Lessons for today on the Episcopal version of the Revised Commonly Lectionary are Exodus 17:1-7, Psalm 95, Romans 5:1-11, and John 4:5-42.
The story we have just heard from the Gospel according to John is very funny! It is a joke! The only problem is that you have to be a first century Palestinian to appreciate it. We have to put ourselves into the life of a first century Palestinian to get the point of John’s story
We have to put ourselves into a desert frame of mind. The first century Palestinian who first read or heard John’s gospel knew that water is precious. It’s very hard for us to know that. Streams that overflow their banks rather frequently criss-cross our area. One of the Great Lakes is just 30 or so miles north of us. We are surrounded by ponds and if you dig a whole just a few feet deep it will fill with water while you’re back is turned. It is even difficult for people in our country’s desert Southwest to appreciate. In Las Vegas they build artificial lakes with fountains that shoot water 26 stories high. For them and for us water is accessible merely by turning on a tap.
Not so when Jesus had his encounter with the Samaritan woman. To him and to her, and to John’s first readers, water was precious.
We not only must become for century Palestinians to appreciate John’s humor, we must become first century Palestinian Jews. They would have been steeped in the lore and cultural traditions of their place in time. They would have been schooled by their rabbi’s in the history of their people. They would share certain cultural biases. They would know, for example, that a rabbi like Jesus would never converse with a woman, let alone ask her for a cup of water and risk being touched. No rabbi could be touched by a woman other than his spouse. No Jew, for that matter, would converse with a Samaritan. We first century Palestinian Jews hate those people! When we were taken into exile in Babylon they stayed behind! They build a sanctuary on Mount Gerazim and abandoned Temple worship in Jerusalem! They even reject the book of Deuteronomy! We just won’t have anything to do with them!
We first century Palestinian Jews also know about wells in the desert and what can happen at them. We know for example that at a well like this one that John describes Isaac met Rebecca and asked her for a drink of water… and we know what happened to them: they got married! We know that at a well like this one Jacob met Rachel and asked her for a drink of water… and we know what happened to them: they got married! We know that at a well like this one Moses met Zipporah and asked her for a drink of water… and we know what happened to them: they got married! And we know what happens when people get married — there’s a feast! So we appreciate the tension this scene implies.
And now, of course to fully appreciate the situation John describes we must be not only first century Palestinians, not only first century Palestinian Jews, but first century Palestinian Jewish Christians. We Christians have learned not only what the rabbi’s taught, but we have learned the stories of Jesus. We know about Jesus and wedding feasts! We know what happened when Jesus went to a wedding party in Cana in Galilee. We know that water became wine… and we know that the wine at another feast became the Blood… and we know that the Blood is the Living Cup from the one who here calls himself the Living Water. It’s all the wonderful circle of meanings within meanings that we know about that the woman in the story does not. And that, after all, is the nature of humor! It’s irony and it’s farce!
John’s Gospel story is a joke! But it’s not an inside joke… it’s a joke we’re supposed to share! Like all good jokes it’s better when it’s shared. That’s part of our mission to share the good news, to share the humor.
That’s what the woman at the well does. Jesus gently teaches her who he is, leading her to make this discovery. Now let’s be clear about something. This woman is not, despite what you may have heard in Sunday school or other church settings, a simple person. Jesus does not condemn her or even suggest, by saying that she has had five husbands, that she is a sinner! She may have had a culturally legitimate reason for her multiple marriages. She may have been the subject of what is called Levirate marriage in which a woman is taken as the wife of her husband’s brother if her husband dies and they have no children. This was the basis of the question which some Sadducees once put to Jesus about the woman who had seven husbands; whose wife would she be in the afterlife. Perhaps the woman at the well had had a similar hard life. That’s all Jesus says to her, that she has had a hard life. And in doing so he leads heard to discover who he is.
