With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.
Our text today comes from John chapter four:
So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon.
When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.)
The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)
Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”
“Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?”
Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”
First of all, a story. Water is perhaps (besides oxygen) the most vital resource for human life. Without water, people die in a matter of days or hours. In many of the warmer climates of the world, such as Africa, the Middle East, and India, water wells can be a tremendous blessing to the local population. Here is a photo taken near Salem, India, at a leper colony, where a team had just completed installation of a water-filtration system:
So water serves as a superb metaphor for spiritual life: Everyone knows it, it has no cultural bias, everyone is aware of its importance as the life-giving fluid. Jesus was fond of speaking in parables, little stories that used familiar objects and situations to illustrate deeper truths. Sometimes, though, the parable seems directly woven into the actual events of the story.
Return with me to the backward, outlying province of Palestine, in the days of the Roman Empire. No self-respecting Roman wanted this assignment. The people were uncivilized, the climate was too hot and dry, and there were no decent restaurants. It was an unpleasant place.
Imagine the scene. Jesus is tired and hungry and thirsty — all his physical resources are strained. He is alone; the disciples were sent to the village to find some food. John says nonchalantly “it was about noon.” It’s probably sunny. And hot. As Noel Coward once said, only “mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the noonday sun.”
Into this hot, parched scene trudges a singular figure in a dingy shawl. The dust swirls about her ankles. Her face is hidden in the folds of her shawl, to protect her from both the sun and from the eyes of others, especially men. She is carrying a wooden pail and a length of makeshift rope. Her intent is to get the water, with luck unseen by anyone, and return to her village in the heat of the day when no one is watching.
On the way to the well, she passes a small band of man – Jewish men, from the look of them – speaking in Galilean accents, and heading the opposite way, toward her village. This is a surprise. Never has she experienced this. Jewish men don’t travel here; they consider the whole area ‘unclean.’ They must be lost. She continues toward the well.
Unfortunately for her, there seems to be a man seated by the well. She diverts her path, taking a route that avoids the man. Maybe he won’t notice her. Men generally don’t talk to women – and she has plenty of reasons to avoid contact with anyone.
But as she approaches the well, the man speaks. He asks her for water, in a Nazarene accent. He must be with those others, she thinks. This is truly an unusual day. She has never met a man who behaved like this before. This man, this Jewish man Jesus, actually initiates a conversation with her, a Samaritan woman with a history. On the surface it is a conversation about water and wells and rope.
But of course it is also a conversation about sin and salvation and God’s mercy. That’s where the meaning is to be found. It’s a parable without being framed as a parable.
Let us focus on four significant statements that the woman makes:
- “You have nothing to draw with.”
- “The well is deep.”
- “Where can you get this ‘living water’?”
- “Give me this water.”
The woman is not a theologian; she is probably not educated at all. But what is beautiful about Jesus is how he appeals to everyone. He uses the common everyday circumstances to illustrate the truth of God. If you recall, the people who rejected him most strenuously were the educated ones, the religious professionals with their degrees and robes and mortarboards. They couldn’t accept these truths. The wise and learned have such things hidden from them. You will recall what he said when he spoke to his disciples:
At that time Jesus, full of joy through the Holy Spirit, said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do.
It pleases the heart of God when the intelligence of man is frustrated and turned around.
For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written:
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”
Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.
But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.
1 Corinthians 1:18-25, 27
So she is a simple woman, and God is always pleased to use the simple to shame the wise. Yet in her responses, she identifies some key doctrinal points. She wants to talk about water, but Jesus is talking about sin and repentance and salvation and the spiritual life. It’s a bit hard to tell when exactly she ‘gets it,’ that is, when she starts clearly understanding that the ‘living water’ is not physical water, but she does get it. The conversation seems to proceed, at least for a while, on both levels. Viewed this way, her answers are heavy with significance:
You have nothing to draw with.
She sees him reclining there on the rocks by the well and notices that he carries nothing: no rope, no pail, no jar. What kind of fool wanders out here in the middle of the hot day, she wonders, without any provisions? As her mother had taught her, when you approach the well, you had better come with a bucket and a length of stout rope. Otherwise, the water remains down there in the well, agonizingly far from your parched tongue. Obviously this man is a foreigner. He brings no tools.
