For those of you who are in denominations that use the Revised Common Lectionary, this Sunday you will be reading the story from the gospel according to John chapter 4, verses 5-42. Unlike Matthew, Mark, and Luke, John is a long-winded storyteller. In Mark, everything seems to happen “immediately,” and Matthew and Luke move their action along quickly, too. But John likes to take his time, really work the story. He seems to work from the premise that less is more, fewer stories packed to the brim with symbol and meaning. And this Sunday’s reading is no exception.
Jesus is heading back to Galilee from Judea. Apparently he has to go through Samaria (note, you should read this word with disdain, much as Jerry Seinfield would say “Newman,” to understand the 1st century attitude of the Jewish people for the people of Samaria). The Samaritans, oddly enough, actually worshiped the same God, the God of Jacob. They just didn’t worship this God in the approved place, according to the Jewish establishment. In all my years of reading the Bible, I never understood this until recently. The Jews and Samaritans simply had denominational differences…and a boatload of enmity for one another.
So Jesus shows up at the well, the place where Jacob first met Rachel, thirsty, we would presume. It is about noon, the sun at its apex in the sky. Jesus is hot and tired from the journey, in what some would consider hostile territory. And he shows up with no jar to draw the water, all alone.
A woman approaches the well, clearly a Samaritan woman, and Jesus demands from her a drink. She doesn’t pull any punches. Jumping right to the heart of the situation, she asks Jesus, “You know I’m a Samaritan, right. And I can tell you are a Jew. So are you really asking me for water? Because that’s against all the rules, you strange little man.” (That is obviously my own paraphrased translation.) This is when Jesus, rather mystically, tells the woman that if she knew who he was, she would be asking him for water, living water. And she laughs again. You can hear her laughter over the miles and through the centuries. “Sir, you have no bucket and the well is deep.”
I could go on and tell you the rest of the story. But I’m going to stop right there. At least for now. I have to admit that I often share the Samaritan’s woman’s sentiment. I feel I often live in that moment of incredulity, of doubt. It is the question of a child that niggles around the edges of my faith. When a friend’s husband dies too young, when another of our friends rests unconscious for days, for no good reason, in the hospital, when violence pervades the international landscape, I want to ask God “why?” This is God’s world, God’s creation. Can’t God fix it? Can’t God end this unnecessary suffering? God, you have no bucket, and the well is deep! “You can’t give me that living water, God, because you don’t have what it takes,” my tormented heart cries out.
So I know some of you are already thinking, “Woman, just like your Samaritan sister, you’ve got the bucket in your own hands. You’ve got the tools necessary. You’ve got to work with God, use your gifts to help draw the living water out.” But that feels a trite response, the easy way out, just a gloss-over of all my doubts and struggles. It doesn’t seem right to attempt to resolve my questioning by simply ignoring it, turning around and working harder, all that unresolved confusion bearing down like a heavy blanket of fog, ready to smother my faith under a burden of empty works.
Jesus tells the Samaritan woman things about herself that he really shouldn’t have known. We get the feeling that Jesus sees into her very soul. And this is the turning point in the conversation. The Samaritan woman stops teasing Jesus. He has her attention. Then he bridges the gap between her beliefs and those of his own Jewish background. He says, in a sense, that they are both wrong. That God is so much more and that true worship is so completely different than what anyone has heretofore guessed. Worship is evolving and soon they will worship in spirit and in truth. The things they thought mattered really don’t. Adiaphora, Martin Luther called them.
God knows about my own struggles and questions, my secret doubts, my moments of disbelief. I pray today that God would find a way to help me understand. “I believe; help my unbelief.” Help me, God, to understand and to trust. And to trust even when I don’t fully understand. Help me to see beyond the limits. Help me to see the beauty in the midst of all the tragedy. Help me to see how I misunderstand. Help me to open my eyes to those things that really matter. Help me to focus more on the well, and less on the bucket.
Funny thing is, at the end of Jesus’s interaction with the Samaritan woman, she runs back to the village, leaving her own jar behind, to share with others about the one at well who knows her, who knows about her life, and who has a great, life-changing gift to share with all people, Samaritans and Jews alike. She left her jar behind. I wonder, was the jar full when she left it?