At first she believes him a prophet and so she asks him a perfectly legitimate question. She is a Samaritan; he is a Jewish prophet. The paramount difference between them has to do with where one may worship; so she asks him about this issue. It is his answer to this question which finally leads were to recognize him as Messiah. When she does so, she runs into town to share the good news with her neighbors; she is one about the first evangelists! Later, the people of Sychar come out to the well and learn for themselves the good news that the savior of the world is among them.
Meanwhile, those bumbling idiots, the disciples come back from wherever they’ve been. John makes a parenthetical remark here which is itself a humorous one. He notes that none of them asked Jesus why he is talking to a woman or why he is talking to a Samaritan; they are used to this guy doing strange and unexpected things!
So now we can see the humor, we can see the irony, and we begin to appreciate the metaphor of the well where these people have discovered the one who is the Living Water. It is a metaphor which will be used by many as the Christian centuries progress. St. Bernard of Clairvaux wrote that spiritually all people must know how to “drink from their own well.” What St. Bernard meant is that we encountered God when we dig deep into our own hearts for it is there where God has poured his love and spirit as St. Paul wrote to the Romans in today’s epistle lesson.
John Sanford is a modern Episcopal priest who has also used the well image to describe the spiritual life in what he calls The Kingdom Within. In doing so, Sanford recalls his childhood on farm in New Hampshire. At some time during his childhood his parents became wealthy enough to afford to add electricity and modern plumbing to their home. A deep artesian well was dug and an older well was covered over. A few years later Sanford uncovered the old well hoping to do drink from it, only to discover that it was bone dry. He learned that a well of that kind is fed by hundreds of tiny rivulets along which seep a constant supply of water. As water is drawn from the well, water moves along these rivulets, keeping them clear and open. When the well is not used, these rivulets close up. Sanford suggests the human soul is such a well that we must continue to draw from it, from the spirit and love which God pours into it to keep our spiritual lives from drying up.
Another modern theologian who uses the well image is Gustavo Gutierrez, a Roman Catholic priest from Lima, Peru. Gutierrez has written a book entitled We Drink from Our Own Wells about his work in his community. In it he borrows from St. Bernard and writes,
Bernard of Clairvaux put it so beautifully when he said that when it comes to spirituality all people must know how to “drink from their own well.” In … the process of liberation …, we live out the gift of faith, hope, and charity that makes us disciples of the Lord. This experience is our well. The water that rises out of it continually purifies us and smooths away any wrinkles in our manner of being Christians, at the same time supplying the vital element needed for making new ground fruitful.
Sanford uses a similar image when he writes that the living water of God flows into us and out of us into the community around us.
This is our calling: to be wells into which the living water of the love and spirit of God flow, flow up, flow over, and flow out into the community bringing forth new and fruitful growth.
The Vestry and I have been on retreat the past couple of days wrestling with our role and our responsibility as leaders of this church community. We are beginning to develop a corporate vision of what ministry has given us by our God, what mission we as a community of God’s people have in the secular community around us.
I believe that our ministry, whatever it may be, centers here at the altar where we share the foretaste of God’s eternal feast, at the altar which is a well where we share the Living Water, but it does not occur only here. Each Friday afternoon a few of us gather for the Stations of the Cross. We have been using a pamphlet written by Clarence Enzler entitled Everyone’s Way of the Cross. In it Christ speaks to us saying, “Seek me not in the far-off places. I am close at hand. Your workbench, office, kitchen, these are altars where you offer love. And I am with you there.”
At work around the tables and desks of your office, there are you gather with people just as the Samaritans and the first century Palestinian Jews gathered at their community wells. At school around the desks and work tables, there you gather with people just as they gathered at community wells. At home around your kitchen and dining room tables, there you gather with people to share of God’s abundant bounty just as they gathered to share to gift of water from their wells.
That is our mission: to call people together to share God’s abundant Living Water, to dig deeply into our own hearts to tap into the spirit and love which God continually pours out into them, to allow that Living Water to flow, to flow over, and to flow out into all the people around us. We are called not merely to gather at a well, but to be a well … a well overflowing with blessing for the community around us, “because (as St. Paul wrote) God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” Amen.