Thirsting for God

Public Domain

Description: Christ and the Samaritan Woman at the Well (1795) by Angelica Kauffman

By Sean Davidson

CAN YOU REMEMBER a time when you were desperately thirsty? Maybe on a hot day working in the sun. Or after a long hike. Or maybe you’ve been stranded somewhere for a long time without water. What was it like finally to take a drink? How would you describe it?

There’s one memory that sticks out for me. I was tree-planting in BC and it was late Spring. We had enjoyed some good weather, and it was finally starting to warm up. In fact, some days reached 40 degrees in the afternoon. On one of the hotter days, I totally misjudged. I ran out of trees to plant about half a kilometer from my water jug. I remember looking at the jug off in the distance through the heat waves rising from the ground. My mouth was dry, my lips were cracked. This was going to be tough.

I dropped all my gear and began stumbling over slash and trenches and fallen trees. My trek seemed to take forever, but I finally made it. Completely exhausted, I grabbed the jug, opened the nozzle, and raised it to my mouth. Never has water tasted that delicious. I stood there drinking for a long time, letting the water spill over on my face and clothes. It was so good.

I’m sure we’ve all had experiences like that. Notice that thirst is a theme in Scripture. The Israelites in the desert. The Samaritan woman at the well. Even Jesus is thirsty.

It’s easy to miss – after all, we’re talking about something rather obvious. People need water to live.

But there’s another play on thirst in these readings – it’s the hint of a deeper desire or longing that no drink of water can satisfy. In each instance, physical need becomes a clue to something much bigger.

The people of Israel are not just desperate for water. They want to know if God is alive and present to make good on his promises. Moses names the spot with a question: “Is the Lord among us or not?”

The Samaritan woman isn’t just following through on her daily routine. She’s looking for something more, a wholeness in life that’s constantly eluding her. And Jesus isn’t just wanting a drink. He’s hoping to bring new life to someone who barely knows her own deepest desires.

The story begins with Jesus and his disciples travelling from Judea to Galilee in the north and stopping midway in Samaria, near a place called Sychar. It’s around noon, the hottest part of the day. The disciples go off to town in search of food while Jesus remains behind to rest. Sitting down by a well, he strikes up a conversation with a woman who has come to draw water.

He leads with a simple request: “Could you give me a drink?” On the surface, this line may seem innocent enough, but it’s actually quite startling. At the time, it wasn’t common for a man to speak with a woman like this, alone. Or for a Jew to speak with a Samaritan. Right off the top, Jesus has broken two well-known social rules.

And the woman calls him on it: “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” That’s a strong response. Enough to make most people back away.

But Jesus doesn’t do that. Instead, he takes up the conversation in earnest, building on his original theme: “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.”

Here Jesus shifts the entire frame of the conversation. He had begun by asking for a drink. Now he plays on the woman’s thirst and suggests that he has something better to offer than what she’s been collecting – something that he calls “living water.”

Initially the woman misunderstands, which isn’t a huge surprise. Jesus is coming into the conversation hinting and suggesting rather than explaining in full.

The Greek word for “living” can also mean “flowing,” and the woman latches on to that familiar sense. Where’s this river he’s talking about? And how will he draw from it? The only water source for miles around is Jacob’s well. And, anyway, who does this guy think he is? More important than Jacob himself?

Unfazed, Jesus keeps playing out his analogy, pressing closer in, pointing to a reality that she can hardly guess at: “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. The water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

Here Jesus expands the image. The gift that he has – this gift from God – doesn’t simply offer relief, but it fills up the empty places inside. In fact, it fills them to overflowing. And somehow it does this in a lasting way.

Now the woman is intrigued. Water that satisfies once and for all and comes in an endless supply, rising up and spilling over the brim. That sounds wonderful. Life-changing in fact. “Sir,” she says, “give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here day after day.” The woman continues to misunderstand Jesus’ meaning.

