United Church of Christ

The Well of Living Water

Sunday, March 15, 2020
Third Sunday in Lent Year A

Focus Theme:
The Well of Living Water

Focus Prayer:
Enduring Presence, goal and guide, you go before and await our coming. Only our thirst compels us beyond complaint to conversation, beyond rejection to relationship. Pour your love into our hearts, that, refreshed and renewed, we may invite others to the living water given to us in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Focus Scripture:
John 4:5-42

So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacobs 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."

All readings for this Sunday:
Exodus 17:1-7
Psalm 95
Romans 5:1-11
John 4:5-42

Focus Questions:

1. How are Nicodemus and the woman at the well similar? How do they differ?

2. If "salvation" is healing, what needed to be healed in the Samaritan woman, and in her people?

3. What needed to be healed in the disciples, who came upon the scene?

3. How is this story particularly meaningful during Women's History Month?

5. How and where do you find refreshment for your soul?

Reflection:
by Kate Matthews

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.

A sermon on God's love

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 realize that we are thirsty, profoundly 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.

What we need most

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.

Just then, 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.

Not what she expected

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.)

The elemental things of life

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.

We remember that Jesus has been to the desert, the wilderness, and he knows what it feels like to struggle and wander and resist despair. He knows what pain and frustration feel like, 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.

Amazed but fascinated

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 in the Gospels--and we note that 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.

And yet, 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.

Understanding our own need

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.

An interfaith dialogue

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.)

The time is coming...

Here a different way of reading 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, how many of us 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!

Imperfect vessels of good news

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.

Salvation as healing

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?

Coming to the well, thirsty

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.

A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles and additional reflections) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.

The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (matthewsk@ucc.org) retired in 2016 after serving as the dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).

You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

For further reflection:

Barbara Pine, 20th century
"Sometimes being listened to is so much like being loved, it is impossible to tell the difference."

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."

Thomas Fuller, 17th century
"We never know the worth of water till the well is dry."

Richard Rohr, 21st century
"Faith does not need to push the river because faith is able to trust that there is a river. The river is flowing. We are in it."

Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha, 20th century
"They both listened silently to the water, which to them was not just water, but the voice of life, the voice of Being, the voice of perpetual Becoming."

Rebecca Solnit, 21st century
"If gold has been prized because it is the most inert element, changeless and incorruptible, water is prized for the opposite reason--its fluidity, mobility, changeability that make it a necessity and a metaphor for life itself. To value gold over water is to value economy over ecology, that which can be locked up over that which connects all things."

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."

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