Now, an interesting question arises: Why doesn’t she offer her own bucket to draw water for him? She appears to immediately assume that he would not drink from her bucket. Of course: He is a Jew and she is a Samaritan. Her bucket is unclean. No matter how thirsty he may be, no self-respecting, Law-abiding Jew would drink from the same vessel as a Samaritan. They would sooner die of dehydration.
Are we talking about ropes and buckets, or about something else? What is meant here?
The fact is, as flawed human beings, we are born without tools. We have nothing to draw with, nothing to help facilitate our own salvation. We may think we ourselves endowed with cleverness or energy or prestige or personal charm. When I was not yet a believer, I would read the Bible occasionally, convinced that I would be clever enough, when the end times came, to align myself with the winning side. I thought salvation depended on my intelligence and my superb reaction time. How foolish! But haven’t we all thought that way? Someone else, someone more physically fit than I, might think that strength is sufficient for salvation. Someone else, an extrovert, might suppose that he or she can charm their way into heaven by schmoozing the right people. We all want to flatter ourselves in some way, and believe that the quality we prize in ourselves is also a dependable way to God. We are by nature delusional in this. We think that we can, by our own human powers, endear ourselves to God. Jesus had this to say to people who thought they could buy their way into His favor, or bribe Him:
You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.
But in fact we are feeble. Wretched. Pitiful, poor, blind, and naked. We have nothing to draw with. We are utterly unable. Jesus gave us a parable about this:
“Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you, saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn’t able to finish.’”
Now, most students label this parable as being about the cost of following Jesus. But really, it isn’t about that at all. If you compare it to its companion parable about the king wondering whether he has sufficient manpower to repulse an invasion, you immediately grasp that the point of both stories is that Man is fundamentally unable. Unable to build a tower to reach God, and unable to defend himself against His coming judgments. The stories are meant to show that the cost is far too great for us to shoulder. We lack the funds to complete the tower we want to build, our personal “Stairway to Heaven.” There is no hope of reaching the top. No amount of cleverness or money or strength will bring success. Where do you turn in such a circumstance?
Well (no pun intended), one might argue that maybe God isn’t really so upset with us after all. I mean, sure, we’re sinners and we’ve fallen short of his glory, but how bad could it be? If we can’t raise ourselves up to God, we might argue, maybe we can bring Him down to us. This is the tradition in which I was raised, the mainstream ‘liberal’ Christian church, which says that salvation isn’t so far off that anything drastic needs to be done. Perhaps (returning to the well analogy) we don’t need a rope or bucket. Perhaps the well is shallow enough that I can just reach in with my hand, or lean down into the hole and touch my lips to the surface of the water. Maybe it’s just that simple.
But now – surprise! – look over the edge of the well. All of our blithe assumptions were wrong.
The woman correctly identifies the problem in her next statement:
The well is deep.
Since this fellow is a foreigner, she decides that he must never have actually looked into the well to appreciate its depth. “You don’t understand the magnitude of the problem,” she might say. “You’re very far from slaking your thirst.”
Again the woman has inadvertently made a significant observation. Her comment is a stiff rebuke to the liberal church, and to the world at large. Sorry; look for yourself, the water is WAY down there. You cannot reach it with your hand, or your face. What is the figurative meaning here? The water is the new life, the spiritual life, or salvation – in any event, it is something to be greatly desired. We find, to our dismay, that there is a distance to be bridged somehow, and it’s a greater distance than we had anticipated. Salvation is, in fact, far off. The chasm is huge. There is a large gulf between Man and God as a result of sin. The world tries to paper this over, but the truth of man’s alienation from God is written into our psychology from the day we are born. We all feel it.
Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior.
The world wants to believe that there is no alienation, that God is generally happy with us. The well is shallow. This is the gospel of Hinduism (at least as far as I understand Hinduism). God is everywhere, in everything; we’re all part of God; let’s be happy and celebrate and not worry too much. In other words, even if we have no rope and no pail, no problem: the gap between us and God is not great, we can save ourselves with minimal effort, a small bit of devotion or sacrifice.
This, I believe, was the conceit of Cain: He fancied himself as worthy before God on the basis of his offerings. God rejected his offerings, as we know.
