It may look like a spiritual desert out there, but there is living water running deep.
John 4:5-29, 39-42
“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.”
The Big Thirst
Many years ago, a young woman came into my study, sat down with a sigh, and said, “I feel unmoored.”
Her lament took me by surprise because she seemed, on the outside, so confident. The sudden accidental death of her husband had left her with two children under the age of ten, none of her family nearby, and all the challenges that come with being a single parent; but, this woman’s emotional strength defined her. I don’t remember anyone saying “That poor, poor, thing, what’s she going to do?”
No, this woman was the kind that people looked at as her well-behaved children helped her shop for groceries and said, “Isn’t she amazing? Isn’t she courageous? Aren’t those children fortunate to have her, if they only have one parent left?” Nobody needed to say, aloud, “instead of him.”
Truth to tell, her husband who had died had been no great catch. Nobody would come out and say it, at least not to her, but people were thinking she might just be better off without a man who could drink her whole schoolteacher’s paycheck in a week and his paycheck too, on the rare occasions when he was actually working.
Coping well. That’s how we would have described her, watching her in the months after the funeral.
But when she plopped into a chair in my study, she laid out a different narrative than the story we had all imposed over her strong and regal exterior.
The fact was, she was lonely.
After her husband’s death, she realized that she had many distant admirers, but no real close friendships. She had lived by the unspoken rules of the family with an alcoholic, that even if everybody could see it, nobody was to talk about it openly. That rule of secrecy, even if it was an open secret, had become a wall between her and her co-workers, her neighbors, and her church community. She had acquaintances, but no close friends.
It’s not that people blamed her for her late husband’s behavior. Not exactly. But, at the same time, nobody felt comfortable talking with her about him except in euphemisms, such as “your recent loss that you are handling so well.”
As I dug into John’s account of the woman at the well, I remembered that afternoon when that young widow sat in my study and spilled her story of loneliness and alienation, her deep, deep thirst for some authentic friendship with another adult, her yearning for some relief from the fear that if she spoiled the image of the strong and courageous widow that she would be pitied.
As the recommended physical distance between neighbors became more and more extreme throughout the week, I thought of all the people I know who live alone. I thought of all who live without another adult in the house to provide companionship in this time of extreme social distance.
The last hundred years of preaching on this gospel story have assumed that marriage and divorce in Samaritan culture would be similar to marriage and divorce in our own culture – that a woman who had been married five times and now had a man to whom she was not married must have made some bad choices.
When we look at marriage in Samaritan culture, however, we find that divorce, even now, is almost unheard of. According to the Encyclopedia Judaica, in the contemporary Samaritan population, there were only three divorces granted in the entire twentieth century. So, far, in the twenty-first century, there are no divorces recorded in the Samaritan community.
I’ll save you the details of my research, but, to cut to the chase, it appears that five marriages for a first century Samaritan woman had nothing to do with herchoices. Either, the word “husband” referred to an initial betrothal contract by the woman’s family that could be broken without divorce before the marriage was consummated, or the woman had been married and widowed five times. If a married or betrothed man died without having sired children, his brother had a legal obligation to marry the dead man’s widow and raise children for his brother. If there were no more brothers, the legal obligation passed to cousins, uncles, or nephews of the late husband. This wife was not usually an only wife – she was part of a polygamous arrangement in which her status was lower than the other wife or wives that the man’s parents had originally chosen for him.
While the law required a widow to be taken in by her late husband’s brother or other family member, the legal obligation was not always enforced. So, this woman at the well would have a man who had the legal obligation to care for her, but if he did not follow through on his legal obligation, pleading to the court that his obligations were already too great to afford another wife, then she would have a claim to a man, but she had no husband; thus, Jesus could say, “the man you have now is not your husband.”
Whatever the details of the situation this woman at the well had endured, this is not the story of a woman who had made bad choices and now lived with the social consequences of her immoral behavior; at least, there seems to be no support for that in the biblical text.