And there may be a tone of sarcasm here. But something is beginning to happen. She is becoming more open and receptive. She had come to the well alone. And she was wary. Now she is freer with her needs and desires, asking openly for the water Jesus has to give. This would seem like a good moment to explain, but Jesus holds back and does something completely unexpected.

Here he suddenly changes the subject to marriage and asks the woman to fetch her husband. This is really strange. It certainly would have thrown this woman for a loop. What is he up to? How does this connect? If it were me, I’d be looking for the exit.

But the woman stays put. And she replies simply: “I have no husband.” “That’s right” Jesus says. “You’ve had five husbands, and the man you’re with now is not your husband.”

I’m sure there would have been a pause here. And a long mutual stare. Notice all the barriers Jesus is crossing at this point.  A Jewish man of good reputation speaking with a Samaritan woman on the margins. All that entails risk for Jesus. A risk that he takes in love.

But think of the Samaritan woman. I can imagine her retreating. Or maybe taking offence and lashing out in anger: “How dare you presume to know me. Who told you this? The gossips in town? The religious leaders? Everyone thinks they know. And who do you think you are anyways?”

That kind of response would be perfectly understandable. But this isn’t how the woman responds. Instead, she keeps going with Jesus. Her courage is amazing. She deflects his probing and pushes back with her own religious views. And as she continues to go back and forth, she becomes more and more vulnerable, opening herself in trust.

Finally, she gets to the point of recognizing Jesus as the very source and aim of all her desiring. “I know that the Messiah is coming,” she says. “When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”

Jesus responds plainly: “That’s me, the one speaking to you – I’m the one you’ve been waiting for.”

Maybe you’ve had days like this, when you’re thirsty for a drink and don’t even realize it. I’ve had a few of these. I’ll be plodding along with camel-like endurance, barely aware that I’ve got a physical body let alone bodily needs, and then I happen upon a fountain or water cooler. More by reflex than desire, I fill one of those little cups. As the water reaches my lips, I realize with a jolt, “I’m thirsty.” It’s only then that I stop to drink.

I think the Samaritan woman had lived a lifetime of those days. Only it wasn’t water that she was thirsty for. Deep down she was longing for way more than that, some unnamable good thing just beyond her reach.

Who knows why she had had five husbands. Or why she was currently unmarried. The fact is that she had known many years of broken relationship. Not only with the men she had married, but also the community that had looked down on her. And here for the first time was someone walking with her, offering dignity, refreshment and the promise of new life in the midst of it all. But not only offering it – rather, enacting and embodying it in her presence.

God had instructed Moses to strike the rock. And rivers of water flowed. Jesus is not simply another Moses, leading another Exodus. He’s also the rock that has been struck, the rock that’s gushing water in the desert. The sure sign of God’s presence to save. Here. There. Everywhere.

This is what the Samaritan woman experienced that hot day on her journey to fetch water. It was a day like any other. But everything was turned upside down in an instant. And the transformation in her life was unmistakable.

She had come to the well as an outcast, struggling on the margins. But she returned to her village emboldened with a message for everyone to hear: “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did.”

That’s an amazing line for someone who had likely been shunned by her friends and family for years. Where is the fear? Where is the worry? Where is the shame? There’s no room for it. It’s all been drowned by living waters.

This woman has a spring welling up inside and sloshing over the edges, spilling out into all her relationships. She’s discovered God’s gift of new life. Even more, she’s come to know the Giver.

What about us? Are you thirsty? Are you thirsty for something more than this life can satisfy? Maybe you hadn’t noticed, each day running into the next. These are difficult times. There’s upheaval and uncertainty, weariness and disappointment for all of us.

Hear Jesus’ promise today: “Whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. The water I give will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

“Whoever.” These words are for us. They’re for our comfort, here and now. God is not distant and indifferent. He has come close to us in Jesus. He is present even now by the Spirit. And he is drawing us all to new life. Let’s be like the Samaritan woman, brave in our brokenness and wide open to God’s transforming love. TAP


A lover of poetry, cats, and trouty streams, Sean currently resides in Sarnia, Ontario where he serves as Rector of Trinity Anglican Church.

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