Third Sunday of Lent

Exodus 17:1-7;
John 4:5-42
Search for Satisfaction 

The scripture lessons designated for this Lord’s Day invite us to reflect on the theme of water. It was only last Sunday that I returned from my trip to Israel. During the first few days of our tour, we were in the Negev, the vast desert region in southern Israel, which makes up more than half of the country’s land mass. Later in our tour we went up to Jerusalem; the city is nestled in the Judean hills, which are rocky and dry. I mention this because what you don’t see in these places is water, at least not very much. One morning, while in Jerusalem, our group went into the Western Wall tunnels. Our guide there spoke unbroken English. Naturally, one in the group asked him where he lived before immigrating to Israel. He told us that he’d lived in Chicago. He then told us about his first trip back with his Israeli wife several years ago. From the plane, she stared down at Lake Michigan before landing at O’Hare airport. She nudged her husband. “Is that fresh water?” she asked incredulously. “Yes,” he replied. She shook her head and repeated: “It’s not fair. It’s just not fair.” 


Having seen the Wilderness of Sin with my own eyes, I can appreciate better the anxiety of the children of Israel when wandering in that vast and dreadful desert, where there is no water. Surrounded by it on all sides, we Michiganders take water for granted. But in Israel, people do not. In fact, there is a saying there: “water is more valuable than gold.” After a moment’s consideration, this is obvious. After all, I can live a long life without ever owning an ounce of gold. But without water, I cannot live much longer than three or four days. 


Jesus, the incarnate Son of God, is a human being like us. He is tired and thirsty in the noonday heat, and for this reason needs to sit down to rest by a well. Soon there appears a woman, whom he asks to give him a drink. 


This would be a non-event for us today, escaping our notice. But Jesus is a Jewish man in the first century. Samaria was a nation at odds with the Jewish people, who acknowledged Jerusalem as the religious and political capital of the Southern kingdom. Samaria was the remnant of the Northern kingdom, separated from Jerusalem by political intrigues, rivalry between kings, and religious ideology. Later it was conquered and resettled by the Assyrians, with whom the people had intermarried, making them less than pure. To the temple in Jerusalem, the Samaritans opposed their own temple on Mount Gerizim. Thus, the one chosen people stood divided in Jesus’ day. No self-respecting Jew associated with a Samaritan. 


But the interaction between Jesus and the Samaritan woman breached another social convention. As a man in orthodox Jewish society, it would have been inappropriate for Jesus to ask a woman for help, let alone engage her in a conversation. Consider the Rabbinic wisdom prevalent in Jesus’ day, expressed in this saying: “A man shall not talk with a woman in the street, not even with his own wife, on account of what others may say. He that talks much with womankind brings evil upon himself.  If any man gives a woman a knowledge of God’s Law, it is as though he had taught her lechery.” That is why, when they returned, the disciples are astonished to find him talking with a woman. Nothing of the dialogue would have taken place if Jesus had not the courage to violate the taboos of nationality, religion and gender.

 We know that in John’s Gospel Jesus uses material realities to communicate spiritual truths. It’s no different here. Water is a material reality. It is something we can see, hear, touch, taste, and smell. It is the source of life. It sustains us and renews our strength. But that is exactly why it is such an apt vehicle to communicate the deeper spiritual truth that Jesus himself is. If we don’t see how Jesus uses the woman’s desire for water to open up a deeper conversation about desire and where the satisfaction of our deepest desire can be found, then we miss the point of the whole narrative.  


Let us then begin by stating the obvious. To thirst is to desire. Jesus desires a drink. The woman comes to the well because she is drawn by her own desire. That is to say, she has to satisfy her own thirst, as well as that of her family members and animals. The desire for water is most basic. In fact, when we are so parched our desire for water takes precedence over all the others. The satisfaction of this desire is first in order of importance. 


Water then refers us to human desire, to our desire. Indeed, desire is a subtext that runs throughout this lesson. We learn that the woman with whom Jesus interacts at the well is a woman marked by desire. She desires the water that Jesus promises to give her, the water that satisfies so completely that the one who drinks of it will never be thirsty again. But when Jesus sends her to fetch her husband and come back, there emerges a more complete picture of who she is as a woman marked by desire.

