In our Gospel reading for last Sunday, Jesus and a Pharisee named Nicodemus had a long conversation about being “born again.” As you may recall, Nicodemus wondered how adults could possibly crawl back into their mothers’ wombs. I picture Jesus shaking his head as he gently explained that he meant a spiritual rebirth, not a literal one.
We see something similar this week in Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well.
Jesus offers the woman living water. Like Nicodemus, she takes him literally. First she points out that Jesus doesn’t have a bucket to draw water. Then, when Jesus explains that people who drink his water will never be thirsty again, she is thrilled at the prospect of not having to come to the well any more. Here, too, I picture Jesus shaking his head.
Jesus changes topic. Jesus asks the woman about her husband. She says she is not married, which is not news to Jesus. Jesus tells her he knows about her previous husbands and about her current relationship.
At that point the woman realizes Jesus is a prophet. Soon thereafter she speculates that Jesus could even be the long-awaited messiah. That’s quite a reaction!
So what is going on here? Let’s go back through our story, following the progression from water, to husbands, to Jesus.
The story starts with physical needs. The Gospel writer points out that Jesus is worn out and in need of refreshment. Jesus’ request for water was surely genuine. He wanted something to drink. The woman did, too. That’s why she was coming to the well in the first place, and that is why she was initially so happy at the prospect of receiving living water from Jesus.
After her conversation with Jesus, in her hurry to tell others about Jesus, the woman forgot her water jar. Her enthusiasm is endearing. But the fact is, she is going to have to come back for more water. Our physical needs are inescapable.
But, and this is the point, satisfying our physical needs is not enough. We need literal water. But we also need the living water that is Christ.
The woman wasn’t getting it, so Jesus shifts to her marital history. She is struck by his knowledge of her past, but that is not particularly impressive. Anyone who had met one of her gossipy neighbors could know that. More is going on here.
I think Jesus is saying to this woman, you are looking for intimacy. You long to love and be loved. And so you have gone from man to man, but none of your men have met your deep need for relationship. That is not their fault. No human being can satisfy the deepest longing of your soul.
Relationships with other people are important, of course. We all need people just like we all need water. But even when our relationships are loving and good, we are left with a longing for more. To meet that deepest longing, says Christ, you need me, your heavenly bridegroom.
At that point, the Samaritan woman still has a little way to go. But she glimpses the truth of what Jesus is saying to her. It is as if she has sipped a bit of living water.
Now let’s bring the lesson Jesus teaches the Samaritan woman up to today.
We are in an anxious time, the most anxious time I can remember. Carrie pointed out to me that the Covid-19 virus did not exist 90 days ago. Now it is reshaping life for virtually all of us. At some point, the worst of the virus will have passed, and we will return to normal. But now we are all scrambling to figure out what we should be doing, and not doing, in a situation that seems to change and to get more threatening virtually every day.
Based on our Gospel reading, what might Jesus say to us today, if we were the ones to meet him at the well?
The one who recognized the Samaritan woman’s need for water would, I think, first acknowledge our physical vulnerability in the midst of this emerging epidemic. He would encourage us to take proper precautions to avoid infection. That’s because our health and well-being really are at risk.
But Jesus surely wouldn’t stop there. Jesus wouldn’t stop there because our souls long for more than practical guidelines about how to avoid infection. The one who spoke to the Samaritan woman’s marital history would go on to remind us that we are connected to each other, that we need each other, that we need to look out for each other, that we need to be particularly sensitive to our most vulnerable brothers and sisters, the people who are most isolated and have most reason for fear. That is because God calls us into relationship with each other.
But Jesus wouldn’t stop there either. Jesus wouldn’t stop there because our souls long for more love, for deeper relationship, than any other human being can provide. And so Jesus invites us, as he invited the Samaritan woman, to drink deeply of the living water, to grow in our relationship with Him who is our heavenly bridegroom.
Jesus does not promise to protect us from sickness or death. But Jesus promises to accompany us always, no matter what happens. Jesus promises to love and strengthen us as we face this crisis together. And, in the end, Jesus promises us victory, victory over sin and death, the ultimate victory of new and unending life with God.
That is good news. That is good news on which we can rely.
And it helps. Last week I received an email from a friend of mine in Georgia who has to travel in the next couple of weeks. He told me, the prospect of getting on a plane right now terrifies him. Making matters worse, he feels isolated, like he doesn’t have anyone to talk to.
My friend went on to say that he knew Christ was with him.
And he ended his message by saying he felt better.
In the midst of his fear and loneliness, my friend took a sip of living water. And externally nothing changed. But he was different. And that made all the difference.
So what can we do to drink a little more deeply of the living water, especially in those times when we need strength?
It’s not rocket science. This is a time when the spiritual practices of our tradition matter more than ever before.
As we all rightly pull back from our various commitments, as we cancel plans to avoid crowds, as we increasingly isolate ourselves from each other, as we face relentless, widespread anxiety that can easily spiral out of control, we need to get really focused on our relationship with God. We need to spend time in things like prayer and meditation, in reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.
If you are not already doing so, I strongly encourage you to adopt a daily prayer practice. It will help you feel connected to God.
We all need to do what we can to be safe. And we all need to manage our anxiety. But most of all, we all need to drink of the living water.
And that is my prayer for us, that we can drink from the living water of Christ. And I pray that we can share the living water with the people around us who so desperately need a drink.
In Christ’s name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan