As a rule of thumb, people can live for three minutes without air, three days without water, and three weeks without food. These are the three most basic components we need to stay alive. Everything else is important, but without air, water, and food, we’re doomed.
So it struck me as an interesting experiment to think about the Scriptures through this basic fact. And just a quick survey showed me that, while I don’t imagine it will be the Rosetta Stone to open the entire Scriptures to us, it is at least one helpful lens. For example, the first thing that happens in the entire Bible is that a wind from God sweeps over the face of the waters. And the Hebrew word for wind and breath is the same word. So two of the first words in the entire bible are about water and air. And then one of the last things that we hear about in the story of Jesus and his disciples is that God sends the Holy Spirit to the disciples. And guess what? The word for Spirit is the same, both in Hebrew and Greek, as the word for wind or breath.
You can do the same thing with water and food, too. It’s a fun game to try at home! In any case, throughout the Bible, again and again, God provides water and food, and sends the Spirit to support, sustain, and inspire (ooh! there’s another double meaning word!).
For example, in the Exodus reading from this morning, the Israelites are wandering in the wilderness. In Egypt, they were captive, but they did know where their next meal was coming from. They had their basic needs met. And now they are on their own, in a desert. Facing death. They blame Moses. “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” But God provides. The same is true in the story just before this one – when the people cry out for food, God provides. These Israelites have broken free from their moorings, left behind everything they have known, have no idea how to live in freedom, not even how to get their own food and water, or how to find their way across the wilderness. And God has sent them what they need – manna from heaven, water from a rock, and the Spirit to guide them in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. Air. Food. Water. To show them that they can trust this God.
In the Book of John, these things come up over and over again as well. Water to wine at Cana. Last week’s conversation with Nicodemus, about being born of water and spirit. Today’s conversation at the well. Stories about feeding multitudes, or just reclining at the table with friends. Living water, bread of life, the lamb of God, the true vine – all point to these basic necessities – air, water, food. And the God who we can trust to provide them.
A professor of mine, Karoline Lewis, is an expert on the Gospel of John, and she likes to say that, just because a story mentions water doesn’t mean it’s about baptism, and just because a story mentions food doesn’t mean it’s about the Lord’s Supper. But, just because this story of the Samaritan woman at the well is not about baptism doesn’t mean that we can’t make a connection. Because what this story is about is relationship and belonging. Which is also what baptism is about.
First, a word about Samaritans and this nameless woman at the well. The Jews of Judea,
consider Samaritans to be half-breeds, descendants of invading armies and Israelite farmers too unimportant that be driven into exile. Samaritans worshiped Yahweh, but they only acknowledged the first 5 books of the Bible. And their version said that Mt. Gerazim in Samaria was the proper place to worship God, not Jerusalem in Judea. Only 150 years before Jesus’ time, the high priest of Jerusalem had burned the Samaritan temple on Mt. Gerazim. As far as the Jews were concerned, Samaritans were impure, unclean, and to be completely avoided. Most Jews travelled around Samaria completely. But Jesus, remember, “had to” go through Samaria. And now here he is, talking to a Samaritan woman, completely violating about a hundred different rules.
And not only is she Samaritan and female, but she is so much an outsider, that she comes to the well at a time when no one else will be there. She is so alone, so outcast, that not even this most basic drudging chore receives the relief of community.
But let’s not jump to conclusions. I know the traditional reading is to assume that this woman is a prostitute or a serial adulterer. But the text does not say that, and at no time does Jesus call her a sinner, invite her to repentance, or even speak of forgiveness. There are many reasons within the law why this woman may have been in this situation, without it being exactly her fault. She may have been lawfully divorced by unfaithful men, or because she was barren, or simply because she dropped a casserole dish; she may have been widowed 5 times; she may have been forced to live with the brother of her deceased husband without being married to him, in order to continue the family line. She may be living with a brother or another male relative who is caring for her in the absence of a husband.
Whatever the case, since Jesus does not draw conclusions about her sinfulness, neither should we.
What we can say is that she is likely to be shunned by her neighbors. At best, she is unlucky, at worst, she is being punished. Either way, we can safely imagine that things are not going well for her, and that she is not used to being treated kindly or fairly. She is not used to being seen as worthy. She does not belong.
And so she comes to the well, with nothing but an empty water jar, and a sense of need. This nameless woman brings with her shame, worry, fear; she may carry grief, or horror, or guilt. Whatever she carries, Jesus welcomes her, and offers us what she most needs, what is most basic. Water. Living water. Which in the Book of John, in the Bible as a whole, is code for relationship.
How do I know that this is really about relationship? Well, for one thing, it happens at a well. Which, in the Bible, means something. It’s a set-piece. Like, for instance, in the first scene of a romantic comedy, the two characters who have an awkward meeting, like they come around a corner and bump into each other and spill everything, or they hate each other at first, you know those two are the ones that are going to end up getting together at the end, right? Well, in the Bible, when a man and a woman meet at a well, they get married.
Now, I’m not saying that Jesus is looking to marry this woman. But there is something in her life that has not been fulfilled, a relationship that she has not been able to resolve, and it has apparently subjected her to some level of dishonor. She has been pushed to the outside of the outsider group, reduced to a solitary life, forced to do her chores in the heat of the day to avoid the rest of the town. And here at this well is a man who sees immediately to the heart of her sorrow, sees her for who she is. So she asks this prophet the same question the Israelites ask in the wilderness. Where is God when I need God? Is God trustworthy? Will God come through? Is the Lord among us or not? Is God here on this mountain, or there on that one?
And Jesus’ answer is, neither. God is standing right here in front of you. “I am,” he says, revealing and claiming the name of God as his very own. I AM. You don’t need to climb some mountain to find God. When you need God, God is here. You do not need to go looking for God in the city or the wilderness or the Temple. Is the Lord among us or not? I AM, says Jesus.
I AM the living water, I AM the bread of life, I AM in the basic necessities, meeting you in water, meeting you in bread and wine, meeting you in the very air you breathe. Meeting you in the gathering of the people, and drawing you into the life of God, into the Body of Christ, into belonging. Into relationship.
This is what Jesus offers the woman, what Jesus offers you. Relationship. Acceptance. Belonging. You don’t have to prove yourself worthy, sinless, capable. You don’t have to buy anything or like the right music or wear the right clothes. You are simply invited to bring whatever you carry, and then leave it there at the well, just as this Samaritan woman left her water jar.
That’s how excited she was, how amazed she was. She came to the well in the middle of the day to avoid everyone in town, carrying all her shame and all their judgements. And there was Jesus, offering her the most basic thing she needed – living water. Relationship. And she was so excited, she left all of that stuff she carried with her, left her jar and ran back to the very people she had been trying to avoid, anxious to share what she had found. Anxious to bring them, even these people who have shunned her and shamed her, to witness this living water, to meet this God they could trust to provide. To be in relationship with the living God.
Each week we gather to ask a simple question. A simple, very difficult, sometimes painful question. Is the Lord among us or not? It can be hard to tell, through all of our needs, through our thirst and our hunger. It can be hard to tell, so distracted are we by all that we are carrying. Is the Lord among us or not? And each week, Jesus meets us at the well. Right here. With water, wine, and word. With relationship. Ready to accept us as we are, so that we will drop our burdens and run out to the world, proclaiming the good news. Come and see!