United Presbyterian Church of West Orange


“Thirst for New Life”

March 12th, 2023

Rev. Rebecca Migliore



        I will let you in on a pet peeve of mine.  The Revised Common lectionary, which many churches use to try to preach on a breadth and depth of Scripture, is on a three year cycle.  But there are four gospels.  And so, while we begin the church year getting used to a certain voice (this year it happens to be Matthew), by the time we hit Lent, the lectionary has switched us into John—a mental switch like what might happen if you were watching a crime drama, something like “the Equalizer,” and all of a sudden you were switched into the X-Files, and its sci-fi universe.  The characters seem different.  The camera angles are strange, and the feel is almost a u-turn from before.

        And I, as a preacher, have to try to help you negotiate this turn of events, as we find ourselves in the world of John, a world of secrets, and long-drawn out stories, and a Jesus who seems to talk in riddles.  We have been walking alongside of Matthew, the gospel that we believe was written for Jewish Christians, with its focus on showing how the prophecies of the Hebrew Scriptures were fulfilled in the life and ministry of Jesus.  And now, we are dropped into a world where the writer of John has a deep distrust of anything “Jewish” (probably because they were being persecuted both by Roman authorities and the leaders of synagogues).  The whiplash can be somewhat profound.

        What’s a preacher to do?  Well, here is my solution for today.  I’m going to preach from the passage in John, with Matthew in mind.  For as I thought about this wonderful story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman (notice, we don’t get her name)—with its central theme of thirst and water and what types of water there are and who might bring them, what popped into my mind was “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled” from Matthew’s telling of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

        This thought reminds me that regardless of what gospel we are anchored in, what story Jesus is telling, what we think the theme of the day is, there is a bottom line in the good news, of our desiring a better life, a better world, a better relationship with God.  And this thirst, this hunger, puts us at odds with much of our world—certainly with the incessant pitch for more, more, more, bigger and better, and new and improved, and don’t miss out, make your bets, spin the wheel, try your luck, swipe this way and that, win the game of life.

        To put it plainly, as season of the spirit tries to do, we also are in a wilderness.  It might not be the desert of Jesus’ temptations, or the nightly moment of Nicodemus coming to Jesus under cover of darkness, but if we truly thirst for that living water we might find ourselves with the Samaritan woman at the well—at the hottest part of the day.  Shunned by her community for the life she has led.  Hiding in plain sight by doing her chores (the most important of all, getting water to drink, to cook with, to wash with) doing that when no sane person would be out and about.  Here is the wilderness of social isolation, an aloneness that is underscored by the fact that you needn’t be alone to feel it—and in fact, you feel it most deeply when you are not alone.

        I doubt that our main character woke up that morning thinking about her hunger and thirst for righteousness, for a making right of all that had gone wrong in her life, for shalom, for justice and fairness in a world that already had pushed her to the side—a Samaritan (worshipping God on the wrong mountain), a woman (in a world where you were seen as “unclean” and basically the result of a deformed male fetus—and thus less than second-class), and then a shunned woman (a five time either divorcee or widowed, and now not even married to the man she lived with). 

        I imagine that she woke up exhausted with what her life entailed.  Trying to plan her day so she would bump into the least amount of people.  Scurrying from shadow to shadow.  Keeping her head down.  Looking no one in the eye, outside her own home.  And when everyone else was taking their siesta, sheltering from the heat and the glare of the sun, she slipped out with her water jug, to get the water that was so necessary for life in that climate, and indeed, for life in any climate.  A simple chore.  But a life-changing moment.

        For in her wilderness, she comes upon Jesus.  She must have seen him sitting there as she approached the well.  Did she hesitate?  Did she make calculations about whether there was enough time for her to return later before the rest of the village would be out and about?  Did she think that she was safe?—this was a stranger, he didn’t know her story, and since most men didn’t talk to strange women (if they talked to women at all), maybe she could just fill her jug and get on with the rest of her shapeless, claustrophobic, pitiful day.

        But then the man speaks, and asks her for a drink of water, and gets into this philosophical discussion about water and living water—talking to her as teachers talked to their disciples, allowing her to fully participate in the conversation, to ask questions, to even make snide comments, “You have no bucket, the well is deep, How are you going to get this precious living water you claim you can give me!?”  It must have seemed like she was having a dream—talking to this Jewish man, when Jews didn’t talk to Samaritans.  Talking to this Jewish MAN, when men didn’t talk to women.  Talking to anyone at all, especially when this Jewish man recited her own history, the history that had made her a pariah in the first place.

