“If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”
— John [4:10]
THE GIFT OF LIVING WATER
One of the most insightful stories in the Gospel about how Jesus helps broken people occurs in chapter four in the Gospel of John. It is the story of a slow but patient evangelism by Jesus that lifts up the lowest of the low to become the first mass evangelist for Christ in the Bible.
Jesus is sitting alone at a well in Samaria, Jacob’s well. It is noontime and a woman approaches the well. Jesus asks her for a drink. To us in the twenty-first century, this could be a story about a man in his thirties who is tired from walking long miles. He meets a woman who has a bucket that can give him water. Seems simple enough, but it is not. It is a story with many twists and turns. It is a story of Jesus’ approach to humankind. It is a story that resembles Jesus’ internal conversation with us. A story that must be pulled apart. A story with a surprising ending.
The woman Jesus meets at the well is from Samaria and has had a very hard life. We know this from three clues that we are given at the beginning of the story. First, she is a Samaritan. The Samaritans were considered social outcasts by the dominant Jewish population. Second, she is a woman. In the first century, women had very few rights and society was heavily tilted toward men. In fact, women were in some corners considered the property of their husbands. Finally, this woman is drawing water at noontime, the hottest part of the day in the Middle East. Most women would draw their family’s water in the cool of the morning. It was also a community gathering time. This woman came alone, potentially because the other women of her community had rejected her. She lived a lonely and lowly life, an outcast for being a Samaritan and a woman, and then rejected also by her own people. Yet here she was, the lowest of society, unknowingly meeting with Jesus.
Jesus begins their dialogue with an innocent request: “Give me a drink.” Stunned, because a Jew is asking a Samaritan woman to do him a favor, she asks, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” Jesus ignores this question and proceeds to invite her into a conversation that is both revealing and designed to draw her deeper. He brings up “living water.” His purpose is not to discuss the socioeconomic status in the Judean world. He has a mission for this woman. A mission that he could not spring on her immediately. He has a simple path of getting her to be accepting. A path that will lead to marvelous things. But Jesus is patient and knows to move slowly.
Imagine that we are this woman. We are used to people shutting us down, because of gender, social status, and our past. It has been a hot climb to the well to get water for the day. Here sits a single man of the dominant culture asking for water. Would we think, what does he really want? Would we be suspicious? Would we be afraid? Would we bow our heads and humbly hand him water? Instead, this woman asks a simple question, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?”. A question of amazement. With this question, she reveals herself to be forthright and curious.
Jesus in turn tells her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who this is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink’, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” (John [4:10])
She replies, “Sir you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us this well, and with his sons and his flock drank from it?” (John [4:11]–12) By saying this, the woman proves she is steeped in the history of the Bible and fully aware that Jacob was the great ancestor of the twelve tribes of Israel.
Jesus continues telling her about the “living water,” by saying, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water I will give them will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” (John [4:13]–14)
In this brief interchange, Jesus uses the woman’s daily task of drawing water to tell her about a different way of living. A connection she will understand later. Jesus is not talking just about water, but of faith in God. A way to change her life of being an outcast to being a faith-driven woman. A way to become accepted by God and her neighbor.
The woman asks for the water Jesus is offering, but still does not know this is God talking to her through Jesus. Jesus tells her, “Go, call your husband and come back.” (John [4:16])
She replies, “I have no husband.”
Jesus knew this when he asked her this question to allow for a prophetic statement that would reveal himself to be more than a great prophet. Jesus says, “You are right in saying ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.” (John [4:17]–18) Stunned that this random man would know all this about her past, the woman now knows that this conversation is bigger than just about water. She replies to Jesus, “I know that Messiah is coming (who is called Christ). When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” (John 4: 25) Jesus replies to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.” (John [4:26]) A clear statement from Jesus that he is the great “I Am” that visited Moses many centuries earlier.
The woman from the well leaves to tell her people that she might have found the Messiah, and she asks the leaders of her community to go back with her to see if this is true. Many from her community believe her because of the story she told and how Jesus knew everything about her. They head back to the well and invite Jesus to spend a few days with them. After a few days of being with Jesus, they proclaim to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard ourselves, and we know this is truly the Savior of the world.” (John [4:42])
“Like many that have been broken, the woman at the well was healed because she believed and because Jesus saw greatness in her.”
Jesus had made a simple request, “Give me a drink,” which led to the acceptance by an entire community of his message. Jesus did not condemn the woman because of her past life; instead he looked past what she had done, to who she was as a person. A curious person with a forthright attitude. A person trusting in God, who wanted to know him better. Jesus put aside the judgment of her life and went straight at her value to humankind. She had been a broken woman, outcast by her people because of her past, gender, and an unforgiving society, but Jesus knew her differently. He knew that through her, an entire community would come to faith. Like many that have been broken, the woman at the well was healed because she believed and because Jesus saw greatness in her.
Brokenness is a place where many start their journey of faith. A point where we have led a life away from God. At our lowest point, we begin the long march upward to regain the inheritance promised to us all. Our own action of wanting a different life, combined with the forgiving grace of Jesus, heals us and moves us along on the journey of faith. We discover that Jesus does not care about our past but wants to guide our future. When we accept this future through our faith in the unseen, we are healed.
Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman