Quenching the Thirst of Self, Others and . . . Christ

A sermon based on John 4:5-42
given at Mount Vernon, OH on March 19, 2017 *
by Rev. Scott Elliott

A hiker got lost for days in the desert desperately prayed for the means to find refuge from the heat and most of all get some water. Suddenly he came across a vendor in the middle of the desert and cried out “Thank God I found you! I’m in dire need of water.” “Well,” said the vendor, “I don’t have any water. But would you like to buy one of these fine neck ties? ” “What am I going to do with a tie?” the man asked. “That’s what I’m selling sir. I am sorry I have no other wares or water.” The man left the vendor and walked many more miles, praying he would find water and respite from the scorching sun. Just as he was giving up hope he saw a restaurant right there in the desert and stubbled into it. As he stepped in air conditioning cooled him off and he saw pitchers of ice water on every table but the manager pushed him back into the desert saying, “Excuse me sir. You can’t come in here without . . . a neck tie!” 1

That man’s prayer for a means of water and rescue was answered with the offer of a tie, but he did not understand the significance. Today’s lesson is like that, like a lot of Bible stories, we misunderstand its significance.

We usually think today’s Lectionary lesson is a story about Jesus tending to a great sinner and converting her. The message being great sinners can be saved. But the “great sinner converted” is a sub-text layered on later. Like the neck tie in the joke the lesson today is actually meant to help quench our thirst– as well as Christ’s and others. But to hear it anew we have to ignore the tradition that the Woman at the Well is a floozy because she has had so many men in her life. The Bible does not tell us she was immoral. What we are told that the she’s with a man who is not her husband and that she has had five husbands. Jesus issues no judgment nor claims her marriages and love life are sins or otherwise sully her or make her unworthy. It’s not there in the text.

While Jesus makes no judgement or negative comment patriarchal commentators for centuries have scorned the Woman at the Well and scandalized her based on their interpretation of her marital history. This is doubly unfair. First because Jesus and the Gospel writer make no negative note of it– IT IS NOT IN THE BIBLE! And second, because the Woman at the Well would have had very little control over her marriages. She lived in a patriarchal culture that considered females property that men could purchase, barter over, pass along at death and discard almost at a whim. So the Woman at the Well would have had little, if any choice in whom she married and whether or not a husband divorced her.

And we don’t even know divorces were involved. Illnesses or violence may have taken the life of each husband. An adult woman in Jesus’ day needed a man to live with to survive, whether it was a husband or a son or someone else. And whether she was left by her five husbands through divorce or death, the Woman at the Well would have had very little control over her marriages or her need to be with a man. To hold her morally culpable for that past is very unfair. Nothing in the text indicates immorality was at issue – NOTHING– we’d have to read that in.
The Women’s Bible Commentary written with a decidedly unpatriarchal slant has this interesting observation about the “Woman at the Well:”

The text does not say, as most interpreters automatically assume, the woman has been divorced five times but that she has had five husbands. There are many possible reasons for the woman’s marital history, and one should be leery of the dominant explanation of moral laxity. Perhaps the woman . . . is trapped in the custom of levirate marriage and the last male in the family line refused to marry her. Significantly, the reasons for the woman’s marital history intrigue commentators[,] but do not seem to concern Jesus. Nor does Jesus pass moral judgement on the woman because of her marital history and status. All such judgements are imported into the text by interpreters. 2

And – this is me talking– such judgements make the story seemingly inapplicable to most of us. When we make it about a bad sinner, which neither Jesus nor the Bible do, we don’t have to do as the Woman at the Well does because we are not bad sinners. So the story becomes about redemption of folks not like us, you know those bad sinner types. Which is a shame because the story has much more meaning that than that.

The Woman at the Well’s being defamed over the centuries by the patriarchy does help emphasize one of the amazing things about Jesus in the story. He ignores the patriarchal rules. He talks to her. Shares from her cup. Cultural constructs come down. Jewish men were not supposed to speak to unknown women, let alone non-Jewish women strangers. Yet, Jesus does. In fact he does so in a very powerful and honoring way. The Woman at the Well is the very first person to whom Jesus discloses that he is the great “I Am.” Think about that. The first person to know, is a female enemy outcast.

Jesus is remarkable for talking to a woman when he was not supposed to and then he includes her into his circle, she becomes an Apostle, and also the first to hear he is the great I AM! Since this adult woman, not her child, is fetching the water, she’s likely poor and childless, in a society that measures worth in great part by family size. That would make it four strikes against her. Female. Non-Jewish. Poor. Childless. While her morals are not in question, she IS quadruply scorned by the culture. Yet, Jesus talks to her and takes her into his community –and confidence– regardless of this cultural quadruple curse. She is of the lowest value in her world yet Jesus values her, she matters much. He loves her– no strings attached.

