In the black and white family snapshot, we’re sitting on rocky ground with a snow-covered slope in the background. Our expressions are not the typical “cheese” for the camera. The youngest brother looks dazed, his eyes wide and his mouth slightly open. The middle brother’s cap casts a heavy shadow over his face and his expression is a flat line. I’m smiling, but it looks forced. Mom and Dad wear weary expressions. The hike, up to a glacial lake in the Grand Tetons, sure didn’t look so far on the map, my parents insisted. At the halfway point, about the time the photo was snapped, we had officially run out of water. We had no way to filter the water from the cold, clear lake, and my mom, an ER nurse, wouldn’t let us drink it. So we children refused the crackers and candy bars and fought over the remaining celery and carrot sticks. And we plodded on for hours, with parched and swollen lips, aching heads, and dehydrated spirits. A rush of relief filled me when, finally, we spotted a public restroom at the trailhead. I ran inside and submerged my face beneath the faucet.
Thirst is the thread that runs through today’s Gospel story. Let’s begin with the thirst of the Samaritan woman. She, like many women in scripture, was not acknowledged by name. With that small, but significant detail, we are reminded that the world, for much of history, has not honored the full humanity of women. Among women, too, she was rejected and excluded. In ancient times, the trip to draw water for the household was a labor that women performed together in the cool of the morning or evening hours. This woman came to the well by herself in the middle of the day. As her conversation with Jesus revealed, she also lacked the primary means of support and identity for women of her time: marriage. All of the men she had been with had failed to provide her with lasting security. On top of all this, she was a Samaritan.
Quick history lesson. The Jewish and Samaritan people were not strangers to one another; they were in fact estranged family. We have to go back to the time of the exile when the nation was divided into two Kingdoms. In a bloody siege, the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem and the southern Kingdom and deported many Jews. The Samaritans, meanwhile, claimed ancestry from tribes of the northern Kingdom who were left behind in the land. Over time, the Jews and Samaritans developed conflicting traditions about the core elements of the faith. They had different sacred texts—the Samaritans only accepted the first five books of the Jewish Bible. The most contentious question however, which we hear about in today’s text, was: which mountain? Was it Mt. Zion (as the Jews believed) or Mt. Gerizim (as the Samaritans said) where the law was revealed to Moses, and where God dwelled? Whichever mountain it was, the two groups agreed on one thing: that was the only place where people could authentically worship God.
Now, let’s talk about Jesus, and his thirst, for a moment. The Samaritan woman approached the well with her jug and Jesus said: “Give me a drink!” In revealing his thirst to the woman, he disregarded all the rules: unrelated men and women were not allowed to interact; Samaritans and Jews were supposed to hate each other; and, this particular woman should be treated as an outcast. Jesus put himself in a vulnerable position by asking her for help, by sharing his power with her.
He requested a drink of water, but the dialogue that unfolded between them after that reveals what he was really thirsty for. Jesus thirsted to set aside the norms of his culture and time, which trained him to carry bias and to normalize hatred. He thirsted for genuine human encounter across divisions. He thirsted for a world healed and transformed one life-giving relationship at a time. Professor Osvaldo Vena points out:
The fact that [Jesus] disagreed with some of the woman’s affirmations is the best proof that he was treating her with respect. Jacob Neusner, in his book A Rabbi Talks with Jesus, explains that for a rabbi to argue and dialogue with others was a sign of respect: “It is my form of respect, the only compliment I crave from others, the only serious tribute I pay to the people I take seriously—and therefore I respect and even love.
Recently, photographer Stephanie Glaros came to First Church to speak about her work, Humans of Minneapolis. In the forward of her book, she explains how it started.
My preferred walking route [to work] was on the edge of downtown, which took me past the Salvation Army homeless shelter and the Greyhound bus station…. I kept seeing the same people every day, but we would never interact. I started question why this was and became increasingly uncomfortable about it. It just didn’t feel right. I decided to use my camera as an excuse to interact with these folks. (p. 6)
Now, Stephanie also interviews the people she photographs. She finds that because her only objective is to listen well, people are willing to be vulnerable, to share deep truths about themselves. Stephanie posts each person’s photo and a portion of their interview on Facebook. “For me,” she remarks, “the circle becomes complete only if and when the person discovers their post … so they can see all the lovely supportive comments meant for them.” (p. 18) Iris, one of Stephanie’s subjects, writes about reading these comments.
I was in tears by the time I finished. I was so touched by these people I didn’t know and their heartfelt words to and about me…. I was at what some might call a difficult time. It felt like the sky opened and I was surrounded by angels. The self-doubt, threatening to envelop me, lifted completely, as if to say, “Iris, you’re just fine, it shall be well.” A profound shift occurred in my being. That strangers saw these good aspects in me felt as if I’d walked out of deep muddy water onto a grassy shore.” (p. 37)
This week, the president released a draft budget for our country. Budgets are moral documents; they express what we value, what we see as life-sustaining. The priorities of this budget are antithetical to what we, as human beings, are thirsty for at the most basic level, and to what God, our Creator, thirsts for on our behalf. Active listening. Empathy. Connection across boundaries and barriers. Instead, with billions of new spending for the wall with Mexico and national defense, we would be reinforcing the barriers that divide us and normalizing violent responses to difference and conflict. At the same time, we would be cutting agencies and programs that weave us together in mutual care with each other and the earth: legal aid and winter heating assistance for low income people, funding for health and the arts, AmeriCorps, environmental protection.
Jesus and the Samaritan woman together embody the Gospel, the good news that heals the world. They both came to the well thirsty—their lips parched and swollen, their heads and hearts aching, their spirits dehydrated. They were both thirsty for life that is more than existing, life filled with the spirit of God, life that gushes up like a spring, life that is fresh with every new moment, and yet eternal, unchanging. Jesus and the woman found in one another equal partners in a conversation about the question that mattered most to them: how we come fully to life. In the course of this discussion, they recognized that God’s life sustaining presence is not limited to one mountain, to one culture or religion, to one gender, age, or economic class. It is, in fact, our thirst that is our truest worship.
So, friends, for what are you thirsting today?
And how is God leading you, toward life, with this thirst?