March 12, 2023 – Third Sunday in Lent – John 4:5-42
According to the United Nations, one in four people around the world lack safe drinking water – meaning that only 25% of people worldwide have access to water on their premises, available when needed, and free from dangerous contamination. One in four people. We forget sometimes, just how privileged we are to have clean water at the turn of tap. Tricia and I were reflecting on how we take water instantly available for granted. We were prompted by amazon photos this week to remember how we had redone our kitchen in Pennsylvania a few years back. It was just one independent contractor doing all the work, so the progress was slow – like it took three months. And during most of that time, we did not have access to running water on the main floor of the house. That meant we had to go upstairs to use the bathroom. That wasn’t so bad. We were used to it because, before the renovation, our first floor powder room hadn’t been functional. The lack of water on the first floor was also inconvenient for cooking. But then since we also didn’t have an oven or stove during that time, most of our meals were microwavable anyway. But in my memory, the biggest inconvenience was having to take our dirty dishes down to the utility sink in the basement – which was a pain, and kind of gross because it was an unfinished basement. I distinctly recall stacking up clean dishes on the washing machine . . . and I also distinctly recall that I was not always in a particularly good humor about it. (I will also confess that we used way more paper plates during those three months than we should have!) We are not only privileged in our access to safe water, we also expect to turn on the tap and get as much as we need. So it’s hard, I think, for us in this time and place to appreciate just how different the ancient world was. There was certainly no indoor plumbing in Jesus’ day, making a daily trip to the well a necessity, carrying a jar – probably not unlike this one – with which to fetch the water.
Jars, actually, were important objects in biblical culture. Generally speaking, jars were probably plain, probably made out of clay, and they were used for many different things. Because they were made of clay, they would have broken easily. But the ancients could teach us a thing or two about recycling because they used even broken pieces of pottery. Large pieces were used as ladles. Smaller pieces could be used to carry coals of fire from one household to another, or as scrap paper upon which to practice writing, or even in first aid, to scrape wounds, because clay was believed to have healing qualities. I even read the suggestion that water pots, in particular, might have had sacred value to Middle Easterners. They saw the clay of the jar as similar to the clay which God used to form our bodies, and they saw the water that the jar holds as corresponding to God’s spirit within us. Jars were valued, both practically and spiritually. Which makes it all the more perplexing that the Samaritan woman left the well without water – which she would have needed – and without her jar – which would have been valuable.
The truth is, we’ll never know why she left her jar at the well. Maybe there’s a simple explanation. It could be that she just plain forgot it, though that seems unlikely. It could be that she was in a hurry to get back to the village to tell others about what her conversation with Jesus, and she didn’t want to be slowed down by dragging along an empty jar, especially when she knew she would need to come back for the water eventually. But I kind of think that this interesting little detail of the story adds symbolic value. The woman came seeking the ordinary, garden-variety of water in her ordinary, garden-variety clay jar: water that would quench her thirst in the noontime heat. But when she talked with Jesus, she became aware of other “thirsty” places in her life. She was clearly thirsty for love. Apparently she had been unlucky in love, having been married five times. She may have been thirsty for forgiveness. Looking at her, Jesus had known her track record with marriage, and when he brought it up, she may well have felt guilty. Or maybe she was thirsty for acceptance. The fact that she had been at the well, in the heat of the day, all by herself, when the custom would have been to come in groups of women early in the morning – her being there all alone at noon surely indicates that she was an outcast in her community. Whatever made her thirsty, it was a deeper kind of thirst than just a for water – and she knew that there was something in this person, in this Jesus, that could meet those needs. It was as if she had discovered a new well and she drank deeply. She came for water from the well. She left with living water, the kind of water that could not be carried in a jar, the kind that would never leave her thirsty. The living water that Jesus gives can only be held within this earthen vessel – within us.
Even though this story comes to us from a distant time and place, it still speaks to us today. For we are all in search of living water. We all are thirsty for love and forgiveness and acceptance, even as the Samaritan woman was. And we can find the refreshment that we need at this well. Because here is the place where Christ’s living water was poured onto us, and by the work of the Holy Spirit, poured into our hearts. This water promises us love beyond our ability to comprehend, forgiveness of every sin, and acceptance, just as we are. And the best thing about this water: unlike H2O – which, according to the UN study, is in short supply and requires our conservation and protection efforts – unlike the water on earth, living water is ours in abundance through the love of Jesus Christ our Lord.