Nourishing Questions: What is Living Water?

March 12, 2023
John 4:4-42

We are claiming the questions in this lenten season: Nourishing Questions. Here are some of the questions in this story from John 4:

  • “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?”
  • “Where do you get that living water?”
  • “Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well and with his children and his flocks drank from it?”
  • “He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”

I add my own question to this list:

  • What is living water?

The writer of John tells this long story that contrasts with the scene we heard last week. In chapter 3, Jesus has a conversation with Nicodemus, the powerful religious leader, who brings his questions in the dark of night. Here, Jesus takes the initiative, in the bright sunlight of noonday, to meet a Samaritan woman at the well where their common ancestor Jacob met his wife. (Is there a note of scandal in this story, that Jesus sits at this well and meets a woman who has had so many husbands?)

The Samaritan woman is going about her business, getting water for the day, avoiding the nosy neighbors. What is it like, how does it feel, to have someone you don’t know come up and ask you for something in the middle of the day? When you are just minding your own business? You might have even had that happen to you. It’s not all that unusual, in the DC area, even when in the seclusion of a vehicle, to have someone ask for “a drink of water,” a couple bucks, some food. But to offer “living water?”

I decided to try an unsophisticated re-enactment of this story on my own. Where, in our culture, are the places that are sort of desolate, like a well, at noon on a hot day? What about the park?

It wasn’t a hot day but it was almost noon and I started walking toward the local park and playground. As I approached the park I saw in the distance the public basketball court. Oh, I didn’t bring a basketball. (Neither did Jesus have a bucket for water – not that I am Jesus.) I got closer to the court and could see there were two men shooting hoops. Could I be brave enough to talk with them? or maybe just sit on the bench next to the court? And if I did sit down, who would be the woman and who would be Jesus in he scenario?

I was not brave. I did not have the guts to walk up to two African American men I don’t know and ask them if I could watch, much less shoot hoops with them. I certainly didn’t have anything to offer them, not even a bottle of water to quench their thirst. But as I walked on by the basketball court I wondered if maybe the two men had truths they could tell me about myself, like Jesus told the woman. Would they be able to see right through me, to my white savior complex and the bleeding heart on my sleeve? Would they see it all, and tell me about it? Too bad I didn’t have the guts to hear what truths they might have had to share.

Suddenly, it seemed pretty brave of Jesus to sit down at the well, waiting for someone to arrive. And very brave of the woman to engage with the strange man who she could tell did not belong there. Just to have a conversation was a big step, is a big step.

In John’s telling of the story (this story is not in the other gospels,) the woman questions Jesus’ motives: why would this Jewish enemy of her people want something from her, a Samaritan? There were centuries of bad blood between the Jews and Samaritans. And yet Jesus has the nerve to break through this tradition of hatred and ask for a drink – and then offer her “living water.” The woman doesn’t ask, but I do, “What is living water?”

Every two weeks at San Mateo, Food Justice DMV distributes rice, beans and other available food to community leaders, who in turn distribute it to their communities and congregations. What would it be like if when people arrived for their 50 lb bags of rice and 50 lb bags of beans, (and this week – boxes of pre-washed lettuce, 50 lb bags of carrots and boxes of shrimp chips,) we said to them, “If only you knew, you could receive living food, living food that will feed you always and fill you so that you’re no longer hungry.”

That would be an amazing offer. What would that even mean? What is living food? What is living water? I know I am being too literal, that Jesus is probably referring to the Holy Spirit. But we live in these bodies; we need food, we need water. We are water, 50-60% water. Is living water something we can offer to other people? How do we do that?

On the day that I chickened out and walked on by the basketball court, I did stop at a bridge over the Northwest Branch. I looked down at the water, the flowing murky stream. The turtles that often crawl out to sun themselves on an old piece of drift wood were nowhere to be seen. The ducks and herons, the kingfisher, the elusive beaver, which we know only by the gnawed trees it leaves behind, none of them had come to the river at noon.

I did notice that someone had removed piles of bottles, cans and other debris that usually clutter the banks of the river. The Anacostia Watershed Society is working to make the Anacostia River and its tributaries swimmable by 2025. A few years ago I laughed at the thought, it seemed impossible. Swimmable? But during the pandemic, I marveled to see how this area of the  Northwest Branch became a beach for many families in the neighborhood. People were wading in, whether it was safe or not. Is living water possible?

It makes me wonder if Jesus sees something in the woman – whose only name we know is her land of origin. Does Jesus see capacities and abilities in her that everyone else overlooks – because of her circumstances?

Perhaps the Samaritan woman is trapped in a system where she has no say about what happens to her body. Have the five marriages been forced upon her? (like Tamar, in Genesis, who was married off to a series of brothers as one by one they died.) She is caught in a tradition that creates suspicion and distrust of her – and all these men in her life. As the village women gather around the historic “Jacob’s well,” sharing their stories and their lives with each other, morning and evening, the Samaritan woman is excluded. She is relegated to coming to the well in the heat of the day, alone.

But Jesus sees beyond the system and beyond the woman’s history. He sees her determination and persistence where other people see waste and disposability. Jesus sees that the woman has gumption, she asks questions, she talks back. She is a great candidate to spread the word of who he is.

Jesus, the foreigner, and this marginalized woman somehow begin to trust each other, understand each other. They create a new, improbable space where Jews and Samaritans, long time enemies, actually talk together. Because of the message that the woman shares with the town, Jesus is invited to stay in the Samaritan town of Sychar for two days, teaching and building relationships. What about the disciples? Do they stay too or are they not ready to take the risk of associating with Samaritans?

At the end of two days, people in the village say 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.” I want to believe that the living water Jesus offered the woman is what helps her find a new place in her community. I want living water to mean that because of the message she shared, she is integrated back into the community, restored to this town’s living stream of history, alive to herself and the community in a new way.

But what does this comment by the people mean? Does it mean that they are grateful for what she shared with them, that she helped them start on a new path? “…we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Messiah.” Has she proven herself? Will she now be able to join the other women at the well?

 Or are they setting her aside because now they have had their own encounter with the Messiah and they no longer need her. She had her time to shine. Now she can go back to the heat of the noonday well and her place on the edge of the community. “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.”

Maybe I am being pessimistic here but I know that communities don’t change immediately, broken relationships are not restored quickly. Systems are not altered by one event. Paul’s encouragement in his letter to the Romans might be a word for the Samaritan woman …it will not be easy but we know that when we suffer we develop perseverance and perseverance produces character, and character informs our hope, hope in the love of God that is poured into us – like living water?

That is the end of her story, this unnamed woman, but I am left with more questions:

  • If Jesus recognizes and accepts the woman for who she is – who truly sees us and accepts us for who we are?
  • How do we meet that Jesus, who believes in us?
  • How does this story give us permission to see and explore the parts of ourselves that we don’t like, that we are ashamed of, that hold us back?
  • How can we be Jesus for others, loving and accepting even the difficult parts of each other?
  • How do we offer each other living water?
  • What is the living water that we have to share?