Third Sunday in Lent, Year A
Thirsting. Are we thirsting for water or something else? We thirst all the time. Some people thirst for alcohol, others for nicotine; myself, it’s often chocolate. Sometimes our thirst is a need. We can see this with certain addictions or even for water on a hot day. More often our thirst is a desire and we are rarely refreshed by it. We want more and our indulgence is often just a temporary fix; until we thirst again.
Our readings open with the thirsty Israelites. They seem to thirst for water as they complain and quarrel with Moses. He says they are testing God. The woman at the well didn’t seem to be thirsty. Initially, she may have seemed rather content. She’s at the well on an errand to bring water back home. But we will soon discover that she, like the Israelites, is thirsty.
Jesus says he is thirsty when he approaches the woman at the well. He asks for a drink, yet he never drinks. By the time the disciples get back, Jesus isn’t interested in eating nor does he ask for water. He now seems rather content. Whether the people are thirsty for water or not is almost irrelevant to these passages. What is more important is what they are truly thirsting for.
Why are the Israelites complaining? They say it is because they are thirsty, but are any of them dying? Are they collapsing due to exhaustion and the lack of water? This is not what the passage says. They feel thirsty but they are in no need of water. What they need is to know that God is with them and that he is sustaining them. Would God really lead them into the wilderness just to die? If they needed water wouldn’t God provide it for them as he did food?
In the previous chapter, we have an almost identical situation. It says, “The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, ‘If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.’”(1) In this case, the people are crying out in hunger and God provides them with Manna; food which rains down each day. God is listening to them, and Moses didn’t have to intervene.
In today’s story, we know that God is actually present and it seems so obvious that they should as well. Moses seemingly speaks to God all the time. And I think the others do not recognize his presence because they are too worried about what they think they need and not what they actually have. They may have gone a few days without water and they feel parched. They are thirsty and feel like they may die but it is God who is sustaining them; much as Jesus was sustained in the wilderness for 40 days. They are in the wilderness, upset with Moses, upset with God, upset with each other. Their thirst for water distracts them from their relationship with God. They neglect their faith.
Sometimes we are preoccupied with what we think we want and in our minds, our desires become a need. Sometimes we are troubled and we think we are upset with one person or a situation to only find out later we are actually upset with something else altogether. Your spouse or child may have just been the easier target to vent your frustration on. For the Israelites, Moses was that easy target. In their mind, he had the red phone with a direct line to God but this is not what we saw with the manna. And to commemorate this spot Moses names this place Massah and Meribah or Test and Quarrel. For it is the people testing God and quarreling with each other that demarcates this moment in time. Even with this lack of faith, in which they test and quarrel, God gives them what they wanted. God is faithful to his people even when we are not.
In some way, this seems very different from the Samaritan woman. Jesus approaches her at the well; a place where men are known to tell their affections or intents to a woman. This would be a rather intimate setting for the two of them to find themselves in. This is why later the disciples are so shocked when they arrive to see them taking together. But the woman isn’t looking for intimacy. She answers Jesus’s question sarcastically or even offensively; as if to say ‘what the hell do you want with me.’ Jesus doesn’t back down. He turns the table and says ‘if you knew God’s gift and if you knew me, you would be asking me for a drink of living water; a water in which you will never be thirsty again.’
The woman doesn’t understand what Jesus is offering her. She thinks this living water is some sort of new sports drink in which you will never be dehydrated. She will never need to go the well, laboring to bring water back home. She is focused on how much easier her life will be with this new drink. This woman wasn’t thirsty for water but for life to be a bit easier. Then we soon find that she was married to five men and her current husband really isn’t a husband.
We don’t celebrate this woman as being some sort of Zsa Zsa Gabor who was married nine times. To the opposite, we often want to depict this woman as some harlot, a sad and sinful person. But nowhere does the passage depict her in this way. The average life expectancy was 35. Some of her husbands could have died. A divorce was granted very easily for a man. He just had to go into the street and exclaim, “I divorce you” three times, and it was a done deal. Her current husband, who is not a husband, could have come from a levirate marriage; where if you husband dies without a male heir, one of his brothers can take you as his wife.(2) Even if she was a less than reputable person, it seems to have no bearing on this passage.
Jesus never speaks negatively of her. Mentioning her five husbands only illuminates, for the woman, who Jesus really is. It is through this interaction that Jesus tells her that the Father can be worshiped anywhere. It doesn’t have to be on this mountain of the Samaritan people nor in the city of Jerusalem. “The true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.”
It is at this point that the Woman realizes what she is truly thirsty for. She thirsts to know God more; to deepen her faith and understanding. In her excitement, she leaves her water jar and runs to tell everyone what she found. She has doubts, but she is certain enough to tell everyone to come and see Jesus. This woman is much like Simon and Andrew, who dropped their nets and followed Jesus. Yet Jesus has not come for the Jews or the Samaritans. He hasn’t come for the Protestants, the Catholics, or even the Episcopalians. He has come for you.
In your current struggle of faith, are you like the woman at the well, willing to drop what you are doing to follow Christ more deeply or are you more like the Israelites in the wilderness, lashing out at others because we are neglecting our faith. God sustains us. Sometimes we just need to pay attention instead of focusing on our perceived needs.
(1) Exodus 16:2-3