>A Sermon for the Third Sunday of Lent
Read John 4:5-42
Nothing is more basic to life than thirst. Everybody needs water. A person can go a long time without food, but water is a different story. Everybody needs water, and everyone understands what it means to thirst, at least at some level. Of course, when I say “I thirst” – it probably doesn’t come close to the person halfway around the world suffering from a drought and living on rationed water each day. I play a hard game of basketball and want to drink the entire Eno River. I go out to our church property yesterday to put in a half work-day cutting down brush and feel like I can empty a six pack of bottled water all by myself.
Thirst. It is a prominent theme in today’s Gospel lesson from John. Before we go further, though, you should know something about John. This gospel is a little different from the synoptic gospels: Matthew, Mark, and Luke. John likes metaphors. John likes to paint word pictures. John likes to tell a story with theological finesse – and John almost always has two levels of meaning going on at the same time.
In chapter two, Jesus spoke about destroying the Temple and raising it back up in three days. The Jewish leadership was busy trying to figure out what building contractor could possibly accomplish such a feast and Jesus was busy talking about his future death and resurrection. In chapter 3, Nicodemus came to Jesus at night and Jesus told him he had to be born again. Nick was busy trying to figure out how he could reenter his mother’s womb as an adult and Jesus was busy talking about salvation and spiritual transformation. In our passage today, Jesus came to a well at noon and told a Samaritan woman that he had water from which she could drink and never thirst again. The woman was busy trying to figure out how she might avoid ever having to tote water again and Jesus was busy talking about God who is a fountain of life-giving water sprinting up to eternal life. In each case, there were two levels of meaning with the people around Jesus stumped by the literal words and Jesus busy trying to convey spiritual meaning.
So, in keeping with the spirit of John’s gospel which is often calling us to probe deeper and look at spiritual meaning – I want us to look closely again at this familiar story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman. On one level, the very literal level, we all thirst. Jesus was on a long journey from Jerusalem to Galilee. It was only natural to need water. The disciples were only human, they needed water. The woman was at the well to draw water – she needed water. The Samaritans in the nearby village had a well near town because they needed water. All of them, the unnamed woman, the disciples, the Samaritan townsfolk, and Jesus – all of them experienced literal thirst – at one time or another. But here is the question – what else do they thirst for?
The woman is thirsty for more than water. You can tell if you read the story carefully. She traveled to the well at noon, the hottest time of day – a time when others would likely be somewhere in the shade. Why does she avoid crowds? Her dialogue with Jesus tells us more. She has had five husbands and the man she is with now is not her husband. That might not raise more than eyebrows today, but in the first century that was enough to make you the community pariah and outcast.
Here is a woman who is thirsty for love and looking for it in all the wrong places. Here is a woman who is thirsty for compassion, for a short reprieve from the glaring, ostracizing, and condemning eyes of her neighbors, even if it means she has to draw her water in the middle of the day by the sweat of her brow. Here is a woman who is thirsty for companionship, for a person that will look AT her and not just PAST her, for someone who has the time and the interest to see her not for what she has done or not done, but for who she is and what she can be.
Here is a woman who thirsts for someone to listen, someone willing to hear her story, someone willing to care. Here is a woman who, whether she knows it or not, is thirsty for Jesus. Are there any of you here today like that woman? Do you thirst for love? Companionship? For compassion? For reprieve from condemnation? For someone to listen, to see, to notice, to care? Then stay close – there is a word here for you.
The disciples are thirsty. They come back from their little side trip and see 1) their master talking with a woman (forbidden) and 2) talking with a Samaritan woman (strike two) and 3) making them travel from Jerusalem through Samaria to reach Galilee (strike three – no self respecting Jew would travel through unclean territory). Jesus had three strikes against him, but none of the disciples said What do you want? or Why are you speaking with her? No one said it out loud, but John wrote it down because it was probably something they were thinking!
The disciples are thirsty for understanding. They thirst for a messiah that will meet their expectations and give their lives meaning and purpose. They thirst for a Rabbi to follow that can help them believe their decision to leave their jobs and families behind was right one. Whether they know it or not, they thirst for Jesus. Are there any like the disciples here this morning? Thirsty for meaning? For understanding? For a promised future that is bigger and grander than what you have left behind? Then stay close – there is a word here for you.
The Samaritan townsfolk are thirsty. We know their story, don’t we? They were the sworn enemies of the Jews. The breach can be traced all the way back to when the Samaritans were conquered and occupied in northern Israel by the Assyrians. They intermarried. They mixed religion and cultures. They erected a rival shrine on Mt. Gerizim and declared that it, and not the Jerusalem Temple, was the proper place of worship. The Samaritan townsfolk were thirsty for something beyond the generations of second class citizenship they had experienced. They were thirsty for something besides a seat on the back of the bus, something beyond a politics of prejudice and profiling, something better than a history of marginalization and labeling, something with more dignity than the disparaging eye of the world looking down their noses at their history and culture and deeming it unwanted, uneducated and unclean. The Samaritans were thirsty for salvation, for justice, for deliverance, for truth, for liberation, and for hope. Is there anyone here that thirsts for the same things? Stay close – there is a word here for you.
Jesus was thirsty. The moment I say that, one might wonder – really? Does Jesus not have the living water? Did Jesus really thirst? Is that possible? Thirst for water? Thirst for anything else? John Gospel says as much. Here in chapter four, Jesus approaches the woman at the well and says Give me a drink. Later, Jesus would look down from the cross and say even more specifically: I thirst (19:28) Was Jesus literally thirsty both times? Probably. But did Jesus thirst for something else as well? John seems to intimate as much.
Jesus is thirsty for the least, the last, and the lost. Jesus is thirsty for a restored and renewed relationship between God and humanity. Jesus is thirsty for obedience to God’s will and way; thirsty for justice to roll down like thirst-quenching waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream; thirsty for sin and death to be conquered by God’s irrepressible fountain of life giving water that springs up to eternal life; Jesus is thirsty for a new heaven and a new earth, a renewed creation, and a cosmic reversal of the fall where lions and lambs shall dwell together on God’s holy mountain and a little child shall lead them.
What are you thirsty for today? Do you thirst for love like the unnamed woman? Do you thirst for understanding like the disciples? Do you thirst for salvation and justice like the Samaritans? If so, whether you know it or not, you thirst for Jesus, and Jesus wants to meet us here at this well – at this table – in this bread and with this cup – Jesus desires to both quench our thirst and give us a new thirst.
Jesus comes today to quench the human thirst for love and simultaneously give us a new thirst to share it with others. Jesus comes to quench the human thirst for truth and understanding and simultaneously grant us a new thirst to continue to grow in the grace and knowledge of God. Jesus comes to quench the human thirst for dignity, life, and justice and simultaneously give us a new thirst for erecting signs of God’s justice, peace, and new life in the world.
What Jesus said to the woman, he says to us:
Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give them will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.
How do you respond to such words? Maybe the best response is to pray in unison with the woman at the well: Sir – give us this water. Amen.