Exodus 17:1-7 | Psalm 95 | Romans 5:1-11 | John 4:5-42
After being here nearly 6 months, I finally decided it’s time to really move into my office – to make it my own. So we went where everyone does to find decorations: Ikea. We thought about what we needed to make the space beautiful. Of course, I needed pictures, and we got a small little throw to go over one of the cabinets, but we need something else – something alive. We needed plants.
Now, I have never in my life taken care of plants, but they just seemed necessary. In addition to picture frames and rugs and furniture, Ikea has plants. We got three little succulents, because I mean, come on, it’s 2017. You have to have succulents. And we got one larger plant. I have no idea what it is or what it’s called. It’s green. And we got a cool pot for it.
But I’m terrified of these plants. Not terrified of what they’ll do to me, but terrified of what I’ll do to them. I know that all I really need to do is water them, but I’m afraid I’ll forget. And how much water do they need? If I don’t give them enough, they’ll wither. If I give them too much they can drown, right? Right? I’m not even sure if that’s true. You can give a plant too much water, right?
But that's all I need to do, manage their water intake. The windows in my office will take care of the sunlight, but I’ve got to take care of their water.
Without water these little plants in my office will die, and the vibe in my office will dramatically change, there would be an absence of life in my office.
Just as there was an absence of life in Haran in last week’s sermon. Haran was the home of Sarai and Abram’s before they left for the promised land. It was a place void of the Spirit of God. The Spirit was out in the wilderness calling them, leading them, as the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness in our Gospel reading two weeks ago.
But my office is not void of life! It’s not like Haran. It’s full of life and vitality because my little green plants are alive…at least for now.
But I’m struck by the vulnerability of these little plants, sitting on my window sill, sitting on my cabinet. They can do nothing for themselves but sit there. They need me to fetch their water, to fill them up.
Jesus meets the woman at the well like one of my little plants, just sitting there, thirsty and vulnerable.
Jesus approaches this woman without any water of his own, without so much as a bucket to draw water with. He’s dependent upon her. So, from the get-go, there’s a certain power dynamic. This woman has power over Jesus. She has access to the source of life – water – which he is desperately in need of.
But there are other power dynamics at play as well, because Jesus is a Jewish man. In that culture, Jesus’ gender and ethnicity gave him power over this woman. Jews hated Samaritans, because the Samaritans were ethnically, culturally, and religiously impure. The Samaritans were not Israelites, but were an amalgamation of 5 nations who were transplanted by the Babylonians to the area between Galilee to the north and Judea to the south. They couldn’t trace their lineage back to Abraham, as the Jews could, and their religion was a mash up of multiple religions including, but not limited to, Judaism.
As a man, Jesus also had power and authority over this woman because of his gender.
It’s like the author knew we might be reading this 2,000 years later and might not understand, so they go out of their way to make it abundantly clear. First the woman asks him outright, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” And then, if that isn’t clear enough, the author says, “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.” And then later, when the disciples show up, the text says, “They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman.” So, clearly this woman is lower in the social hierarchy because she is a woman and she is a Samaritan.
She experiences multi-layered forms of oppression – to use a term from our Sunday school lessons last week – because of who she is. She is not just a woman, or just a Samaritan, but both. Multiple forms of oppression converge on her body all at once.
There is, of course, one other power dynamic that is obvious to us but not to her yet: the whole divine/human thing. Him being God (but also human) and her being human (and only human).
And yet Jesus comes to her, not as a man or as a Jew or even as God initially, but as the vulnerable.
This should give us pause. How does Jesus come to us today? Surely he comes in many ways, but Matthew 25 makes clear: Jesus continues, today, to come to us as the vulnerable, just as he came to this Samaritan woman. He comes like the impoverished people of Flint, Michigan and the marginalized native people of Standing Rock, South Dakota, literally asking, as Jesus does in this story, for clean water.
