Sermon Seeds: Water for the Thirsty
Third Sunday in Lent Year A
Additional reflection on Exodus 17:1-7 by Mark Suriano
Additional reflection material and conversation on our Facebook page.
Water for the Thirsty
by Kathryn Matthews Huey
Last week, we had the cool dark of night, full of shadows and questions, resistance and doubt. This week, the bright noonday sun tells the truth about who we are and where we’ve been in our lives, not just the beautiful, shining moments (remember that mountaintop two weeks ago?), but each little wrinkle and every large failure, our regrets, our wanderings, the losses we’ve known – the broken places in our hearts and lives. We can’t hide things so easily in the noonday sun.
Last week we eavesdropped as Jesus talked with Nicodemus, the “big shot” religious leader, a learned, respected figure in the community. Though Nicodemus could go anywhere he wanted any time he wanted (as long as he didn’t anger the Romans), he felt he had to sneak in to visit Jesus in the dark of night. Maybe he sensed that this Jesus was trouble, so it was better not to be seen talking with him. In any case, Nicodemus, the learned and thoughtful one, just could not get his mind wrapped around what Jesus was saying with that exquisitely human, earthy image of being “born again” to describe our spiritual transformation. Nicodemus remained a “concrete” thinker.
This brief, night-time exchange was frustrating for the Pharisee, but, for John’s early Christian community, it was a sermon on God’s love and purposes, and the grace we need to respond openly to them. This week, we sit with Jesus in the bright heat of the noonday sun beating on our heads, and we get thirsty. In the first century, there are rules about how Jesus, a Jewish male and a teacher, too, should interact with people, especially Samaritan women. The Jews and the Samaritans are like feuding cousins. Like all feuds, there are probably many different, complicated reasons for it, but religion helps to make each group feel more justified in judging and avoiding and maybe even hating other groups of people.
It’s ironic, and fitting, that this scene unfolds by a deep well that provides the thing most necessary for our physical survival: we can last longer without food than we can without water. But the hungry disciples have all gone into town for food, and Jesus, tired from his travels, sits there, with no bucket, needing some help to quench his very human thirst. A woman walks up to the well, there at the noon hour when no one else is around, an unusual time of day to visit the well. The other women would have visited during the cooler hours of the day, and the men were busy in the marketplace, talking politics and religion. This woman had no companionship to ease the burden of her work.
When Jesus asks her for a drink of water, she responds, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” Jews didn’t share things in common with Samaritans, things like water cups and conversation. And this woman is “other” in many senses of the word, as a Samaritan, yes, but also as a woman and one with a questionable past. Her husbands have divorced her or died, and she has perhaps had to marry her husband’s brothers (it was a religious law) or, at least, she had to get remarried in order not to suffer the harsh fate of an unattached female in that society. You had to have a husband, a father, or a son to take care of you, or you could end up a beggar or a prostitute, or both. (That’s why the Bible keeps telling us to look after the widows and the orphans: life has historically been hard for them.)
So Jesus asks this Samaritan woman for a cup of water. Jesus often speaks with words that we can understand, and relate to, in more than one way. He never uses words like “theological grounding” or “hermeneutical options” or “ecclesiological implications.” He uses the basic, elemental things of life, water and bread and the harvest, salt and light and being born again. He goes to the desert, and he knows what it feels like to struggle and wander and resist despair. He feels pain and frustration, and he knows what it feels like to be abandoned and betrayed. He has friends that turn away, so he knows rejection and loneliness, human suffering and human need.
Now, when thirsty Jesus asks this person, this “other,” for a drink of water, she’s amazed. But then Jesus says even more amazing things about “living water” – which must sound really good to someone who carries that heavy jar back to her home each day. We can hardly blame her for thinking in concrete terms when he offers such an incredible possibility. The conversation we’re eavesdropping on this week is the longest one Jesus has with anyone (and it’s with a woman, not a religious leader). He’s talking about a “water” that will satisfy the deepest longings of her soul, and she, understandably, is thinking about how heavy that clay jar is each day on her way home – but before long, much sooner than Nicodemus – she grasps that this person, this stranger, this “other” is bringing her something even more central to her well-being and more necessary for her very life than water itself: the living water of God’s grace and acceptance of her, just as she is.
And, unlike Nicodemus who keeps saying, “How can this be?” this woman, out of a keen understanding of her own need and a marvelous openness to Jesus and all that he offers, asks, “Sir, give me this water!” Then Jesus shows her, in an interesting way, just how powerful he is. He doesn’t need an official position or an impressive outfit – he just tells her that he knows her, really knows all about her and her life. He doesn’t judge her or tell her that she’s welcome to the living water so that she can change her sinful ways. As soon as the woman (we note that, while the name of Nicodemus is written down for us, this woman, like so many women in Scripture, remains nameless) – as soon as this woman grasps that Jesus is a prophet, for he knows “all that I have ever done,” she doesn’t worry about explaining or defending herself – instead, she engages him in a kind of “interfaith dialogue.” Jesus talks theology with a woman. She asks him about the most pressing question that divides the Jews and Samaritans – the hot-button religious issue that divides and alienates them and even makes them fear one another: where is the proper place to worship God? (We of course have our own hot-button issues today; we might wonder what we would ask if we had the chance.)
Here a different translation of Jesus’ answer, from Eugene Peterson’s The Message, is helpful: “…the time is coming,” Jesus says, “it has, in fact, come – when what you’re called will not matter and where you go to worship will not matter. It’s who you are and the way you live that count before God. Your worship must engage your spirit in the pursuit of truth. That’s the kind of people God is out looking for: those who are simply and honestly themselves before God in their worship.”
Many of us in the United Church of Christ know profound gratitude and joy for the way God has accepted us and loved us and showered us with grace, no matter who we are or where we are on life’s journey. Knowing God’s grace, do we go out to the marketplace (remember where the men of the town are talking religion and politics?) and share the good news – Can it be? Is it too good to be true? Come and see! Like the nameless woman at the well, maybe we’re the least likely to be called to spread the good news. Most of us are not only not perfect, we’re the wrong something, we’re “other” in some way or another that would seem to disqualify us from being believed by the rest of the folks in town. But this encounter with God through the Body of Christ, this extravagant hospitality and profound acceptance that we’ve experienced in our congregations, transforms our lives. Meeting one another and worshipping God together, simply and honestly, as our true selves, transforms our lives just as surely as meeting Jesus transforms the life of that solitary but spirited woman by the well.
We can view salvation as healing, too (as in “salve”). What needed to be healed in the Samaritan woman, and in her people? What needed to be healed in the disciples, who came upon the scene? What needs to be healed in your congregation, in your community, in the families of your church and community, in the spirits of those who come to hear this good news? How do barriers create a need for healing?
After reflecting on the differences between Nicodemus and this woman at the well, we might reflect on their similarities, too. Both, we might say, are seekers. What else do they share?
Many of us live apart from the wilderness and its deprivations, so water is plentiful and readily available to us. When was a time that you truly thirsted, for water, or for new life? Who are the people in your congregation who will recognize the rules and restrictions in this Gospel story more readily, and perhaps more painfully, than others will? Who comes to “the community well” at a different, more uncomfortable time, than the rest of the community? Who experiences this isolation and loneliness? Who in your congregation truly thirsts for good news, for community, for salvation, for grace?
The dark of night and the brilliance of high noon. Bread and the harvest, water, salt, and light. Grace. Amen.
For further reflection:
Barbara Pine, 20th century
“Sometimes being listened to is so much like being loved, it is impossible to tell the difference.”
Aldous Huxley, Brave New World, 20th century
“But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”
Lemony Snicket (Daniel Handler), 20th century
“Someone feeling wronged is like someone feeling thirsty. Don’t tell them they aren’t. Sit with them and have a drink.”
Leonardo da Vinci, 15th century
“Water is the driving force in nature.”
Thomas Fuller, 17th century
“We never know the worth of water till the well is dry.”
Henry David Thoreau, 19th century
“Life in us is like the water in a river.”
George MacDonald, 19th century
“The water itself, that dances, and sings, and slakes the wonderful thirst–symbol and picture of that draught for which the woman of Samaria made her prayer to Jesus–this lovely thing itself, whose very wetness is a delight to every inch of the human body in its embrace–this live thing which, if I might, I would have running through my room, yea, babbling along my table–this water is its own self its own truth, and is therein a truth of God.”
In the movie, The Shawshank Redemption, Brooks, an older inmate who had been imprisoned for much of his adult life, is finally, and surprisingly, paroled. In some of the most poignant scenes of the movie, we watch him try to adjust to life outside of prison: find a place to live, get a job, and make his own meals. His life had been so shaped by the routine of prison for so many years that he found the world outside those walls too much for him to handle. Now, at an older age, he becomes lost and disoriented by the experience of freedom and finds the adjustment too difficult to make. In the end, unable to find any way to embrace his life of freedom, he takes his own life as the only relief from the profound disorientation arising from being disconnected from the people and routines that, for better or worse, gave his life shape and meaning.
The Book of Genesis ends with the death of Joseph, the patriarch whose story shapes the early life of the Hebrews in Egypt. Held in high esteem, Joseph holds great influence in Egypt and is loved by Pharaoh and people alike, his presence there being a blessing to both. At his death, we are told, he is embalmed and placed in a coffin in Egypt (Gen. 50:26) to take his place among the honored dead. Then in the Book of Exodus, “a pharaoh who knew not Joseph” came to power (Ex. 1:8) and devoid of the knowledge of the great Joseph, only sees the numbers of the Hebrews as a threat to Egypt and to him, thus beginning the other story of the Hebrews as slaves at the hands of the taskmasters and builders of Pharaoh.
Even as Joseph is the principal character of the last thirteen chapters of Genesis, the stories relating to Moses occupy not only the entire Book of Exodus but the next three books as well, until the record of his death in the Book of Deuteronomy 34:5. Much of Moses’ presence in these pages centers on freeing the Hebrews from the grip of Pharaoh, leading them on the forty-year journey of the Exodus, and presenting them to their new homeland, all under God’s guidance, cajoling, encouragement, anger, and instruction.
Along the way, Moses — under God’s guidance — finds himself often in the position of dealing with a sometimes combative and testy following, former slaves who sometimes miss the fleshpots of Egypt when they are hungry and the waters of the Nile when they are thirsty, and who are habituated to being fearful in their newly provided freedom. Frederick Niedner reminds us that “the people are weighing their oppressed but viable lives as slaves against the unknown dangers of the wilderness, which may mean death by thirst” (Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2). Freed from the constraints of their former lives, they are not yet free to know themselves as God’s people and so must travel on across distances of space and of generations until the group that faces the Promised Land across the Jordan those forty years later has no personal ties to the former slavery of their ancestors.
The reading from Exodus in this Sunday’s lectionary is one of the pericopes, or self-contained stories, that give us a clue into the difficulty that the former slaves and their reticent leader faced in the wilderness between the Nile and the Jordan. In fact, our reading is the last of three complaints the Hebrews issue. Even as the sounds of Miriam and Aaron’s joyful song still hang in the air (Ex. 15:20ff), the first complaint is uttered for water (Ex. 15:24), then six weeks later they complain about the lack of food (Ex. 16:2ff) and, finally, still sated for food (Ex. 16:35), they complain again for water. This time Moses complains to God about his own mistreatment at the hands of this stubborn people; he is afraid for his own life as he goes to God with the request, but God simply urges him to “go on ahead” with some of the elders to the place where God will be and the water would flow.
Moses names these places, and the names, Susan Marie Smith observes, “reflect the people’s complaint and lack of trust in God.” The names Massah, meaning “test,” and Meribah, meaning “quarrel,” reflect the mood of the people as they cross the desert. In the end it is a question of trust in God who provides, but while the Hebrews remember the food and water of Egypt, they are wont to forget the hardship of that place and the God who freed them with great deeds from its grip after having bent to hear their cries (Ex. 3:7). If anything the interaction between Moses and the people can serve as an encouragement to recognize and remember what God has done (anamnesis). In what ways do our complaints and those of our people and our congregations usher forth from a place of fear or complacency, a place devoid of the memory of what God has done? In many ways, writes Smith, “Sunday worship recounts the story of God’s faithful and salvific action…(which) the people are impelled to tell and live…day by day in words and in witness” (New Proclamation, Year A, 2011). How do we celebrate and remember these things when we gather for worship and how does that memory encourage us to joy and witness, instead of testing and complaining?
The passage itself urges the reader, and the original hearers, to recall the deeds of God in the past on their behalf. As Carol Newsom suggests, “the staff that Moses had instructed Aaron to use to turn the Nile and other waters of Egypt undrinkable is now used to bring drinkable water from dry rock” (Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2). The God who released them and protected them on their escape is the same God who provides water in the desert. The same staff that turned the plenteous waters of Egypt bitter will make the arid desert gush with water that is sweet to taste. God is reminding them (and not for the last time, either) that unlike the Pharaohs of Egypt who gave them only what they needed so that they could survive to toil another day, the God of Exodus will provide water enough for the day so that they may come to know themselves as a Chosen People.
On the other hand, how many of us and how many in our churches are unable to trust because of their own experience of slavery and oppression? From the perspective of the Hebrew people, we might have some understanding of their inability to simply be passive to a new overlord. If “slaves – victims – those coerced, beaten, or belittled – learn wariness and anxiety as a way of life,” as Susan Marie Smith claims (New Proclamation, Year A 2011), how can those among us who have been battered, abused, or victimized by war, conflict, or homelessness, come to find safety and nourishment in the God of the Exodus? Those who come to our churches from many and various backgrounds may find themselves on more of an Exodus journey than we might imagine; how do we attend to their fears and still “go ahead” of them in order to show a God that can be trusted?
It can also be noted that everyone in this passage is being tested, including the Israelites who are doing the complaining. While they complain through Moses (who fears for his life) to God (who is being tested for trustworthy character), it is the people who through the Exodus journey are being tested the most. Gary A. Anderson writes: “God will provide food, drink, and guidance in the wilderness. Israel, for her [sic] part, must learn to trust” (The Lectionary Commentary: Old Testament and Acts). In the scriptures, wilderness areas are mostly places where persons and peoples are tested — they are wild and dangerous areas full of potentially deadly realities. Unlike our contemporary idealization of natural settings as being “pastoral,” the biblical world outside the protection of the cities and towns were often dangerous places. A quick scan of the Bible demonstrates this fact, and even in the Gospels we find Jesus’ temptations happening out in the wilderness, where he is tempted to surrender his own trust in God.
