Lent 3 | New perceptions in familiar places: Water

No audio available

Texts: Exodus 17:1-7, John 4:3-26


A month ago Dan H. sent me an email asking if I was aware that this weekend, March 22, yesterday, was United Nations World Water Day. I wasn’t, and replied back that it is a happy coincidence that the readings for this week also include water as a central theme: water from the rock in the desert for the Israelites, water from the Samaritan well for Jesus, and living water from Jesus for a Samaritan woman and villagers.

The genre of sermon can be characterized as the proclamation of gospel, good news, but the news from World Water Day is mostly bad, or, at least, cautionary. The combination of population growth (seven billion and counting), increased global development, and climate change, is putting major strains on finite water supplies. The United Nations estimates that about 1 in 10 people do not have access to an improved source of drinking water. If there are 160 people here, that means 16 of you are out of luck.

This year’s focus for World Water Day is the connections between water and energy. Key messages they are promoting are 1) Water requires energy and energy requires water, 2) Supplies are limited and demand is increasing, 3) Saving energy is saving water and saving water is saving energy, 4) The “bottom billion” urgently needs access to both water and sanitation services and, 5) Improving water and energy efficiency is imperative as are coordinated, coherent and concerted policies.

Dan noted that “few people (in this area) appreciate water because we are in a humid climate and water is under-priced.”

One of the good news water happenings locally is the dam removal along the Olentangy River which will return it to a more natural condition, increasing the variety of plant and animal life, and improving water quality.

Life is utterly dependent on water. Our bodies are mostly water. We are water, walking. We are water, needing water; water talking about water. We are water become conscious of itself.

Sing HWB 495 O let all who thirst, v. 1


Lent began in the wilderness, is designed as an extended wilderness journey, and in Exodus 17 we are explicitly back in the desert wilderness with the Israelites. They are fresh off their deliverance from slavery in Egypt, newly free people, and are now facing the stark realities of survival on their own. In order to get out of Egypt, they faced the problem of too much water, a whole Sea of it, blocking their path and giving them no escape from the pursuing Egyptian army. They tell Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt?” But Yahweh created a way where there was no way, and parted the waters for the Israelites to walk through on dry land.

Too much water quickly gives way to too little water. And so the people now say, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” They’re snarky, but they have a point. It’s a desert. They are now a desert people, and life sustaining systems are scarce. Freedom is looking to be more treacherous and deadly than slavery.

When Jews remember the deliverance from Egypt they teach that each new generation must make its own journey out of Egypt. It is an archetypal journey that we all must make. For those of us not in actual chains of slavery, it’s an opportunity to recognize the other things that enslave us and keep us from becoming the people and communities we have the potential to be. Addictions, bitterness, chronic worry, lies that we tell ourselves, these too enslave us.

A number of Jewish interpreters have pointed out that the Hebrew word for Egypt, Mitzrayim, contains the word which means narrow, or tight. Deliverance from Egypt, from Mitzrayim, the rabbis have taught, means deliverance from the narrow place, the place that limits and squeezes the life out of us.

As the Israelites illustrate time and time again, it is often easier to remain in the narrow place. It’s a place we have grown comfortable with, a place where we know we can at least survive, even though we are painfully aware that we can never thrive there. But it feels safe, familiar, and deliverance from the narrow place means that we are all of a sudden in an unknown world, unsure where the next drink of water will come from.

In Exodus 17 Yahweh tells Moses to take with him a group of elders, and go ahead of the people. “I will be standing there in front of you on the rock of Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses does this, and water flows out of the rock and all the people and animals drink. Strangely, even though Yahweh says, “I will be standing there” by the rock, there is never any mention that the Divine presence shows up at the rock. Unless, of course, water itself is what God looks like when God takes on physical form. The people are leaving the narrow place, and the Divine presence shows up to sustain them. Here I am, standing in front of you. I am water. Drink and be satisfied.

Sing HWB 495 O let all who thirst, v. 3


In John 4 Jesus is on a journey of his own. He has been in Judea around Jerusalem and is on his way back up north to his home region of Galilee. In between Judea and Galilee is Samaria, and although they had a common ancestry, there was bitter rivalry between Jews and Samaritans stretching back hundreds of years. They had rivaling interpretations of Torah and rival temples which they each claimed to be the true temple of God. There were sporadic violent clashes between Jews and Samaritans, and they generally avoided and shunned each other. Many Jews when traveling from Judea to Galilee would simply go around, crossing over on the east side of the Jordan River.

