As we continue our journey through the season of Lent, Year A (the first year of the 3-year lectionary cycle) gives us a long, elaborate story from John’s Gospel each Sunday. Last week it was the story of the Jewish leader, Nicodemus, being told by Jesus that he needed to be born from above. And today, Jesus encounters a Samaritan woman beside a well, as he is travelling by the city of Sychar.
Last week we paid attention to the way that John’s Jesus used confusing language. When he told Nicodemus that he had to be born “anothen” in order to see the Kingdom of God, the Greek word “anothen” could have meant “again” (as Nicodemus assumed) or “from above” (the more spiritual meaning that Jesus actually intended.)
The major theme of John’s Gospel is about how people come to believe in Jesus as the Son of God and Saviour of the world. At the end of chapter 20, the purpose of the Gospel is made plain: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” And the detailed stories of Jesus’ various encounters each give insight into both the identity of Jesus and the process of coming to believe in and have faith in him.
The struggle for the Jewish Christians of the late first century (from whose community John’s Gospel came) was the fact that there were other Jews who had rejected the Messiah-ship of Jesus. The Jewish followers of the way had been kicked out of the synagogues by their friends who simply could not understand that Jesus was the one sent from God.
The stories of John’s Gospel are hopeful ones. They show that people can move from little or no understanding to become believers, and even sometimes to become preachers of the Gospel. They demonstrate that doubt can turn into faith. Blindness can become sight. Misunderstanding can be transformed into clarity and purpose. By using confusing language and metaphors, John’s Gospel illustrates the transformation that takes place in people’s lives as they converse with Jesus and try to understand his message.
Many of the things Jesus says have two layers of meaning. At first, his listeners only understand the literal or more obvious meaning, and the challenge is to try to understand what he is “really” talking about. He refers to physical realities like water, bread, birth, and sight, when he’s really talking about spiritual realities like the Holy Spirit, spiritual nourishment, spiritual birth, faith and belief.
Today’s story is packed with interesting elements which could be explored, like the conflict between Jews and Samaritans, the fact that Jesus initiated a theological conversation with a woman, and the way the woman became an evangelist to her neighbours — sharing her experience and inviting them to come and meet Jesus themselves. But this week, I found myself drawn to the two terms that got the woman and then the disciples confused in their conversations with Jesus. I’m thinking of the “living water” and the “food.”
“Living water” (hudor zown) has two possible meanings. It can mean “fresh, running water” (spring water, as opposed to water from a cistern) or it can mean “life-giving water.” Once again, just like in the Nicodemus story, the author of John’s Gospel intentionally uses a word with a double meaning. The Samaritan woman hears only the meaning “running water” in Jesus’ words and so responds to his offer of living water with protests of logical and material impossibility. It is not credible to her that a man who has just asked her for water because he was unable to acquire any for himself should now offer her fresh running water.
And her protest leads to a question: “Where do you get that living water?” This question, like other questions about the origins of Jesus’ gifts, is ironic. The question operates on two levels simultaneously. It makes sense to ask a man with no bucket where he will get water, but the question can also be asked of Jesus’ gift of living water. The irony arises because the reader knows the appropriateness of the question on both levels, but the woman is aware only of the first, literal level of meaning.
As the conversation continues, the woman too will begin to understand that there is another level of meaning in Jesus’ words. “You are not greater than Jacob, are you?” she asks. She assumes, at first, that he’s not. He can’t be. But he says, “Yes, actually, I am greater than Jacob.” Jacob made lots of water spring up from the well, providing enough for many flocks and herds. But Jesus provides water that gets rid of thirst altogether and permanently. “Those who drink of this water will never thirst — it will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life,” Jesus declares.
The woman responds enthusiastically, and asks for some of this water. But she’s still missing the point. She’s still thinking that the water is to satisfy a physical thirst. She figures that if she gets some, she won’t have to keep coming to the well every day. Her request is ironic to the reader, because we know that it is the right request for the wrong reasons.
Jesus’ conversation with his disciples follows a similar pattern to his conversation with the woman. It opens with a dialogue that revolves around a misunderstanding about the meaning of “food” (browsis). The disciples ask Jesus to eat the food that they have brought from town. But Jesus refuses, saying: “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” The disciples are confused by Jesus’ words and assume that he must be referring to food that someone else has brought him. Again, he’s using words that normally refer to a physical reality, but he’s talking about a spiritual reality. It takes the disciples some time to notice the second layer of meaning.
In verse 34, Jesus makes it clear that the food that sustains him is his vocation: “to do the will of the one who sent [him] and to complete God’s work.” He’s not talking about physical food, just as he wasn’t talking about physical water. Jesus is talking about spiritual things. And slowly, with a little explanation and a little help, the Samaritan woman and Jesus’ own disciples are starting to get it.
As I mentioned to the children this morning, God does care about the physical needs of all people. The wilderness stories from Exodus remind us of God’s concern for our physical needs, and they inspire us to do our best to make sure that everyone has enough food, water, shelter, clothing, and medical care. But we all know that there is more to life than fulfilling those basic necessities. Unfortunately, many people believe that “more to life” means buying a bigger or nicer house, having more and fancier clothes, eating out at better restaurants, and accumulating more and more things, including the latest gadgets and toys.
I think that Jesus would say to us, as he said to the woman at the well: “If you knew the gift of God… if you knew who I was… you would have asked me, and I would have given you living water… Those who drink of the water that I 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.”
We spend so much time and energy looking for things, for activities, for friends, or for partners who will satisfy our perceived needs and desires. What can we get or do that will make us happy? Who can we be with who will make our lives complete? And it’s not that we need to rid our lives of things and relationships and activities. Jesus didn’t tell the woman to stop drinking physical water. But he told her that there’s something more to life than physical water.
By the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus offered her the gift of life — meaningful, purposeful life in this world, and the promise of everlasting life beyond the world that we know. That’s the gift that we are offered as well. That’s the gift that we have received in our baptism. That’s the gift that we can receive once again, when we put aside the constant struggle for happiness and comfort, when we reject the instinct to focus on satisfying every desire and whim that we experience, and when we allow the Spirit to start working within us to shape and direct our lives.
When Jesus’ disciples come back from the city and return to the place where he is resting at the well, the topic of conversation changes from water to food. As with physical needs, water is the first concern, with food being next on the priority list. Jesus says that his “food” (the thing that nourishes and sustains him) is “to do the will of the one who sent him.” Jesus is spiritually fed by doing the work of ministry that God has called him to do.
And then he goes on to invite his disciples to join in the work. He says that the time is right. It’s like harvest time, and many workers are needed to gather the fruit. Soon a whole bunch of Samaritans will arrive to meet Jesus because of the woman’s witness, and they’ll all have an opportunity to share the love and call of God with these people.
I think that sometimes we come to church, or we do our personal bible study and prayer, hoping that through those disciplines we will be spiritually fed by God. And sometimes we are fed, and that is great. But Jesus didn’t say that his food came from God when he went off by himself to pray, or when he went to the Temple or the synagogue to worship. He did do those things, of course. In faithfulness, he prayed regularly to God and listened for God’s leading and guiding in his life. And he studied the scriptures and worshiped God in spirit and in truth. But he didn’t say that his spiritual sustenance came from doing those things. He said that his spiritual food was “to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work.” Jesus was nourished and sustained in the course of his life of service, as he responded to God’s particular call for him.
I believe that the same is true for us today, as we follow in his footsteps. If you come to church, or if you go to the scriptures hoping to get something out of it, you’ll be lucky if you do. Instead, I think we need to begin by asking, “What is God’s will for my life?” “How is God calling me to love and serve my neighbour?” “What is the work of ministry to which God is calling me?” Of course, the answers will be different for each one of us. But there will be answers for each one of us.
And then we need to start doing our work — doing God’s work — doing the will of God. That is how we will get to know God. That is how we will grow in faith and love and understanding. And that is how we will be nourished and sustained, even when we experience difficult, wilderness times in our lives.
The good news from John’s Gospel today is that there is more to life than physical concerns. Jesus speaks of spiritual life, health, wholeness, and purpose. God’s love has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, and we are filled, inspired, and equipped to live as God’s faithful people. Thanks be to God. Amen.