        Something had happened.  This woman who had been walking around like a ghost, who had barely been willing to interact with anyone, who was dry as dust and parched, even if she didn’t know it, all of a sudden, she got a drop of that living water, and she wanted more.

        She tasted what it was like to be seen, seen for who she was, and still honored as a human being.  She tasted what it was like to be treated on equal footing, or at least, as a partner in this sparring back and forth about water, and the reality of racism (Jewish versus Samaritan), and the deep desires for Messiah, for one who would bring change to the world.  Maybe for the first time, in a long time, she recognized how thirsty she was, how much she needed that living water.  And Jesus did offer it freely, without bucket, without leaning into the well.  He offered it with his engagement, with his refusal to be drawn into the petty dualities of binary thinking, with his clear and unmistakable stance that she was a person who mattered, to him, and to God.  She was somebody.

        And in an instant, her whole world changed.  She left that well, so filled with living water, so healed from her wilderness, that she is willing to go into town, to knock on every door, and speak to all those people who had been so mean to her, to tell her story and ask “Could this be the Messiah?”  And she must have been so persuasive that people from that town went to see Jesus, went to hear what he had to say, and asked him to stay with them, all of them, for two days.

        And although by the end, they were saying, “We believe because of what WE have seen and heard, not because of what you said,” they never would have had the opportunity had she not been led or driven by the spirit to share what had happened to her, one day, at high noon.

        It almost brings tears to my eyes.  Especially in this month of women’s history.  Especially in this time when young girls all over the world are having to fight so hard just to go to school—and in Iran are getting poisoned because of it.  Especially in a country where a woman’s right over her body has become a fight, and once again headline news.  Especially in a country where pregnant women are more likely to die than almost any other first-world country in the world. 

        We live in a world where people can do their own version of shunning on social media.  We live in a world where corporate profits take precedence over safety and the health of people and our planet.  We live in a world where we have so many foxholes and silos that we rarely want to interact with those outside of our safe tribes and circles.  We live in a world of wilderness, much of our own making.  But here is the good news.  Jesus travels into the wilderness, any wilderness, all wilderness, armed with the most powerful thing of all—God’s message of love—God’s message of living water, water that makes life not only worth living, but bubbles up into new life.

        We may not even know how much we hunger and thirst for righteousness until we start talking to Jesus.  We may have grown comfortable in our wilderness, so comfortable that we miss the pale reflection of life that it is.  We slink around, avoiding what might become difficult discussions.  We tell ourselves that it is easier this way, even if it means contorting our lives into going to the well at noon.

        Jesus is sitting at the well, if we are willing to stop.  Jesus is sitting at the well, if we are willing to engage in conversation.  Jesus is sitting at the well, ready to offer us more, ready to switch our washed out version of life into a brightly colored, multi-faceted reality.  And once we’ve really drunk living water, we are charged with doing something about changing the status quo.  Even if it means talking to people who say they don’t respect us, or who have hurt us.  Even if it means stepping out of the shadows and into the spotlight.  Even if it means eventually allowing others to have their own epiphanies, and having to allow them to meet Jesus themselves, not through us.

        What might that look like?  Maybe it means having conversation with one another about what we are hungering and thirsting for.  Maybe it means figuring out how to connect with others who might be hungering and thirsting in their own ways.  Maybe it means digging deeper in our quest for helping those who are food insecure here in the West Orange area.  Maybe it means planting seeds for other life-affirming ministries.  Maybe it means rethinking how we get people to meet Jesus—maybe the old idea of church needs to take a swig of living water and burst out into new life.  Maybe it means being willing to not be afraid of what might happen if we do take Jesus up on his offer of living water, of new life.

        For it is certain that that unnamed woman, the one we call the Samaritan woman at the well, once she met Jesus, she was never the same.  Her community was never the same.  Really the world was never the same.  How could she ever have imagined, when she got up that morning, that life was about to change.  That not only was there living water, but there was a flood of new life that would surge through everything that she had known.  It would sweep up things in its wake.  It would erode caste systems and deep divisions and years of animosity.  It would break through walls and create new channels.  It would bring the possibility of a changed landscape.  It would do what water always does, cradle life.


        I don’t know about you—but I hunger and thirst for righteousness.  I don’t know about you—but I sometimes feel as if I live in a wilderness, a place where I feel out of step with the rest of the world.  I don’t know about you—but I want to meet Jesus at the well, I want to discuss deep issues with him, I want to gulp the living water he offers.  I want to be so satisfied that my cup runneth over, and I run to tell everyone so they too might be changed. 

               May it be so.  Amen and Amen.