Scripture: Exodus 17:1-7, Psalm 95, Romans 5:1-11, John 4:5-42
What do you long for?
That was how I connected with this passage, this story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well. Maybe it’s because of having lived in the desert: at noon, the sun is high above and beating down on you and washing the colors out of everything. The heat is so intense that it’s almost a physical presence, pressing down on you and making it hard to breathe. It’s a dry heat, someone will inevitably point out, but all that means is that you don’t realize how thirsty you are until suddenly your mouth is sandy-dry and all you want is some water. It’s all you can think about.
And here this woman is, at the well, looking for water. Here is Jesus, at the well, looking for water. Jesus has been walking with His disciples across the country of Israel. The woman has been doing housework, cooking or cleaning or weaving or tending to the family’s animals. Both of them are thirsty.
There’s nothing quite like the relief of a drink when you are that thirsty. It’s a release of tension; it’s like your body knows that it’s all right now, that this thirst won’t kill you just yet. Everything can start working properly again.
Of course, as Jesus points out, you’ll need to drink again. You’ll be thirsty again. That’s why the woman is at the well, after all; every day, someone from her household has to go to the well and retrieve water for them all.
And yet, once Jesus and the woman start talking, Jesus starts getting a bit weird again, just like He did last week when He was talking with Nicodemus: he offers the woman living water, water that will forever quench whoever drinks of it. The woman longs for that: “Give me this water, that I may not thirst, nor come here to draw [water].”
Of course, it’s Jesus, so He just makes it weird again: He tells the woman to call her husband, and when she says that she has none, Jesus says, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and he whom you now have is not your husband.”
People often read this response as a rebuke, where Jesus is condemning the woman as sinful, the sort of person who went through husbands like most people go through plastic bags: they’re only useful so long, and then you throw it out and move on. But that wasn’t true. A woman in Jesus’ time couldn’t start divorce proceedings: if this woman was divorced, then her husband would have had to be the driving force behind it. A woman may have been divorced once for adultery, but it’s unlikely she would find another husband after that. It’s far more likely that this woman has had a series of husbands because her husbands have died. Or perhaps she was in a levirate marriage: that is, her first husband died, and her husband’s brothers married her to try to produce an heir for her original husband. Perhaps she’s living with a man who isn’t her husband because one of the brothers refused to marry her; or perhaps she’s living with her family. It’s even possible that after her last husband died, she had no choice but to sell herself into slavery.
In other words, Jesus is not condemning her. He is saying: I see you. I see your life and everything you’ve been through. I see the pain you’ve suffered, the ways you’ve been passed around and struggled to survive and suffered loss. I see you.
I long for this from God, far more than I long for water. To be seen? Truly seen, and loved?–for this long conversation with the woman speaks to me of love, Jesus’ love for her.
As I was thinking about longing, and what we long for–at this moment, collectively, it is cleanliness and health and safety. We worry about washing our hands and touching one another and what is going to happen next and especially finding hand sanitizer. I couldn’t stop imagining that, if this story were to happen today, Jesus would walk into a drug store and ask for hand sanitizer; when the very stressed clerk said there was none left, Jesus would say, “That’s all right. I’m the source of health and life. Follow me, and you will never need hand sanitizer again.”
I’m not trying to say, of course, that Christians never get sick. (And also, please keep washing your hands and using hand sanitizer!) Jesus wouldn’t be speaking literally of hand sanitizer any more than He was speaking literally about water. But we long for hand sanitizer because we long for safety and security and health for ourselves and for those we love. And Jesus says: I am the source of those things. I will give you a source of comfort that nothing can stop up and that will never run dry.
And so know that things may be difficult and frightening. We may be worried. The news may be all bad news. But Jesus offers peace and and comfort to each of us. God is with us.
Alleluia, and Amen.