Have you ever been really thirsty? It starts with a dryness in the lips or skin. I was at camp with Stephanie two summers ago. And it was hot. And it was humid. We wake up sweaty. Get into the lake sweaty, and then get out sweaty. And we were thirsty…all the time we were thirsty. Our bodies desperately needed water — and we drank it by the quart, would fill it up and drink it again. So when Jesus asks the woman at the well for a drink of water, perhaps it’s nothing more than being thirsty.
But it could be about helping someone escape their boxes. A black man and a white man were driving down the road, debating the topic of whether Jesus was black or white. On and on they went. Back and forth. “He was white” said the white guy, “because he was Jewish, and the shroud confirms, that he was Caucasian. “No he was black,” says the black man. “Noah’s descendants settled in Ethiopia, and the lineage of Jesus is from there.” The two men were so busy arguing, they weren’t watching the road, and slammed into a semi, killing both of them instantly. The two men woke up in heaven and here comes Jesus around the Pearly Gates and Jesus says, “BUENAS DIAS SEÑORS!” I love this story because it reminds us how ridiculously limiting our ideas of race are in the face of a God loves people of all races and longs for us all to love God with our whole heart. There was prejudice between Samaritans and Jews—centuries of it in fact—ancient prejudices rooted in ways they approached God, to the point that a Jew wouldn’t even drink out of a cup a Samaritan had used. There was a deep bias against women in Jesus’ culture too, and still Jesus speaks to her, still looks into her heart, and draws forth her thirst for God. Boxed in by her own prejudice and shame, this woman has the chance to escape them through Jesus.
Maybe Jesus is just thirsty when he asks for a drink. But it could be about helping this woman understand grace differently. John Stafford tells about an old well that stood outside the front door of their family farm house in New Hampshire. The water from the well was remarkably pure and cold. No matter how hot the summer or how severe the drought, the well was always a source of refreshment and joy. The faithful old well was a big part of his memories of summer vacations at the farmhouse. The years passed and eventually the farmhouse was modernized. Wiring brought electric lights, and plumbing brought hot and cold running water. The old well was no longer needed, so it was sealed for use in possible future emergencies. One summer day, years later, John Stafford had a desire for cold, pure water. He unsealed the well and lowered a bucket for a nostalgic taste of the delightful refreshment he remembered. He was shocked to discover that the well that once had survived the severest droughts was bone dry! He asked local residents why their well had gone dry. He learned that wells of that sort were fed by hundreds of tiny underground rivulets which seep a steady flow of water. As long as the water is drawn out of the well, new water will flow in through the rivulets, keeping them open for more to flow. But when the water stops flowing, the rivulets clog with mud and close up. The well dried up not because it was used too much, but because it wasn’t used enough! The woman at the well is asked for a drink, and she has all sorts of reasons for not helping—“You’re a Jew!” “You don’t have a bucket.” Like the well in New Hampshire, the woman’s well of compassion seems unused and in danger of clogging. But grace and compassion, welcome, love and hope are all things that Christ can renew in us, because is not just hanging on the cross, but rose again in power to be with us and work through us. So when we are in Christ—living, working, playing, caring—that resurrection power means compassion and grace are not limited, except perhaps by lack of use.
So perhaps Jesus is not really just talking to this woman today. Perhaps Jesus is talking to us today, asking for a drink, but seeing our thirst. Perhaps Jesus sees how much the prejudices, worries and problems of life can box us in, and still we long for something real, life-giving, something that will make our lives matter. I wonder if, like the woman at the well, we all too often measure grace and compassion by the bucket, when it really flows from Christ, and can become a spring in us, gushing up and overflowing. Not to be gathered or held, but to be shared and poured. Our lives do not need less water, but more, so that we can sweat it out, work it out, play it out, and still find we are refreshed and more. We find we can be a source of Christ’s refreshment to all around us. Are we still measuring water by the bucket...when Jesus wants to be in us a spring?