March 19, 2017

Living Water

Passage: Exodus 17:1-7, Psalm 95, Romans 5:1-11, John 4:5-42
Service Type:

Jesus answered her, ‘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 know the importance of water for all forms of life. While water covers 71% of the earth’s surface only 2.5% of this water is freshwater. Canada has about 20% of the world’s total freshwater resources. So when we Canadians, who have all the freshwater we desire available at the opening of a tap, read the conversation between Jesus and the woman of Samaria about water we may miss the acute sense of water as a treasure that was part of the psyche of first century Israelites and Samaritans.

In Canada when I go hiking in the mountains I always know that I can refill my water bottle at a mountain stream. Yes, water is important to me. But in an arid place like first century Israel where water sources are limited the vital nature of water for my life gets highlighted. When Jesus and this woman discuss water we know they are in a conversation about what is known as vital matters. And, that Jesus would uses water as an image to describe what he offers—“living water”—speaks of something so vital that we simply cannot do without it. In other words, water is vital but living water is crucial.

As we consider this story, keep in mind that Israel has essentially one freshwater lake—the Sea of Galilee. It is 21 kilometers long and about 13 kilometers wide. Its surface area is 166.7 km2. By comparison, Lake Ontario, the smallest of the Great Lakes, is about 1,146 kilometers long and its surface area is 18,960 km2. The Sea of Galilee would be about twice as big as Lake Muskoka (Ontario). The place where Jesus meets the woman of Samaria is known as Jacob’s well. People have been drawing water from this well for over 1500 years when Jesus arrived that day. Sources of water are treasured places and for people of the first century it was very important to know where they were. (A Greek Orthodox Church stands over the site of Jacob’s well today and water can still be drawn.)

In a sense Jesus is acting out a living parable this day. Standing beside a treasured water source vital for life he speaks of himself as living water—the water absolutely necessary for life. Water that gushes up to eternal life

Today in Israel water remains a treasure. 90% of all waste water is repurposed for agriculture and other like endeavours. Roughly 40% of their drinking water comes from desalination plants; saltwater is taken from the Mediterranean Sea and is filtered churning out clean drinking water. Water is precious. Had Jesus come in this century perhaps he would have gone to the desalination plant to make this point. In either case, the well or the desalination, both witness that water is vital. The point that Jesus makes is this; just as you know that water is essential for earthly life, the water he gives is essential for eternal life. The water he gives really is the source of life. Will we ask for this water?

1. It is very important to note that while water is metaphor or parable for that which is essential to life our Lord’s claim is ever so much more than a parable. Jesus speaks of himself as living water. Jesus’ claim is that he is water in that he alone quenches life’s profoundest thirst. He is “living” water in that he is alive himself and satisfies parched people by giving them himself as they come to know what it is to live in his company, under his authority, suffused with his Spirit. He wouldn’t be “living” water if he offered them a formula, guidelines, principles, schemes or techniques. He is “living” water just because he is alive himself with the life of God and he draws men and women into the life that he is.

The early church exulted in the one who was life-giving water and who unfailingly lent fruitfulness to human existence. Peter writes to Christian friends, “You believe in him with unutterable and exalted joy.” Paul cries, “He loved me, and gave himself – for me.” John exclaims, “We know that we have passed out of death into life.” And the unknown author of Hebrews insists, “We have tasted the powers of the Age to Come.”

What the apostles exclaim in their ardour; what wells up out of them and spills over onto us; they don’t regard this as extraordinary or secret or meant only for a privileged few. Unselfconsciously they speak as they do because they have tasted Jesus Christ for themselves and have found that he satisfies so thoroughly as to leave them looking no farther. Their experience of their Lord has assured them that his claim to turn the desert of people’s lives into garden; their experience here has confirmed his claim as truth and confirmed him as reality. Seeking nothing else and no one else, their one task now is to announce the Nazarene as humankind’s hope.

A scan of a newspaper or a scroll through social media site or browsing titles in a book store and it is evident that people are thirsty. Our headlong pursuit of entertainment of all kinds witnesses, I believe, that a profound human thirst is not being satisfied. The fact that there is so much talk about making meaning and asserting personal identity reveals that such things remain elusive. The proliferation of causes to join, promote, and raise awareness for reveals a hunger for something that matters. The world is thirsty.

When we come to church we bring with us the hurts and ills and challenges common to humanity. As much as the desalination plants that turn the salt water of oceans into drinking water would be fascinating technology to talk about, we don’t come to church to hear about such things. We come because we are thirsty with a thirst nothing else in our world can meet. Whether or not we use the language of the apostles, we long for that of which the apostles speak. I am aware that people come expecting their spiritual leader to be acquainted with the “living water;” expecting her or him to be a means whereby they can come to taste it.

The Apostle John distinguishes between two Greek words we could translate for life—between biological life (bios) and the fullness of life (zoe) that is itself a source and so is not subject to the dying and becoming that mark the whole creation. Here in the gospel when the Apostle says that of Jesus “In him was life, and the life was the light of all people” it is this word for the source of life that he uses. It same word Jesus uses when he says he is “living water.” He is the real life-force which quenches humanity’s deeper thirst and gives plenitude of life, for which humanity is waiting without knowing it.

2. So here is this “living water” standing by the well that day as the woman of Samaria approaches. She sees Jesus there and assumes he is thirsty too. (Why else would he be standing by a well?) Jesus has no bucket to draw water so he asks her for a drink. Why didn’t he bring a bucket, she may wonder? Noticing that Jesus was Jewish, and painfully aware that Jews and Samaritans had been hostile for centuries, she shot back, “You, a Jew, are asking an inferior Samaritan like me for a drink? Jews don’t stoop to ask Samaritans for anything.” Jesus replied, “If you knew God’s gift of living water; if you knew who I am, you’d be asking me for a drink.”

