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Reading the Gospel lesson this week a snatch of poetry I learned somewhere along the way kept running through my head. It goes:
The poet wrote,
"God save thee, ancient Mariner!
From the fiends, that plague thee thus! --
Why look'st thou so?" -- With my cross-bow
I shot the Albatross.3
And so our Prayer of Confession this morning says: "Please save us from ourselves, we pray through Christ."
The last time I read The Ancient Mariner some teacher made me. It was an assignment. As I re-read it this week it spoke to me, as Jesus spoke to that woman at Jacob's well. A well where tradition had it there had been water since the time of Jacob -- for nearly 2,000 years!
Whether John intends for us to understand the well in a literal sense, a place where you could put down a bucket in the desert and draw up water, or the well is symbolic of the wellspring of our faith in the faith of Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob -- whose name became Israel -- whichever way you take it, Jesus said to the woman, it is not enough, this water. Faith in what always has been here will not do. And faith in the faith of others is not enough.
Or, maybe more positively, because Jesus clearly valued the faith of Israel, Jesus said to the woman, "Woman, there is more." There is more to life than your day-in-and-day-out trips to this well for water. There is more to life than the mundane living of life. There is more to life than the mess your life is in. There is more that God has to offer, and he offers it to you as surely as you can offer me a drink of water, Jesus said to the woman.
Jesus was tired. He was human. And he was hot. "It was about noon" (John 4:6 NRSV). The disciples were off running errands. Jesus was sitting by the well. He had the same human needs you and I have. And that day he needed a drink of water. The woman came to do what she had to do every day. And he asked her for one. "... Jesus said to her, 'Give me a drink' "(John 4:7 NRSV).
What isn't so obvious is that by asking for water Jesus was asking for trouble. Jewish men did not talk to unknown women. Jewish teachers did not talk to any woman in public. And Jews in general did not talk to Samaritans. Jesus did.
That "astonished" his disciples, it says (John 4:27 NRSV), and apparently amazed the woman. " 'You are a Jew,' she replied, 'and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink of water when Jews and Samaritans won't have anything to do with each other?' " (John 4:9 CEV). Literally, "Won't use the same cups,"4 in the same way that white folks and black folks wouldn't use the same water fountain at Kress' 5 & 10 store where I grew up.
Well, Jesus would. In fact, he would do far more than that, as she soon found out. He offered her something more than what he asked. He offered her what he called "living water." He knew that all the water in that desert water hole would not meet the woman's need for meaning. No matter how many times she came to fill her bucket.
Scottish theologian William Barclay once wrote that "... there are two great days in a person's life, 'the day we are born and the day we discover why.' "5 The woman needed more than water to stay alive. More than just to continue the fact of her birth. She needed the meaning that comes with knowing why -- that makes life worth living. So Jesus offered her not a magic potion to cure all her ills, but the elixir of life itself.
In desert lands where making it from one water hole to the next water hole was and is a matter of life and death, water is a symbol for life. Modern slang says, "Get a life." Jesus says, I've got a life to give to you. He was talking to her as he also talked to Nicodemus -- about having a life worth living forever.
She heard him wrong. How can you give me water! You don't have any way to get it! You can't even get your own! You have no visible means by which to do anything about my thirst. My thirst for the water in this hole in the ground, or my thirst for meaning and wholeness in my life!
One author says, "... Jesus' words about living water seem preposterous to her, empty boasts by a man without a bucket."6
Jesus' response is that the water she draws from the well sustains day-to-day life; and what she can do she's done; but the water he's offering gives life forever, and makes day-to-day life worth living, and only he can do that.
The woman said, "Gimme," but she still didn't get it. Not the water. The point. Somehow she understood that having drunk this water the day-to-day living of life would be taken care of. All her problems would be over. This is a mistake you and I make when we assume that following Christ means not having problems, instead of what it really means, which is having help in the problems every one of us has.
The woman had problems. And Jesus knew it. Jesus knew she'd had five husbands. Jesus knew the man she was living with was not her husband. It sounds like a Hollywood script. But maybe not. The fact that we make assumptions about the woman's morality based on her marital situation is not supported by the story. And what we assume may tell us more about ourselves than about her!
She may have been caught in problems not of her own making. Sometimes we are. It's possible that all those husbands simply died. And that the man who by their custom should have then married her and taken care of her -- the next brother in line -- refused. She may have been a widow five times over with no way out but to live with whoever took her in.
A woman in that society had few choices. She may have been what we would call a victim of circumstance. Something that's true of all of us sometimes. (Not all the time -- but sometimes.) Life just isn't the way we intended it to be -- and neither are we. We are like the Apostle Paul who wrote: "The good I want to do -- I don't do; and the bad I don't want to do, I do." No matter how hard we try "that's life"!
When that is life, it's helpful to take note of the fact that Jesus just stated the facts about the woman and her life. He did not judge her. He did not condemn her! Instead he kept his offer open. An offer still open to you and to me. For living water. To be made alive by the presence of God in our lives. To discover that in life as God intends it to be, there's
"Water, water, everywhere,"
and plenty enough
to drink and share.
1. John Newton, "Glorious Things Of Thee Are Spoken," The Presbyterian Hymnal, No. 446 (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster/John Knox Press).
2. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," Part 2, Stanza 9.
3. Ibid., Part 1, Stanza 21.
4. John 4:9 CEV, note.
5. Source unknown.
6. The New Interpreter's Bible, Volume IX, John (Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press, 1995), p. 567.
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