How many stories begin with lines like that? Or “a man walked into a bar …” What can be more basic than the need to quench thirst?
- Moses and the Israelites wandering in the desert, in search of the Promised Land –
- Jesus and the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well, in search of eternal life.
In both stories, God is using something ordinary and common-place — water and thirst – to take humans out of the ordinary and common-place and into an encounter with God’s very self.
Maybe we need a little Biblical history to understand the context of these stories.
Exodus, you know, is the Big Story, the Defining Story of what it means to be the Jews – the People Chosen by God. They are trapped in slavery in Egypt; God hears their cries and empowers the reluctant Moses to be their leader. God gives Moses powers that border on the magical, as part of getting the Israelites to escape from Egypt across the Nile. At first they are happy and relieved to be going someplace better than slavery in Egypt, but after years in the desert wilderness, they complain. They complain a lot, and Moses complains to God: “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” God helps Moses perform another trick, and behold! God does provide, despite the whining and complaining; the people have water to drink, as a sign that God is with them still, no matter how far off the Promised Land may be. One always wonders if the people really get it, if they really understand and appreciate all God is doing for them, but if the people in the Hebrew Bible are wavering and at times faithless, God is always constant.
Flash forward a few hundred years, to the 8th century BC, the time of the exile of the Jews to Babylon. This was the event the Big P prophets, like Isaiah and Jeremiah, interpreted as God’s punishment on the Jews for their faithless behavior. Most Jews were captured by the Assyrians and sent to Babylon; the people of Samaria were left behind, and over the centuries intermarried with pagans and grew very far apart from the Jews. They only believed the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, the Books of Moses, were scripture. They did not worship in Jerusalem. They did not follow the writings of the prophets. For John the Evangelist to say, “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans,” was an understatement.
Can we not today imagine similar seemingly intractable conflicts between groups of people? Between today’s Israelis and Palestinians? Between Shiites and Sunnis? Between any two groups whose ancient identities separate them, despite their 21st century need to find some way to live together. One almost begins to believe the drive for war and conflict is as strong in the human being as the drive to quench thirst.
Yet when God enters the equation, things begin to change. Listen to this saying by a Sufi mystic:
Not only the thirsty seek water; the water as well seeks the thirsty.
When God hears the people’s cries in Egypt and in the desert, he goes to them: water, deliverance, salvation, manna in the wilderness.
When Jesus meets the Samaritan woman at the well, the whole separated history of the Jews and the Samaritans is encapsulated in their encounter. He speaks to their longing as a people for God, for a Messiah. He speaks to the common connection with Jacob, their common ancestor. He speaks to the woman’s own personal desert of her own life. He enables her to give voice to her longings to have her own thirst quenched, to be known for her deepest self. Jesus says, “Give me a drink,” but it is the woman who now drinks deeply from a source of water that will never end. If Jesus, the thirsty, seeks a drink of water, it is Jesus the living water who comes to quench her thirst.
In the gospel of John, this unnamed woman is the first evangelist. She is the first to hear this good news and runs to tell her friends to come and talk to Jesus themselves. “He told me everything I have ever done,” but don’t believe only me; come see for yourselves! You can see the disciples being baffled by this encounter between Jesus and this strange woman, but Jesus answers with a metaphor for evangelism: “See how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together.”
The Good News goes from the particular to the universal – from the Jews, through the Samaritans to the whole world. This is not just ordinary water, but living water; not the water of your slavery in Egypt, but water that will lead you to the Promised Land.
Not only the thirsty seek water;the water as well seeks the thirsty.
Think of your own desert. Think of the thirsts you long to quench. We may live in a place where there is plenty of water and food and everything else; perhaps we have so much stuff that it is like we live in a desert. We are trying to quench the thirst with ANYTHING at hand. But if God is that living water, it’s good to remember that God is seeking us, as much as we seek God. God draws us to the promised land, to the well of Jacob. “Give me a drink,” God says, and it is we who will never be thirsty.
Preached at St. Matthew’s Church, Liverpool, on the Third Sunday in Lent, March 19