When I was 10 my family spent some time in Sicily. I have many wonderful memories. Here is one. Sicily in the summer is hot. And there is no air conditioning (or at least there was none in 1974). There is a reason that businesses and people shut down at the heat of the day, and take a siesta, a rest, until it gets a little cooler and “life” can resume its pace.
We were traveling, I think by bus, and at midday, we arrived in a little town. We were hot, and hungry, and thirsty. As Mom went to buy some lunch (bread, and cheese, and olives), we made our way to the center of town. And there was this beautiful sight—a fountain in the main square, with cold, clear water flowing out of whatever statue into the basin around. We delighted in sticking our hands in the coolness. I’m pretty sure we tried to cool our faces and our heads and might even have splashed one another. But we were told—no, you can’t drink. It’s not safe. There was water, and it wasn’t stagnant or putrid, but it wasn’t drinkable, it wasn’t living for us.
As I thought about Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman this week, I was fascinated by all the layers of meaning found in it. I could see the well, in the cool of the day, early in the morning or after the sun cools down, as a place of community—a place where everyone had to go to acquire one of the necessities of life—water. And along with water came the news of the day, came friendship, came the ebb and flow of life.
And then I could see the well at the heat of the day. With the sun beating down. And the dry dust kicking up. The well at noon was a deserted place.
No one in their right mind would be out at this time, doing the difficult work of lifting up a pail heavy with water. At noon, you could get water, but nothing else.
So we know a lot about the Samaritan woman just from the fact that she is going to get water in the heat of the day. We know of her isolation, or her being shunned. We know she is a Samaritan (while Jesus is Jewish, a population that looked down on Samaritans). We know she is a woman (and women had much less value, less status, in this world—and if a woman wasn’t from your family, they weren’t considered appropriate conversation partners!). But Jesus arrives at the well in the heat of the day. Jesus sends the disciples out to find food, while he rests. And Jesus engages the Samaritan woman, first with a request for water, and then with a conversation about water, actual and living.
At first, she is still stuck in a stagnant place. She is still constrained by the solidified castes of race and gender and social economics and power. She can’t imagine what Jesus is talking about—in fact, she even boldly snipes, “How are you going to get water? I don’t see you with a pail.”
But Jesus is talking about something else. And he is talking. A Jew to a Samaritan. A man to a woman. I imagine them sitting side by side, Jesus looking intently into her face, into her eyes. And suddenly, the well at noon, which is usually a lonely place becomes a place of community. Suddenly the well at noon, which is usually only about the physical necessities of life becomes a place that fills her other life needs—of emotional wellbeing, of spiritual undergirding, of personal meaning and worth. The well at noon becomes a place of “living water,” a place where one might find love and grace in the presence of this Jesus.
For it is Jesus who changes the well at noon. It is Jesus who brushes aside all barriers, roiling the stagnant, putrid waters that divide us. It is Jesus who is willing to make the connection, willing to spend the time having a back and forth, willing to offer the Samaritan woman something else. For in the language of John, Jesus offers a different way; Jesus offers a different truth; Jesus offers a different life.
And how does he do this? It’s not with a sermon on the mount. It’s not a cosmic fortune cookie or a heavenly hashtag. It’s not a whisper in your ear when you’re falling asleep, or a dream in the middle of the night. It is eyeball to eyeball. It is the willingness to engage in deep, frank conversation. Willing to name the reality, without dishonoring the humanity.
So often I think we read this passage and only see living water as the gift of belief becoming a “spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” Our woman is not only given living water by Jesus, but her encounter makes her cross the boundaries into society to tell everyone else. The living water of Jesus isn’t just a spiritual thing. Jesus’ living water intends to change the world.
In the background I hear and see all those water images we know from our life of faith. The parting of the Red Sea so that Israel can move from slavery to freedom. The words of the hymn “Time like an ever-rolling stream bears all of us away…” The words of the prophet Amos, used so famously by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that Jesus was talking about living water—not something that is a “one drink takes care of everything” tonic. Living water is what Jesus models for us—in how we are to deal with one another, in how we are to change our world. For us it won’t be just one conversation. Living waters, and the changes that living waters bring, requires our life, our lifetime, our moment in eternity.
Living water is meant to be like the water in lakes or streams that with movement, with time, with patience, can wear away the rough edges and make smooth stones. That is our challenge. To be the living water with all we meet, even if they still live in a world of stagnant, dead water. To be living water in our conversations, even if the other can only see the surface, and isn’t ready to dive deep.
Living water is meant to be like the water in the Grand Canyon or the water that passes through the Delaware Water Gap, a relentless chipping away, a ceaseless insistence, the faith and the commitment and the time and the perseverance, that can cut deep grooves in the seemingly impermeable mountains of our world.
If we sit with Jesus at the well at noon in our lives, and ask for water, and then keep it to and for ourselves, the water we have in us, gushing up, is like the fountain in Sicily—picturesque, good for a quick cooling of hands, but it isn’t living—it can’t slake our thirst.
No living water requires more of us. Living water ties us to the one who offered water in the first place. And the one who on the cross cried out “I’m thirsty.” We live in a world of thirsty people. We live in a world that is stuck in the dead water of the way we treat one another, the systems that trap all of us, and the mindsets that confine us to less than we could be.
And Jesus sits down with us, wherever we are, whenever we are, and says, “Aren’t you thirsty for something else? You look parched and dry. You know there is another way. I have come to give living water to all who ask. I have come so that you can share living water with all in your path. I have come so that the living water of hope, and love, and grace, and peace, can live in you, and through you, ripple to the ends of the earth, carve new pathways of justice, become a tsunami of good that moves over what seemed to be stuck forever, to change the landscape, to bring new deposits of soil and soul, to make deserts bloom and to cleanse the deep wounds of our world.
Living waters. That is what Jesus offers. That is what we are called to. Waters that connect us to others we do not yet know. Waters that endlessly pound like a surf at high tide on the bulwark of injustice and pain and inhumanity. Waters that ask us to imagine new courses, new pathways, and work to make them so. Waters that we can bathe ourselves in, and wade into, and float downstream in, and drink deep.
May it be so, Amen and Amen.