Living water

Now Jesus had to go through Samaria. He came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon.

A Samaritan woman came to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.)

The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)

Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”

Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?”

Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”

He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.”

“I have no husband,” she replied.

Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.”

“Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”

“Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”

The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”

Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.”

John 4:4-25


This story isn’t a new one. Most of you have probably heard the story about Jesus meeting the woman at the well.

Jesus was out walking on one of those hot summer days, the kind of day when the heat just beats down on your head. You feel like your brains are getting fried.

It was about noon – the hottest time of the day. Nobody goes out in that kind of heat, unless they really need to. In sensible countries, it’s the time of day when people have lunch and then take a nap.

Anyway, a woman comes to the well, and Jesus asks her for a drink. Now, there’s a complication to the story here, because Jesus was a Jew, and the woman was a Samaritan.

The Jews and the Samaritans shared a common religious heritage. They were both descended from Moses, and they read the same Scriptures. But they were mortal enemies. Jews and Samaritans didn’t have anything to do with each other. During the centuries before this story takes place, they had even formed military alliances with other countries against each other. Part of why Israel broke into pieces and was destroyed, was that the Jews and the Samaritans hated each other more than they hated their real enemies.

From that point of view, this story feels very up-to-date to me. Our country is deeply divided. Just like the Jews and the Samaritans, we share a common heritage. We share the same land. We breathe the same air. We live in the same cities. But we’re divided, and I think that’s wrong.

You’ve heard people talk about someone who never knew a stranger. Well, Jesus was like that. But Jesus went further. Jesus never knew an enemy. Jesus refused to draw lines, and Jesus crossed lines all the time. I think we should try to be more like Jesus, and pay less attention to the people who are deepening the division.

Anyway, Jesus asks this woman for a drink. And she said, “Who do you think you are? Don’t you see who I am? We’re enemies!” And Jesus answered, “If you only knew what God is offering, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink’, you would have been the one to ask, and he would have given you living water. . .”

That’s what I’d like us to center on this morning. The there are lots of interesting details, but that’s the place where I’d like us to stop in the story.

Jesus asked for a drink of water. It was such a simple thing to ask for. In one place in the gospels, Jesus said, “If you give a drink to the least of my brothers and sisters, you do it to Me. . .” (Matthew 25:40)

In another place, Jesus says, “Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones. . .truly I tell you, that person will not lose their reward. . .” (Matthew 10:42)

I visit people in the hospital, and sometimes the person I’m visiting is so weak that they can’t even reach for a drink of water on their own. Sometimes their mouths are so dry, the greatest gift I can offer them, is to wipe their lips and their tongue with a damp swab or a moist towel. It’s as though our whole world shrinks down to the place where a drink of water is the only thing that matters any more.

I remember reading this same Scripture once, when there was a story in the news about young man, 24 years old, collapsed and died on his first day on a construction job. They brought him into the emergency room. He had a temperature of 107 degrees. The heat-regulating system of his body was destroyed. They couldn’t save him.

What he really needed to do, was to get out of the sun, into the shade, get a drink, and cool down. It was a tragedy, because this wasn’t out in the middle of the desert. He was right in the city, and there were people working right beside him. He could have stopped. I’m sure they had a big cooler full of ice water somewhere nearby.

He died, because he didn’t do what he needed to do, what his body must have been telling him to do. There’s a point in heat exhaustion where people become irrational, where they stop making any kind of sense. They just keep on, until they collapse. And maybe they die. God have mercy – what a tragedy. And so completely avoidable. A life lost, and a family destroyed, because of something as simple as a drink of water.

All of these gospel stories function on more than one level. There’s the outward or surface level. Jesus wanted a drink. We all get thirsty on hot days. And then there’s the inner or deeper or sub-surface level. I think we’re often tempted to call it the higher or the holier meaning, but I think it’s the deeper meaning. Spirituality isn’t always something lofty. Sometimes the spiritual meaning almost feels like it’s subterranean.

Jesus said, “If you only knew what God is offering, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink’, you would have been the one to ask, and he would have given you living water. . .”

That phrase “living water” is worth exploring for just a minute. It literally means water that’s moving. It’s not water that’s stagnant, sitting in a ditch or at the bottom of a well. It’s water that’s moving. It’s overflowing. It can’t be stopped. The phrase Jesus used literally meant living water, water that was alive.

He said, “Whoever drinks of the water [from this well] will be thirsty again, but those who drink the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that will give will become in them a spring of water overflowing to eternal life. . .”

So, we’re talking about a drink of cold water on a hot summer day. But we’re also talking about something else here. We’re talking about physical thirst. But we’re also talking about spiritual thirst. They’re both important. They’re both real.

Just like that young man I told you about, there are people who are dying of physical thirst. But there are also people who are in that same kind of irrational, out-of-control, crash-burn-and-die spiritual thirst as well. It’s spiritual thirst, but it’s just as real as the physical kind.

I see it all the time in people I talk with, in counseling or in conversation. I see it, on a gigantic scale, in our society. People are thirsty in their hearts. They’re dying, because they’re all dried up inside. People will turn to anything, anything at all, even poison, because they’re trying to fill that empty, dried-up place. But it doesn’t work, and somewhere deep down, we all know it.