She misses the point entirely, and continues in her off-hand, semi-flirtatious way, “You’re the only person I’ve ever seen who goes to a well without a bucket.” Ignoring her banter, Jesus speaks to her again, once more at a depth she doesn’t apprehend: “If you drink the water I give, you will never thirst again.” She misses the point yet again and playfully retorts, “Give me your super-duper water, then; at least it will spare me a daily trip to this well.”

Isn’t this the misunderstanding overheard today between believer and unbeliever, between church and world, between those who have “tasted the powers of the age to come” and those who look upon churchgoers as stuck in an antiquated habit? We talk but there isn’t perception. Perception that the church is the instrument of the living Lord whereby he renders available without number his own gift of living water without limit.

3. Do you play tricks on your children or grandchildren? Recently Valerie told one of our grandsons that she knew a number he would pick before he picked it. So she asked him to pick a number between 1 and 5. He said three. Next she directed him to an object on the fireplace mantel and told him to look under it. He found a note stuck to the bottom that said, “I knew you’d pick the number 3.” Now surprised, and maybe a little frightened, our grandson is trying to figure out how his grandmother could be so insightful.

Jesus in not playing tricks. Just when the Samaritan woman overcome her shyness at having a strange man—and the enemy of her people at that—chit-chat with her, Jesus ends the chit-chat. “Why don’t you go get your husband and bring him here?” Suddenly the time of banter, casual chit-chat, evasiveness; it’s over. Suddenly it’s truth-time. “My husband?” the woman gasps, “I don’t have a husband.” “You are right,” continues Jesus, “you don’t have a husband. You’ve had five husbands. And the man you are currently living with isn’t one of them.” Reeling now, she knows that the game she was enjoying with Jesus has ended.

So too with us. Jesus Christ forces self-perception upon us, the self-perception we’ve lacked for years just because we’ve preferred to be without it, as he puts any number of questions to us:
“Go call your alienated child.” “Produce your income tax return.” “Show me the lonely person needing comfort for whom you gave up leisure time.” “Bring back the person your tongue slew.”
Unfailingly he directs our attention to that area of our lives whose desert remains desert just because living water has never been seen there. He gets our attention by shattering our illusion of self-sufficiency and complacency.

The result? How did it end for the Samaritan woman? We must note that she isn’t crushed; she doesn’t collapse. She doesn’t say to our Lord, “All right; you’ve pulled the skeletons out of my closet. I give up. There’s no hope for me.” So far from being crushed, she’s elated. Thrilled at her encounter with the Master, she runs off to tell her story to the townspeople. Her encounter with Jesus has done for her what nothing else has ever done or was ever going to do. To be sure, it has held a mirror up to her and forced her to look into it. What has stared back at her can scarcely be called pretty. On the other hand, because Jesus Christ is more than mirror; because he comes to move us beyond the penultimate truth to the ultimate truth about us; because he informs us of the bad news about us only to sharpen our hearing for the good news, the Samaritan woman is set on her feet with her heart rejoicing. Now she sees herself no longer rejected but accepted; no longer condemned but pardoned; no longer slinking around in shame but honoured. “This man is truth,” she exclaims to her neighbours; “He is truth and life for all of us.”

C.S. Lewis knew for many years a nameless, profound longing that haunted him and which he couldn’t identify. One day he saw that the nameless longing haunting him was the question the Master was addressing to him. On that day his long-studied avoidance, his evasiveness born of years of self-willed agnosticism; on that day all of this evaporated as his resistance to the Master crumbled. I think that Lewis writes of his own experience in his novels the Chronicles of Narnia.

In The Silver Chair, C.S. Lewis tells the story of a young girl named Jill. She's in the land of Narnia, and she's thirsty. At once she sees a magnificent stream . . . and a fearsome lion (Aslan, who represents the Lord Jesus):

"If I run away, it'll be after me in a moment," thought Jill. "And if I go on, I shall run straight into its mouth." Anyway, she couldn't have moved if she had tried, and she couldn't take her eyes off it. How long this lasted, she could not be sure; it seemed like hours. And the thirst became so bad that she almost felt she would not mind being eaten by the Lion if only she could be sure of getting a mouthful of water first. . . .
"Are you not thirsty?" said the Lion. "I'm dying of thirst," said Jill. "Then drink," said the Lion.
"May I, could I, would you mind going away while I do?" said Jill.
The Lion answered this only by a look and a very low growl. And as Jill gazed at its motionless bulk, she realized that she might as well have asked the whole mountain to move aside for her convenience. The delicious rippling noise of the stream was driving her nearly frantic.
"Will you promise not to do anything to me, if I do come?" said Jill. "I make no promise," said the Lion. Jill was so thirsty now that, without noticing it, she had come a step nearer. "Do you eat girls?" she said.

"I have swallowed up girls and boys, women and men, kings and emperors, cities and realms," said the Lion. It didn't say this as if it were boasting, nor as if it were sorry, nor as if it were angry. It just said it.
"I daren't come and drink," said Jill. "Then you will die of thirst," said the Lion. "Oh dear!" said Jill, coming another step nearer. "I suppose I must go and look for another stream then."

"There is no other stream," said the Lion. It never occurred to Jill to disbelieve the Lion, no one who had seen his stern face could do that and her mind suddenly made itself up.
It was the worst thing she had ever had to do, but she went straight to the stream, knelt down, and began scooping up water in her hand. It was the coldest, most refreshing water she had ever tasted. You didn't need to drink much of it, for it quenched your thirst at once. Before she tasted it she had been intending to make a dash away from the Lion the moment she had finished. Now, she realized that this would be on the whole the most dangerous thing of all.

Jesus answered her, ‘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.’