Living water

Published: Monday, 20 March 2017

jesuswell GP 0317This sermon was presented at ABC by Geoff Pound on 19 March 2017. We used this film clip in the place of the reading. Questions for personal and group study are listed at the conclusion of this sermon manuscript..

Scripture Reading: John 4:5-42

The NZ born journalist, Peter Arnett, became a household name as he reported for CNN on the Vietnam War, the Gulf War and the War on Iraq. He tells of an incident when he’s in the West Bank: A bomb goes off. Bodies are blown through the air.[1] The Israeli troops seal off the whole area.

A man comes running up to Arnett with a bloodied little girl in his arms. He says, 'You are press, you can get us out of here. If I don't get her into a hospital immediately she's going to die.”

Peter said, "I put them in the back seat of the car and threw a blanket over them. And I did get through the lines. As I drove towards Tel Aviv, I could hear him in the back seat, rocking this little girl in his arms and whispering: "Go faster, oh God help him to go faster.”

Later he started moaning, “I'm losing her! I'm losing her! Oh God I'm losing her!"

Peter said by the time they got to the hospital he was emotionally drained. They took the little girl into the operating theatre, and the two of them sat down in the waiting room. They sat there a half hour, silent, exhausted from the emotion.

Unfortunately, the doctor came out and said, "I'm sorry. She's dead." This man dissolved in tears. Peter put his arm around him and said, “I'm not married. I don't have any children. I don't know what it's like to lose a daughter.”

The man turned his head and said, "My daughter?

That little girl is not my child. I'm an Israeli settler, she's a Muslim girl.

But maybe the time has come for us to recognize every child as our child."

We’re thinking today of our common humanity that helps us to look beyond our differences. That place where we come together, is so often the place of suffering. As we reach out to one another in love, we discover more of what we have in common. And in our meeting, we can sense a spiritual oneness when we become aware of our common thirst and we drink of the One who is called ‘living water’.

Today’s Scripture story urges us to find in people common ground instead of focusing on the differences that could lead us to pass by on the other side of the road.

The location is Sychar in the heart of Samaritan country. The Gospel writer notes that Jesus is leaving Judea and heading back to Galilee. (John 4: 3) He then adds one of the tasty morsels of detail: “But he had to go through Samaria.” (John 4:4) This wasn’t the preferred route because Jews avoided Samaritan country like the plague.

“But he had to go through Samaria.” Maybe this was not a case of geography or the quickest travel route but because Jesus sensed some compulsion, some divine urging to take this way and, as the story progresses, it’s revealed why.

Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well.

I wonder where you go, when you’re tired and you’re seeking some solace. Where do you go for refreshment? Do you have a favourite place? A favourite watering hole?

While you may not like Starbucks coffee it’s fascinating to read the Starbucks philosophy about wanting to be our ‘third place’.[2] They say that our first place is our home, our second place is work but Starbucks wants to be our ‘third place’, that place where we relax, that place where we chill out, that place where we meet up with friends and that place where we surf the Net.

John says: “It was about noon.”

You know the heat, when Melbourne reaches 40 degrees and we want to stay inside by the fridge and the air conditioner. Add another 10 degrees because it's the Middle East. Add another 5 degrees because it’s noon.

Can you feel your eye balls starting to sizzle in their sockets?

Can you sense the sweat trickling down your back?

Can you feel your throat getting parched?

It’s heartening how John in his Gospel not only speaks of Jesus as ‘the Word become flesh’ but he reveals glimpses of his humanity. Like this reference to his tiredness and his thirst. After a tough walk in the hot sun, you’d feel like a sit down with your sandals shuffled off your sore feet.

But look who’s coming: “A Samaritan woman came to draw water.” (John 4:7)

Just when he’s craving for some ‘me time’.

She’s probably thinking the same because judging by the time of the day she doesn’t come early in the morning or in the cool of the evening like all the other women, because she has reasons to avoid people.

and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” 

Jesus initiates a conversation. He’s thirsty.

He is cutting through all the cultural do’s and don’ts.

A man talking with a woman, especially when they’re alone.

(His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) but later (v27) when they return John says they’re astonished that he, a religious teacher, is speaking to a woman.

She points up the racial and religious barrier he’s ignoring:

The Samaritan woman said to him,

“How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?”

(Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans) like cups and buckets.

If we compare this with last week’s conversation with Nicodemus, the distinction couldn’t be more stark:

She’s of a different gender.

She’s from a different race.

She’s of a different religion.

Nicodemus is the classic insider. This woman is the outsider, so much so, she isn’t named.

Jesus starts to make connections between the still water 100 feet below and what he calls ‘living water’.

She asks whether this man without the bucket is greater than Jacob who gave this well. He is speaking of water that gushes forth from a spring. Water of such a quality it satisfies you so deeply, you never have to keep coming back.

She’s sold as she now breaks these cultural taboos by asking him for this water.

The conversation has been flowing easily back and forwards until he says in v16:

16 Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” 

17 The woman answered him, “I have no husband.”

Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; 

18 for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” 

Traditionally preachers at this point have called this woman a harlot, a prostitute but there’s no detail like this given by John. Maybe her first husband died. Perhaps his brother married her to give support as was the custom. Could she have been deserted by another? Walked out of a violent relationship?

There’s no detail here.

Jesus neither pries nor condemns, but people talk, their gossip swirls around, and in the end, it’s easier to avoid them and draw your water at noon.

In 2004 Frank Warren started a blog called Post Secret dot com. He invited people to mail in postcards that had one of their secrets written on it. He had two rules:

Your card had to be anonymous and your secret needed to be something you’d never shared with anyone else. How popular this became. Now 13 years later the blog is still going strong. People are sending in their secrets and every Sunday Frank Warren picks 10 to 20 and posts these.

There are secrets shared like:

I suffer from an eating disorder.

It is so hard to make friends at university.

My greatest fear is dying alone.

I can’t stand my stepmother.

My husband is trying so hard to find a second job so we don’t have to lay off any of our employees.

I had an affair. We stopped before we got caught. I miss her today.

I was 7 years old the first time I attempted suicide.

The reason I don’t go to church is because I’m too scared.

I wonder what secret you would send in. Obviously, people get some relief from posting their secrets anonymously.

This Samaritan woman has a secret. That’s nothing rare. Nicodemus had a secret. That’s why he came at night. We all have secrets. Some of those secrets cripple us. This woman has a secret she’s ashamed of. Her secret isolated her from her community. Her whole life is organized around keeping her secret.

“I have no husband,” she says, trying to tell a half-truth to shield her secret.

When Jesus lays bare her secret, we can see her blush and squirm. She tries to get the conversation back on stable ground as she ventures into religious argument between Jews and Samaritans:

20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” 

This line has the potential to derail the conversation and fuel hatred because the Jews smashed down the Samaritan temple on Mount Gerizim (2 Macc. 6:2). But Jesus won’t be dragged into religious controversy. He speaks to her of genuine worship—of having a vibrant relationship with God, that transcends location and religion.

When Jesus pulls back the curtain on her secret, she says: “Sir, I see that you are a prophet.” Later she tells her people, the ones she had avoided: 29 “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!” 

From calling Jesus a prophet,

25 The woman [now] said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ).” 26 Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”

When the conversation reaches the point of honesty and when her secret is exposed, not to condemn but to liberate, Jesus then shares himself. He declares his identity as the Messiah as he did to no one else. This is an amazing conversation which goes miles further than Nicodemus the trained religious teacher was able to go.

At this point when the disciples return with the lunch, the woman heads off to the town, leaving her water jar behind (v28) because she had tasted of the living water. She shares with all she’d previously avoided. She simply told her story. And as they came with her with their white robes dazzling in the fields, Jesus said to his disciples: “Look around you and see how the fields are ripe (white) for harvest.”

The Samaritans urged Jesus to stay on and he showed flexibility—he stayed for another two days and the Gospel writer concludes:

41 And many more believed because of his word. 

42 They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”

We’re learning from Jesus the art of breaking down barriers, of deep conversation that shares weakness, vulnerability.

We’re discovering the importance of opening ourselves up to the Living Water, that One who can cleanse us, who can flush away the things that have locked us up.

We too this morning have come face to face with the One who brings refreshment, joy and renewal.

May we find this week when we share with others our story of change, that it triggers the thirst in them and makes them want to discover for themselves the One who truly satisfies.


Tired, thirsty Christ yet the One who is Living Water,

May we respond to your urgings and promptings, especially when we’re tempted to take shortcuts and go our own way.

May we experience renewal and refreshment especially when we’re feeling dry and empty and spent.

May we sense your surging uplifting presence in times of tiredness and despair.

When we crave solitude and space, may your life flow through us.

When we’re feeling anxious and bound up, may your water spring up within us.

When we’re feeling isolated and judged, let your cleansing water heal and liberate us.

When we’re feeling listened to and loved, let our words flow and our stories tell of the One who truly saves and satisfies.


Questions for Personal and Group Study

  1. “But he had to go through Samaria.” (John 4:4) This verse doesn’t appear in the lectionary reading but it helps set the scene. This thought in the sermon followed: “Maybe this was not a case of geography or the quickest travel route but because Jesus sensed some compulsion, some divine urging to take this way and, as the story progresses, it’s revealed why.”

    Do you have an example of being compelled to travel a certain route or make a delay or pick up the phone and talk to someone etc. and with what result?

    What does this sense of compulsion say about Jesus and how we might become more attuned to such divine urgings?

  2. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well.
    This is a wonderful glimpse into the humanity of Jesus. 

    “Where do you go, when you’re tired and you’re seeking some solace? Where do you go for refreshment? Do you have a favourite place? A favourite watering hole?”

    What are some implications of Starbuck’s ‘third place’? (see the sermon)

  3.  and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” 
    This request represented a flouting by Jesus of the religious and cultural customs of his time.

    What are the implications of this barrier-breaking approach in our day, especially for the way we might begin a conversation?

  4. What are the key lessons for you from this rich conversation between Jesus and the woman of Samaria?

  5. How easy do you find it to talk to friends and workmates about the spiritual dimension of your life and in what ways does Jesus and this woman inspire you?

[1] Tony Campolo tells this story in ‘An Interview with Tony Campolo by Shane Claiborne’, Evangelicals and Interfaith Cooperation, Crosscurrents, Spring 2005.

[2] Matthew Dollinger, “‘Starbucks the Third Place”, and Creating the Ultimate Customer Experience,’ Fast Company, 11 June 2008; Third Place, Wikipedia.