This sermon was delivered by Wendell Griffen, pastor of the New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Ark., on May 31, 2009. This was the church’s inaugural sermon.
“Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”
It is strange to hear a person who has a bucket ask for water from another person who has neither a bucket nor a rope. So let’s get past the cultural and social issues involving the fractured relationship between Jews and Samaritans. Let’s focus on this strange request for water by someone holding a bucket to someone else who has neither bucket nor rope, and who had first asked her for water. The woman’s request revealed that her spirit was dry, not her throat. When Jesus spoke about being able to give water that constantly refreshes, like a running spring, she responded from the dry emptiness of her life. She was at Jacob’s Well. She had a vessel for holding water and a rope with which to draw it. But her life was dry and empty. When she said to Jesus, “give me this water,” the Samaritan woman admitted the dry emptiness of her life.
Jesus helped the woman confront her emptiness in an interesting way—by bringing up her family situation when he said, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” In that time and place, a woman was defined by her family status. Married women enjoyed a measure of respect and security not held by other women for one reason: the culture did not permit women to be independent. An unmarried woman, whether because of widowhood, divorce, or having never been married, was in a precarious economic and social situation in a male-dominated culture. The economic reality facing women in her time and place was dry and empty.
Viewed from this perspective, we should not be judgmental toward the Samaritan woman. At one point in her life, she had left the physical and financial protection of her father’s family for what was supposed to have been the security of married life. For whatever reasons, her marital history had been unfulfilling. “Give me this water,” were words spoken by a woman out of the dry emptiness of her domestic life. She was tired of looking for love, security, and meaning within the unsatisfying terms of her family situation. She was tired of going back to the same well over and over, only to come up empty.
Religion had not helped this woman deal with the dry emptiness of her life. If one or more of her previous husbands had divorced the woman for some reason, the religious tradition would not have affirmed her. It is doubtful that local religious leaders would have taken a compassionate attitude about her living situation. On top of those issues, the social hostility between Jews and Samaritans had infected religious practice to the point that neither group could accept the other’s choice of worship shrines. They believed in the same God, but their common faith was dry and empty when it came to even understanding worship.
Perhaps the Samaritan woman was like many people today who question whether religious faith can be comforting when religion has been infected by hate, bigotry, and disrespect for people who are different. How could she draw inspiration and strength to deal with the challenges of living when the religious water of her time and place was polluted by hate, prejudice, and discrimination?
Notice that the Samaritan woman did not lack a place to worship. Her religious life was dry and empty because the enmity between Jews and Samaritans had contaminated spiritual life. Instead of refreshing and renewing people, religion had turned into a competition about where was the right place for people to worship. And even in those places, religion had become defined by ritual, not by relationship. When the Samaritan woman said to Jesus, “Give me this water,” she spoke from a spiritual emptiness that went far deeper and higher than the location of a religious shrine and the rituals there.
By his deliberate encounter with the Samaritan woman, Jesus revealed to her and to us that we can never be truly refreshed and rejuvenated by a well and bucket approach to life and faith. We need “living water” that is invigorating, soothing, and cooling as we experience the challenges, conflicts, defeats, insults, and tragedies of our journeys. We need a source of strength and vitality that is bigger and deeper than domestic status, work, culture, and religious ritual. Until we are connected with “living water,” we will keep coming up dry and empty, no matter what is in our family, cultural, or religious water pots and buckets.
God’s love is the “living water” that Jesus spoke about to the Samaritan woman. We are designed to be nourished, invigorated, soothed, and cooled by the constantly flowing stream of God’s love. We need the push of God’s unstoppable love in the face of our setbacks. We need the comfort of God’s healing love for our hurts and injuries. We need the assurance of God’s always flowing love as we deal with obstacles, disappointments, sorrows, and anxieties. You and I, like the Samaritan woman, need to be invigorated, soothed, and cooled by the flowing stream of God’s love.
