We are about halfway through the Lenten season, and you’ll remember I told you that this year we could expect this series of profound and long Gospel readings from John, addressing deep human questions. You just heard another one of those, the story of Jesus with the Samaritan woman at the well. If you think back to Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus last week, you’ll immediately notice some similarities. In both those readings, Our Lord is talking with someone in a non-traditional setting, getting into a conversation which turns on a basic misunderstanding about what a word means, and ending up addressing a deep human question.
Last week, as Nicodemus asked how he could find what he was seeking, the misunderstanding was about the idea of being born from above, which Nicodemus misunderstood as meaning two physical births. And Jesus explained: no, there is one physical birth into a race or a nation or a religion, but that has no spiritual value, because what is born of the flesh is flesh. What Jesus makes possible is a spiritual birth, where God births the life of the Spirit inside you, regardless of your race or nationality or religion. Only what is born of the Spirit is spirit.
So the word birth -- that was Nicodemus’ misunderstanding. Well, here the misunderstanding is about water. Thirst. Drinking. The question it addresses is: How do I quench my thirst? Jesus first asks this woman for a drink – probably because he was literally parched in the noon heat, but also as a way of opening himself up to her, creating a natural opportunity for conversation. And when she responds, he tells her: if you knew who I am, you’d be the one asking about thirst, and I would give you living water. She seems to think he just means natural water, that he has some trick to get a little more or a little better of what everybody already has. But then Jesus goes deeper; he can tell she’s intrigued, so he says, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water I will give will never be thirsty. That water will become in them a spring, gushing up to eternal life.” And the woman, not surprisingly, immediately says, “Give me that water!” She is a little more on the ball, a little less defended, than Nicodemus was last week, isn’t she?
Their conversation unfolds, and it is so profound and so subtle that you could write a book on it. I’m sure someone has. And as it goes on, this woman at the well moves into a deeper insight about Jesus as she sees him get around all her objections, and offer her more and more clues as to how he can answer her question. In one sense, he’s saying something very similar to what he said to Nicodemus. There are even verbal echoes. The woman brings up a point of technical controversy between the Jews and the Samaritans: is the Temple in Jerusalem the only authorized place to worship? And Jesus answers her, essentially, “God has a special relationship with the Jews, and I’d advise you not to miss what he’s revealed there, but what God wants is not people who show up in the right building or say the right texts, but true worshippers who worship in spirit and truth.”
God is seeking, Jesus says, God is out on the hunt for people who will relate to him in spirit and truth. He’s taking the initiative. It’s that important to him. Very similar to what he told Nicodemus, and then listen to this: “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit, and truth.” Just like what he said last week: what is born of the flesh is flesh, what is born of the spirit is spirit. Again, there is this contrast: is Jesus talking about quenching a thirst for more of what we already have, or is he talking about offering us something entirely different? Does he enhance your old life, or does he give you his new life? Do we find him through something we’re born into, or something that has to be born in us?
This Gospel tells us that God is seeking people who will worship him in spirit and in truth. He loves everybody. No exceptions. He loves you. No exceptions. But he’s seeking people who will let his spirit touch their spirit, who are willing to have spring up in them that well of living water unto eternal life. Now what is a well for? What is a spring of water for? This woman shows us what it’s for. At some point here, the spring opens up inside her. You can make your own guess as to when in this story God’s spirit touches her spirit and brings it to life, but clearly it has happened by the end because of what she does. She runs back to the city, leaving her jar, and begins telling others, “Come and see this man I met at the well. I think he’s the One!” She is doing what naturally happens when a spring is welling up: letting the water flow out, giving other people a chance to drink.
Now you’ll note she has very little information at this point. She’s not a theological expert. She probably has never read much of the Bible since the Samaritans only used 5 books of it. And if what she were doing were about something physical, about a religion or a nation or a theology, she wouldn’t be qualified to speak. You would need an expert. But she isn’t talking about that. She is letting this spring of living spiritual water that God has birthed inside her well up, and simply telling the truth about what she’s seen and heard. “Listen, there’s a man at the well who might be able to change your life. There’s something about him. Come and see.”
And this, of course, is exactly what we are called to do. We are not called to defend a system called Christianity. We are not called to promote an institution called the Episcopal Church. We are called to go out and say what we have received from God. And as we do receive from God, as his life is born in us, as the spring of living water wells up, it happens naturally.
If you have that spring within you, you get to experience not just the joy of having your own thirst quenched, but also of giving others who are thirsty and dry a chance to drink from God’s well. God is seeking people who will do that! God is seeking people who will let God’s spirit touch their spirit so that they will adore and love him in Spirit and truth. God is seeking people who will become little wells of living water going out to the thirsty people in Champaign-Urbana to say “Come and see. Come and see.”
God is seeking them. God is seeking you, even if he’s already found you, and his promise is that if you drink of his water, you need never be thirsty again. Thanks be to God for his glorious Gospel. Amen.