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by Douglas L. Moschella Clark

based on John 4:1-42

Susan in San Pedro tells this story. “When my older son was in kindergarten, he had a wonderful Sunday School teacher named Miss Olivia who loved to tell Bible stories. A southern lady with a classic southern accent, she had great dramatic flair and was a real hit with the kids. One Sunday, I asked the customary ‘what did you learn in Sunday School today’ question, only to be told ‘We heard about Jesus and the whale.’ ‘No, honey,’ I said, ‘it was JONAH and the whale.’ ‘Nope, Mom -- Miss Olivia told us about JESUS and the whale.’ Seminary training left me clueless, so I tried, ‘Tell me the story, then.’ And he began, ‘Jesus was thirsty and he went to the 'whale' for some water ... and there he met this woman.’”

It is the first third of the first century of the common era. Jews and Samaritans despise each other. Jews think Samaritans are heretics and half-breeds--even though Jews and Samaritans both acknowledge the first five books of the Bible as sacred scripture. Jewish documents contain numerous warnings to rabbis not to speak to women in public. Marriage is held in honor--and those who have been through several failed marriages are held in contempt. Finally, drawing water from the well is women’s work, done by women who come in groups to the well in the cool of the morning or the cool of the evening, not in the heat of midday.

It is the first third of the first century of the common era. Jesus, a Jew from Galilee, has been to Jerusalem for the Passover festival. Now he is on his way, on foot, back to Galilee, taking the short route through Samaria. It is the heat of midday. Jesus is wearied by his journey, and is thankful that he has come to Jacob’s well at the foot of Mount Gerizim. He knows that he is in hostile territory, but he’s not particularly worried that anyone else would show up at Jacob’s well in the middle of the day.

In the shimmering heat, Jesus observes a woman with a water jar walking slowly toward the well. Noticing him at about the same time, she stops, hesitates. He is a stranger, someone she’s never seen before, not from around here. Her thirst overcomes her hesitation, so she steps forward, hoping he won’t speak to her, hoping she can just draw water and return home.

“Cautiously she approaches the well, gripping her water jar tightly. She tries not to look at the stranger. But out of the corner of her eye, she notices his sweat, his weariness, and the dust on his feet. And for the first time she also notices, with some alarm, his Jewish prayer shawl. Trying to steady her hand, she reaches for the rope. A bright flash of reflected sunlight stabs her eyes from the bottom of the well. She senses the coolness of the well. It is getting very hot.

“‘Could I trouble you for a drink of water?’

“The words are spoken softly. She almost misses hearing them...but not because of their volume. He, a Jewish man, spoke to her, a Samaritan woman....

“Perhaps it was the fear. Or maybe tiredness from bearing all the freight of her life, compounded by this intrusion into her routine, about the only thing she could depend on these days. Perhaps it was chiefly her increasing thirst. Maybe all of these; but for whatever reason, she was suddenly exasperated. She just wanted some water, and to be left alone. She was surprised by the force of her own reply. ‘A drink of water?’re a Jew, and you’re asking a woman of Samaria for a drink?’”

‘Well, actually, no,’ he says. ‘I have living water for you. Not like the water you draw from this well and drink when you are thirsty--for you will be just as thirsty tomorrow. The water you can draw from me will become in you like a spring of water welling up to eternal life, and you will never be thirsty again.’

‘Sir,’ she replies, a mixture of curiosity and respect in her voice, ‘give me this water, that I may not thirst, nor come here to draw.’

‘I will give you this water,’ he responds, ‘for I know how thirsty you are. I know how much pain you are in from your broken relationships and your status as an outcast among the women of your village and your exclusion from the holy place on the mountain. Come to me, and I will give you rest.’

‘Sir,’ she replies, ‘I perceive that you are a prophet. Can you settle this longstanding dispute we Samaritans have with you Jews about the right place and the right way to worship God?’

‘It is not a matter of proper place or proper liturgy,’ Jesus answers. ‘It is a matter of spirit and truth. For God is Spirit, and those who worship God must worship in spirit and in truth.’

Just then Jesus’ disciples arrive. They are speechless with shock when they discover that their Teacher is talking with a Samaritan woman. She senses their disapprobation, leaves her water jar by the well, and goes back to her village to invite her neighbors to meet this man who told her all that she ever did, who is a prophet and who may be the Messiah. And they come with her, drawn to the well by the power of her testimony, and they meet Jesus, and they learn in their own experience that he is the Savior of the world.

What a stunning reversal at Jacob’s well. Despised and rejected because she is a Samaritan, a woman, a person with a history of failed marriages, an outcast woman drinks deeply of Jesus’ living water and becomes the first successful Christian evangelist. She thirsts no more. And because her testimony leads others to Jesus, they too thirst no more.

Here is another outcast woman’s testimony to the living water of her faith. She is a contemporary of ours. Her name is Amanda Udis-Kessler, and I take her testimony from Whosoever: An Online News Journal For Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgendered Christians. (This online journal takes its name from John 3:16: “...whosoever believeth in him shall not perish, but have everlasting life.”)

Amanda Udis-Kessler writes: “Faith, at heart, offers me liberation -- liberation from the bondage of my low self-esteem, shame, self-hatred, self-sabotaging behaviors and other manifestations of my own personal demons.

“Faith also, and no less importantly, offers me release from the bondage of worshipping the gods of conventional wisdom, money and "success," and faith sustains me in my attempts to live morally rather than self-centeredly.

“While I would not (could not!) claim to be so liberated all the time, my faith has made a tremendous difference in affording me the opportunity to move forward in the face of my own doubt and other people's hostility or indifference. This is true both in terms of my devalued statuses (such as my gender and bisexuality) and my privileged ones (such as my being white and middle-class).

“My faith has thus enabled me to enhance the amount of energy that I devote to giving my best to the world. If God really loves me totally and completely, I might as well stop hating myself, and if God accepts me as I am, I might as well do my best to accept myself similarly.

“Contemplating these insights, I find peace, joy, freedom and strength. Called to help rather than driven to fear, I am free to go work and create and do my toiling in the fields out of joy, gratitude, service to others and similar motives that follow from my experience of God's love.

“I don't need to produce frantically in order to prove that I deserve to exist on the planet. I don't need to own "beautiful" things or be a "beautiful" person. I just need to be myself, doing the best I can, but never failing to challenge myself to give a little more back to the world.”

Yes, Jesus does give us living water. Living water wells up like a refreshing spring within us. Living water liberates us from the bondage of self-hatred or social exclusion. Living water liberates long-dormant resources within us of peace, joy, compassion, strength, gratitude: so that we are called to help rather than driven to fear.

Jesus gives us living water. An unnamed woman of Samaria, in spite of her hesitation and misgivings, was drawn to Jacob’s well to encounter Jesus, who gave her a drink of living water. So we also, whatever our hesitations and misgivings, are drawn by story and sacrament to encounter Jesus, wherever our own thirst needs quenching, that we too might drink of living water and never thirst again. Thanks and praise be to God! Amen.