Exodus 17:1-7: From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. 2The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” 3But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” 4So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” 5The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. 6I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. 7He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
John 4:5-42: Jesus came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.
7A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” 8(His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) 9The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) 10Jesus answered 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.” 11The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” 13Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14but 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.” 15The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”
16Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” 17The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; 18for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” 19The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. 20Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” 21Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. 24God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” 25The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” 26Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”
27Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” 28Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, 29“Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” 30They left the city and were on their way to him.
31Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” 32But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” 33So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?” 34Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. 35Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. 36The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. 37For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ 38I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”
39Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” 40So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. 41And many more believed because of his word. 42They 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.”.
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Grace to you and Peace, from God our Father and our Lord and savior, Jesus the Christ.
As we begin, this morning, I want to point out to you – if you have not followed the reflections on today’s readings in our blog this week – that this narrative about Moses and water from the Rock has an important curiosity in it. The people have been led out of Egypt through the Red Sea and are now in the wilderness. They are camped at Rephidim which is traditionally located along the western edge of the Sinai Peninsula, about three-fourths of the way down towards the tip. The Rock, from which the water comes, however is at Mt. Horeb – which we know more commonly as Mt. Sinai. The people have not yet come to Sinai, but when they cry out for water, Moses and the elders go on ahead. The Rock is struck there at Mt. Sinai, and the water flows downriver towards the Israelites encamped at Rephidim. This story is not about a small spring opening up in a rock where the people are camped. It is about a river flowing down to them from Mt. Sinai.
I hope you appreciate the power of this image. The life of the people depends upon the water flowing from Mt. Sinai. The life of the community is sustained by what they receive from the mountain where God will meet them, where God will speak to them. As Moses will say in Deuteronomy, we do not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. Hopefully you also remember, from two weeks ago, that Jesus used that verse when the devil challenged him at the end of his 40 day fast to feed himself in the wilderness by turning the stones into bread. We do no live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. Sinai is not just the mountain and the cloud and fire where God spoke to Moses; it is the source – meaning the word of God is the source – of the river of the water of life.
Now, when the people get to Sinai, God will tell them how to build the tabernacle, the tent of meeting. It is a portable sanctuary that the people carry with them on their journey through the wilderness. The God who dwelt at Sinai, will dwell in the tabernacle so that he can travel with the people on their journey. God goes with them. And the tabernacle is the place where God continues to speak with to them.
– Stay with me now; I want you to see how rich and wonderful this imagery is –
The temple in Jerusalem is built on the same pattern as the tabernacle. The Ark of the Covenant that was in the most holy place inside the tabernacle is placed in the corresponding most holy place in the temple, a room with exactly the same dimensions. The table for the bread of the presence, the golden lampstand, the altar for the burnt offerings are all taken from the pattern of the tabernacle into the temple. So Mt. Sinai as the place of encounter with God, becomes the tabernacle moving with the people, becomes Mt. Zion where the temple is built. Zion is now the place from where the Word of the Lord goes out to all nations “that we make walk in his paths.” It is where God speaks.
After the temple has been destroyed, the prophet Ezekiel has a vision of the temple rebuilt. And in that vision there is a river flowing from the temple that grows deeper and wider the farther it travels. It brings life to the entire countryside and, when it flows into the Dead Sea, it makes the Dead Sea live! It makes the waters of the Dead Sea fresh and full of life. The river of the water of life that flowed from Sinai – that living word of God that sustains the community – now flows from the temple.
Then in the book of Revelation, when the prophet describes the New Jerusalem, when he paints that famous picture of heaven and earth reconciled and the world made new, he describes a river that flows from the city. On its banks grows the tree of life that yields fruit in every month and brings healing to the nations.
The water that flows from the rock – the water that flows from Sinai, the water that flows from the tabernacle, the water that flows from the temple – is the life-giving word of the God who dwells among us.
And by word of God, remember, we are referring to God’s address, God’s speaking to us, that word that creates a relationship with us, that draws us into God’s life and love and way.
When the Gospel of Matthew tells us of Jesus’ birth, it says that his birth fulfills the prophetic word that a young woman shall conceive and bear a child and call him “Immanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” Jesus is ‘God with us’. He is now the place where God meets us, where God speaks to us. At the beginning of John’s Gospel, John writes that Jesus is the Word of God and that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Jesus is the embodiment of God’s message to us. He is Sinai where God speaks. He is the tabernacle that travels with us. He is the temple from whom flows the river of life.
A little later in John’s Gospel Jesus will go up to Jerusalem for the feast of Booths. The Feast of booths is the feast of Tabernacles. It is the feast that remembers being at Mt. Sinai when God gave them God’s teaching, the Torah. It’s called booths because the people build little shelters outside and live in them for the duration of the feast to remember living in tents in the desert – and that God lived in a tent with them.
That feast comes at the end of the summer dry season and at the end of that weeklong celebration there is a grand procession where the high priest comes down to the pool of Siloam, fills a giant golden pitcher with water, carries it back to the altar, and pours it out at the base of the altar to remind everyone of this promise of the river of the water of life that flows from the temple, from the place where God encounters us, from the place where God speaks.
As Jesus watched this procession, he cries out, “If any are thirsty let them come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of his [or her] heart shall flow rivers of living water.’”
God encounters Israel at Mt. Sinai, then the tabernacle, then the temple, then in Jesus. Here is where God speaks to us. He is the source of life. And when we drink from Jesus, when we abide in his word, when we dwell in his Spirit, when we live in that communication of God’s self to us, then rivers of living water flow also from us. “Let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of his [or her] heart shall flow rivers of living water.’”
