The woman at the well asked great questions. This one is my favorite: “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?” Imagine, peering helplessly into the shimmering depths of cool water that’s out of your reach. Dampness drips from the stones of the well taunting your parched throat. Life gushes forth freely from the earth but you have no container that can gather it. Now that’s some thirst!
We live in thirsty times, don’t we? Our fierce thirst for connection didn’t originate with this strange, unsettling, stressful, frightening moment in which we are weathering a global pandemic together. And yet I sense that in these days of social distancing we are growing ever more aware of our deep longing for the living, and life-sustaining water of community and mutual care. Of course we are already yearning for ordinary days when we can again buy toilet paper without such a heroic effort. And yet our thirst is not really a desire to return to what we’ve known as normal, what we’ve grown used to, as the way things are.
We thirst, not for our old life, but for a new a life.
We thirst for political leadership that stewards the common good.
We thirst for health care and family leave and affordable housing for everyone.
We thirst for all our children to be safe and have enough to eat.
And we thirst for an economy that ceases to exploit people and the earth, that honors what is slow and small, that is resilient enough to adjust when everything changes in an instant, and that allows us to take the time and space to care for one another.
The appearance of a thirsty Jesus at Jacob’s well doesn’t seem like an accident to me. Jesus chose to travel by the most direct route on his way to Galilee in the North from Judea in the South, through Samaria. Though this way was shortest and the fastest, it was not the way anyone would have expected Jesus to travel, as the Samaritan woman’s shock at encountering him reveals. She makes her surprise clear with another one of her excellent questions: “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?”
Jews and Samaritans were enemies with a common ancestry. They harbored a special kind of hatred for each other, the animosity of alienated siblings. Travel in those days was dangerous enough. It would have been safer and more comfortable for Jesus to avoid Samaria entirely, to cross the Jordan River and go around to the East. Still, the Gospel writer claims that Jesus “had to go through Samaria.” Perhaps what John meant is that it was necessary for Jesus to confront the thirst for connection, community and care—his own thirst and the thirst of the world.
“Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?” There is an interesting push and pull of power in this conversation. Of course, the woman’s gender put her at a disadvantage. Unlike Nicodemus, an important male community leader who came to see Jesus in the chapter before this, this woman’s name was not remembered, at least by those who later told the story. As women in one of our Lenten groups noted, with understandable irritation, Jesus seemed perfectly comfortable ordering her around: “Give me a drink.” He didn’t say, “please!” At the same time, she was local, at home in her territory. And she had a bucket. She had access to the water he needed. He, on the other hand, was an empty-handed, exhausted, thirsty outsider. The art that is on the cover of today’s bulletin depicts these estranged and sparring siblings engaged in what appears to be a mutual conversation, one in which equality is possible. They are looking each other in the eye. They are extending their hands toward one other and out over Jacob’s well, as if they are offering each other its living water. They both have golden halos encircling their heads, which says to me that in the imagination of the artist, the sacredness of their encounter emerges from their exchange of wisdom.
My friends, we live in thirsty times. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I think it’s a very, very good thing. It’s sign of spring. It’s a new green shoot emerging from the cold, dark earth. It’s a fountain bursting persistently and powerfully from the rock. It’s a well full of deep dialogue that brings challenge and renewal. There is water to solace the dryness at our hearts.
During Lent, in those small groups I mentioned, we’ve been reading Cynthia Bourgeault’s book, The Wisdom Jesus. In the beatitudes, Bourgeault recalls, Jesus blesses our hunger and our thirst for righteousness. She argues that righteousness is not, as we have often been led to believe, about “being moral, behaving correctly.” Righteousness, she says, is “something much more dynamic than that. You can actually visualize it as a force field: an energy-charged sphere of holy presence.” She writes:
To be “in the righteousness of God,” means . . . to be anchored within God’s own aliveness. There is nothing subtle about the experience; it is as fierce and intransigent a bond as picking up a downed electrical wire. To “hunger and thirst after righteousness” then, speaks to this intensity of connectedness. Jesus promises that when the hunger arises within you to find your own deepest aliveness within God’s aliveness, it will be satisfied—in fact, the hunger itself is a sign that the bond is already in place. . . . Some spiritual teachers will even say that the yearning you feel for God is actually coming from the opposite direction; it is in fact God’s yearning for you. (The Wisdom Jesus, chapter 4)
“Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?” The woman might have asked this question on a literal level. She might have missed the fact that Jesus was speaking about water in more than one sense. On the other hand, perhaps she understood him perfectly. Maybe, just as he wasn’t only talking about one kind of water, she wasn’t only referring to one kind of bucket. Maybe they were both immersed in a multi-layered conversation, a dialogue that brought together material and spiritual realities, an exchange that revealed the sacred in the earthly. Jesus offered the woman the gift of God: living water. And yet, she couldn’t see how he could hold this divine life in their human life, how this world full of fear and greed and hatred could also be a container for God. “Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well?” she quizzed Jesus. Jacob was an ancestor to both Jews and Samaritans. For Jesus and the woman, the well represented their common roots, their shared humanity, their mutual thirst for the divine. The well was a sign: you are the bucket. This life you live with all creation—with human people, animal, tree and stone people, with the water and the sky and the soil, this life is the container for God’s own aliveness.
The book The Wild Trees by Richard Preston is about redwood trees and the varied people who study them, climb them, and grow obsessed with them. I knew nothing about redwoods before reading this book. Now I’m a little obsessed too. Preston writes:
Forest canopy biologist Todd Dawson and his colleagues . . . discovered that a redwood bathed in fog can take moisture through its needles and send the water downward into its small branches. . . . Dawson suspects, but has so far hasn’t been able to prove, that redwoods can also send water from their needles all the way downward into their trunks. In other words, redwoods can reverse the flow of water inside them when it suits their needs. This is one reason why a redwood can grow so tall—it doesn’t have to depend entirely on water that it gathers from the ground and pulls up to its top. It can gather water from the air. Redwoods feed on the sky. (p. 212)
“Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?” Navigating this time in the life of our world is intensifying our questions about where we will find the living water for which we thirst, about what buckets we have that can gather and hold and sustain an entirely new way of life. Let us honor these questions with our time and our presence. Let us sit beside the well with our neighbors (six feet apart, of course) and let us engage in the honest, difficult, dialogue that can lead to renewed kinship and restored connection. Let us listen to the redwoods and all our non-human siblings who are teaching us how to draw living water up from our roots and send living water down from our crowns. And, let us drink from the fountain we call Jesus, so that his presence in our hearts might “become in us a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”