In fact, Anderson continues, “for good reason numerous early Christian writers understood the appeal for ‘our daily bread’ in the Lord’s Prayer to be an allusion to the wilderness. The force was this: one prayed only for bread sufficient for a day’s work. In this way one would learn to trust in the Lord for each day’s provisions” (The Lectionary Commentary: Old Testament and Acts). It may be no mistake that on the First Sunday in Lent we read the Gospel lesson dealing with the temptations of Jesus in the desert and now hear part of the story of Israel as the community is tested in their ability to trust God for the needs of the day. In our forty-day Exodus (surely an apt metaphor for our own Lenten journey), we are immersed in the constant struggle between our experience of life with its enslavements, and the experience of life shaped by trust in God who provides what we need.
In an era of instant gratification, a long memory might seem an impossible goal. Those of us who fill churches today do not often have the collective memory of mighty deeds that help us to renew our trust in God as our first love, around which all other loves gather. Many of us in our individual lives may have struggled with oppression, violence, and the many “slaveries” that come from being human these days, but as many of us may attribute our liberation from such things as more an act of good counseling, or strength of will, than we would to God’s power at work to provide the food and water we need as we are led to freedom. To preach this text, or to hear it for that matter, presents a certain difficulty if it is to be preached or heard as more than a distant story about an ancient people. And yet, if our worship is to “recount the story of God’s faithful and salvific action” (see above) and if it does that in a compelling way, we will be enticed and invited to also see such things in light of God, who acts so often as one who frees people from chains and leads them into a wilderness of trust in order to become Chosen People. How can the experience of worship today lead you and your congregation to the dawning notion that God has been at work, is at work still, and has gone ahead to meet us? How can the story illustrate the fact that even though we can attribute deliverance to many things, it is also true that God has invited us to move from the things that enslave us to the freedom of daughters and sons of a journeying God?
Toward the end of The Shawshank Redemption, Red (another inmate and friend of the main character, Andy, who has since escaped and begun his life in Mexico) is finally paroled. He finds himself struggling with his newfound freedom even as Brooks had earlier in the film. Red goes through the same motions, often in the same places, and as he sits one day in his apartment contemplating his own despair, he looks up and notices something etched into the beam on the ceiling of his apartment. He gathers a chair and steps on to it, and you can see his eyes widen then tear up as he reads what is written there; the camera moves to see what he sees as the words “Brooks was here” are shown carved in the wood. At that moment he knows that he will choose a different fate and he remembers that his friend, Andy, left clues to find him in the freedom of Mexico. Red takes the journey, follows the clues, trusts that Andy is true to his word, and in the end we see them reunited there by the waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
As we are led on our own journey from the comfortable, but restrictive, environment of whatever enslaves us into the uncomfortable but liberating freedom of being God’s children, we face the choice of returning to the comfort food of our affliction, or trusting in the God who provides what we need and invites us to trust.
The Reverend Mark J. Suriano serves as Associate Pastor of Rock Spring Congregational United Church of Christ in Arlington, Virginia.
From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarrelled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarrelled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
O come, let us sing to God;
let us make a joyful noise
to the rock of our salvation!
Let us come into God’s presence
let us make a joyful noise
to God with songs of praise!
For God is a great God,
and a great Ruler above all gods.
In God’s hand are the depths of the earth;
the heights of the mountains are also God’s.
The sea is God’s, for God made it,
and the dry land,
which God’s hands have formed.
O come, let us worship and bow down,
let us kneel before God, our Maker!
For God is our God,
and we are the people of God’s pasture,
and the sheep of God’s hand.
O that today you would listen
to God’s voice!
Do not harden your hearts,
as at Meribah,
as on the day at Massah
in the wilderness,
when your ancestors tested me,
and put me to the proof,
though they had seen my work.
For forty years I loathed that generation
“They are a people whose hearts go astray,
and they do not regard my ways.”
Therefore in my anger I swore,
“They shall not enter my rest.”
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 in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person — though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.
So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.
A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “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.” The woman said to him, “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?” Jesus said to her, “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.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”
Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “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!” The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you 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 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.” The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”
Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” Then the woman left her water-jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” They left the city and were on their way to him.
Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?” Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”
Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there for two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said 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.”
Liturgical notes on the Readings
In ecumenical liturgical practice, there are normally three readings and one psalm at each Sunday service, in this order:
First Reading: Hebrew Scripture
Response: Psalm (or Canticle) from the Bible
Second Reading: Epistle (