Sunday, March 02, 2008

The Thirsty One, A Sermon on John 4:5-42

I know.... I'm a week off. I held over this passage from last week's lectionary, since last week we had the wonderful Youth-led service.

“The Thirsty One:
A Monologue of the Samaritan Woman at the Well”John 4:5-42
March 2, 2008

Do you know what it is to be thirsty? I mean, truly, deeply thirsty—parched. Walking-through-the-desert-in-the-heat-of-the-day thirsty, ill-so-that-your-body-won’t-let-you-keep-the-water-it-craves thirsty. Gathering grains from a field all day without a drink, putting a mud roof on a house… giving birth? Some experiences of thirst are profound. They never leave you. They never left me.

I remember walking to the well at noon, day after day. You ask, why did I go at noon, and not during the sensible, cool hour after sunrise? After all, that is the custom of the women and girls of my city, Sychar. I had my reasons. I needed my hiding place, and my hiding place was the hour when the sun was high in the sky, when reasonable women were at home persuading their infants to nap until it grew cooler. But I was not a reasonable woman. And I had no infants to persuade. All that awaited me at home was a husband… say, my fifth husband… who had begun to show the same traits as all the others. The gracious charm of courtship giving way to the wary expression of anxiety as month after month my womb did not quicken, and I did not present him with a child in his image. Finally, the anger. The recriminations, like our ancestor Jacob, crying out in fury at his beloved Rachel. “Am I in the place of God, who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?” (Genesis 30:2) And finally, the silence, the withdrawal, the realization that my womb would never quicken with this man. Then, worst of all, the moment when he again became tender and compassionate, because he had made the decision to divorce me, and knew he would soon be free.

I walked to the well in the heat of the day, because that was my hiding place from my home, and from the sorrowful stares of the other women, too frightened themselves to be very compassionate towards me, shunning me lest my barrenness be, somehow, a contagion. And as I walked, I would grow aware of this thirst… this burning thirst, welling up inside me. So, I would go to the water, to the well, the well of our ancestor Jacob. The water there is fresh and cold. It comes from an underground spring, so we call it “living water.” When I dip my hands into the full bucket… the taste is like nothing else. It enters my body and touches my very bones. And for a moment, I forget my sorrow and my surly husband and my dry, parched womb, and I am quenched. But only for a moment.

Finally, my fifth husband too had divorced me, and I was living on the kindness… a certain kind of kindness… of a man who knew better than to marry me. It was just as well. Another reason to go to the well alone. So that is what I did. Day after day, until the day when everything changed.

I set out that day just as any other. I carried my jar high under the high sun; the coolness of the clay soothed my neck as the sun beat down upon my forehead. As I approached the well, I looked up and saw, to my dismay, I was not alone. There sat a man, right next to the well, on the low rocks on which people rest their jars and buckets. I paused, and briefly considered turning around and going home. But my thirst was greater than my dismay, so I set my face like oven baked clay, and moved to the lip of the well.

I could see by his dress and his appearance that this man was a Jew, which was startling. What was he doing here… alone? I doubted the rowdy young men of the town would be out in the heat, but this Jew must have known this was a Samaritan city, and not safe for him. Was he simple-minded? Was he dangerous? I watched him out of the corner of my eye as I let the bucket down and heard it splash, far below us, in the cool darkness of the well. He gazed directly at me. It was… uncomfortable. I didn’t like his gaze. It felt too penetrating. It felt too personal. I began to become angry at his insolence.

“Give me a drink.” He had spoken to me! I looked around quickly to make sure he wasn’t talking to someone else. Then I spoke to him—I did! I spoke right back to him, saying “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” I can’t describe what I was feeling at that moment… all I know is that I was so very tired: tired of avoiding people, tired of being talked about, tired of feeling the need to explain myself. Tired of men thinking that I was so… ruined they didn’t even have to observe the common courtesies with me!

I was angry, but his response was not. He spoke quietly, his words like cool water, calming me.

“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.”

