Water is our theme today. Water gives life, water sustains us. Water is throughout the bible: creation started with water, Noah and the flood, Moses was placed into and taken out of the Nile river, the Hebrews crossed the red sea, and then crossed the Jordan river in to the Promised Land, Jesus and hundreds of others baptized in the Jordan river, foot-washing, Jesus calmed the sea, changed water into wine….water is fundamental in the narrative of faith.
Our story from John 4: 1-21 starts with explaining why Jesus is traveling on this day. The Pharisees see that the ministries of Jesus and John the Baptist are strong, so they seek to divide them. The people think the division is between the Pharisees and the followers of Jesus, but if the Pharisees can create a conflict between Jesus and John, then maybe it will take the heat of them. It’s that old theory that if I can make all the fingers point at you, then none of the fingers will be pointing at me. The Pharisees are manufacturing a conflict. Jesus wants none of it, he does not want to be creating conflict with his cousin John, he wants the focus where it needs to be, which is ministering to the people.
So he leaves town. He and the disciples head back to Galilee. The shortest route to Galilee is through Samaria. Most Jewish people of the time would travel hours out of their way to avoid going through Samaria. The Samaritans and the Jews had conflict going back nearly a thousand years.
There were twelve tribes of Israel, the twelve tribes of the sons of Jacob, at whose well this story takes place. The tribes engaged in conflict with one another as the generations went on, fighting over who was most authentic in the faith, whose was the more meaningful birthright, whose temple was better…..you see, the Samaritans built a temple on the mountainside, their priests had determined this to be the proper place to worship. The Jews built their temple in Jerusalem, their priests having determined that was the proper place to worship. In the year 110 BCE the Jewish troops stormed into Samaria, destroyed their temple, and burned the town of Schechem, about two miles from where Jesus sat with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well.
Jacob’s Well is a sacred place. It is the place where Jacob wrestled with God, it is where Jacob and Rachel first met, it the place where Jacob’s sons drew water. It is about 9 nine feet in diameter with a short, stone wall surrounding it to sit while collecting water. Like watering holes of today, it was a place for conversation, gossip, courtship. Women of the community would gather in the morning and the evening to collect their water and converse during the coolest times of the day. So who was this woman, and why was she there, alone, at noon, the hottest time of the day? In our tradition, the woman is not important enough for a name. But other faith traditions have a different view of this woman.
According to the Russian Orthodox tradition, the woman at the well was named Photina. After her conversation with Jesus, she went into town and shared the message of Jesus, and the scriptures tell us that people believed her and came to Jesus. Photina then took her five sisters and two sons, and preached throughout Asia Minor before being arrested in Carthage. They were then taken to Rome, where she successfully evangelizing Emperor Nero’s daughter and 100 of her servants. This was too much and Nero had her killed. Martyrdom was often done on a very personal level, and Photina was killed by being thrown into a well. All of her sisters and children were also martyred for their faith. The Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches celebrate her feast day on February 28th. She is considered to be “equal to the apostles”.
But to us, she is unknown. To us, she is a sinful woman, sometimes she is a prostitute. She is proof that even the lowliest among us can see Jesus. But what was her true situation?
In the Samaritan and many other cultures of the time, women were at the mercy of men. Jesus correctly tells her that she has been married five times, and the man she is with now is not her husband. Chances are, she was a widow, and the laws of the times required that she marry her husbands’ brother to provide heirs and keep the bloodlines and finances safe. If she was widowed again or abandoned, she would be forced to marry another brother. Marriage was rarely about love, but about inheritance or building relationships between families.
Imagine Photina in this light. She was married, widowed, abandoned, now living with a man who is probably required by cultural norms to marry her, but refuses to do so. Has she ever been truly loved? She has no ability to support herself and her children, who have also lost their fathers. She is a victim of her society. She is an outcast. Imagine the rumors. What was so wrong with her these men would abandon her? Had she killed her husbands? The gossip, the stares, probably became too much, so she goes to the well when she knows no one else will be there. She has been shamed for circumstances beyond her control.
Jesus, in this context, is a marginalized man, sitting alone at the well, in enemy territory. Photina is a marginalized woman, coming to be alone at the well.
Jesus asks her for a drink of water. This simple statement is actually highly counter-cultural. Rabbis didn’t speak to women in public, Samaritans didn’t speak with Jews, and certainly didn’t drink from the same containers. They both knew these rules. She also doesn’t act like the other women Jesus engages with in the gospels: they wash his feet, feed him, anoint him, serve him, listen attentively to him. Instead, she has a conversation with him. She questions him, why would you ask me for water. She questions him again, how can your water be better than that of this well of our ancestor, Jacob?
Smart woman. She knows her history. She knows this is the well of our ancestor, Jacob. She doesn’t despise him for being Jewish but rather recognizes their mutual ancestry, going against her culture. And she questions a man, something else that goes against her culture.
They talk about the water, then the husbands, and where to worship. This is a big question, where to worship, and again, shows that this is an intelligent woman. She knows the major conflict between her people and his people is where to worship. Remember that about 150 years prior, the Jews had destroyed the Samaritans temple on mountain, considering it sacrilegious.
How does all this tie together?
Jesus is talking about living water, how when you have it, you never thirst. He is of course not speaking literally. But he doesn’t ever fully explain what he means. But he lives it, and he shares it.
In the passage, Jesus never judges her for being a woman, or a Samaritan. He states the truth about her relationship reality, but he does not judge it or condemn it. He does not tell her to repent of her sinful ways, he does not even accuse her of having sinful ways.
He shares the living water by giving her acceptance, by respecting her enough to engage in dialogue with her. He shares the living water by empowering her to see herself differently. Through this conversation, Jesus changes her relationship with God by accepting her; changes her relationship with herself by allowing her to see herself as something other than shamed, and her relationship with others by empowering her to be in relationship with her community.
She came into the conversation a shamed woman, at the well during the heat of the day to avoid having to see people. She left the conversation empowered and excited to talk to everyone, and proceeded to spend the rest of her life engaging with the public.
She got living water, she got new life.
What does a life in the new water mean?
It means being accepted; not being judged or judging others
It means being welcome for who you are
It is inspiration to share, to be in relationship
The world needs this water. We are surrounded by dry souls who do not have the living water. The living water is not doctrine, it is not membership in one religion or another. The living water is love, it is compassion, it is acceptance. It is conversation, it is relationship.
Who do you know that needs this living water, this ever flowing stream of unconditional relationship that waters the soul, that brings people together, that celebrates all people?
The living water that quenches our thirst forever is relationship: with God, with ourselves, and with others. Today we must ask ourselves, what are we thirsting for?