March 19, 2017
The Third Sunday in Lent
Rev. Ryan Slifka
Last week, Jesus welcomed a visitor into the home he was staying in under the cover of night. This week, Jesus himself is the visitor under the beating sun of the day. It’s been a long journey, John tells us. And Jesus is tired. He’s thirsty. So Jesus settles down by this well. This is a famous well, in fact. It’s Jacob’s well… one of the famous landmarks of his Old Testament ancestors. And at this well, our text tells us, a Samaritan woman is dipping her bucket in. Now Jesus, a Jewish man, wouldn’t be caught dead with a Samaritan woman. The Samaritans and Jews are religious cousins. The Samaritans are looked down on by Jesus’ people as the equivalent of unrefined. Kind of like hillbillies.
But Jesus is thirsty. Hunger and thirst often make us do things we wouldn’t normally do. So Jesus asks this unclean woman for a drink of water to quench his thirst. She’s taken aback at first—a person like you asking for water from a person like me? It’s an unusual request. But even more unusual are Jesus’ next words. “If you knew the gift of God,” he says, “and if you knew who was asking you for a drink, you’d actually be the one asking me for a drink. And I’d give you living water.” She looks at this worn out, thirsty traveler. “Uh… deep well here,” she says. “And you don’t even have a bucket to get any. Not sure where you’re planning to get this living water you’re talking about.” Like most people who run in to Jesus in John’s gospel, she doesn’t realize that Jesus is speaking on a whole other level. Last week he told his visitor named Nicodemus that you have to be born again from above, and Nicodemus thought Jesus was talking about getting scrunched up and back in the womb. This week, Jesus is talking about giving away something called “living water.” And this woman at the well thinks he’s talking about the wet stuff you get from the ground. The splashy kind you collect from a stream or lake.
You can’t blame her for not getting it the first time. So Jesus tries again. “Everyone,” he says. “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.” Jesus isn’t talking about actual water here. He’s talking about a different kind of nourishment. Jesus is offering a kind of spiritual. He’s talking about a different kind of sustenance, one that quenches a different kind of thirst. But it’s not like other water because regular water you drink in and sooner or later you have to return to the well. This water, Jesus says, will actually bubble up from the inside. One drink of it and you’ll never be thirsty again.
The Samaritan woman was off to a rocky start. But now we’re getting somewhere. “Sir,” she says to Jesus. “Give me this water, so I won’t ever be thirsty or have to come here for water again.” She wants what Jesus has to offer. Five minutes ago she didn’t even know what living water was. But now she’s sold. Five minutes ago, she didn’t even know she was thirsty. But now she’s all in. Jesus could have had a great second career in sales. Because one of the most successful sales tactics out there is discovering someone’s need and showing them how what you’ve got meets it. This woman’s thirsty. In fact, she’salways been thirsty. She just never knew what she was thirsty for.
Always had a thirst. But never been satisfied. One of the most helpful pointers in reading the Bible that anyone ever told me was that when ever someone is nameless in the Bible… it means “insert your name here.[i]” This Samaritan woman is nameless. And she’s thirsty. So insert your name here. Insert your thirst here.
We are spiritually thirsty people, in one way or another. We have thirsty souls. But the problem is that we try to satisfy this spiritual thirst that we have with all sorts of things that won't satisfy. I remember hearing a Vancouver doctor talk about the nature of alcohol and drug addiction. How addiction is usually rooted in our desire for something deeper that we don’t have. How so often we are less addicted to the drug or the drink itself than we are the fact that it soothes our depression, anxiety or relieves our pain. We drink at these wells because they give us something we long for, but don’t have. It gives us this sense of momentary relief, a feeling of satisfaction. Some temporary joy.