When we read this story in its cultural context, Jesus’ words to the woman, “You have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband” is not an accusation, but a lament. Jesus stands at the well, not in the judgment seat above her, but alongside her, in sympathy and solidarity. It’s not a demand for repentance, but an assurance of belonging. It is Jesus way of saying, “I know what you’ve been through, and I know what you’re going through.”
Jesus offers her the living water of human kindness, of community, of a community where all that she has ever done need not remain unspoken. For a woman unwanted, passed around from one brother or cousin to another, this acceptance gave living water to her parched soul.
“You belong, you are one of us, a fellow child of God.” That Good News opened her heart to the idea that Jesus spoke the truth when he told her of his identity, Messiah, the Christ, one who spoke for God. It turned her into the first evangelist in the Gospel according to John and it brought many of the Samaritans into the beloved community.
For a Jewish man, Jesus, and a Samaritan woman even to speak together in public raised the eyebrows of Jesus’s disciples. It broke so many rules that they are left speechless.
The Good News of the Gospel in this story is that God is bigger than religion. God is bigger than any human institution, God is bigger than any social structure or ethnic label that separates people from one another.
This radical idea, that Jews and Samaritans, women and men, social insiders and a woman so outside the social mainstream that she has to fetch water in the heat of the noonday sun, that all can serve God in the same community – that radical idea quenches the deep thirst of those who have been cut off from their families, those who feel isolated or unmoored.
The young widow I spoke of earlier found a place where she could tell her story. In Al-anon, the 12-step group for family members of alcoholics, she found a safe place where she no longer felt the need to wear the mask of pretended strength and courage in the face of all she feared about her future. For the first time since her teenage years, she developed deep friendships, relationships in which she did not have to walk on eggshells, avoid sensitive topics, or pretend to be doing better than she was.
It was a few years later when I presided at her wedding. It was a small and simple service followed by a backyard barbecue. The bride and groom had made an intentional decision to hold down the wedding budget under $1000 and spend what they had on a trip and the down payment on a home they had designed together.
During the afternoon barbecue after the wedding, a storm blew in and brought the largest hail stones I have ever seen, larger than golf balls, some as big as baseballs. We ran indoors and watched as the hail broke out the windshields and dented every car sitting outside in the part of the pasture they had mowed for parking.
I saw grown men, owners of shiny new pick-up trucks, break into heaving sobs.
I found the bride and groom, in a corner of the kitchen, giggling and trying to hold in their laughter. To my quizzical look, the bride said, “Here we thought we’d have the least expensive wedding ever, and we ended up with a fifty thousand dollar wedding if you include all the hail damage to the new cars!”
She couldn’t hold in her laughter as she said, “Thanks for the extravagant wedding, State Farm!”
After the storm blew through, the party resumed, and everyone spilled out to the yard to eat and drink and gawk at the size of the hail stones beginning to melt in the grass.
As I drove away in the early evening, I looked through my cracked windshield at the yard full of people, her friends from church and Al-anon, her fellow teachers, her new family members. She was now a woman who belonged, a woman who had a community that gathered closer when a storm blew in. She was grounded, not at all unmoored.
For a community of Christians today, the story of the woman at the well calls to us, when we feel we do not belong, and invites us to drink from this well of living water. In a culture of divisiveness – division by social and economic class, race, age, political views, nationality and religion – this story invites us to look around and recognize those who do not feel that they belong. They are the very people for whom Christ died. They are the children of God to whom Jesus offers this drink of living water, this beloved community in which we seek to worship, to serve, all together, in spirit and in truth.
In a time such as our own, fear looms large. I never would have guessed our nation was so afraid of running out of toilet paper.
But, cutting against the grain of our nation’s fear, I also see generosity. I get messages all day every day by email, phone, and every social media platform asking if I know anyone isolated who needs someone to do shopping or run errands for them.
It may look like a spiritual desert out there, but there is living water running deep. Jesus’s words still echo all around us:
“The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” Thanks be to God. Amen.