Come to the Water

Text: John 4:3-30, The Samaritan Woman at the Well

 

O Let all who thirst,

Let them come, let them come to the water.

God invites us to come to the water. And Lord, we are thirsty.

The Samaritan woman is thirsty too. She lives in the shadow of Mt. Gerizim, the traditional place of cultic worship for the Samaritan people. There is a well at the foot of the mountain. People say it’s the one that Jacob started, where he met Rachel; where Rebekah was asked to become Isaac’s wife. It is a place where families are combined and flow together into one future of possibility. The woman brings her clay jar to this well in the middle of a hot day. She can’t bear to bring it in the morning, when the other women come to draw water for cooking and for bathing their children, so she comes in the middle of the day, at noon. She carries pain in her jar, she carries pain to the well today. When she arrives, she thirsts. She meets Jesus at the well.

Jesus meets the woman at the well and asks for some water to drink. I always think this is a little bit rude of Jesus, asking the woman to pause in her daily duties to give him a drink. But in the conversation that ensues, it becomes clear that Jesus sees her as more than someone with a bucket, more than someone who can fulfill his physical thirst at this moment. Jesus truly sees the woman as a whole person, sees beyond entrenched ethnic divisions and variations in religious practice, sees an opportunity to make a new relationship possible. He sees her as someone to whom he can offer living water.

What is this living water?

Living water is that which quenches our thirst, both physically and spiritually. Living waters are available to everyone, no matter what their life experience and geographical context. Living waters flow from the spirit and can empower and equip people to persevere in the midst of oppressive and unjust situations. Living waters are the gospel. Living waters are the waters of justice.

And the woman is not the only one at the well that day who is thirsty for these living waters. Jesus is thirsty for the waters of justice as well. He sees the injustice in the world, sees the blind beggars and the hungry people on the highways and byways and the tax collectors living greedy, half-fulfilled lives. He sees the women like Rachel, weeping for their children crushed under the state-sanctioned violence in Rome, or perhaps in Ferguson, or Baltimore. He sees the Samaritan woman, longing for community and thirsty for just treatment. And I believe he sees the thirst of those in Flint, Michigan as well.

Ever since hearing the news out of Flint, I have been heartbroken. Growing up in a town about an hour’s drive from Flint, I know the shared economic history of this area, shaped by the auto industry. I also know the Pure Michigan tourism ads with actor Tim Allen’s voice narrating rich descriptions of the “hidden treasure” of Michigan while showing pastoral images of Michigan’s land and water juxtaposed with the harsh reality of Flint’s water crisis, primarily affecting people of color living in the inner city. I see Flint residents toting gallons of smelly, yellow water everywhere they go in an attempt to prove they are being poisoned. As the philosopher Fredrich Nietzsche said, “They muddy the water to make it seem deep.” And that seems all too true in Flint right now.

Lord, we thirst for justice.

Over a period of 18 months, between April 25, 2014 and August 2015, the government of Flint sanctioned the use of water from the Flint River for the city’s water source, instead of a pipeline from Detroit, which had been in use for the past fifty years. Government officials hoped that this would save money for the struggling post-industrial city. This decision was made even after research by the Department of Environmental Quality warned against this choice. What ultimately happened was that the city did not properly treat the Flint River water, and the level of chlorides in the water corroded the city’s ancient lead pipes, leading to water laced with lead flowing into people’s homes.  

Doctors in Flint report that the proportion of children with above-average levels of lead in their blood has nearly doubled since 2014. The medical conditions associated with lead poisoning range from skin lesions, hair loss, and increased reactions to asthma to chemically-induced hypertension, vision loss, depression and brain damage. The World Health Organization writes that “the neurological and behavioral effects of lead are believed to be irreversible.” We won’t know for years what the consequences of this budget-tightening response measure will be for the children of Flint.

“We’re like disposable people here,” one resident told the Toronto Star. “We’re not even human here, I guess.” Another resident told the Detroit Free Press “we get treated like we don’t matter.”

Lord, we thirst for justice.

Ryan Cumming, writing for the Huffington Post in an article titled, “Finding Faith in Flint,” says, “It is impossible to miss the sacramental volatility of water, that medium that gives life and takes life. It encapsulates the irony of living in the Great Lakes State without clean water to drink. It symbolizes both the life-giving grace of the created world and the death-dealing abuses of power that come when we silence and marginalize our neighbors. It is the touchpoint that knits together people across the spectrum of faiths and no-faith. It has become a rallying point for a community to come together.”

O Let all who thirst,

Let them come, let them come to the water.

When I think about the lack of justice in Flint, there is a sad irony that points to the contamination of more than just H20. In crises, we often are willing to extend spiritual living water to those experiencing oppression or injustice, saying with good intention and a willing heart: I’ll pray for them. But why do we hurry to offer spiritual living water without literally giving our neighbors and siblings a drink of fresh, clear H2O? Why is the idea of fixing the systems that prevent people from accessing their right to clean water so outrageous?