He comes as the refugee from a war torn country on the other side of the world, and as the mentally challenged homeless woman just down the street. He comes as the immigrant in need of a safe place to lay his head, and as the queer street youth who would rather sleep on the sidewalk than bear the scorn of their family. He comes as the addict, the survivor of abuse, the discriminated against, and the misunderstood.
He comes to us as one with needs, asking us, demanding us, “Give me a drink.” Will we look him in the eye? Will we drop our bucket down the well and bring up some cool, clean water for him to drink?
Or will we say, “God helps those who help themselves” (which isn’t in the Bible, by the way)? Will we say, “You got yourself into this mess, get yourself out of it”? After all, what is Jesus doing traveling without any water. That’s on him! He’s the one who isn’t prepared. Why should this woman help him?
We actually don’t know if she gives him water or not because she gets into a very deep, confusing, theological discussion with Jesus, but he and his disciples end up staying in Sychar for two days, so it’s safe to say this woman and her people took care of this vulnerable man who turned out to be God and his companions.
So we need to pay attention to who Jesus is in this story, but we also need to pay attention to who he empowers in this story. Just as this woman opened herself to Jesus, the vulnerable one, so Jesus entrusted himself to this woman, and she is also a vulnerable one. She could have and would have been judged by any other Jewish man for her race, ethnicity, gender, social status, marital status, religion, etc.
Once again, as we keep learning, almost every week, Jesus inverts the assumptions about who is a proper disciple. Every week it seems we read a story that brings home the famous statement from Matthew 20:16, “The last will be first, and the first will be last.”
Last Sunday we read about Nicodemus, a religious leader with the right education, the right gender, the right ancestry, the right position, and yet he fades from the story. The story ends with a long statement by Jesus, and Nicodemus is nowhere to be found.
But this woman, divorced and/or widowed by 5 men, living with another man without the legal protection that came from marriage, considered an outcast by the Jews, probably an outcast to even her Samaritan peers – she’s at a well by herself during the hottest part of the day after all – continues to engage with Jesus. She doesn’t fade away.
She knows that she doesn’t know. She knows that Jesus’ words defy logic, but, unlike Nicodemus, she’s okay with that.
Jesus told Nicodemus he had to be born again, and Nicodemus got caught up in the paradox, telling someone who has already been born to be born again didn’t make any sense, but this woman embraces paradox. She hears the man who began the conversation by asking for water tell her that he actually already has water – living water – that will quench her thirst forever, and instead of saying, “There’s no such thing,” or “If you have that water why’d you ask me for water,” she said, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” And maybe what’s implied is, “So I don’t have to keep coming here by myself in the middle of the day, bearing my shame for all to see.”
This woman, despite – or perhaps because of – her perceived short comings – because of her vulnerability – is able to see what Nicodemus and the other Pharisees could not. In fact, the verses prior to our reading today explain why Jesus was in Samaria in the first place. The Pharisees had heard that his disciples were baptizing more people than John’s disciples, and what isn’t said clearly is pretty clearly implied: they aren’t happy about it. So Jesus leaves Judea for Galilee.
The religious leaders saw Jesus as only a threat, but here, in Samaria, this marginalized woman – it’s difficult to think of what could make her more marginalized – receives Jesus’ words. Without understanding all this talk about living water and never thirsting, she believes Jesus when he says he’s the Messiah. She sees Jesus for who he really is.
It’s like our quote from Kierkegaard last week, when he said that the proof of Jesus’ presence only comes after the leap of faith. This woman doesn’t understand what living water is, but she believes Jesus is the Messiah. Without realizing it, in this interaction, the very living water they’re talking about is flowing out of Jesus and into her.
Jesus, in treating this woman like an equal, in refusing to let her biological, social, religious circumstances disqualify her, is pouring living water onto a soul that is surely cracked and dry. Jesus’ acknowledgment of this woman’s worth and humanity is filling her up with living water to the point that it begins to overflow. Unlike my little plants, this woman can’t be drown by too much living water, instead it becomes in her a “spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”
She leaves her pots, the ones meant for regular water, the ones concerned only with day-to-day provisions, to share the living water – the eternal water – with her community.