Grace, mercy, life, the encounter with the God who speaks, will flow also from us.
This is important. We are not just drinkers; we become fountains. We bring the water of life to others. We are the body of Christ. We are the Rock. We are Sinai. We are the temple of God’s Spirit. We are the temple from which flows the river of the water of life.
Sinai, tabernacle, temple, Jesus, the body of Christ – and, ultimately, the New Jerusalem.
So, now, with all this in the background, we come to the story of the woman at the well, a story about water, and thirst, and new life: the story of a woman who is met by the fountain of the water of life – and becomes a fountain.
Jesus has taken the road from Jerusalem back to Galilee that goes through Samaria. Most Judeans avoided Samaritan territory. The animosity between them was ancient and bitter – we don’t need to explain it here, just to remind you that the usual trip was to go east, down to the Jordan river, up the Jordan river valley, and then back west into Galilee.
I lived in Westland, Michigan, which was, of course, west of the city of Detroit. When people there wanted to go to any of the towns on the east side out by Lake St. Claire, there was a freeway that went pretty directly from Westland through the city and up the east side. But no one from the suburbs went through the city; they all took the freeway that went north and connected to another freeway across the northern suburbs. They thought of the city as dangerous and unfamiliar territory. That’s what people did going between Jerusalem and Galilee. They avoided Samaria.
But Jesus goes through Detroit, so to speak. Jesus chooses the unexpected road. He goes through Samaria, comes to the village of Sychar, and parks himself at the well outside of town. His disciples go into town to buy food. (That reference to buying food, by the way, means that they don’t know anyone in this town, they have no extended family or friends there, else they would have gone to their home for food.)
It is noon. It is the heat of the day. The well is outside of town – though there is a well in town where everyone else gets their water. But to this well outside of town in the heat of the day comes a woman to fetch water for her household.
Why carry water a long distance rather than a short one? Why carry water in from the well in the fields rather than the one in town that’s just around the corner?
And why get water at noon when everyone else in inside hiding from the heat? All the other women get water early in the morning and in the evening. In fact in the morning and evening the well in town becomes a space for women who gather not just for water but to visit and gossip. So why isn’t this woman there?
She is a woman who has had five husbands and is now with a man who has not honored her a marriage contract.
We don’t know why she has had five husbands. Presumably she has been dismissed five times. There is no legal process for divorce; the man just has to say publically three times “I dismiss you.” It’s possible that she is five times a widow – or some mix of these. And the fact that she is with a man who is not her husband tells us that she has no family and no son. If she had family she could go home to them. If she had a son, he would have taken her in. A son was a mother’s security. This is a woman without any security.
Because she has no son, the mostly likely assumption is that she has been sent away because she is unable to have children – which was cause for divorce in that day. And if she is barren, then people will assume that she is cursed, that God has something against her to punish her so. But if she has had five husbands die she will also be considered accursed. Who would want a woman that death followed? Whatever the reason, she is an outcast, unwelcome among the society of women. So she doesn’t go to the well in town. She doesn’t face the hostile looks and whispers of the community. She’d rather go alone in the heat of the day for the backbreaking task of fetching water.
But this day there is a man at the well. An outsider. A Judean. And he does the unthinkable; he speaks to her. Men didn’t speak to women in public who were not members of their household. Women didn’t wear burkas in the day, but it is the same social reality.
Jesus asks her for a drink, a simple act of hospitality, the simplest of human kindnesses. But it is startling that Jesus spoke to her, startling that Jesus asked for water. Judeans regarded Samaritan women as unclean. There is a pretty ugly reference in the ancient literature to this fact. To share a cup with an unclean woman is mindboggling.
I have wondered why this woman speaks to Jesus. I would have expected her to simply ignore him, but she doesn’t. My hunch is that she is so shocked by the request that she forgets for a moment and can’t help but ask why he would ask such a thing.
Perhaps her response is spoken in bitterness, but I prefer to think she was startled by kindness. To be asked for a drink is to be treated as if she were not unclean. For this broken woman, to be treated with kindness, to be acknowledged as a person of value and worth, overwhelms her sensibility. And she talks to him. In a sense, Jesus is treating her as if she were a member of his family. And she responds in kind.
And then Jesus makes this puzzling statement, “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.”
That term ‘living water’ is the way you would describe water running in a stream – but of course, Jesus is talking about a different kind of life. He is talking about that river that flows from Sinai and gives life to the people. He is talking about the word of God that was spoken at Sinai, the voice of God that encountered the people in the tabernacle and the temple. The voice of God that encounters us now in Jesus and gives true life to the world.
He is talking about the voice of kindness and mercy and grace that comes to this broken and discarded woman and draws her in to the life and power of God. The voice that claims those who are abandoned, the voice that names those who are nameless, the voice that welcomes the stranger and the outcast, the voice that claims widows and orphans, the voice that decries violence and injustice, the voice that shakes the wilderness of Kadesh, the voice that is the sound of a faint whisper, the voice that sets prisoners free and calls us into new life, the voice that is Spirit and truth.
I don’t know what is your well outside of town. I don’t know where the wounds lie. I certainly know some – and have known many over the years – but today Christ is again before you. Inviting you to drink from him. Inviting you to drink long, full draughts of his living water. Inviting you to abide in his grace, to dwell in his word, to live in his Spirit.
This woman’s life is transformed by her encounter with Jesus. The community from which she hid she now goes to find and brings them back to Jesus. She has been transformed from an outcast to a leader. The fountain of the water of life wells up within her to overflowing. Just as Jesus promised.