March 27, 2011
Sermon for the 3rd Sunday of Lent
March 27, 2011
The Rev. Leslie E. Chadwick
Water. Our life depends on it. We have to have it. We learned in this year’s 30-Hour Famine that women around the world walk an average of 3.6 miles a day to fetch water that isn’t even clean. Every 21 seconds a child dies from a water-related illness. When communities get access to clean water, child mortality rates drop by half. Water is essential to survival.
The woman in today’s gospel is a master of survival. She lives in a dry climate and walks hours every day to get her water. She’s survived everything else that life has thrown at her, too. My seminary professor once called the woman at the well “the Elizabeth Taylor of the New Testament.” When that famous actress died last Wednesday, the Washington Post called her “a symbol of survival.” They quoted Ms. Taylor: “I’ve been through it all, baby…I’m Mother Courage.”
The woman at the well has seen it all. She’s had five husbands, she’s living with a sixth man, and the way she flirts with Jesus, she may be looking for a seventh (Edmondson). She’s a survivor. Who knows what she’s had to endure as a woman, a Samaritan, and an outcast? But her past has not broken her. Endurance has made her tough. She’s unapologetic about who she is. She’s jaded, witty, and bold. She doesn’t have an ounce of modesty or self-pity. She needs nothing from anyone.
She is a vivid character and her conversation with Jesus is one of my favorite passages in the Bible. What stands out to me in this passage is how human Jesus is. The gospel of John rarely highlights Jesus’ limitations. But today we hear that “Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by [Jacob’s] well.” This word “tired” in the New Testament isn’t the satisfied exhaustion you feel after a good day’s work. It’s the kind of weary you feel when you wonder if what you’re doing is getting you anywhere (Luke 5:5). Jesus and his disciples had been doing good work in Judea before the Pharisees interrupted them. Now to avoid trouble, they have to head back to Galilee through Samaria, the land of a people they despise. Anyone would lose heart at this turn of events. As the sun beats down on Jesus in the heat of the day, every pore in his body cries out for water. He sees a woman trudging up to the well. The whole way she carries herself screams “attitude.” But Jesus’ conversation with this unlikely person revives him.
When Jesus, a Jew, asks the Samaritan woman for a drink of water, she plays along. He’s breaking all the rules, but that’s nothing new to her. She’s interested. What gets her attention the most is Jesus’ claim that he has the power to give her living water. At first she blows him off. “Sir, you have no bucket and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?” Jesus does not rush to say, “I have a direct line to God!” Instead, he does the equivalent of this with his words (open a can of Sprite into the microphone). He makes her aware of just how thirsty she is for what he has. On that scorching day he says, “As good as the cool water you’re about to draw will feel in your mouth going down your parched throat, you’re going to be thirsty again tomorrow when it runs out. You’re going to have to keep coming back here day after day. But the water I give you, you only have to drink once and it will stay inside you. The water that I will give “will come up within you as a fountain of water leaping up to eternal life.” The woman drops her attitude and looks him in the eye. “Sir, give me this water!”
He tells her to call her husband. She tells a half-truth. “I have no husband.” Jesus answers, “That’s nicely put: ‘I have no husband. You’ve had five…and the man you’re living with now isn’t even your husband” (Peterson, The Message). You’re a survivor alright, but I want more for you than survival. I want you to have life and have it abundantly. By the end of their conversation, the woman at the well drops her water jug and her jaded facade, and runs to tell everyone, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!...Could this be the Messiah, the one who has come to bring God’s abundance to us right now?” The story ends with Jesus, no longer tired, but energized for the work before him and the disciples right there in Samaria. The disciples can’t believe that Jesus is no longer dying of thirst and ravenous. He tells them, “The food that keeps me going is to do the will of the One who sent me, finishing the work he started…open your eyes and take a good look at what’s right in front of you. These Samaritan fields are ripe for the harvest…without lifting a finger, you have walked in on a field worked long and hard by others.” (Peterson, the Message) Jesus has found living water there in that parched place in the very act of ministry.
Jesus invites each one of us this Lent to sit with him and talk about what we thirst for. Some of us may be exhausted mentally, emotionally, spiritually—sapped dry. We may feel as if we’re hauling water back and forth endlessly, never having enough to nourish those in our care. We may be discouraged that we are working 110% and are never done; or we may feel that our work unravels in spite of our best efforts; others of us may be masters of survival. But we all share deep within a longing for God’s living water, the abundant life that will never run out.
The story of the woman at the well reminds us that when we are weary or discouraged, another ministry opportunity is often staring us in the face. The world is thirsty for people to do concrete ministry in Jesus’ name. Jesus calls us to open our eyes and take a good look at what’s right in front of us: the people of Japan, Haiti, Herndon, Reston. Serving others gives us perspective on our own worries. When we minister to others, we, too, are revived by God’s living water springing up within us.
Our collect for the day reminds us that we “have no power in ourselves to help ourselves.” But we have a choice. We can keep going back and forth under our own steam trying to survive or we can drink the water of life that Jesus offers. Jesus urges us to believe this: he has the power to make this water come up within us as a fountain leaping up to eternal life. He intends for us to do more than just survive. He wants us to have life and to have it abundantly.
If we trust him enough to taste the water that he gives, we will never be alone as we walk out to meet whatever life brings us. He has truly “been through it all.” We are revived by the acts of ministry that we do in his Name. We find that we have food and drink within that we didn’t have before. And it is more than we need to be satisfied. God’s living water wells up within us as share what we have been given with others and spread the good news that “this is truly the Savior of the world.”