Friends, it is US who are spiritually contaminated because we hesitate to do what Jesus did with the woman at the well: we hesitate to truly SEE the situation. We hesitate to see people as fully human, too steeped in our own lives, own problems and our own narrow view of the world to see across differences and cultural divides. We look away from those in the poorest areas of our state and country, we look away from our neighbors, and our ignorance lets this catastrophe continue. All the time, we put up barriers that divide the world into categories of us and them, or maybe it’s white and black, rich and poor. Whatever these divisions and binaries, when we live in a way that divides us from being aware of the basic needs of our neighbors, we are reducing each other to us and them categories. We are consenting to see each other as less than human, not deserving of the same health and wellbeing.

As Jesus in the gospel of Matthew says, “for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink…truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” (Mt 25: 42-43 NRSV) When we support systems that deny access to a basic human right such as clean drinking water, we are denying Jesus. And we are denying spiritual living water to ourselves at the same time.

Lord, we thirst for justice.

Jesus gives us an example of how to see the injustice present in the world and take action. Speaking to her present context, Jesus truly sees the woman at the well and knows what she needs. Though she is thirsty and has come to the well to draw water, the Samaritan woman is so overcome with Jesus’ knowledge of her past, so overwhelmed with the feeling of truly being seen and valued as her own person and not just as her ethnicity or marital status, that she runs into the city to tell everyone about the man “who knew everything about me.” The text tells us that the woman leaves her jar behind, the jar with which she had planned to carry precious H2O back to her home, the jar whose emptiness prompted her to come to the well in the first place. Why would she leave it behind? Who will fill this woman’s jar?

Leaving jar, the woman must have had a deep trust, not only that she would receive that living water, but that her physical needs would also be met. Perhaps this woman knows that she will enter into the beloved community, similar to the community of Acts 2, where each person’s material needs are provided for in a kind of sharing economy. By drinking from the living water, the woman is no longer shamed within her community for her past relationships, a patriarchal reading of this scripture that denigrates her sexuality and assumes her multiple past partners must be a source of grief for her. By drinking of the living water, the Samaritan woman at the well becomes part of the community who experience Jesus firsthand–including those he healed, those who appealed to him for healings of their loved ones, and those to whom he revealed his true nature as the messiah of God, no matter if they are Jews or Gentiles–or Samaritans. She must have known that Jesus performs physical healing which then makes spiritual healing possible.  Jesus was always healing people’s physical needs without first asking proof of their religious pedigree; just ask blind Bartimaeus and the man who sat near the pool of Bethsaida. She must have known somehow that becoming part of the community of Jesus followers would bring not only living water for her soul, but also living water to drink.

The question now before us is this: Will we fill each other’s jars with the waters of justice? Will we stand in the way of systems that oppress, and help each other gain access to this living water?

If you want to say, “Yes!” And commit to working with your neighbors to help spread the gospel of living water by taking action concerning the Flint water crisis, we must listen to the voices of those directly impacted by this situation before rushing in with our own ideas of how to fix things. Consider these suggestions from Flint’s Woodside Church on how to help (http://www.woodsidechurch.net/flint-water-emergency/):

  1. Send donations of money to help fund re-filling stations in the church. Don’t just send bottled water.
  2. Volunteer to distribute water around vulnerable neighborhoods.
  3. Show up at public demonstrations in solidarity with Flint residents.
  4. Read, learn and share information. Discern how you can be a part of a gospel-centered response.
  5. Be aware of your privilege and use it to support residents. Don’t assume you know how to help. The pastor writes, “We know what we need.”
  6. “Consider the difference between justice and charity. Charity is about donations (like water and money), but justice is about building relationships, hearing the voices from the community, and changing the systems that got us into this in the first place.”
  7. Advocate. Examples of this are making sure resources are distributed to those enduring the most hardship first; voting against racialized policies that redistribute resources from inner city areas to more affluent suburbs; advocating for a return to democratic government in Flint, instead of Emergency Managers not elected by the residents and put in power by the Governor; advocating for better infrastructure and jobs.

O Let all who thirst,

Let them come, let them come to the water.

Beloved community, we have been taught to care for each other after the example of Jesus. Instead of giving in to the categories with which people usually divide themselves and their communities, Jesus draws the woman into a new relationship and into a community which provides for each other’s needs. He meets her at the well to co-create a new way of living and being God’s people by offering her living water.

Living water does not value profit over people.

Living water does not validate power-over relationships.

Living water does not obscure the true story in favor of an easy one.

Living water values equity over equality.

Living water reinforces the imago Dei, encouraging each person to see themselves in the image of the divine.

Living water knows that justice is a prerequisite for peace.

O let all who thirst,

Let them come, let them come to the water.

 

This sermon was originally preached for a class at Vanderbilt Divinity School on Prophetic Preaching and Social Justice Ethics.

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