Here is the good news. God’s love comes to us! Despite whatever situations, setbacks, disappointments, insults, conflicts, or frustrations life may present, God’s love comes to us! The meaning of Jesus showing up in Samaria at Jacob’s Well is that God’s love shows up! Her marital history could not keep God’s love from showing up in Jesus. The bigotry imposed on her people could not keep God’s love from showing up in Jesus. The religious turf fight between preachers in her region and other preachers elsewhere about where people should worship could not prevent God’s love from showing up in Jesus. God’s love flows to wherever we are to call us, claim us, soothe us, invigorate us, renew us, and redirect us. We do not need to go to Jerusalem or elsewhere to experience God’s love. Jesus at Jacob’s Well talking with a Samaritan woman tells us that God’s love comes to us, wherever we are, however we are, to fill our dry emptiness.
By the love that God has given us through Jesus, we are able to confront injustice. By that love, we draw strength to overcome adversity. By that love, we are called as instruments of peace in the face of conflict. Through that love, you and I are agents of hope to people in despair. As God has given us the living water of divine love in Jesus, God has made us part of that love with Jesus. Like a stream flows to fill dry places, God’s love flows in Jesus to fill us and flows in those who are filled by that love to renew, reinvigorate, redirect, and soothe others. This is what happened to the woman of Samaria. God’s love came to her. Eventually, she became part of that love to others in her community.
Well, Preacher, if all this is true, how is it that many religious people are dry and empty? For that matter, if this is true, why is so much of the dry and emptiness of life associated with religion? Jesus answered those questions when he spoke with the Samaritan woman about worship. Remember, God’s love has come to the woman in Jesus. God’s love has come to Samaria in Jesus. God’s love had come to Judea in Jesus. God’s love had come, but people had ignored or rejected it in their approaches to worship.
Some people defined their relationship with God by locality—either in terms of the temple on Mount Gerizim in Samaria or the temple in Jerusalem. Some people defined their relationship with God by ancestry. Some people defined their relationship with God by rituals. Love of culture, ancestry, and ritual had become the way these people defined their relationship with God and others. They were defining their relationships, including their spiritual relationships, in terms of their ancestral, regional, cultural, and ritual buckets and water pots rather than the stream of God’s love. And because of this, Jesus said that worship was not happening. Does this seem familiar?
We do not worship God unless and until we accept God’s love on God’s terms rather than our own. We do not worship God until our lives become one with His life. We become our true selves when we are joined with God’s truth. We become truly alive when we are joined with God’s life-giving love. Until that happens, we are trying to define life and God’s love according to our various ancestral, national, cultural, and ritual water pots and buckets.
When we worship God in spirit and truth, we accept God’s love as necessary for the dry emptiness of our lives. When we worship God from our essential selves, we join our separate hearts to His universal heart, our particular experiences to His everlasting and all-encompassing life, and our competing and often conflicting hopes to His vision for unity and peace. This does not mean that we throw away our ancestral, national, and cultural buckets. It simply means that we will not use them to measure God and the extent of his love for ourselves or others, including our enemies.
We need the living water of God’s love or our lives will be made dry and empty by the challenges, changes, and other issues we must endure. God has shown us in Jesus Christ that His love flows to us, wherever we are, whoever we are, and in whatever situation we face. Jesus calls us to become caught up in the stream of God’s love. Jesus calls us to see God’s love as universal, free-flowing, and sustaining for every person. Jesus calls us to love God in this way, and to love other people and relate to the rest of creation from the perspective of that love.
Let it not be said of us that our living, including our efforts for God, is dry and empty because we are relating to God and life based on our ancestral, cultural, national, ritual, and other buckets and water pots. Instead, let us say, with the Samaritan woman, “Give me this water.” Let us receive God’s love and share in the life that is sustained, invigorated, soothed, and rejuvenated by that love, as we follow Jesus in confronting the situations of our time and place. When we approach life and God in that way, we worship God in spirit and truth.
Pastor at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, a state court trial judge, a trustee of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, author of one book and three blogs, and a consultant on cultural competency and inclusion.