Jesus’ radical openness to conversations - and Jesus’ openness to relationship across cultural and religious boundaries.
The woman, Photini, is perhaps confused and taken a back. Samaritans and Jews didn’t mix in Jesus’ day. This wasn’t just because they liked different sports teams or belonged to different political parties - rather, they shared many things in common by way of their faith traditions but over the years as neighbors clashed. Samaritans built their own temple on what they considered God’s holy mountain, while Jews built their temple on Jerusalem’s Holy Mount. Around the time of Jesus’ birth, it was believed that a group of Samaritans entered the Temple in Jerusalem and scattered the remains of the dead in the holy places there. So when Photini states the obvious - that Jews and Samaritans don’t share - she was pointing to all of that history. There was bad blood between Samaritans and Jews. They didn’t trust each other.
Jesus responds to her question by introducing what he has to offer her - living water.
It’s a curious term and really means “spring water” - water that flows continuously.
In a land that can be dry and arid, springs are invaluable and important for communities to have access to fresh water for crops, drinking, and their health - Jesus was drawing upon an image that meant something deep and universal to this Samaritan woman and her people. Life. Jesus was suggesting he had access to continuously flowing water.
The woman responds, “What? What are you talking about? You don’t even have a bucket or a Costco membership? You don’t even have a quarter to get you one of the shopping carts at Aldi? Where do you get that living water?”
The response is funny - it’s fierce. Photini is not gullible. She’s not about to be messed with by this itinerant rabbi. Later, in this exchange, Jesus reveals that he knows a lot about her messy and complex life. For example, he reveals to her that he knows she has had five husbands. But Jesus doesn’t label her a sinner. In that little window into her life, we get a glimpse of someone who has experienced hard times, who has had to make tough decisions, who knows what it is like to have the wells of life run dry. Her response to Jesus shows she wasn’t prepared to take any flack from this itinerant rabbi. She was tough.
“Where do you get that living water?” - it’s a demand for this rabbi to put up or shut up.
Jesus loves this fierceness, so he hits right back. - “I’ve got water that will never leave you thirsty. Water that leads to eternal life.”
Wow. Now Photini is interested. Knowing her life, knowing how she has possibly experienced grief, losing husbands to war, famine, or infidelity, knowing she has had to make late night runs to Aldi or Costco when every shelf seemed to be empty, knowing that it has taken everything to get out of bed some days, knowing that she has been called names and dismissed and ignored. And now, this Jewish rabbi doesn’t just notice her and treat her as a whole human being - he offers her something she has been looking for her entire life.
Something in this world that never runs out. That will never fail. That will never come up empty, enough to share, enough to sustain one even into eternity.
This invitation from Jesus comes across as an affirmation - an affirmation of the strength and endurance of this Samaritan woman. Jesus doesn’t just notice her superficially - he sees what she is capable of. He sees what she hungers and thirsts for - a sense of meaning and purpose and fulfillment.
He discards the boundaries of religious difference, remarking that through Him we will no longer fight about where to worship - on this mountain or in this temple. Rather we will worship united in spirit and truth. And in doing so, reveals himself to be the Messiah, the Savior that Photini has longed for her and so many others seek to bring justice, reconciliation, and peace to this parched world.
Photini’s arc in this passage is remarkable - she began as a stranger and becomes a disciple, running back to her town to announce that the Messiah is here.
Near the end of the passage, the disciples stumble back in with their bags of burgers and fries from the local drive thru, giving Jesus and this Samaritan woman the side eye. I’m sure Peter thought, “Jesus, we can’t even leave you alone for one minute and you are trying to get us into more trouble.” So, Jesus lectures his disciples, letting them know that people are hungry and thirsty right now. Are they ready to do like Photini did - are they ready to share this abundant gift?
Friends, in this time of anxiety and fear, our world and our communities need to know that through our Savior, Jesus, there is living water available.
At Costco, the employees were limiting those big packages of water to two per customer, but in Jesus, the supplies are limitless.
It can seem like our leaders can’t even lead themselves out of ditch or offer a clear vision for where we are going, but in Jesus, we are promised abundance now and abundance to come.
Right now, let’s be safe and keep our distance to limit the harm this virus will do to vulnerable members of our community, but let’s refuse to make this distance permanent.
Jesus, our Savior, crossed over religious and cultural boundaries with humor, with care, with courage to share resources and affirmation that others needed. We as followers of Jesus are called to be like Photini and do the same - to share the gift we discover in Jesus - and trust that there will always be more where that came from.
This image of living water challenges us even in how we conduct ourselves as people of faith in this political year. Can we challenge our politicians to creatively work to make our public institutions and our communities more generous and ever flowing? Can we share living water to immigrants who come to our borders? Can we be living water to neighbors who are watching their paychecks dwindle?
Your invitation as you reflect on this sermon and encounter is to share living water.
One church I heard about this week is calling up their senior and vulnerable members and ordering groceries delivered to their doorsteps to care for them - on the church dime. That’s living water.
I want you to make three phone calls or three texts this week to someone in your contact list who may need to be noticed. Someone who may need groceries or support or just hear a friendly voice. Can you call them up this afternoon and offer to pray for them? Can you order their groceries or ask your pastor to do it? Can you push back against the anxiety and fear right now by sharing some of that living water? (And in doing so, model what our world and communities should look like!)
Right now, we need Jesus to show us how to live as human beings together, not hoarding our eggs and milk and toilet paper and virus tests, but sharing with each other across boundaries that divide. We need to see the dignity of each other. We need to be taught how to care for each other anew - to notice those who are coming to our watering holes looking for affirmation and connection. We need to be reminded that we are stronger together, that there is enough water to go around.
Where do you get that living water?
We find it in Jesus, Christ, who we name Messiah and Lord. Thanks be to God for that gift!