So when John says that Jesus “had to go through Samaria” it’s not so much a geographical necessity as it is a necessity of his mission. Jesus is walking into enemy territory. It might be kind of like saying that Brutus was in Ontario and was on his way back to Columbus, but he had to go through Ann Arbor. Kind of…

When Jesus stops by a well in Samaria we are told that he is tired, and he is thirsty. It’s one of the few times we find Jesus in a position of need. He’s at a well and doesn’t have anything to draw water with. He’s looking for water, but he’s also looking for a Samaritan. Jesus once told a parable about a man in much worse shape than he would have been who was assisted by a Samaritan passing by that way. A “Good Samaritan” was of course an oxymoron for the folks Jesus had told the parable to. It makes you wonder if this experience by the well in Samaria might have given him the idea for the parable. A Samaritan had helped him quench his thirst.

From the looks of it, Jesus has not timed his journey well because it’s noon, and the women of the village would have come to draw water in the cool of the day, morning and evening. Just a little earlier Jesus had talked with Nicodemus who had come alone, at night, most likely to avoid being detected. Now Jesus talks with a nameless Samaritan woman whom comes alone at noon, perhaps also avoiding others.

Neither of them should have been there at the well, and, by convention, a man did not speak publicly with an unrelated female, much less a Jewish man to a Samaritan woman. It’s a conversation that shouldn’t have happened, but it ends up being the longest recorded conversation Jesus has with another person.

Unlike Nicodemus, who seems to get more and more puzzled with each thing Jesus says, this woman seems to be more and more intrigued and drawn in as the conversation goes on. Jesus is bold to initiate the whole thing, and she meets him with an equal amount of boldness. They step toward each other.

He asks for a drink. She asks him what in the world he’s doing talking with her. He suggests that if she is open to the conversation that they could each have something to give to each other. He has some water of his own to give. She sees no bucket, knows the well is deep, but wants to know what kind of water this Jewish man could be talking about. He says that his water is alive, gushing. “Drink what I’ve got and you’re good for life.” Jesus is water, walking. “Sounds good,” she says, “I need me some of that.”

It’s at this point that the conversation gets real personal and we learn a little more about why this woman may have been coming to the well alone. Jesus asks her to go get her husband. She has no husband, but has been married five different times. Some commentators have used this fact to emphasize that this must have been an especially troubling and even sinful woman, but we don’t know that from this story, and Jesus has no words of judgment against her. Why so many marriages? Had some of her husbands died? With the man having so much legal power to divorce for whatever reason, had she been divorced multiple times for petty things? Had any of these relationships been abusive? Does she have a disability of some sort? We don’t know, and it’s not important enough for John to tell us. It would, no doubt, have been a good topic of gossip during the morning and evening congregating around the well. Did you hear? Again? What’s wrong with her?

What we can gather, and all we need to know, is that this is a socially isolated woman who has borne her share of sorrow and stigma. She’s in a narrow place.

Sing HWB 495 O let all who thirst, v. 2


The anonymous Samaritan woman of John’s gospel is remembered in the Eastern Orthodox tradition as St. Photina. In John she steps closer and closer to Jesus and welcomes the spiritual water of life that he offers. She becomes a gusher for God, a gusher for good. Beyond the verses we read, she goes back to her city and brings other Samaritans to see Jesus, who themselves have a similar experience. Beyond John’s gospel, tradition holds that she continued to preach the good news wherever she went, and many people came to believe through her preaching. She was eventually martyred, killed, at the hands of the Roman emperor Nero, but not before converting Nero’s daughter, Domnina, who had been charged with watching over her while she was in custody. Her official status is Equal-to-the-Apostles. Photina means luminous one, or enlightened one, like a photon. Nicodemus, a public leader, had a lot to lose if he followed Jesus, and needed a long time to come around. The anonymous Samaritan woman had very little to lose, and came to the well in the blazing sun of noon day, was filled with living water, and became St. Luminous.

In our Protestant imagination this is a piece of history, informative and perhaps inspiring. In the Orthodox and Catholic imagination, St. Luminous continues to pray for us, the living; continues to gush life and light for all of us detained in Mitzrayim, the narrowness of our ways. I imagine she would also be praying on this World Water weekend, for all creatures of God to have the simple dignity of clean and healthy water. Let all who thirst, come to the water. Let this also be our prayer. And let our prayer become enacted in our lives.

Sing HWB 495 O let all who thirst, All verses from the beginning