March 23, 2014/Third Sunday in Lent
Yia Yia is my sister’s mother-in-law. That’s not her given name. Her actual name is Polyxthene. The name Yia Yia means Gramma in Greek. When we visited Greece in 2005, we didn’t get to meet Yia Yia. There wasn’t an opportunity for us to travel to Karditsa, the village where my brother-in-law, Niko, is from. But I feel as though I know Yia Yia. I’ve heard about her for as long as my sister has been married to Niko and living in Greece. That’s been a long time now.
From Jill’s description, Yia Yia is a small woman. But she’s strong. Yia Yia has survived wars and oppression and occupation. She’s worked hard all her life. One chore that she did for many, many years, the chore that probably made her the strongest, was carry buckets of water from the well.
I can imagine that she would have carried water much like this woman from John’s gospel carried water. She probably had a wooden yoke that went across her neck and her shoulders. The buckets of water hung on either side. You would have to be strong to carry water like that. You would have to be tough. I don’t think I’m that strong or that tough. Maybe if I had to do it every day, I would toughen up like Yia Yia. Yia Yia was strong because she had to be. She carried that water because she had to.
So does this woman, this unnamed woman of Samaria. She, like other strong women, comes everyday to the well to gather water for herself and others who depend on her. But she doesn’t come to the well when the other women come. She doesn’t carry her buckets to the well for water in the early morning or in the cool of the evening. No this woman, this Samaritan woman, comes to the well at midday; at noon when the sun is the hottest. She endures the brutal heat, which could only have added to the burden of carrying the water. Why? Most scholars believe it is because she wanted to come to the well when no one else was there. This woman, although she isn’t criticized at all in the text, is most likely an outcast among the outcasts. As a Samaritan, she would have been an outcast to the Jews. And even among her own people, she was probably an outcast because she’s had more than one husband, and as we learn from Jesus, she’s currently living with a man who isn’t her husband. It’s easy to think that means she’s some sort of fallen woman, a lady of the evening to use a less than subtle euphemism. But there’s no indication of that in the text. Jesus never refers to her in that way. It’s quite possible she has been widowed repeatedly. The man she is now living with could be a brother-in-law, who takes her into his home as the culture dictated. She would have taken care of his home as a wife would, but would not have been his wife. But whatever the reason for her many marriages and her present circumstances, being a woman was challenge enough, much less one without the protection of a husband.
This unnamed woman was an outcast. So she comes to the well in the heat of the day. But on this particular day she meets a stranger at the well. She meets a Jewish man who dares to strike up a conversation with her even though they are alone; even though it goes against all social customs and boundaries. She comes to the well and she meets Jesus.
One of the things we have to understand about the Jesus of John’s gospel is that any parable he tells or lesson he gives comes to us with many layers. John’s gospel tells the stories of Jesus from a spiritual, rather than an historical, perspective. John’s gospel has the clear agenda that Jesus is the Messiah and God is clearly at work in the world.
In the verses just before our passage begins, Jesus has left Judea and is on his way to Galilee, but he has to go through Samaria. Logically, this doesn’t make a lot of sense. If you were following a literal map of the region, making a side trip through Samaria was of course for a trek to Galilee. But Jesus has to go to Samaria. He has to go. It seems to me that we can infer that this trip to Samaria is not one Jesus takes for the heck of it. Whether we call it a spiritual quest or divinely inspired, Jesus goes to Samaria purposefully. It was not on the way.
Our passage begins with Jesus coming to the Samaritan city of Sychar. This is near the ground that Jacob gave to his son Joseph; the place of Jacob’s well. Jesus is tired from his walking. The day is hot. He is sitting by the well. The disciples have gone into the city to buy food, so it is just Jesus, alone.
Our unnamed woman approaches, buckets in hand to draw her water. When Jesus sees her, he says “give me a drink.”
As I said earlier, Jesus asking the woman for a drink, speaking to her at all when there was no one else around, crossed every well-established social boundary and broke every social taboo. Furthermore Jesus is a Jew. The enmity between Jews and Samaritans was and old, old wound.
She knows this. She knows that this Jewish man should not be talking to her. So she questions him. “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?”
I guess Jesus could have replied, “I’m the Messiah, and I’m here to offer you salvation.” But instead He says, “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.”
Again, she questions him. “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?”
“Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water 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.”
The Samaritan woman doesn’t understand what Jesus means when he offers her living water. It sounds like some sort of mystical, unending, unceasing spring. Surely that idea must have sounded wonderful. Perhaps if she had access to it, she wouldn’t have to carry these heavy buckets day after day to fetch water. It would be there for her, whenever she wanted it.
But Jesus was not talking about some sort of magical source. He was speaking of water for the soul and spirit – water that would give new life through him. She asks him to give her some of that water, and Jesus responds by telling her to go and get her husband. Bring him back.
Jesus told her the truth about herself that day. But remember that he didn’t condemn her or encourage her to change. He just saw who she was and spoke that truth out loud. As preacher and teacher Fred Craddock wrote, “All we know is that Jesus, as is his custom in John, reveals special knowledge of the individuals he encounters and alerts them that in meeting him they may encounter the transcendent.”
Their conversation goes on. In fact of all the conversations that Jesus has with anyone, in any of the gospels, his conversation with this woman at the well is the longest recorded. The woman may not have understood exactly what Jesus was telling her; she may not have completely grasped what he meant by living water, but she knew he had something that she needed. She couldn’t have known when she lugged buckets and yoke to the well that day that she needed or wanted anything more than her daily supply of water. She didn’t know that she needed living water, but here it was, offered to her from the source of life himself.
She took it. I don’t know that she fully understood what Jesus was telling her. When she goes back into the city, she tells people to come and see this man, this man who told her everything she’s ever done. Then she asks the question, “He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” Again, to quote Fred Craddock, this isn’t exactly a statement of faith. She doesn’t go to others and share with them her version of the Apostle’s Creed.
But the woman knows that she needs something more than just water to quench her physical thirst. She knows that she needs a Messiah, someone to quench the thirst of a heart that has long been parched. She came to the well for water. She left the well believing in the Word that became flesh and dwelt among us.
Maybe we’re more like that woman than we realize. Maybe we don’t really know what we need until Jesus tells us our truth and offers us a drink of living water. Maybe many of us have felt at some point in our lives that we’re looking for something, we just don’t know what that something is. Something about our lives rings false, feels empty. We know we need something more, but we don’t know what. So we look for it in our jobs, in our relationships, in our children. Some people take more destructive routes, and look to fill their emptiness in drugs or alcohol. I’m beginning to think that we humans, if left to our own devices, would just keep looking and looking and looking, wandering from one false hope to the next.
We may think we know what we want or need most in life. But then we are confronted with Jesus, with living water, with the source of all that is true or real. We may think we know what we’re looking for, but that can too often be self-deception. Lent strips that all away. It prunes away the wants and desires that cloud our vision and confuse our hearts. What do we have left? We have our deepest need – our need to cling to God and drink deeply of the living water that we can only receive through the gift of his Son. With that living water, we will be thirsty no more. Let all God’s children say, “Amen.”