With these two points firmly established, she now asks a question:
Where do you get this living water?
This is the cry of a heart that has seen how deep the well is and the lack of tools. Where does one turn? How am I going to get that living water? Where is the source?
The Source is standing right in front of her, and there is no need to use a bucket. Jesus admonishes her: All you had to do was ask. Let not that be the epitaph on your tombstone. “All he had to do was ask – and yet he never did.”
The “living water” metaphor gives us a glimpse into the life of the Holy Spirit:
“Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
What is meant by this? How does the water “well up” inside us? As Jesus says elsewhere in John’s Gospel:
“Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’”
This is exciting news. A spring of living water, resident inside a person. You and I can have this living water, not as something we must go and retrieve, but as a present reality in us all the time. God by His Spirit, gives us new life day by day as believers in Him:
You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the spirit is alive* because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.
Romans 8:9-11 (ESV)
* I prefer this reading to the ESV’s “the [large ‘S’] Spirit is life” for this phrase. It seems to make more sense as a parallel to “the body is dead.”
Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.
2 Corinthians 4:16 (ESV)
Jesus, by his Spirit, promises to renew and enliven our mortal bodies. Living water flowing from inside us. This is indeed exciting news. The woman is intrigued. I think she is playing along with Jesus, being a bit cautious and cagey. She seems to be walking the tightrope between a literal conversation about hydration and a spiritual discussion about eternal life. Surely the significance of Jesus’ words is not lost on her entirely, yet she (like Nicodemus in the previous chapter) has been playing it ‘close to the vest.’
Jesus’ promise seems so attractive. She must try it.
Her question now becomes a demand:
Give me this water.
With the problem fully appreciated, with the knowledge of the great blessings available to her, and the true Source of living water standing before her, she asks in the only way she can. She drops her rope and her bucket, her vain pretensions of self-reliance. She no longer asks the Rich Young Man’s question: “What must I do to be saved?” That’s the wrong question! She sees now that it’s not a matter of ‘doing’ at all. The rope and the bucket are insufficient tools. My intelligence, my devotion, my perseverance – all insufficient tools. There is nothing you or I can do to be saved. It mustn’t be a ‘do’ question. All we can do, really, is beg for mercy. Ask for the living water. Ask the man who alone can provide it. Instead of insisting that there ought to be something we can ‘do,’ we should abandon such foolish, misplaced faith in our own ability. We must instead ask the ‘who’ question. Consider how the ‘wretched man’ Paul asked it. When he reached the end of his frustrating dance with self-sufficiency (described in Romans chapter seven), he cried out in anguish:
O wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?
Not “How can I save myself?” or “What must I do?” It’s “Who will rescue me?”
In one word: Help!
Her demand for the water is an acknowledgement that she can’t get it by herself. She has “opened up the door” to receiving help. It’s a cry of humility, not presumption.
As we know from the rest of the story, Jesus doesn’t permit her the easy-believism of modern theology. He identifies her sin and forces her to face it and name it as part of her following him. He demands this, not because she needs to clean up her life before she is permitted to follow him, but rather to show that following Christ is a commitment of the whole person. Everything becomes negotiable, and every sinful tendency and thought and habit and situation must be dealt with openly.
But the way has been opened. The gospel has been preached to her. Grace has replaced the hard rigor of Law.
This is the message of Jesus, the gospel of grace that frees Man from the prison of Law and sin and death. Instead of strutting about in our own fancied competence and strength, expecting God to reward us for works of the flesh, we should instead humbly acknowledge Him, and our complete inability.
Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to Thy Cross I cling,
Naked, come to thee for dress,
Helpless, look to Thee for grace,
Foul, I to the fountain fly,
Wash me, Savior, or I die.
Astute readers will notice that this conversation follows the framework of the Gospel, as expressed in formulas such as the “Romans Road,” the “Bridge of Life,” or the “Four Spiritual Laws”:
- “The well is deep” – Your sins have separated you from God (Isaiah 59:1-2)
- “You have nothing to draw with” – You cannot save yourself; the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23); you are doomed apart from God’s mercy
- “Where can I get this living water?” – Jesus is the only answer (1 Peter 3:18)
- “Give me this water” – You must receive Christ (John 1:12, Revelation 3:20)