Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent – March 12, 2023
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
Nutritionists will tell you that most Americans don’t drink enough water. This is significant because dehydration can impact many different areas of your life. Water helps you digest your food. Water helps your joints stay properly lubricated. Water regulates your body chemistry and your body temperature.
Not getting enough water doesn’t just impact a person physically, but mentally and emotionally as well. Even very mild dehydration can lead to crankiness, anxiety, poor memory, or feeling tired.
Water is literally life-giving. It trickles through every part of our lives, and when we don’t have enough, it can impact every part of our lives. To fend off dehydration, our body sends us a signal telling us to reach for something to drink. We become thirsty.
It was thirst that brought together Jesus and the Samaritan woman who met him at the well. It was about noon, St. John tells us – the hottest part of the day. Jesus had been traveling on his way back to Galilee from Judea. He was thirsty, and so he made a pit stop in Sychar and stopped at Jacob’s well. The disciples went into town for food while Jesus lingered at the well. When a woman of Samaria came to the well with a bucket in hand, Jesus asked her for a drink.
We need to pause for a moment here to note just how unusual and awkward this scene was. First of all, it was taboo in both Jewish and Samaritan culture for two strangers of the opposite sex to be alone together. We hear the disciples freaking out about this a little later in the story. What is sometimes mocked today as “the Billy Graham rule” was the accepted cultural norm for both Jews and Samaritans.
That’s about the only thing these two cultures agreed on, however. St. John notes how Jews didn’t share things in common with Samaritans. Samaritans were regarded as unclean. They were despised by most Jews. There’s a whole lot of history behind this. In a nutshell, Samaritans were seen as traitors to the Jewish people because they had intermarried with the Assyrians. Even worse, they were seen as idolaters because they had adopted many of the Assyrian religious practices, twisting Bible passages to fit their new situation and justify it all. The Samaritans had their temple on Mount Gerizim while the Jews had theirs on the temple mount in Jerusalem, and never the twain shall meet.
So, for all kinds of reasons, it was highly unusual and awkward for a Jewish rabbi and a Samaritan woman to be alone and chatting it up at the water cooler! But thirst had brought them together. There was an inner need for both of them to be there.
Jesus seems to have been drawn there, and not only for the purpose of making a pit stop on his way back to Galilee. You see, Jesus wasn’t traveling the normal route Jews took when going from Judea to Galilee. The more common route included a detour around Samaria so they could avoid these awkward encounters with their despised enemies.
But Jesus seems to have been drawn there by some inner need. He seems to have been thirsty for more than just water from Jacob’s well. He seems to have been drawn to this well to bring his saving love even to this place, even to Samaritans.
The woman was drawn there by her own thirst. She came there with her bucket to bring up the water which would quench her bodily thirst, but as her conversation with Jesus unfolded it quickly became clear that her dehydration was impacting every aspect of her life. It doesn’t take too much reading between the lines to see that she was thirsty for more than water.
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.” “Sir,” she replied, “Give me this water, that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” She was still thinking about literal water. She was still thinking about her parched throat. But Jesus would put his finger on her deeper thirst.
“Go, call your husband and come back,” Jesus said to her. “I have no husband,” she replied. “You are right in saying you have no husband,” Jesus continued, “for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.” Jesus sure can be blunt, can’t he?
It is hard to know the circumstances around why this woman would have had five husbands. Mortality rates were much higher in those days, so it is possible she had been widowed that many times. Men could initiate a divorce for just about any reason, and often did, so it is at least possible that she had been abandoned that many times. We don’t know for sure if she had her own moral failings which led to the breaking of one or more of these covenants, but there is at least a whiff of scandal hanging over her.
First, Jesus notes that the man she has now is not her husband. There is a strong implication here that she is participating in the intimacies of marriage without the promises of marriage. No matter how common this might be – then or today – it is sin. It is a violation of the sixth commandment. She seems to have been a willing participant in this.
Then later she tells the crowd that Jesus told her everything she has ever done. This sounds an awful lot like a confession. We shouldn’t take away the agency she claims for herself by hastily painting her as a victim. She herself seems to acknowledge that she has done things for which she is not proud.
Is this why she came to the well in the middle of the day? Historians tell us that water was typically hauled in the morning and in the evening when it was cooler. In fact, it was a gathering time for the women of the village who would do this chore together, socializing as they did so. This woman came at Noon. She came alone. She wasn’t part of the community. She wasn’t included in the socializing. Maybe she was ostracized by those other women because of her checkered past. Maybe she wasn’t welcome among them because she was currently involved with a man who was not her husband. Maybe she was avoiding their sideways glances and glares. Maybe she was ashamed.
And so there was a deeper thirst in her, wasn’t there? There was a thirst for forgiveness, even if she didn’t recognize it yet. There was a thirst for restoration, a thirst for community. There was thirst for something better, for a new life.
She didn’t want to go there in the conversation. She quickly changed the subject to theology. But as that part of the conversation unfolded, she learned that Jesus was the one who had come to fill these deeper thirsts. He had come to make it possible for people to worship God in Spirit and in truth. When she mentioned the Messiah, Jesus told her outright that that’s who he is! While Jesus was so secretive about it in other places, here he outright tells her he is the Messiah! “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”
When she hears this, she leaves her bucket lying on the ground and goes back to the city. She goes to the very people she was avoiding, saying to them, “Come and see a man who has told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” As the story ends, we are told that many came to believe because of her testimony. She is part of them once again, as together they came to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, that he is truly the Savior of the world.
There is a thirst that draws us here today. It is not a thirst in our mouths or our throats. It is a thirst in our hearts, a thirst in our souls. Whether we recognize it all the time or not, we thirst for forgiveness. We thirst for restoration, and for community. We thirst for a new life.
When we become spiritually dehydrated, it impacts every aspect of our lives: our brains and our bodies, our moods and our mental health. It impacts our relationships, our families, our marriages. It impacts our ability to live in community with others. It impacts whether we have hope in our lives, whether we have peace.
It is that thirst that draws us here today.
Our Lord Jesus has a thirst too. He is drawn to those who are thirsty for the living water he alone can give. He has a thirst for you. He has gone out of his way to cross paths with you, to meet you at the well. He is not deterred by sin or scandal. There is nothing about you he doesn’t already know. In fact, that is why he has come, to quench your thirst for forgiveness, your thirst for restoration, your thirst for community. He has come to give you a new life, a life welling up with a hope and a peace and a love that begins to flow into every part of our lives. The water he gives becomes in us a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.
This water Jesus gives also wets our lips, making them ready and eager to tell others what we have experienced here. We too can set down our buckets, fully hydrated by Christ’s gifts, and go out to tell others about the One who knows everything we have ever done and doesn’t turn away from us, but instead reveals himself to us as Messiah and Savior, giving us living water and a new life.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church