Talking to a poor barren Jewish woman would have been bad enough, but a despised Samaritan to boot? It’s nothing short of scandalous. A woman who had multiple men in her life is not the scandal in this story, a respected Rabbi conversing with this cultural low life; daring to sit with her and ask her for water from her enemy-woman-cooties-contaminated drinking pot, that’s the scandal. You just don’t do that. Unless you are acting as God’s hands and feet and voice . . . working to bring in the Empire of God on earth.

Jesus wants us to be like him. The Gospels want us to be like him. 1 John (2:6) puts it like this “Whoever says, ‘I abide in [Christ],’ ought to walk just as he walked.” And you know what? The Woman at the Well walks the walk. Progressive commentators spend a lot of time pointing out how Jesus breaks down barriers in the story, but so does the woman. She is not supposed to talk to Jews or males and certainly not hang around alone with such low-lifes to the Samaritan culture at a well. She’s NOT supposed to serve or help or talk to the likes of Jesus . . . but she does. And she is certainly not supposed to share the news with other Samaritans that a poor homeless Jewish rabbi is the Messiah . . . she does that too. The Woman at the Well breaks down barriers with Jesus. She too is acting as God’s hands and feet and voice . . . working to bring in the Empire of God on earth.

We learn at the start of the lesson today that Christ is thirsty. Christ has an earthly need. And you know who he goes to fulfill that need? A cultural outcast. A nobody. An enemy. The Woman at the Well. We can hear a thirsty Jesus sitting at the well in the heat of mid-day as more than Jesus needing water for his human body. We can hear it as a metaphor for Christ needing us, any of us, to be willing to break down cultural barriers; to stop and listen even when we think we are not supposed to; to hear the Gospel; and carry it to others, spreading its living waters around. No worrying about who we give that water too. They don’t need a proper neck tie or other pedigree to have Christ poured into their being. That’s what this wonderful Woman at the Well does with Jesus.

We are supposed to be the Woman the Well quenching the thirst of self, others and . . . Christ. Hearing the story this way means that we – each of us, no matter what anyone may think– have the ability to do that, to carry Christ’s living waters to others . . . to also be the hands and feet and voice of God. We– you and me– can, like the Woman at the Well, provide a vessel (US!) to carry the living water of Christ around and quench a whole lot of Spiritual thirst in the world.

Did you notice in the story that The Woman at the Well leaves her water jar when she runs off to spread the Good News? She herself is now the vessel full of Christ’s living water. It is just as Christ told her “Those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The Woman at the Well wants that water . . . and she gets it. Her spiritual thirst in quenched and so she runs off telling others bringing the gushing spring of that living water throughout Samaria. Her efforts bring others the living waters of Christ

Those whose thirst is quenched from the Woman at the Well’s vessel get the same living water she got . . . Christ, God incarnate in their lives. She gives them the means through Christ to save themselves from the lesser being they might have been without that living water. In this way of hearing the story we know the Woman at the Well not as a sinner, but as a disciple– an Apostle– one who helps quench the thirst of Christ for humans. She stopped and listened when she was not supposed to. She heard and embraced the Gospel and carried it to others, spreading its living waters around. 3
Once the woman’s own thirst is quenched she’s so excited she shares that news with everyone she could. The Woman at the Well reminds me of this modern Jewish parable:

A man was traveling a long way home on a Greyhound bus and was just about to fall into a sweet nap when suddenly he was jolted awake by the sound of an old woman from the back of the bus: “Oy, am I thirsty, Oy, am I thirsty!” The woman repeated this loudly over and over again every few minutes. “Oy, am I thirsty. Oy, am I thirsty.” Exasperated, the man gets up and brings the woman a bottle of water and goes back to his seat to relax. The bus is quiet again and just as the man nods off he’s jolted awake again by the [sound of the] old lady at the back of the bus: “Oy, vas I thirsty… Oy, vas I thirsty….”

That woman on the bus can be considered someone who likes to complain . . . or she can be thought of as an enlightened one. See, usually when our thirst is taken care of we forget about our former needs and soon the gratitude and joy of the remedy wears off. But the old woman she chants with joy, gratitude and contentment: “Oy, vas I thirsty!” 3. She sounds a lot like the Woman at the Well to me.

May we all proclaim to the world – especially those who are metaphorically asleep – the joyful news that our spiritual thirst is being quenched by the living waters of Christ. And may the living waters of Christ gush up in us forever and always.


* based on a sermon I wrote in 2011
1. I found this joke by an unnamed author posted on the Internet at this site: http://freefunnyjokes.blogspot.com/2007/05/dying-of-thirst-in-dessert-joke.html
2.Women’s Bible Commentary, p 384.
3 This idea was influenced by the commentary in Feasting on the Word by Anna Carter Florence (Year A, vol 2, pages 92-97) where she writes (among others things): “Jesus is thirsty at the well and we are the ones with the bucket.” (p.95).
4. Adapted from a note posted by Rabbi Yossi Marcus at http://www.chabadnp.com/templates/blog/post_cdo/AID/1182064/PostID/17341