You can almost see this woman’s restoration as the story progresses. You can see her withered self-worth in the beginning of the story. “Why are you talking to me? I’m nobody. I’m worthless.” But Jesus pours into her. His love fills the cracks in her weary heart and her self-worth blooms like a flower. She becomes a spring of living water herself.
We’ve all felt like the woman at the well at one point or another. We’ve been told that something about us makes us unworthy. Perhaps it’s our gender, our sexuality, our lack of education, our age. Maybe it’s something that happened to us that we believe has marked us and devalued us. Maybe it’s a sin that we committed years ago, but we think can never be forgiven.
Whatever it is, our hearts may feel like dry, cracked soil, desperately needing the Spirit of God to fill us up and give us life. But, perhaps, we think we’re undeserving. Or maybe we don’t even realize how dry our heart has become.
During Lent, we leave behind our regular water pots. We lay aside those things we’ve come to depend on that don’t really nourish us, and we look within. We see where we are dry and thirsty, and desperately needing the Spirit to fill us. And we begin a conversation with Jesus. We say to him, “Give me this water.” Like the woman, we don’t fully know what this water is, or how it works. We only know that we are thirsty.
When we acknowledge our own thirst, our own lack, we create space for the Spirit, the living water, to fill. In the words of Leonard Cohen, “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”
Vulnerability runs like one long crack from the thirsty Jesus to this dejected woman to her outcast people in town, and over the course of this story this crack is filled to the brim with living water, uniting all these people to Jesus and to one another.
Their shared vulnerability is the key. Their vulnerability connects them to one another.
The scribes and Pharisees on the other hand, are so self-assured, so self-righteous, that they can’t see their own vulnerability, so Jesus says elsewhere that they are like whitewashed tombs full of dead people’s bones. Instead of being a cracked container with living water freely flowing into and out of them, the Pharisees are shut up and stagnant, like a crypt.
This story tells us that we shouldn’t be ashamed of our vulnerability, and we shouldn’t despise others’. The Spirit – the living water – flows freely between the cracks in us, flows freely from the cracks in a God who chose to take on humanity with all its limitations and vulnerability into us.
So long as we keep hierarchies in place, so long as we let power-dynamics stay the way they are, putting some people over others, limiting the flow of the Spirit, dam/ning up (and I mean that in both senses of the word) this living water, we will be like the Pharisees. We’ll be like stagnant pools that collect all kinds of algae and muck.
But when we open ourselves up to God and to one another, when we embrace our vulnerability and see it as part of being human, see it as something we share with Jesus, our Savior, who was himself vulnerable, we will see living water flow between us. We’ll bloom like the plants in my office.
This story teaches us that not only is vulnerability necessary to receive this living water, but those who acknowledge and embrace their vulnerability also make for the best disciples. While Nicodemus and his educated male friends hem and haw over whether or not Jesus is who he says he is, this ostracized woman converts nearly a town’s worth of people. How weird is it that there are still churches that won’t let women preach when we have this story here. Have any of the other male disciples in the Gospels converted this many people yet?
Here at Grant Park we believe that this living water, the Holy Spirit, is available to all, and that each one of us is our own spring “gushing up to eternal life.” That’s one of the reasons we allow for a time of reflection during the service, because we recognize that there are some people who have historically been silenced within the church, as the woman at the well was silenced by her society, and we want to say that those voices matter and are valued here. Those are the voices we need to hear most.
At the end of the story, the Samaritans of Sychar say 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.”
How strange, and also how comforting, that the Savior of the world comes to us as one who is vulnerable, like us.
How comforting that he has wounds like ours.
How comforting that he is thirsty, and yet is a spring of living water.
Lord Jesus, give us this water, so that we may never be thirsty again. Amen.