Sunday, March 19, 2017

Life-Giving Water

Third Sunday in Lent (Year A)
Exodus 17.1-7; John 4.5-42
St. Gregory’s, Long Beach

Humans can survive three weeks without food, but only three days without water. Even fewer in less hospitable environments like deserts. Water is absolutely critical to maintaining life. As we’ve seen in our own state, now in the sixth year of drought, with California being the driest it’s been in 500 years, access to water is an increasingly major concern. So critical is this precious resource that many experts are now saying that the major regional, even global, wars of the future will not be over access to oil or food or land, but over access to water. 

In 1993, the United Nations General Assembly officially designated March 22 as World Water Day. World Water Day is about taking action to tackle the water crisis. Today, there are over 663 million people living without a safe water supply close to home, spending countless hours queuing or trekking to distant sources, and coping with the health impacts of using contaminated water. The Sustainable Development Goals, launched in 2015, include a target to ensure everyone has access to safe water by 2030, making water a key issue in the fight to eradicate extreme poverty (source).

Against this backdrop, our lectionary readings for this Sunday – a mere three days before Word Water Day – just happen to be about water. About access to water. Our lectionary readings were set long before the designation of World Water Day. While pure happenstance, one might question if there was a little divine inspiration at work.

In our first reading from Exodus, Israel is wandering in the desert. They are thirsty for water, so they cry out to God, “Give us water to drink” (Ex 17.2). Their thirst for water, while very real, is symbolic of a deeper thirst. A thirst for God, for assurance of God’s presence among the people. At God’s command, Moses strikes a rock, bringing forth a stream of water. In this act, God, through Moses, demonstrates his presence among his people. This is God’s gracious provision to his people. They receive water that sustains them physically in their desert journey. And they receive the assurance of spiritual sustenance through the presence of God, symbolized by that water. They see God once again bring life from a totally unexpected place.

And water plays a key role in our Gospel reading, as well. The encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well is the longest pericope in the Gospels. The longest recorded conversation between Jesus and another person. And it’s about water. Stopping by Jacob’s well, deep in Samaritan territory, Jesus asks a Samaritan woman for a drink of water. The woman is puzzled that Jesus, obviously a Jew, would even speak to her, let alone ask for something from her.

First off, there was a great, centuries-old animosity between Jews and Samaritans. Contact between the two peoples was prohibited. Second, she is a woman. A Jewish rabbi would never publically speak to a woman. And to top it all off, this particular woman was clearly a sinner of note. She has had five husbands and is now living with a man who is not her husband. Why, because of this alone, she is even shunned by her own people. Hence her coming to the well alone in the hottest part of the day, instead of coming with the other women of the village in the cooler, morning hours. Such is her shame.

In response to the woman’s expression of puzzlement of these clear breaches of social norms, Jesus says, “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” (Jn 4.10). This leads to an almost theological discussion about water – physical water as a symbol for something deeper, which Jesus refers to as “living water.” After lengthy discussion, it is apparent that Jesus is this “living water.” The Samaritan woman comes to realize that Jesus is the Messiah who, just as water gives life, is the one who gives eternal life.

The woman is so moved by this encounter that she returns to her village, where she puts aside her shame and the ridicule of her neighbors to tell them what she has experienced. She demands to be heard. “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” (Jn 4.29). And she is heard. Through her personal testimony, even though she was initially disrespected by them, the people of her village come to believe who Jesus is. In John’s telling of the Gospel story, this woman proclaims the first public profession of faith.

Jesus reaches across barriers that separate him from the woman – barriers of nationality, religion, gender, her implied promiscuity, whatever sins she has committed. These meant nothing to him. He is willing to reveal his identity, not to his disciples, not to other Jews, not to religious leaders, but to this woman who was marginalized in so many ways. All he saw was a child of God in need of his love, his grace, his mercy. He treats her with dignity and respect. The woman is surprised that Jesus knows so much about her. That he knows the truth about her. She is even more surprised that, knowing what he does about her, Jesus accepts her anyway. For her, this is truly an encounter with the holy. And this encounter enables her to be profoundly transformed and to find a new identity as a beloved child of God.

In her new identity, made possible by the gift of living water that Jesus provides her, through the gift of his love and mercy, she finds the courage she needs to forgive herself and to look beyond what others may think of her. She demands the respect of having her voice heard – a voice that opens the way for others to receive what she has received. By proclaiming to others what she has experienced, the Samaritan woman demonstrates one of the prime characteristics of discipleship repeated throughout John’s Gospel – that of becoming a faithful witness.

So important is the example and the testimony of the Samaritan woman that the Eastern Orthodox branch of Christianity has honored her with a name – Photina, which means “Enlightened One.” In the Russian Orthodox Church, she is named Svetlana, and is celebrated annually as “equal to the apostles,” acknowledging the significant effect of the word she proclaimed. I don’t know why we, in the Western branch of the Church, have not embraced her with equal honor. For us, she is just the Samaritan woman at the well. But she is, nonetheless, one of the best examples of how Jesus approaches all those whom he encounters. That he sees beyond those barriers that we or others create to separate us one from another; those barriers that often also seek to separate us from God. He reaches beyond those barriers and offers himself to us out of love. And the Samaritan woman is a wonderful example of the transformation that can occur, if we just let it. An example of the perfect response to be made in that transformation – to share Christ with others. To invite others to “come and see.”

Since the fourth century, this story of the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman has been used to explain Christian baptism. That baptism is the living water that cleanses us, transforms us, makes us new. But there is another aspect of this living water that we need to always keep in mind, particularly during this season of Lent, as we move ever closer to Easter and the time when we renew our baptismal vows.

The story of the waters at Meribah and Massah in Exodus and the story of Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well illustrate the importance of water. Both stories start with the need for water to sustain physical life. But as we see in both the people of Israel crying out to God and in Jesus’ offer to the woman at the well, we also have need of that which sustains our spiritual lives. To accomplish this, God provides water flowing from the rock, symbolizing his presence with them. Jesus offers the woman living water, transforming and nourishing her own spirit. Not only do these waters lead to renewed spiritual life. Living water symbolizes the health and vitality of our spiritual lives. For living water is always moving, always flowing. Like a stream or river. So, too, our spiritual lives must always be moving, on a journey, always progressing, lest they become stagnant. Ever carrying us forward into deeper relationship with our Lord who loves us so much that he gives us the living water that sustains us on our journey, that leads to new life.

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