 “I have no husband.” “You are right in saying you have no husband. In fact, you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.” Sexual intimacy holds out to us the promise of satisfying our deepest desire. This is a truism that applies at all times and in all places. It obviously applies in our own time and place, where sexual promiscuity is rampant. In this regard, the Samaritan woman is strangely contemporary with us. But Jesus does not bring up her past to judge her. God did not send him into the world to condemn her and those of us like her, but to save her and those of us like her through him. The point here is to remind her that she had been trying to slake her thirst in all the wrong ways. It wasn’t sex or meeting Mr. Right or finding companionship, as good as those things can be, that would ever satisfy her deepest desire. 


The woman does not withdraw from Jesus in shame, as one might expect, but engages him in spirited conversation. She knows the religious traditions of her people. She is conversant enough in theology to pose intelligent questions. Is it not often the case the most passionate people we meet are also at the same time the most ardent spiritual seekers? Doesn’t this seem to be a contradiction? The wisest students of human nature teach us that there is a sensitive interface between our sexuality and our spirituality. Erotic desire and spiritual aspiration are not always so easy to separate in the human heart. This makes sense of the old saying that when a man knocks at the door of a brothel, he is really looking for God. 


The dialogue comes to a conclusion. We all want to know the moment when the woman comes to the realization that in this one, this Jesus, she has found the satisfaction of her deepest desire. That this encounter transformed her is clear. How else can we explain the zeal with which she goes from door to door throughout her town to tell everyone about the man she met?  


The clue lies in what she says to the people in the town: “Come and see a man who told me everything I had ever done.” Why is this significant for her? 


In a recent article about marriage, a marriage therapist, whose name escapes me, writes that in her practice she discovered that a major cause of marital strain is the failure of spouses to listen to each other. When our loved one chooses not to listen to us, we feel misunderstood. If this becomes chronic, we begin to feel that the one closest to us does not really know us, or worse yet, even care to know us. This is why people can feel profound loneliness within marriage, this closest, most intimate of all human relationships. 


Alice Aedy recently released a video called the Voices of the Loneliness Epidemic. We began to hear this expression “loneliness epidemic” in the media when the government in the UK declared loneliness a public health crisis in 2018, and responded by appointing a minister of loneliness. The video consists of voice messages left in a voice mailbox connected to the office number of the minister of loneliness. In one message, one young woman said: “I think that the thing about being lonely is that it makes you think that no one really knows you, and that if you disappeared and slipped away, there will be no real record of who you were. Sadly, she goes on to say, “That is why I [practice self-mutilation], because I want it to be recorded, so that people see it, so that it’s not locked away in my mind.”

 Jesus could not have told the Samaritan woman everything she ever did if he had never bothered to know her. In her encounter with Jesus she felt known, really known. She felt recognized and valued and affirmed. And above all she felt loved. In him her search came to an end. In him her deepest desire found satisfaction.  


Her witness in her town spreads like a virus. She is so persuasive that the townspeople decide to invite Jesus to stay with them. Jesus consents and begins to speak to them his word. They too arrive at the same conclusion as did the Samaritan woman: we have heard him and now know that this is truly the Savior of the world. 


Can we concur with the townspeople after hearing this word? What does the lesson of the Samaritan woman have to teach us today? 


We have stressed that in Jesus she found living water, which satisfies her thirst so completely that she will never thirst again. Do we find in Christ this same living water? If we do not, perhaps, paradoxically, we have to refuse to let our thirst be quenched. The heart is always thirsty and like a deer pants for flowing waters. But it tends to be drawn to sources that ultimately do not deliver on their promise to satisfy. What are we looking for to satisfy our deepest longings? Let us be sure not to settle for counterfeits, which narrow and even disfigure our lives, preventing us from becoming all that God has called us to be. Instead let us always look to Christ to satisfy.

 Let us ask God to pour his love into our hearts so that we have a constant desire for Christ. Then we will be able to say with the Psalmist: “You, O God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you; I thirst for you, my whole being longs for you, in a dry and parched land where there is no water” (Ps. 63). Then we will remain in him, from whom will flow streams of living waters in the deserts of our lives. Amen. 


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