March 12 | Lent 3 | Pilgrimage: Living Water Pulses Through Us

Living Water Pulses Through Us

Sermon—12 March 2023 | Sarah Werner

John 4:1-42

I want to share some stories this morning about water, holy places, and how living water helps us find a home in the world. Water makes up over half of the substance of your body, and three-quarters of your brain is water. Water literally is life, as the saying goes. When Jesus arrives at the well in the middle of the day, he is likely just as thirsty as the next human, parched from the brilliance of the desert sun. But what he eventually offers the Samaritan woman is something quite different, the living water of the kin-dom of God.

This passage from John is a powerful one, getting to the heart of what it means to follow Jesus and to be nourished by living water. It is the longest theological conversation Jesus has with anyone in the gospels, and it is with an unwed Samaritan woman, the ultimate outsider. But I have to start by saying, this story makes me feel uneasy. Part of it is the way Jesus comes off, at least in English. “Give me a drink” does not sound very polite. And he shouldn’t even be talking to a woman in this time and place. Then there’s the bit about the husbands. Five of them, yikes, and living with a man who is not her husband. It makes her sound like an unscrupulous woman. The reality, though, is likely more complicated. There are a lot of reasons why she could have had five husbands. She could have been a widower, since men were more likely to die than women, in battle or from old age if she was wed to an older man. She could have been divorced, since men could divorce their wives but not the other way around. And she was likely living with a man she was not married to in order to survive in a world where women had virtually no rights if she no longer had any male relatives. This puts her squarely in the position of outsider even in her own community.

And, her past relationships aren’t the point. Jesus does not seem at all concerned with her many husbands. Nowhere in the passage does he tell her not to sin, as he does in other encounters, or indeed place any judgment on her. That’s not what he’s interested in here. He is much more concerned with her ability to spread the good news to her community. The point of him mentioning the five husbands isn’t to point out some perceived moral failing but to prove that he knows her, and this causes her to recognize him as a prophet. The Samaritan woman is named Photini in the Orthodox tradition and she is venerated as a martyr and early apostle of Jesus. Photini means ‘enlightened one’ in Greek, and she is depicted by early Christian writers as being an equal to the male apostles, spreading the gospel with her sons in North Africa and then in Rome, where she was arrested by Emperor Nero. The story goes that she converted Nero’s daughter and her hundred slaves to Christianity, and was drowned in a well for this act.

But first, a little background about the land of Samaria. Samaria was in the central highlands of Israel, an arid, hilly region between Judea in the south and Galilee in the north, where water was a precious resource. The Samaritans were descendants of the Israelites who felt that the Jews after Babylonian Exile were not worshipping correctly after all of their time away from home. They believed that only the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, were the true word of God. The religious center of the Samaritans was Mount Gerizim, while the Jewish center of religion was in Jerusalem. Like many feuding factions, their beliefs were actually quite similar to one another. But both sides saw the other as an abomination of true faith. Thus all the negative press about Samaritans in the Bible. Samaritans were outsiders to the Jews, and the early followers of Jesus inherited this prejudice against them. But it is exactly where Jesus heads on his journey back to Galilee.

Every village had a communal well where women would go to collect water for their household.  And wells were also gathering places in villages where women would talk and share stories in the midst of their daily lives. It’s hard to imagine walking to a communal well to get water, but many people in the world still do just that, mostly women. And in the desert, access to water is literally a matter of life and death. Because we live in such a water-rich place, it’s hard to imagine being so parched except perhaps in the heat of late July. Our weather disasters most often run towards flooding, an overabundance of water. Whenever I return to Texas though, I think about it a lot, this scarce resource that doesn’t often fall from the sky. We spend the winter here blanketed by thick, low clouds that keep the air moist, even if it gives the season a grim feeling. Out West it’s all sun, almost all the time.

And so it was in Samaria as in much of the land of Israel. Eking out an existence in dry scrubby hills cannot have been easy. Even after all my years living in the great eastern woodlands, this same arid climate is still etched into my body. I remain careful of the water I use, ever mindful that it is a sacred resource even though it flows freely through pipes beneath my feet. It fills up the rivers and streams and falls from the sky with regularity. But something in me remains uncomfortable with all of this abundance, mindful that one day the rain might not come in its time. It is in my nature to be anxious, to be concerned for having enough for tomorrow, like the Samaritan woman, coming to the well day after day. But what Jesus offers is something entirely different, a new kind of satiation. Living water in Hebrew means spring water, water that flows naturally. If you’ve ever come upon a bubbling spring while meandering through the woods, you know the small thrill of that sound of gurgling water, percolating out of the earth, offered freely to all who need it, no fees or taxes or plastic, meeting the most basic of human needs.

And Jesus makes this offer of living water in a place weighted with history. Though in Jesus’ time Sychar was a village in the region of Samaria, it was also the same place where God told Abram (before he became Abraham) that he would inherit the land of Canaan (Gen 12:6-8). Abram planted the Oak of Moreh there, which was thought to be a Canaanite holy site that Abram adopted as his own. The well where Jesus met Photini is known as Jacob’s Well because it was also the site where Jacob met his future wife Rachel (Gen 29) and where they eventually settled after he returned from living with Rachel’s father Laban.

Complicating this lovely story and the weaving through of all these layers of history is an ugly legacy of settler colonialism in the Old Testament. Abram claimed the oak of Moreh as his own holy site to Yahweh and God promised this land to his descendants even though the Canaanites were already living there. This echoes our own history of taking land for ourselves from the indigenous inhabitants of North America. It makes me wonder what we do about all the stories in the Bible about the taking of land, what we do about our own legacy of colonialism.

And Jesus speaks to this desire for a homeland and the complications of staking our claim at particular holy sites. This history no doubt was swirling around in the story of Jesus and Photini, echoing the past, but pointing to a future of a different type. Jesus would have known the history of the well as the place where Jacob dwelled, and the nearby oak of Moreh, as well as being at the base of Mt. Gerizim, the holy mountain of the Samaritans. Which makes what he says to her that much more poignant. “The time is coming when you will worship God neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.” He offers instead worship in spirit and truth, decidedly different than these tangible sacred places.

Living water, the basis of this worship in truth and spirit, is not found only in certain places, but is available everywhere. Jesus was nothing if not a wrecker of traditions, turning over tables in the temple and questioning the established order at every turn. He’s trying to get us to think differently about faith and worship outside the confines of the sanctioned worship in Jerusalem or on Mt. Gerizim. Living water is with us wherever we happen to be. 

On the face of it, this seems to smack of the universalizing placelessness that Christianity has become so well-known for, erasing local difference in favor of some ultimate truth. But at the same time, temples are physical buildings that can be destroyed, and people who worship on mountains can be exiled from them.

How do we make holy places where we are? Living water is a form of nourishment that is in all times and places, available to us wherever we are. As the psalmist writes in Psalm 139, “Where can I go from your spirit? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me” (Psalm 139:7-10).

There is something important about knowing our place in the landscape where we dwell. But the key is that the whole earth is sacred land, not one mountain or one building in an ancient city. The spirit is not limited to one place or another; it is all around us. Having access to living water is being able to tap into this sacred resource. Being rooted in place is a good and holy thing, but sometimes we find ourselves uprooted, forced out of our homeland. Even when this happens, we are never separated from God. When Jesus was an infant, the holy family fled to Egypt, living as refugees. Even the Holy One knows what exile feels like.

Living water is being able to create community wherever we find ourselves, whether by choice or circumstance.

Living water is being able to step outside and remember that we are never alone, but are always surrounded by millions of other living beings, part of a vast web of sacredness.

Living water is being awake to the fact that injustice harms us all and working to confront it in all its forms. What Jesus offers to the Samaritan woman at the well is a new kind of community, a new kind of kinship.

Living water quenches our thirst for belonging to something larger than ourselves.

Pilgrimage doesn’t have to be about traveling physically from place to place. We are each wanderers through our lives, making pilgrimages at every step. We are all on a journey in life, and we get to choose what we’re walking towards and what we’re walking away from. Living water is the sustenance we need to continue moving forward, closer to God.

“God is at home. We are in the far country.” This quote from Annie Dillard has stuck with me since college. It speaks to this journey. It’s not that we’re trying to get to heaven, but we’re trying to dig in and find ourselves a home, moving ever closer to God and our deepest selves, whether that is in an ancient desert village or a modern city nestled in a forest.

To bring it back to an even more intimate closeness, the water of our bodies is also living water. Water walking around, contained in skin and supported by bones. It pulses through our veins and nestles into every corner, fingernails and eyes, kidneys and marrow. The air that moves in and out of our lungs is the breath of God, sustaining this living water of our being. There is nowhere we can go that is apart from this Sacred presence.

Photini takes all of this with her when she journeys out from her village, the living water in her blood and tears, a holy homeland inside her skin. She goes first to the others in her village along with Jesus, where they spend several days sharing the gospel. Tradition holds that she ventures out from there all the way to North Africa, starting churches and continuing to share the good news with others until her death. Presumably she found community in the places where she wandered, finding holy land, making a home, just as Jesus did in his own pilgrimage of ministry that led to Jerusalem and death, and out on the other side back to new life.