And drugs and alcohol are only the obvious thirsts. But most of ours are like the Samaritan woman’s, unseen, unknown. We are thirsty but we don’t know what for. For some of us it’s food—we don’t eat because we’re hungry. We eat because it feels good, gives that sense of temporary satisfaction and relief. For others it’s sex, working out, surfing the internet. As a society as a whole we are struggling for meaning in our lives. Thirsty for meaning, for purpose in our lives. You could say that consumerism—buying stuff, throwing it away—is our way of trying to quench that thirst. We are the most affluent society in human history, we have everything we need and then some. There’s more than enough of everything to go around, but we’re still thirsty. We’ve never been been thirstier. We are so thirsty, in fact, that we are willing to suck the earth dry to satisfy it. This is a well we drink and drink and drink from, but it’s like saltwater. We drink and drink and drink. Sooner or later, we’re just thirsty again. Just like Jesus says.
Now, the Christian tradition has a way of talking about this thirst we all have. The ancient preacher and teacher St. Augustine has this prayer that says it well “our souls, O God, are restless until they find rest in thee.” “Restless until they find rest in thee.” Or, the great writer C.S. Lewis puts it another way: he talks about this “God-shaped hole” in each of us, deep within our selves. One that we long to have filled. Whether it’s as individuals, or as a human species. But the problem is that we keep trying to fill this gap, this empty space with things that aren’t God. We fill our buckets at all these different wells. Ones that may bring us some temporary relief, but leave us parched. When what we really want, what we really need. Like that Samaritan woman, what we’re truly thirsty for, is the Living Water of God’s Spirit. The water of eternal life. Life that lasts.
We’re thirsty. We’ve always been thirsty. We just don’t know what we’re thirsty for. But the good news is that we don’t have to go anywhere to get it. It’s available to all who seek it.
The Samaritan woman thinks there’s a catch. Jesus’ people believe you’ve got to head to the temple in Jerusalem to get this living water to drink. But Jesus challenges this. “The hour is coming,” he says, “when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers 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.” After hearing this, the Samaritan woman drops her bucket. Because she realizes that she doesn’t need it anymore. The hour has come. The water Jesus offers can be found anywhere those who seek the truth about themselves, and wish to quench their thirst. Because God is spirit, present to all who seek.
And you know, I don’t think I fully understood this story until I read a book called Reading the Bible with the Damned, a book about doing bible study with some of the world’s thirstiest people. Bob Ekblad, a minister in Washington tells a story of doing a Bible study on this text with inmates in a maximum security prison. Most were illegal immigrants from Mexico. Drug dealers, gang members, murderers. All these men are gathered, behind bars, chairs in a circle. Ekblad asks them “how many of you feel thirsty?” and each of them raises their hands high. For all of their problems, each of these men saw themselves in the Samaritan woman. They knew their thirst. A thirst that when they were on the outside they tried to satisfy with drugs, sex, beer, whiskey. Or they’d turn to crime so they could medicate themselves with more money, more stuff. So Ekblad goes and does something that he says “seemed rather extreme, but still appropriate.”
“I invite the men to imagine a ‘forty,’ the slang for a forty-ounce can of the least expensive and highest-alcohol-content malt liquor preferred by people on the street. I invite them to imagine that it contains the living water that Jesus offers, which will permanently quench their thirst instead of the old, well-known malt liquor[…] I tell them to pop the top and raise it up and drink freely together as I pray. Everyone pops the tops and we raise up our imaginary cans together over our mouths while I pray: ‘Jesus, we receive your gift of living water. We drink it down into our beings. Satisfy us with your loving, gracious presence.’”
(at this point, the congregation was invited to pretend they are drinking from their own “forty” and repeated the following words)
Lord, we are thirsty.
Give us your living water. (4x)
Friends, we all thirst. We are all thirsty. We are thirsty for the power and presence of the Living Waters that flow from the Living God. Christ offers living water to all who seek. We don’t have to find the right well—whether it’s drugs, sex, food or buying stuff. Insert your thirst here. We don’t have to go anywhere. But this fountain can well up within us no matter where we are. We can experience eternal life, this sense of being deeply satisfied, deeply joyful. And all we have to do is receive this gift. It’s there for us. All we have to do is drink up in spirit. Drink deep in truth. And Jesus promises it will finally quench our thirst. That the God-shaped hole in our souls may be filled. Now, and forever.
That’s the promise. So drink up, my friends. Drink deep.
[i] Thanks to Rev. Drew Strickland for this devotional insight.