For the first time in a long time, our slice of Southern California seems to be saturated with water. The reservoirs are full, the snowpack in the mountains is near record-breaking numbers, and we might even dare to believe the long drought is finally over. One of the things I am looking forward to in the coming springtime and summer months is getting out to hike in the backcountry. No doubt the landscape will show new life from its richly saturated soil and many of the long dried-up creeks will flow again with water, and when you are backpacking, water is a crucial thing. Whatever trip we plan, wherever we anticipate making camp at night, the goal is always to be near a good source of water. After all, I have been on those hikes where your trudge along through a large-mileage push for the day, and about a mile or so before you get to camp you realize you are out of water. The thirst, though it may not be life threatening, can begin to consume your thoughts. You begin to think through scenarios about what you might do if the stream you are hoping for turns out to be bone dry. It does not take too long for thirst to be the only thing you think about.
From ancient times, a well was the mark of a good source of water. A well tapped into a natural spring or even accessing a shallow water table was a means of collecting water in one place and created a reliable and constant source of water which might otherwise be inaccessible. So, a well was more than just a place to quench your thirst. A well was a unique symbol of life. A well symbolized permanence. It meant something lasting. It was a place of hope and even the promise of prosperity. A well, meant caring for livestock and good farming. A properly made well was a thing that lasted for generations. It was an investment in your children and grandchildren. Therefore, it seems quite fitting that our narrative today, the exchange between our Lord and a Samaritan woman, takes place at a well. The whole discussion occurs at a site which held the promise of life. What a perfect setting to talk with Jesus.
It is a surprise meeting, at least from the woman’s perspective. No doubt she did not expect to find Jesus sitting at the well when she headed out to get some water. She certainly did not expect Him to enter into a conversation with her when she saw Him. As the text says, there was animosity between the Jews and the Samaritans. The Samaritans were regularly ridiculed and dismissed by the Jews. On top of this, it would have been a taboo practice for a man to speak unaccompanied with a woman. So, you could imagine as she heads out to the well, even as she sees Him sitting there, she assumed she would simply gather the water she needed and be on her way. She imagined life would go on as it always had. But not this time, not at this well. Here she finds more than the promise of another day or another quenched thirst. She finds the eternal, living water of life.
We should also note that all this takes place at the sixth hour. That is, it takes place at noon. This is an important bit of information. You see, it was not the usual time someone would venture out to a well to get water. No, the regular time would have been early in the morning or even later toward evening, when it would have been cooler outside. This, no doubt, would have been when everyone else from the town went out to get water necessary for the day’s activities and evening preparations. But this woman comes in the middle of the day. She comes at a time when no one else was expected to be there. She comes, perhaps, for that very reason. The well may be a source of life, but for her it seems to also be a place of exposure, a place she does not want to go, not when everyone else is there. And through her conversation with Jesus, we learn why.
“Give me a drink,” Jesus says. She is shocked by this, not at all what she was expecting at the well in the middle of the day. But our Lord says 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.” The woman says to Him, “Sir, you have nothing to draw water with, and the well is deep. Where do You get that living water?” Then the conversation moves quickly to the heart of the issue. At this point, our Lord describes the living water He gives, and it is not water from the well. No, His gift is something which will not leave you thirsty, something that once received will fill you up and create an abundant spring within you. It is something which breaks the cycle, changes the trajectory of one’s life. The living water He provides becomes the means where one enters eternal life. This sounds awesome to her. It even seems, perhaps, a little too good to be true. But if it would mean she would not have to keep coming out to this well in the middle of the day, she is all for it. “Sir,” she exclaims, “give me this water.”
“Sure,” says Jesus. “But first, why don’t you go and get your husband.” And know we learn why she goes to get water in the middle of the day. She does not have a husband. She is an adulterer. In fact, she has had five husband and the man she is now living with is not her husband. There is no doubt she faced a decent amount of shunning and ridicule during the regular times when the women would come to gather water. This exposure leads her to question our Lord about proper worship. These things go together: Her sin, her failure, and her desire to be faithful to the commands. Where should she worship, on the mountain or in Jerusalem? Clearly, this is no ordinary trip to the well. Something is changing. She is changing. Furthermore, she is looking for the correct way forward. Like Nicodemus desiring to know how one is to be born again, she wants to know what to do next. What possibility is there for this Samaritan sinner?
In many ways, our gathering here today is a gathering at the well. We come to a place which is a symbol of life and hope and carries a sense of permanence on the landscape. We come like that woman to try and get the water we need to endure another day, another week, another month. You come and you know you are sinners. You know you have sinned against your God in thought, word, and deed. You concern yourself with worshipping rightly, with doing the right acts, following the right programs to ensure your sins will not bar you from the gift of living water. You focus on what you can do, how well you can reach-in and fill your jar. But what you find, over and again, is a meeting with your Lord. Jesus is here to give you a gift which puts an end to your work, to your searching. It is an end to your quest.
Jesus says to the woman at the well, “True worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship Him. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman says to Him, “I know Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ). When He comes, He will tell us all things.” And Jesus says to her, “I who speak to you am He.” This is the Messiah. He is the promised Savior. Jesus is the one who meets you at the well to give you His gifts. One’s life (sin and all) and one’s worship (confusion and all) are caught-up in this One who gives living water freely to those who worship in spirit and truth. It is for the ones who come not to present their offerings to God, but to receive all He has to offer them.
I love how John makes sure we know she left behind her water jar. It is a simple foreshadowing that things are not going to be the same for her. The usual routine, the normal flow has changed. She leaves behind the water jar, the contents of her own ability, and instead proclaims what Christ has done, what He has said to her, and the fulfillment of the promised Messiah. And so, it is with you as well. You can leave your jars aside and proclaim the truth of the One who has found you, who has told you all you have done. Jesus is the One who loves you, forgives you, and gives, even now, living water.