We’re almost at the half-way point in the season of Lent. The Gospel passage for today’s liturgy is the well-known story of the woman at the well in John’s Gospel (4:5-42). It’s a story about brokenness which we’ve all felt, a story of how God’s love and pardon came to a woman and her town through the man named Jesus of Nazareth.
The story begins when Jesus strikes up a conversation by asking a Samaritan woman for a drink of water from the well, where he was sitting while awaiting the return of his disciples who’d left for a lunch-run. The well, Jacob’s well, had been there a long time. John hints that the woman came here frequently to lower her bucket and draw water. The woman is put off by the fact that Jesus, a Jew, is asking for water from her, a Samaritan. She then becomes amazed at Jesus’ offer to give her some special water, since he has no bucket. The well is deep and he process is tedious and time-consuming. A fountain or spring of “living water”, she thinks, would certainly make the job ever so much easier.There’s an immediate miscommunication, because the living water to which Jesus refers is actually the Wisdom which gives life. In the Hebrew Scriptures “living water” refers to Torah, “the gift of God”, as the rabbis called it. The will of God as expressed in Torah, and practical living according to it, was life-giving Wisdom for a Jew.
For writers of the Christian Scriptures, especially John, “living water”. the Wisdom which gives life and guides people’s lives is both Jesus’ wisdom, his teaching, summed up in himself, the “Word” incarnate; and the Spirit whom Jesus communicates, sends. “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. The one who believes in me, as the scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.‘ Now he said this about the Spirit which those who believed in him were to receive.” The coming of the Spirit was to be the sign that the messiah = anointed [Greek, christos] One had arrived. Jesus had proclaimed in his own hometown synagogue, quoting from Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me...he has anointed me...to heal the brokenhearted.”
As Jesus’ conversation with the woman unfolds, we begin to glimpse how inwardly broken she is. This is a woman who, for whatever reason, has bought into the racial and religious discrimination which existed between Jews and Samaritans in first century C.E. She could be described as a person who felt “denominationally superior” because she was convinced that her people knew the “right” way to worship. We learn further that she’d apparently had her share of broken relationships in her life until now. She’d had five husbands. When Jesus mentions her husband, the dialogue abruptly shifts to the topic of “real” worship and the proper place for it. Jesus had gotten a little too close to home for her. The woman deals with her embarrassment and guilt by drawing attention away from her home situation. Jesus quietly offers her his presence and peace. He slowly, patiently, cuts through her misperceptions, prejudice, spiritual blindness, even deceptiveness, and reveals himself as the healing One, holding out to her the remedy for her brokenness, foretold by Isaiah: the living water of God’s Spirit, his very presence and peace.
Jesus accommodates her and takes up the topic of worship, but he begins to explain how he views true worship. It’s not in Samaritan vs. Jewish terms, but in terms of “spirit and truth”. Whenever spirit appears unmarked in John’s Gospel it usually refers to God’s Spirit. And truth, for John, primarily indicates Godself or is a characteristic of people who respond to God’s revelation.
In proclaiming worship in spirit and in truth Jesus doesn’t seem to be contrasting external worship with internal worship, with worship of God in the inner recesses of one’s heart. Being broken before God and yet trusting that somehow we’ll come out at the other end is God’s way of challenging us to deeper faith. When you and I stand vulnerable and open to God’s life-giving Spirit, even if grudgingly at first, we begin to have faith, to believe. Acknowledging and accepting the Spirit, Godself, and God’s will expressed in the Word -- Jesus himself and the Scriptures -- becomes the basis of true worship. “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not spurn.” The liturgical prayers, gestures, and paraphernalia which we use in worship are only aids, and are all empty and meaningless unless they lead us to make real the kind of worship of which Jesus speaks. When, in our brokenness, we approach the living God in spirit and in truth, we allow God to heal, to restore, to recreate us.
Jesus does this for the Samaritan woman. Through a simple request for a drink of water, through conversation, and through patience Jesus helps her work through her self-imposed limitations and short-sightedness, and to come to know God’s Spirit which he himself embodies. The selfsame Spirit of truth enables this woman to eventually do “surprise ministry”: to share Jesus’ story with her friends and townspeople. It’s something she’d probably never have done on her own. Like us, she’d have pled “unworthy”, “incapable”, with “not enough time to devote to it”. Her fellow townspeople would never in a million years have enlisted her as the town evangelist, the bearer of “Good News”. After all, they knew what she was like!
After the disciples return, a bit shocked to find Jesus speaking with the Samaritan woman, John notes that “the woman left her water jar and went back to the city”. Why did she leave the jar? Was it just because she was so excited and in haste to share the latest bit of gossip? Or was that little detail symbolic? Could it, perhaps, indicate that in dealing with the Holy God and with each other, you and I need to leave our jars, our containers, however large or small, behind? No one can contain or put limits around God’s truth, the living water who is the Spirit. Unfortunately, don’t we often attempt to do just that: to contain and put limits on God’s Spirit, on the Spirit’s ability to deal with whatever brokenness afflicts our lives or those of others? We’re uncomfortable with life’s uncertainties and changes. We want the answers to life’s questions, the security of “the truth”. Jesus’ most radical opposition, after all, came from “religious” people who believed they had a corner on the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth: in a jar, so to speak. The Samaritan woman had thought that way at first, and so do we until we realize, as Paul reminds us in 2 Corinthians that “...we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us.”
Thomas Merton coined the phrase which (approximately) says “God writes straight with crooked letters.” God has a way of continually smashing our jars and containers when we attempt to put limits on God’s Spirit, when we try to dictate how God should deal with those of whom we disapprove, or worse, when we try to disallow even God the freedom to change brokenness, in ourselves or in others, into a new start, a “surprise ministry”. Jesus’ gift of eternal life is there for the taking, if only we choose to be refashioned in its power, if only we believe enough to leave our jars behind and let the Spirit blow where it will.
I wonder what Jesus might have said to a person like singer Janis Joplin, a broken woman to all appearances, often disapproved of and berated by others, ultimately a victim of her own addictive tendencies, dying alone. How might she have responded had someone sat down with her, been truly present to her, and told her about the living water of the Spirit. Amanda McBroom wrote a song called The Rose, used in the movie of the same name, a movie based on Janis Joplin’s life: