What are you thirsty for?

March 27th, 2011     

John 4: 5-42

A sermon preached at St Peter’s Episcopal Church, Lakewood, OH

 What are you thirsty for?

 It is just about halfway through Lent, and if you have given up some treat or indulgence as an act of deliberate self-denial, an identification with the temptations of Jesus in the desert after his baptism, an immersion in the experience of your own post-baptismal life, then maybe, by now, you are just a little bit thirsty. Or maybe it’s because you were thirsty to start with that Lent caught your imagination. Because you were thirsty to share in the life of Christ. Because you were thirsty to experience something different to the every day in the every day. Because you were thirsty for prayer, for God, for compassion.

 Lent can be a long forty days. What are you thirsty for?

 The story of Jesus coming thirsty to Jacob’s well is so familiar to us.  It is the middle of the day, and Jesus is hot and tired and instead of going with his companions into town, he decides to strike out by himself and sit for a while by the well. What is he thirsty for?

The woman who has had five husbands and is living with a sixth man  – that one detail is enough to grab our imaginations and keep us coming back to the well, back to this story. But this story is not about the woman’s marital status. Instead, it poses the question of what it is that we truly thirst for.

From the start, the story is surprising.  We have to remind ourselves each time we hear it how surprising it is that Jesus would stop to talk to a Samaritan woman, especially when he seems to have gone out of his way to ditch his traveling companions just so that he could indulge in such a dubious situation.  Jesus was out of his own land, in territory which Jews would usually avoid, because the people there were not their people;  and neither in his own land nor in this should a single man have been talking alone and unsupervised with a strange woman. It was a dangerous situation; he and the woman could have been in trouble had someone troubled to find them and make trouble for them. Yet neither Jesus nor the woman is eager to end the meeting.

Admittedly, the woman does seem a little suspicious and wary, a little bit challenging. We might guess, from what else we know of her, that she is wary because she has been hurt; that she is thirsty for some respect, some consideration or compassion. She keeps Jesus at bay with banter: What do you have to do with me? Water? Where’s your bucket? Are you bigger than Jacob? Oh yes, I could do with some of that water!

Then Jesus cuts through the woman’s words with his command: “Go, call your husband and come back.”

We women today have something of a problem with this, don’t we? The traditional explanation that it was shameful for a woman to be without a man in the culture which this story describes doesn’t sit well with us. It doesn’t sit well with our thirst for recognition and respect as independent creatures. We do not like the idea that the woman is brought up short by a reference to her socially awkward marital status.

But each of us, married or single, partnered, widowed or divorced, women and men;  each of us has at some point in our lives known the pain of loss. Whatever the story behind those five marriages – whether they are stories of death, divorce, desertion, hers or his – they must be stories of heartbreak.

Each of us can hear somewhere in our souls the echo of Jesus’ words plummeting into the well of the woman’s grief.

Our own souls are grieved by the news coming out of Japan, even if we have never traveled there,  and we weep for the people of Libya and Yemen. We buy bricks and sew dresses for our sisters in Haiti, and we are touched by the tears of the people around us, as they wrestle with unruly relationships or lost jobs, lost livelihoods; because we know what it is to thirst for compassion, for companionship, for hope and for love, even if we live mostly comfortable lives.

This woman seems lonely; and what sends her running back to her townspeople is not any kind of thirst-slaking well-water  – she even leaves her water jar behind – but the scary and wonderful realization that Jesus knew all about her, knew her soul, knew her pain. That Jesus can quench her thirst for candor, for honest communication, for respect and compassion. That is what awakened hope in her dry heart. When she realized that Jesus knew just who she was, and that he stayed to talk with her, to he with her anyway; that is when she dared to venture that Jesus might be a prophet; that there were rumours of a Messiah. As the slow drops of understanding, acceptance and love seeped into her brittle, dry heart, she began to entertain the idea, “Can this be the Christ?” She even began to talk about it, to let the questions in her soul bubble up and overflow to the people around her. “Can he be?” The living water with which Jesus has fed her soul with hope became a source of belief, a source of hope and joy for herself and for all the people around her.

We live in a thirsty world.  Literally thirsty, figuratively thirsty. Sometimes it’s the thirst that comes from drought; sometimes it’s the complaint of the ancient mariner: “Water, water every where, nor any drop to drink.”[1]

As we dry out our soggy souls during Lent, sloughing off the sodden garments of over-indulgence and squeezing out the sponges of our lives that are always accumulating worries and tasks and demands and distractions, as we try to wipe clean our hearts so that they can once more turn to God and be reached by God, underneath the flood there is a spring that wells up to eternal life in us.

Even when it feels as though our hearts are parched from grief, Jesus is there, telling us our lives, sharing our hurt, standing beside us under the hot noonday sun and reaching across barriers and boundaries to care for us, to touch us and heal us, to remind us of the spring that wells up inside us to share with God’s people, the water of eternal life. And as our own thirst is quenched, the waters of our baptism can bubble and flow with new freedom and enthusiasm as we recognize that we have faith and love to share with a thirsty world.

Whether the thirst is for love and understanding, in our own lives, in our own homes and families, in our own parish; a thirst for a better prayer life, or a deeper understanding of Scripture; or whether it is a thirst for justice and mercy in our neighborhoods, in our country, in our world; we, like the woman at the well, can become living water for a thirsty world.  

So what are you really thirsty for this Lent? What can Jesus tell you about your life that you need to hear?

He’s waiting, even in the desert, standing by the well in the noonday sun with living water to wash and restore your soul, so that when the living waters overflow, we can become refreshing  water for a thirsty world.


[1] The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Samuel Taylor Coleridge (I found this at http://www.online-literature.com/coleridge/646/)

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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