Pastor Chico Martin
March 19, 2017 The 3rd Sunday of Lent
Exodus 17:1-7; John 4:5-42
Today we hear two stories: the first, from Exodus, tells the story of Water from the Rock; the second, from John’s Gospel, the story of the Woman at the Well. In the story from Moses, we hear how God provides water to his thirsty people; “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again.” This is the water that makes up over 50% of our body. In the Gospel story, at Jacob’s Well, Jesus offers “the well of living water,” to the Samaritan woman. “Living water” can’t be drawn with a bucket. The water of the body and the water of the Spirit are both necessary to life, but they meet very different needs.
In the desert, the Israelites delivered from slavery in Egypt “test God.” They are on a journey to claim their inheritance, the Promised Land, but before they can get there, they must overcome the dangers of the wilderness. At Jacob’s Well, the man who rebuked Satan with the words, “Thou shall not test the Lord thy God,” delivers a downtrodden stranger from the dangers of sin. When the Samaritan woman steps forward in faith, she brings her whole village with her into their inheritance, the kingdom of God.
The people in the desert, which is known as the “wilderness of Sin,” were free but afraid. They have been delivered from slavery in Egypt, but they had no food (16:2-3), and as they began to lose their trust in Moses, God sent them quails to eat in the evening, and in the morning, they had all the bread they needed. (16:11-21). Still, they were thirsty, so Moses went to God, and God provided a miracle of water to relieve his quarreling people. The wilderness of Sin is the world of “bread alone,” of grocery stores and municipal water, of governments, armies, and desire for all the things we don’t need to do the will of him who sent us on this earthly journey. Like the desert wanderers, we are being led to a new life. We too lose faith and test God with complaints, contention, and strife. We forget the inheritance that is ours to claim.
Now I’m going to tell you something about myself: I don’t like to claim things. The grocery store in town – we only have one – is always running promotions. In the checkout line, while I’m waiting for the card machine to process my payment, the cashier often asks a question, such as, “Are you playing our Monopoly Game?” If I say yes, he or she will look at how much my bill is and count out a couple of tiny scratch off tickets, about the size of a quarter. Or the cashier asks, “Are you collecting the stamps?” These are dime-sized pieces of gummed paper for filling up booklets the size of a change purse; fill up enough booklets and I can get a set of dishes, or a cooking pot. I always say no. It’s not that I can’t use another cooking pot or set of dishes. It’s just that I’m not willing to put the effort into getting my claim together; I would just leave the monopoly tickets lying around until the game was long over and then throw them away, or lose the stamps on the way home. I know the cost of the tickets and stamps is figured into the price of my groceries; that is, the store isn’t giving them away. I’ve paid good cash for them. I just can’t be bothered to claim what’s mine. Oftentimes, we treat the kingdom of God with the same disregard; we can’t be bothered to claim eternal life.
Being born-again is like receiving a claim ticket; there’s a three-step process for claiming the inheritance of “living water.” First, we’ve got to be available. Second, we’ve got to believe in Jesus. And third, we’ve got to turn our back on the thirsty life we led before we fell in with him. Then we are justified by faith, and our hearts are converted. Maybe it’s a bit more difficult than playing monopoly or collecting stamps at the local grocery store, but that is as it should be, because there’s a lot more at stake than a set of dishes or a cooking pot (not that there’s anything wrong with a fine set of dishes).
I want to call our attention to one thing that happens at Jacob’s well. I want to point out how the Woman at the Well grows in this story. Keep in mind the question Jesus has asked his disciples: who do people say that I am? Here we watch as an outcast, a stranger to the Jews, recapitulates the answers given elsewhere by the disciples. These are the same answers we too have given, at different moments in our lives. They mark a growth in understanding and stages in our spiritual life.
Jesus has asked the woman to get him a drink. In their exchange, we notice in verse 4:11, she calls him “Sir.” This is a respectful way of addressing another person. Jesus has just said to her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” Now this is the same water with which we are baptized. Living water is the clear water that comes from a wellspring. This explains the woman’s response: “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?”
Jesus tells the woman that the water he is talking about can’t be drawn from Jacob’s Well. “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. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” Again, the woman calls him “Sir.” The woman says to him, in verse 4:15, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” In other words, she responds to the invitation Jesus extends to her.
As the woman’s trust in Jesus grows, she does something else; she acknowledges her sins. For instance, if you count the man she presently lives with, out of wedlock, she has had as many husbands as Henry VIII had wives. When she tells this to Jesus, she realizes he is more than just another man; he is non-judgmental and forgiving. In verse 4:19, she calls Jesus a prophet. The woman says to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet,” that is, one who speaks for God.” Indeed, as we know from earlier Gospel accounts, some of his disciples also concluded that Jesus was a prophet.
Moved by the woman’s trust and her repentance, which is without guile, Jesus then discloses himself to her. “God is spirit,” he tells her, “and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” “Spirit and truth” is a phrase that sounds a lot like the twin births of “water and Spirit” that Jesus insisted upon last week at his rooftop meeting with Nicodemus. Remarkably, as the woman at the well begins to process what Jesus is teaching her, his identity dawns on her, and Jesus confirms her intuition. In verse 4:25, the woman says to him, “I know that Messiah is coming (who is called Christ). When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” And in 4:26, Jesus replies, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.” Here Jesus confirms the identity he leaves undisclosed for most of his ministry: I am he, Jesus says, speaking to a stranger, a Gentile, and a woman. The woman’s understanding of him had quickly advanced from “Sir,” to Prophet, to Messiah.
This is a story with a happy ending. The woman goes back to the village, to testify about what she has heard, and the villagers come to meet Jesus; they invite him to stay with them, “and he stayed there two days.” In the last two verses of the story, we read, “And many more believed because of his word. They said 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.”
When we repent, and accept the gift of living water, we overcome the dangers of the Wilderness, which threaten to keep us from reaching our journey’s end. When we open our heart to God, he makes his presence known to us, and we experience what it means to be born again. We fall onto God, and we trust in him. Then, as our faith grows, we take the opportunities God gives us to share it with others.
Dallas Willard said, “Spirituality wrongly understood or pursued is a major source of human misery and rebellion against God” (The Spirit of the Disciplines). We thirst first for the Water of the Body, then the Water of the Spirit. God find us where we are, as we are. He extends himself to each of us, and he reaches straight into the heart. Therefore, “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the Gospel” (Mark 1:15).
And all the people said, “Amen.”