Suddenly I wasn’t angry any longer, but I was curious. Didn’t this man know what he was talking about? Perhaps he was simple, in need of my help. I felt suddenly moved to compassion for him. Perhaps he was lost.

“Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?” I spoke carefully, as one might speak to a child. Then, I grew playful. “Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks, drank from it?”

Now it was his turn to speak carefully. “Everyone who drinks of this water—“ he gestured towards Jacob’s well—“will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”

As he spoke, I began to feel… that sensation that comes, on the back of the neck… excitement and fear. What could he mean? But I knew what he meant… that was what was so frightening. As he spoke I saw it all. I saw my every day trip to the well, and my trip back to the house that was my home for now, and I saw the endless hopelessness of it all. I saw into my own future, trips to the well for men who would not be loyal to me until my spine curved and my eyes dimmed, and people threw me coins and bread out of pity. I saw, I knew, exactly what he meant, the daily striving to quench my thirst with something that seemed to hold a sweet promise, but which in reality had a kind of secret salt in it, that only made me thirst all the more.

And what was this he was promising? A spring of water gushing up to eternal life!

I spoke, my voice cracking, on the verge of hot, salty tears. “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”

He made a remark about my five husbands. Was it possible? Did he somehow divine this? Or was it that old Jewish barb about the five Samaritan holy places, their belief that we worship five gods? It was impossible to know. But I knew this: the man I was speaking with was no ordinary man, no ordinary Jew. Leave aside the fact of his conversing with me, a woman and a Samaritan. Leave aside his curious comments about living water. There was something in his eyes, something in his voice that made me wonder. Could it be?

Have you ever had a conversation with someone in which they seemed to know you intimately in a heartbeat? One in which you completed one another’s sentences, in which you begin to feel hope rising in your breast, asking yourself… is this the one? That has happened to me so many times… every single time resulting in another marriage, another man… and it always felt like the sensation of too much wine, intoxication. But this time it felt as if my head was clearing, as if I were coming home to myself again after a long, long time away. This time it felt like a rush of cool water in my dry, parched mouth, falling into my bones. Dare I imagine it? Could it be? I spoke, almost in a whisper, the kind of cautious statement one makes while holding the breath.

“I know that Messiah is coming. When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.”

He leaned towards me… too close, for even a married man to lean towards his wife at the market, He looked deep into my eyes, into my soul, and he spoke the words that changed my life forever.

“I am he.”

I stood frozen, a cold wave surging through my body. Around me there erupted a small commotion that didn’t interest me, that I could barely comprehend, as he was surrounded by a dozen men, and more women, the men circling around as if to protect him… from me! They drew near him, and a quiet fell upon them as they regarded the unlikely scene: this man… who was, clearly, their leader… talking to the most unlikely of persons.

I began to back away from the well. I didn’t care about the small crowd, I didn’t even care about my water jar. I felt, for the first time in a long time, refreshed, energized, quenched. I tasted that living water he spoke about, I felt it surging through me, awakening me—only now, I was the jar, I was the vessel. A broken vessel, to be sure. But a vessel he had chosen. And I needed to leave there, to go to find… anyone, everyone I could, to tell them, to tell them about him reading my soul and knowing my life story, and offering me the living water all the same. To tell them about the man who made no distinctions, who did not look at a woman as some other man’s property, but as a person to engage in conversation. To tell them about a man who did not look at Samaritans as despised and unclean, but as fellow seekers… seeking him, waiting for him, this man. The messiah.

So tell me… Do you know what it is to be thirsty? I mean, truly, deeply thirsty—parched… walking-through-the-desert-in-the-heat-of-the-day thirsty, ill-so-that-your-body-won’t-let-you-keep-the-water-it-craves thirsty. The ache of loneliness. Walking through meaningless days, accomplishing your meaningless tasks. Hiding out in plain sight. Letting others define your worth—others who don’t even know you! Do you know the thirst of such an existence, the thirst for something else, something better? Then come. Come with me. Come to the water.

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