Let me tell you another story. Our family has a cabin up in the mountains in Vermont, where we go in the summer. We’ve always had water problems there. My great-aunt Marion, who first bought the place, had this tiny little well by the side of the road. When I was a boy, we’d go out to the well and work the old pump handle up and down, up and down.

Almost every summer, we ran out of water. We had to use water from a rain barrel for everything – to wash the dishes, to clean the clothes, even to flush the toilet. The rain barrel water was full of algae, and it was pretty awful.

When I was about 5 years old, my great-aunt had a new well dug, down at the bottom of the field. They went down about six feet, and they hit solid granite ledge. The guy she had digging the well was a local farmer, and he drilled a ring of 8 or 10 holes in a circle, about six feet around, and put dynamite in them. They told me to get way back, and I was so scared I went and hid under the bed. I waited a long time, and peeked out just as they set off the dynamite charge. BOOM! Rocks and dirt flew up 100 feet in the air. They kept on digging, and they finally hit water about 20 feet down.

We used that well for 50 years. And it still went dry, almost every summer. We’d have to go down to the lake to wash ourselves and get clean, and we’d carry water in big jerry cans up from the village, and go over to my parent’s house every week to do the laundry.

Finally, my mom got sick of it. We had a bad drought year, and wells dried up all over the state. My mom paid a professional well drilling crew, and they bored a new well just 50 feet from the house, instead of 200 yards away at the bottom of the field. They went down only 100 feet, and they hit a major underground stream. It tested out at over 100 gallons a minute.

For 100 years, our family had been living there, always short of water – and it was right beneath us, all the time.

Jesus talked about living water in that same kind of way. God’s love, God’s life, God’s spirit aren’t that far away. They’re not “up there” some place where we have to climb up to get them. Holiness isn’t something “high up”, in outer space somewhere, and it doesn’t just sit around, getting stagnant.

Jesus said that God’s living water is underneath us, just waiting for us to tap into it. It’s like hidden springs.

They say one of the reasons people called this place Springfield is that there were seven springs on the property. I don’t know if that’s really true, but I know there’s a lot of water around here, in little brooks and cricks and streams that wander over the land. I’d like to survey our meeting property some time, see if that’s true. I think we have more water than we realize.

Jesus said that God’s life was overflowing. He didn’t mean that the love and strength and grace of God was just a little trickle. I think he meant more like “Old Faithful”, that geyser at Yellowstone Park. “There she blows! Whoosh! Get out of the way!” That’s a better metaphor.

Some people act as though prayer is sort of like taking little bitty sips of water – not too much! – out of a very clean glass, while we lift our pinkies very properly. Better yet, use a straw, or an eyedropper. It’s dignified, and it’s hygienic. Boil and filter before drinking – that’s how we often treat prayer.

But when Jesus was at the well this morning, he probably took a real big drink. Then he probably took the rest of the bucket, and dumped it over his head. Isn’t that what real people do, on a really hot day? If there was any left over, he probably sloshed it onto his feet, too.

I think there’s straw-sipping prayer, and there’s guzzle-dump-and-slosh prayer. The point is, that we get to the living water, in whatever way really works.

I spent my boyhood up along the shore of the Great Lakes. Did you know that they’re the largest source of fresh water in the whole world? It’s true. 20% of all the fresh water in the world is there. One-fifth of the fresh water in the whole world. But instead of treating it as an incredible, precious resource, people dumped chemicals and asbestos and sewage and all kinds of horrible stuff in the lakes.

Instead of thinking about prayer as drinking in little sips, think about that huge expanse of freshwater ocean. It’s big enough to carry ships. Prayer is like setting sail on an ocean – it’s not keeping bottled water in the icebox.

Or to use a different image from summer time, what if prayer was sort of like going out in the back yard under the sprinkler, or playing around with the hose and getting each other wet. Did you ever do that as a kid? Everyone laughing and yelling and having fun? Why does prayer have to be so serious?

I know we pray for important things, and painful things, and sometimes we pray, “God, I’m thirsty, and I’m out in the desert, and I don’t think I’m going to make it this time. If you don’t give me a drink, God, I’m going to die!” But prayer is also about joy. Prayer is also about life, and celebration.

When you pray and go deep, you learn about grace and forgiveness. You learn that God’s love is inexhaustible, an overflowing stream. Christian faith is about knowing what living water really is. It’s hope, and it’s discovery.

Later on in this morning’s gospel reading – we didn’t read that far – Jesus told the Samaritan woman – the woman who was supposed to be his enemy! – “The place doesn’t matter. The politics don’t matter. People who worship God, worship in spirit and in truth – that’s all that God really wants.”

However we pray, if it works, it’s OK. If the words feel right, if they’re honest, if they’re the truth, then they’re the right words. Don’t worry about anything else!

The point is to get to that living water Jesus talks about, the water which really satisfies our hearts and our minds. Drink it, sip it, slosh it, go out sailing and swimming in it, go out in the yard and play in it. Get wet all over. Share it with your friends. But don’t go thirsty. God wants us to live, not die. God wants us to be blessed, not cursed.

Pray for yourself. Pray for your friends. Pray for our country, and pray for peace. It’s just a prayer away.

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