At the Well

John 4:5–42, preached by Rev. Jane McBride on March 12, 2023

I want to talk with the kids for a second about making friends. Is anyone here really good at making friends? What helps you do that? Our bible story today is about Jesus making a friend. I brought a bucket of water to help tell the story. Before people had sinks they could turn on to get water, they would have to carry water from a river or a lake, or a deep hole in the ground called a well. It was usually the job of the women to get the water. They would go to the well together with their friends.

In today’s bible story, Jesus had been walking with his disciples. It was noontime in the desert and he was tired and hot and thirsty. He came to a well but the water was way down deep and he didn’t have a bucket to scoop up the water. Luckily, right about then, along came a woman who had her own bucket. She had come to the well all alone, without any friends. It seems like she was lonely and felt left out. Do you know anyone like that? So Jesus asked her to give him a drink and then they had a long talk. This was really surprising, because they were from two different religions—he was a Jew and she was a Samaritan and their people were not friends; they hated each other.

Here are some things that Jesus did to make friends with this woman. He asked her for help. He listened to her. He wanted to learn about her life. He shared important things about himself with her. And you know what? She felt included. She felt good about herself. The friendship Jesus gave her was like a big, refreshing drink of water. Living water. Let’s remember that and try to make friends like Jesus did.

The well in this story is capturing my imagination today. Everyone in the village relied on that well for water, for life itself. If the well dried up or got contaminated, everyone suffered. We no longer have the day-to-day experience of going to a communal place to get water. We have lost this visceral reminder of our dependence on each other. Water has become something it was never meant to be—a privilege some can access and others can’t, a commodity to be bought and sold, or polluted for the sake of profit. 

Joy Williams has a short story collection called Ninety-Nine Stories of God. Here’s the story, “Wet”:

The Lord was drinking some water out of a glass. There was nothing wrong with the glass, but the water tasted terrible. This was in a white building on a vast wasteland. The engineers within wore white uniforms and bootees on their shoes and gloves on their hands. The water had traveled many hundreds of miles through wide pipes to be there. What have you done to my water? the Lord asked. My living water . . .

Oh, they said, we thought that was just a metaphor.

Today’s passage from John declares that water is life—literally and symbolically, practically and spiritually. A thirsty Jesus, lacking a bucket, asked a strange woman from an enemy people to give him a drink of water. “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” Jesus needed water. In that moment, he had little choice but to risk making this surprising, unconventional gesture of friendship. His reply, however, suggests that he has another purpose in mind, in addition to his own survival. “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The “living water” Jesus wanted to offer the woman was friendship. The “gift of God” he wished to share with her was very simply the gift of being present to each other with mutual respect and attention. He was inviting her to join a community of friends whose ways of being together challenged the norms of their society.

Jews and Samaritans were close relatives, with the same God, the same core scriptures, much of the same history—the ancient well where Jesus and the woman met was dug by one of their common ancestors, Jacob. And yet these siblings had become stuck in hatred. Their cultural differences and disagreements about where and how to worship God had grown into a complete unwillingness to share things in common. Additionally, in Jesus’ time, men and women who were not relatives were not supposed to interact at all. The dialogue between Jesus and the woman about her husbands might sound to our ears like it’s meant to shame her, but let’s consider an alternative reading. Though her own community seemed to shun her, perhaps because of her multiple marriages, the ending of a marriage could not have been her fault. After all, only men could initiate divorce in those days. The woman’s reaction to Jesus’ insight into her difficult life situation is appreciative and enthusiastic: “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” These words suggest to me that Jesus made the woman feel seen and known in a new way.

Jesus’ interaction with the woman at the well illustrates that friendship is at the heart of his ministry, and at the heart of the God he represents. Jesus brought those who were supposed to hate and harm each other onto paths of repair and reconciliation. He rejected dehumanizing hierarches based in gender, economic status, or cultural and religious identity. And he taught his friends how to share the gifts of life with mutuality and justice, how to create community grounded in the abundance of nature, the abundance of divine presence. I am reminded that all of this—making space for relationship prioritizing friendship, is also a sabbath practice. In the podcast, “Sabbath and the Art of Rest, Ezra Klein recounts research that investigated why some people stop to help those in need while others don’t. The study found that it had nothing to do with compassion, or morality, or responsibility. Whether or not people saw the person in need, and whether or not they offered support, depended entirely upon whether or not they were feeling rushed. Some folks were told they were late for something. They did not stop. Others were told they had plenty of time. These were the people who stopped. What happened at the well—caring presence and attention, mutual vulnerability, respectful curiosity, generative dialogue—is the living water that bubbles up to eternal life, sustaining creation. It is because Jesus models and teaches making space for this life-giving way of friendship that he is the Messiah, God’s chosen one. 

Though we no longer travel to a communal well on a daily basis, there are places that serve as tangible reminders of our inter-dependence. One such place is the State Capitol. This past week, twelve of us from First Church went to the capitol to advocate for the ISAIAH faith agenda—a caring economy in which everyone can thrive, a democracy that upholds each person’s dignity. We were representing District 60, where our church is located, rather than any of our “home” districts. That felt sort of strange at first, but as I’ve pondered this, I’ve realized how powerful it is for us to speak together as a community of friends who share the same basic values. 

At the beginning of the morning, the ISAIAH staff oriented us. We celebrated that a number of the bills on our agenda have already passed: 100% clean energy by 2040; restoring the right to vote for those with felonies who have served their time; and providing driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants. And we discussed the priorities we are still advocating for in this session: 12 weeks of paid family leave for every worker; $3.5 billion in yearly funding for our childcare system; money for programs that help people move from housing insecurity to home ownership.

After the briefing, we headed over to the capitol. A general hubbub echoed off the stone walls and floors. Singing and cheering thundered from the rotunda as folks rallied for affordable housing. With all of the hearings and floor sessions going on, our legislators’ schedules are very full. So we met with them, briefly, in the hallway. Our group of three congregations, joined by folks from the Muslim coalition, bunched around the legislative leaders, trying to hear what was being said. It was difficult to pick up every word, but I could follow the spirit of it. The legislators listened intently to the speakers and spoke passionately about how they share our values. They thanked us for showing up to demonstrate our support for investing in the common good. Through our day at the capital, we embodied Jesus’ ministry of friendship. Living water, eternal life, bubbles up from this community whenever we make space to raise our collective voice for care and dignity, particularly for those who have been systematically left out—incarcerated folks, immigrants, caregivers, children, people living in poverty.

Indigenous scientist Robin Wall Kimmerer calls us to move away from a market economy and to cultivate what she calls a gift economy. The natural world is full of gifts, the most elemental of which is the gift of water. The appropriate response to receiving a gift is to give a gift in return. This endless cycle of reciprocity, of receiving and giving, sustains an ever-circling abundance of gifts. This gift economy is the way of Jesus, too; the way of friendship that gives life, eternal life, to all of creation. Amen.