Editor’s Note: This post was originally created by Kim Rempel as a sermon for Preston Mennonite Church. Kim is one of 9 young adults currently participating in a PiE initiative called “Preach It!” that matches passionate young preachers with local congregations. The text Kim is referring to is John 4:1-30.
Give me a drink
Not please give me a drink. Or would you mind giving me a drink. Was Jesus being rude? Or was he just so thirsty that he didn’t have time for niceties? It was noon, after all. But who goes to get water at the hottest part of the day? Someone who doesn’t want to talk to the other women. Most women would go to the well – which would be outside the town – early in the morning when it was still cool. But this woman goes when she knows no one else will be there. But Jesus had no bucket. Why would he go to the well without a bucket when no one would be around to help him? Unless he knew that someone was coming. Unless this was intentional because he wanted to talk to the woman he knew was coming.
Who was this Samaritan woman? In the Eastern Orthodox Church, she is called St. Photeine or Photina – a name that means bright or radiant. Although that was probably not her real name, let’s call her Photina, so that she is not stripped of her name like many women throughout history have been. Photina is a Samaritan. The Samaritans were a group of people who can be traced back to the Assyrian Exile of the Northern Kingdom of Israel around 720 BCE. They are the descendants of the Israelites who were not taken into exile and who intermarried with the ethnic groups around them. When the Southern Kingdom of Judah returned from exile in Babylon, the returning Jews felt that the Samaritans were impure. The Samaritans originally offered to help the Jews rebuild the temple, but the Jews would not have it. The Samaritans were offended and tried to obstruct the wall that Nehemiah was building around the city. The final schism came when Alexander the Great gave permission for the Samaritans to build their own temple on Mount Gerizim. Ever since that time, Jews did not associate with Samaritans. And they certainly would not share drinking vessels with them.
Photina is also a woman. In both Jewish and Samaritan cultures, men did not speak to women in public, and certainly not alone. And rabbis would never discuss theology with a woman. But the text tells us more about Photina than that: we learn that she has had five husbands, and now she is with a man who is not her husband. Many commentators have interpreted her as a sexually immoral woman. Why do we always assume the worst about women? It is quite possible that her first husband died, and then his brother married her – as was customary at this time – and then that just kept happening. Or even if she is divorced, only men could request a divorce. Regardless of what happened, either she was widowed and handed off like property, or she was rejected five time, her life is sad. And now she has another man who is not her husband. It is quite likely that this is out of necessity because, in that culture, she needed the protection of a man. To make matters worse, the other women in town probably either pity her or gossip about her – or maybe both. So she goes to the well at noon.
Give me a drink
Jesus says this like it’s no big deal for him to ask Photina for a drink. He doesn’t approach her apologizing for bothering her or for being unprepared. He doesn’t try to defend himself. He doesn’t try to be overly nice to compensate for his breach of social etiquette. He just asks her for a drink like he would any Jewish man. And Photina is surprised, even alarmed. How does she know that he’s a Jew? Perhaps he looks different, or maybe he has a different accent. The point is that she knows he’s a Jew – and this is going to be a problem. So why does she keep talking to him? What are people going to think? But they already gossip about her, so maybe it doesn’t matter anymore. This conversation is the longest dialogue in John. There’s something intriguing about this man. Jesus seems to be talking in riddles. Living water is like running water, not like this ancient well. But does he mean something else by that?
Well Photina is up for a riddle. “Sir, you have no bucket.” She is interested in deep questions. “Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us this well?” Who does this guy think he is? And then he says that whoever drinks the water he gives will never be thirsty again. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? To never have to come back to this well in the heat. To never be longing for something she cannot have. “The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”
Give me a drink
Photina wants this water. “Give me this water so that I will not have to feel putdown by the other women. Give me this water so that I won’t feel lonely and forgotten anymore. Give me something better than this life.” “Go call your husband, and come back.” Great, this man is just like everyone else. Why does Jesus want her to call her husband? He doesn’t chastise her for all her previous marriages or for the man she is with now. Does he want to show her that he already knows about her? That he came to this well at this time to meet her? Somebody wanted to meet her. Somebody wanted to talk to her. And then she begins to see Jesus for who he truly is. He is a prophet. So she asks the question that has been bugging her: where is the right place to worship? And then Jesus reveals himself to her. He is the Messiah. “I AM”: Jesus is referring to God here. Jesus says that the Samaritans worship what they do not know while the Jews worship what they do know, but so far, the Jews don’t know Jesus. But this Samaritan does.
Give me a drink
Now Photina wants water. Earlier in John, Jesus talks to Nicodemus, a Pharisee, and they talk about spirit and water. But Nicodemus doesn’t get it. So how is it that a Pharisee doesn’t understand Jesus, but a Samaritan woman does? Because Nicodemus is not thirsty like Photina is thirsty. Nicodemus is a religious leader: he has status and is educated, and he is generally highly regarded by the people in his town. But Photina is not. She is marginalized, ostracized, and isolated. She has known great hardship. She really needs this living water.
What is remarkable about Photina is that she wants to share this water. She goes back to town to tell everyone about this man she met. And she leaves her jar. But why does she go back and tell her strange story to the very people she was avoiding? Because this living water becomes a spring that flows out. She cannot keep this water to herself because of the very nature of the water. And she is the only believer in John’s Gospel to win over her hometown with her witness. Thomas Aquinas calls her an apostle. In Greek sermons written between the fourth and 14th centuries, Photina is compared to the male disciples and apostles and is found to be their superior. The people of Sychar want this water too. And these Samaritan people are the first and only ones in John’s Gospel to affirm Jesus as “Saviour of the world.”
Give me a drink
But we are thirsty too. All these years later, we have comfortable houses, cars, better food security, even running water. And yet we long for something more. We have an epidemic of loneliness. We have seniors who are forgotten in nursing homes. We have many things that can become addictions. Sometimes we feel we are without direction or purpose. Our relationships can feel shallow. We need a drink of Jesus’ living water.
Many years ago, Teen Challenge came to visit my church. The story of the beginnings of Teen Challenge is told in the novel The Cross and the Switchblade, in which a young minister goes to New York City to reach out to teenagers involved with drugs and gang violence. Today, Teen Challenge is an organization that provides a faith-based, residential addiction treatment program. When they came to visit my church, they had several of the residents share their stories. One young man shared about a troubled life in which he has turned to self-harm and drugs for relief. He ended up at Teen Challenge and met Jesus. And Jesus gave him something that drugs could not: Jesus gave him peace.
What are you thirsty for? What does drinking that water mean for your life? What does it mean for that water to become a spring that flows from you? Does that excite you? Does it make you nervous? Jesus will give us that water; we just have to ask. And when we ask, we don’t need to say a really beautiful prayer. We don’t need to beg. We don’t need to make a deal. We just need to ask.