Today’s passage from John’s gospel is full of transitions: From the beginning to the end we see the full spectrum of our Lord Jesus Christ’s character, moving from his humanity to his divinity.
We also see a shift from physical, literal water and bodily thirst to spiritual, living water and the thirst of the human heart.
Finally, we see a shift from the way God was worshipped in the past into the future reality of the worship of God.
I would like us to keep all three of these transitions in mind as we proceed, from the humanity of Jesus to his divinity, from literal water to spiritual living water, and from the worship of the past to the worship of the future.
At first we see Jesus’s humanity on full display in his encounter with the Samaritan woman. At the beginning of this story Jesus is tired out, as any ordinary person would be. He has been travelling from Judea to Galilee, and it’s a long wearying walk. John tells us it is the sixth hour, which is noon, so the sun is at the highest point in the sky.
And it is at this hour of maximum heat and dryness that a Samaritan woman—alone—comes to Jacob’s well to draw water. We know that there was hostility between the Jews and the Samaritans. Despite their common ancestry, they had a long and contentious history. The Samaritans declined to worship God at the temple of Jerusalem, having had their own temple on the mountain near where Jesus now sits. Because of this they were regarded as ceremonially unclean.
Despite this history of enmity, and despite the fact that socializing with a Samaritan woman would have been strictly forbidden for a Jewish rabbi, Jesus crosses the border that separates him from her and asks for a drink of water.
But the Samaritan woman knows right away that he is overstepping his bounds. “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” Using the same drinking vessel as a Samaritan woman should be out of the question for Jesus, but he does not seem to regard her or her jar as unclean.
Jesus is indeed not just human, he is also humane. Not only does he disregard the barriers between himself and her, he turns them completely around. “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.”
We see a complete reversal here: Jesus is no longer talking about his physical thirst but about her spiritual thirst. This is the second transition in this passage, for slowly it is becoming clear that the subject of the conversation is changing.
So what does Jesus mean by living water? Well, in the Hebrew Scriptures, living water is water that flows. The rain that falls from heaven or a spring are sources of living water. Water that is stored in cisterns or that sits stagnant is no longer living. This is an important distinction to the Jewish mind, because rain and springs are natural phenomena. Living water therefore, like all of nature, comes directly from God. By contrast, a well or an irrigation ditch is not a natural occurrence but a manmade artifact. Such water does not come from God but from human effort. Living water was also associated with ceremonial cleansing, because many rituals of purification required living water. These rituals mandated that the water used to cleanse be in contact with its source, like a pool that is fed by a spring. Water that has been stopped up in a jar or a reservoir is no longer living, because it has been cut off from its source and thus cannot purify.
So when Jesus promises the Samaritan woman living water he is promising her an endless supply, a never-ending spring that comes forth thanks to God’s own creative action, a spring that cleanses and purifies and remains forever flowing from, and yet still in contact with, its divine origin.
Naturally the Samaritan woman is curious to know more. If she could drink living water that would never need to be replenished, she would not have to keep coming back here every day.
But Jesus is not done questioning her. When he asks her to bring her husband, she admits that she has none, but this answer, while technically correct, is somewhat evasive, for Jesus knows that she is living with a man who is not her husband, and she has had five husbands before.
Now I think we should be careful not to judge our Samaritan woman too sharply. Many commentators see in her complicated matrimonial history an indication of immorality. Only Jesus knows her full story; we do not. Her current situation may not be wholly of her own choosing; it’s a safe bet that she did not think her life would turn out this way. She may have been abandoned, maybe even more than once.
In any case, Jesus knows her, even the truth about her that is a little embarrassing and that she kept concealed.
And now she is starting to know who he is, little by little. At first she saw only a solitary man, then a foreigner, and now, she sees that he is a prophet. This is a startling admission for a Samaritan, because the Samaritans thought Moses himself was the last prophet. Now she believes she has encountered another prophet, someone who as she will tell her countrymen knows “all that I ever did,” someone who knows all about her and yet does not reject her out of hand.
What else might he know? Perhaps he can resolve a theological dispute. Any prophet should have an opinion on how God is rightly to be worshipped, so now it’s her turn to question Jesus. She might be thinking, “Here is a man who will cross boundaries between his people and mine, who will press typical orthodoxies to their breaking point. What will he say about the biggest question that divides the Jews and the Samaritans?”: Is it right to worship God at the temple in Jerusalem, as you do, or on this mountain, where we do?
This is the final transition in the passage, for Jesus turns away from the past and toward the future, from the way “our fathers” worshipped to the way “The Father” wants to be worshipped. His answer continues to surprise, but it flows from what he has already said. If the living water that comes from God is here, then now is the time when the Father will be worshipped not on the mountain nor at the temple but in spirit and truth.
We heard last week in John 3 Jesus say that the spirit is like wind that blows where it wills. The spirit cannot be confined, not to a temple, not to a sacred mountain. The same is true of water. Living water flows wherever it wants. The spirit—like wind, like water—the spirit is wherever God is working, wherever the divine purpose and plan for humanity is being carried out. And John’s gospel repeatedly asserts that Jesus himself is truth. To worship the Father in spirit and truth then is to worship in the new way that Jesus is personally making possible.
And now finally that full truth comes out. The Samaritan woman says she knows the Messiah is coming and that he will teach everything to the people that they need to know. And for the first time in John’s gospel, Jesus admits that this is who he is. “I who speak to you am he.” In fact, in Greek, the word “he” does not appear. Jesus literally says, the one who is speaking to you, I AM. There can be no mistake about this, for Jesus says of himself what God said to Moses in the burning bush: My name is I AM. The one who is speaking to you is the great I AM. So Jesus is not just human and not just a prophet but divine.
And the Samaritans believe this. They believe because this woman who has had such a remarkable encounter with Jesus testifies that he knows her intimately. And after all is that not our spiritual thirst? Do we not thirst to be known as we are, to be loved despite our failures and shame? And many others who thirst in the same way come to know Christ in turn for themselves and rightly confess that he is not just a prophet but Messiah, the savior of the world.
They knew, and we know, that he is the savior of the world because he has made himself known to a community that is not part of the covenant family of God, a community of outsiders, the unclean and despised, he has made himself known to people just like us. If the Samaritans know Jesus as both God and man then they must know that he is here not just for his own but for the whole world indeed.
So why does Jesus take his message of eternal life, of living water that never runs dry, to the enemies of his own people? We are not told the answer to that question in our passage, but it appears just one verse prior. We read in verse four that to get from Judea to Galilee Jesus “had to pass through Samaria.” Geographically speaking, this is not true. You don’t have to pass through Samaria. In fact many observant Jews refused to do so and preferred to go the long way around rather than set one foot in Samaritan territory.
Jesus had to pass through Samaria because this is his mission. This is his purpose. This is why he is here. Samaria is a literal and spiritual desert. And he desperately wants to make living water flow through their land and through all lands. He goes to the foreigner and the outsider because that is his thirst. His thirst is to bring us all the living water that is his own self. Like a spring in the desert, Jesus in his mission on earth comes from God the Father and remains in contact with God, so he can purify us from sin.
Maybe you are spiritually in the desert today. Perhaps you have been abandoned and left alone. Lent is a time to feel our thirst keenly in body and soul. Bodily thirst reminds us of our deeper need, the thirst to be known and to be loved, and reminds us that this can be quenched as well. Jesus is himself the gift of God. He alone is the endless flow of living water that springs up even in the desert of our lives. Amen.