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Living Water

Image: Christ and the Samaritan woman by Josef von Hempel


John 4: 5-42

There are many brave people who embrace struggles and overcome failures to seek triumphs for values they pursue.

An Afghan woman, Shabana, for example, evacuated to Rwanda more than 250 school girls, for their continued education, standing against the Taliban to whom educating girls is a crime to be brutally suppressed. What an inspiring story! Women’s right is a matter of equity more than equality.

There is a difference between the two terms. Equality means providing the same to all, whereas equity means recognizing that we do not all start from the same place and must make adjustments to imbalances.

How can we help to build up social equity for those marginalized and suppressed in our society? Some habits, behaviours, and long-held stereotypes need to be changed, and we have to work things out to correct unjust actions.

Of course, we can’t solve all the problems in the world, but we all can and must take part in helping to forge an equal world, embracing equity, by recognizing our responsibilities as God’s instruments of justice.

I hope that we rediscover the passion that comes from valuing and supporting difference among people, reflecting on how we can all be part of the solution, not the problem, as we follow Jesus’ teaching with brave hearts.

Today, with that brave heart and the renewed hope in us, we meet the woman in the Gospel narrative.

Jesus has left Judea and returned to Galilee, passing through Samaria. If you look at the map, it is obvious that the road through Samaria was the shortest route from Jerusalem to Galilee, but pious Jews often avoided that area because there was a deep distrust between many of the Jewish people and the Samaritans.

As for its historical background, when the Babylonians conquered the southern kingdom of Judah in the 6th century BC, they took almost all the population captive, exiling them to the Babylonian Empire. All they left behind were the lowest classes of society, because they didn’t want these lowly regarded people in Babylonia. Those who were left behind intermarried with other non-Jewish peoples who slowly came into the region.

The faith of the Samaritans was a combination of commands and rituals from the Law of Moses, put together with various superstitions. Most of the Jews in Jesus’ time despised the Samaritans, disliking them even more than Gentiles – because they were, religiously speaking, “half-breeds.”

Given this complex socio-cultural, religious and political context, it was not an accident or a pure chance that an unnamed Samaritan woman met Jesus at Jacob’s well and encountered a life-changing experience with his promise for living water.

Jesus needed to go through Samaria because there were people there who needed to hear Him. The place, Jacob’s well, where Jesus spoke to the woman also holds such a significant meaning.

Jacob’s well is where Abram first came when he arrived into Canaan. There God first appeared to Abram and renewed the promise of giving the land to him and his descendants. And, Abram built an altar there and called upon the name of the Lord. Later Jacob, son of Abram built an altar to the Lord, and the bones of Joseph, son of Jacob were eventually buried when they were carried up from Egypt. Right there, now we see this divine drama unfolding.

About the noon hour, during the heat of the day, Jesus, perhaps being tired and hot, asks the woman for a refreshing drink. Typically, women come for water earlier in the day in company, not in the middle of the day alone like this woman.

We can only assume that she is shunned by other women in the community and deemed as a social outcast. But boldly she is ready to talk with a stranger.

By tradition, a rabbi would not speak with a woman in public, but Jesus speaks to her. This is a very unusual encounter for a Jewish person of that time to ask a favour or accept a drink from a Samaritan’s cup.

The disciples are seen in the background of this painting (Josef von Hempel, 1800-1871), surprised that Jesus spoke to her.

He who has living water asks for a drink from a well. It's paradoxical.

Jesus had something to say to this Samaritan woman at the well who was despised by the religious establishment as if he had something to say to the religious establishment, as in the dialogue with Nicodemus that we studied last Sunday.

Jesus used thirst as a metaphor of our spiritual need. Living water means the spiritual water that quenches spiritual thirst and gives a new life from above. The conversations with Nicodemus and this unnamed Samaritan woman are to be understood in the same vein.

Anyone needs water for survival. Moreover, drinking water is such an easy and simple thing to do. Pretty much anyone can drink water, if you have access to it.

Jesus offers living water. What an amazing offer! All you have to do is to drink, but you need courage to ask for it and your humble submission to receive it. Drinking is an action of receiving. If you get thirsty again, you drink again. You need to stay connected with Jesus faithfully.

Our Christian journey begins with baptism by water. It doesn’t stop there. It doesn’t end with your confirmation. It doesn’t stop with your wedding at the church. Spiritual growth continues with a daily provision of living water, seeking the Holy Spirit’s guidance, as if we eat food everyday for physical survival.

In this Gospel narrative, Jesus stretches the limits of cultural propriety with the extended conversation with the Samaritan woman who had an embarrassing history with many partners but no husband. Jesus knew her life, but he didn’t condemn her sin but displayed divine love. And he made her feel safe with him.

In response to Jesus’ offer of living water, the woman leaves her waterpot at the well, and she immediately goes back in to town, compelled to shout out to the villagers the things that she has heard from Jesus. This lowly woman who was treated as an outcast is now a born-again evangelist. She couldn’t contain the spring of joy in herself.

Meanwhile the disciples tell Jesus to eat something because they worry about his hunger. With his focus on the souls to save, Jesus replies: “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work.” Jesus was on God’s commission, not self-seeking for personal glory. If you work for human praises, you will be always disappointed and dissatisfied.

Apostle Paul wrote to Colossians: “Set your minds on the things that are above, not on the things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory” (Col 3:2-4).

Food and rest are our basic needs, but we need to remember that life is more than them. We are to be born from above to commune with God.

Today’s Old Testament reading from Exodus also touches on the subject of water. People complained to Moses: “Give us water to drink; why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” Moses showed signs and wonders, and water came out of the rock for the people to drink. They saw incredible signs at Mount Sinai and even heard the very voice of God, yet a short time later they worshipped a gold calf.

Signs and wonders from God are good things, and they can lead a person towards belief in God, but they cannot change the heart. We should not depend on them to prove God to us, and they should not form the foundation of our faith. Often times, however, we tend to forget the blessings we have in our lives. We sometimes get grumpy and complain, and we follow something other than God, like the people in Moses’ time.

Long ago Jacob provided his children with physical water in an arid land, but Jesus provides his people with “living water” in their spiritual desert.

Are you thirsty? Where is your Jacob’s well, the altar that you built to meet Jesus?

Jacob’s well might be a lonely place to be, under the scorching sun, but it is a necessary place for us because someone special who knows our past and understands our thirst is waiting for us there.

Let’s pray:

O Lord, may our church be a Jacob’s well for many who gather here, and you bless each of us to receive living water. And like the woman at the well whose soul has been restored and born anew, may all who hear the Gospel become true messengers of your love and salvation; through Jesus Christ. Amen!