Sermon: "We Thirst"
St. Paul’s Episcopal – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Exodus 17.1-7; Psalm 95; Romans 5.1-11; John 4.5-42
Today’s lectionary readings have a lot to say about thirst – whether actual or metaphorical. In Exodus 17, the Israelites are encamped in the wilderness with no water. They began to quarrel with Moses and to make demands of him; in so doing, they tested the Lord. Moses cried out to God, “What shall I do for this people? They are almost ready to stone me” (Vs. 4; NRSVUE). God told Moses to take some of the elders with him, to go on ahead of the people to the rock of Horeb (Mt. Sinai) where God would be waiting for him. When Moses arrived, he was to strike the rock, and water would issue forth so the people could drink. Moses named the place Massah (test) and Maribah (quarrel) for the people tested the Lord and quarreled. Yet God provided water and satisfied their thirst.
Psalm 95 begins with an invitation: “Come let us sing to the Lord; let us shout for joy to the Rock of our salvation” (Vs. 1). The calls to mind the rock which Moses struck, the rock which issued water, a rock of salvation. The psalmist further acknowledges God to be the creator of the caverns, the hills, the seas and dry land (Vss. 4-5). As such, God has shaped, and God controls, the water courses. The psalmist calls on the people to kneel before God and to hearken to God’s voice; he pleads with them not to harden their hearts as their forbears did at Maribah and Massah where they tested God despite having previously witnessed God’s works. For this reason, God detested them and said, “This people are wayward in their hearts; they do not know my ways” (Vs. 10b). Consequently, this generation was not permitted to enter the Promised Land.
We now come to the story of the Samaritan woman at the well. This is one of my favorite Bible stories for its many shades of meaning provide us with so many insights. The opening paragraph of John 4 tells us Jesus had decided to travel from Judea (south of Samaria) to Galilee (north of Samaria). Although the most direct route was to travel through Samaria, most Jews would have gone around Samaria, a detour involving several miles additional travel. The Samaritans are believed to have been of mixed blood resulting from the intermarriage of the poor Jews who were left behind at the time of the Babylonian captivity with other nationalities which the Babylonians had settled in the region. Thus, the Jews saw the Samaritans as impure. Their worship center was at Mt. Gerazim as opposed to Jerusalem. Jesus decided to avoid the long detour and to cut through Samaria.
Jesus and his disciples came to Sychar, the site of Jacob’s well. Tradition says the level of the water rose in the well such that Jacob could drink even though he had no vessel with which to draw water. The disciples went into town to buy food; meanwhile, Jesus, tired out from their journey was sitting by the well. It was about noon.
When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus initiated a conversation by asking for a drink. Note the way the conversation then develops:
Samaritan Woman: “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” [If a Jew were to be touched by a Samaritan or were to touch a Samaritan, he/she would have become impure.]
Jesus: “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”
Samaritan Woman: “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” [Here she is citing the ancient tradition associated with Jacob’s well.]
Jesus: “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”
Samaritan Woman: “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” [She understood Jesus to be speaking literally as opposed to metaphorically.]
Jesus then changes the dynamic of the conversation by telling her to call her husband and come back with him. Note her answer:
Samaritan Woman: “I have no husband.”
Jesus: “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband,’ for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!”
Samaritan Woman: “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.”
Jesus (answers in a way which circumvents this dispute): “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you (meaning the Samaritans) will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming and is now here when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”
Samaritan Woman: “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.”
Jesus: “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.” (Note: This is the only person to whom Jesus directly revealed himself to be the Messiah; this is one of the “I am” statements characteristic of John’s gospel – a gospel intent on proving that Jesus is the Messiah.)
The disciples then returned and were astonished that Jesus was speaking to a Samaritan woman, for cultural practices dictated it was improper for a man to speak to an unchaperoned woman. At this point, she leaves her water jar behind, goes into the city, and says, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” They came to meet Jesus; we are told many came to believe because of her testimony. This makes the Samaritan woman the first apostle! They asked Jesus to remain for two days, and he did so. Many more Samaritans came to believe, but note their backhanded comment to the Samaritan 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.”
Although I have drawn your attention to several aspects of this story, we should note a few other things. By social convention, the Samaritan woman was a three-count outcast: 1) she was a woman; 2) she was a Samaritan; and 3) she was disparaged for having had so many husbands. Imagine the sentiments – such a woman is not to be trusted around my husband. Thus she was drawing water at noon to avoid others as opposed to drawing water in the morning or evening, the cooler times of the day.
Second, by asking the Samaritan woman for a drink of water, Jesus was bestowing honor upon the dishonorable. How do we relate to the dishonored – the prisoner, the welfare recipient, the transgendered, the immigrant (“Go back where you belong!”), the handicapped, the LGBTQIA community, and the adherents of other world religions? How do we bestow honor upon these people?
Third, we all thirst – not only for water but also for fame, fortune, power, sexual gratification, respect, honor, etc.. We quarrel; we complain. We want someone or something to fill the emptiness deep inside. Here I am reminded of Neil Diamond’s “I am … I said”:
Did you ever read about a frog Who dreamed of bein' a king And then became one Well except for the names And a few other changes If you talk about me The story is the same one
But I got an emptiness deep inside And I've tried But it won't let me go And I'm not a man who likes to swear But I never cared For the sound of being alone
"I am"... I said To no one there And no one heard at all Not even the chair "I am"... I cried "I am"... said I And I am lost and I can't Even say why "I am"... I said "I am"... I cried "I am"
Although Diamond wonderfully captures this emptiness, and our corresponding thirst, I part company when he says, “And no one heard at all,” for Jesus hears our cry, and if we are willing in faith to drink from a well other than our own, he offers us living water – the water of the Spirit manifest in love; water which gushes up to eternal life! Only God’s love can fill that emptiness deep inside that won’t let us go! When so filled, we are at peace.
In closing, let us note these words from Romans 5: “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand, and we boast [ i.e., bask in glory, in fullness] in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our afflictions, knowing that affliction produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Romans 5.1-5; NRSVUE).
God desires fellowship with us, yea, God thirsts for us!