The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
This is a story about desire. It's about those things that desire drives us to do – transgress boundaries, take chances. The story begins with a basic human need – thirst: the desire for water. Jesus was thirsty. And this woman has a bucket. And a well. And the well is deep and full of water.
Disregarding her ethnicity and gender, or perhaps disregarding his own ethnicity and gender, Jesus asks for a drink. And in that moment, the woman – unnamed in this story – is very much aware of her ethnicity and gender, or perhaps is very much aware of his ethnicity and gender.
None of this was supposed to happen. A Jew wanders into Samaritan territory – into Sychar. A Jew wanders into Palestinian territory – into the West Bank. A man walks into the “wrong” neighborhood and drinks from the wrong water fountain. Someone is seen fraternizing with the enemy. A 1st century rabbi strikes up a theological conversation – with a woman – in public. So you see the problem; Jesus' desire overwhelmed his sense of decency.
“Why are you speaking with her?” That is what they want to ask Jesus. They don't, but they want to. The disciples were in the city buying lunch. No one stayed to babysit Jesus – which turns out to be a mistake. Because when they return they see him talking with a woman – worse than that other people see him talking with a woman. She'll probably tell people too. It's embarrassing when it's your leader who doing this kind of stuff. It really reflects poorly on the entire company. Was the water really worth it?
The Samaritan woman engaged Jesus in conversation. I mean, rather than just giving him some water and walking away. Really she challenges Jesus – calls out his social transgression. And then the dance begins – back and forth. The conversation, on the surface, does not seem entirely successful – more like a collection of somewhat related statements. Two unlikely partners talking politics and religion – gender issues hanging over the entire interaction. Very inappropriate.
And what begins with Jesus' desire for water, arouses in this woman a deeper desire, a soul desire: the desire to filled. The desire for a spring of water, gushing up in a barren land. A well to which she did not have to travel in the heat of the day. “Give me this water, so that I may never have to be thirsty.”
It is easy to look at this passage and think that the woman just didn't get it. She seems to be talking literally; Jesus seems to be talking spiritually. But before we sell her short, keep reading. Because she does get it. Her responses and her questions end with her knowing her savior. So she gets it; she gets what she most desires. The one who aroused, awakened, the desire also fulfills it. She gets the water for which she thirsts and she becomes a conduit through which living water flows into other desperate lives.
The detail of this story on which many preachers focus is that the woman has had five husbands. And many preachers then conclude that this woman has lived a shameful and sexually deviant life. But that is not in the text. There are a few possible interpretations. It could be that the five husbands were five brothers who died and the youngest is now refusing to take her as a wife. It could be that her husbands died or divorced her; she was not allowed to divorce them. In either case her security, which was tied to marriage, was constantly in flux; her foundation unstable.
Or it could be a more symbolic interpretation. It could be an allusion to the Samaritans' pantheon of gods. And a suggestion that she was not fully committed to YHWH – flirting but not married. Either interpretation reveals in the life of this woman a kind of desperate need, a deep soul thirst – just floating through life without anything eternal. Her life was an exercise in survival – just survival. Until Jesus. Because once she found her savior her once desolate life was worth living. And worth sharing.
But there is a deeper desire at work in this story. Our thirsts are quenchable. Physical thirst can be quenched rather easily. If there is water available, a nice glass full of it will do the trick. And even spiritual thirst is quenchable – as the woman in the story discovered.
Quenchable, however often unquenched. The problem with spiritual thirst is that we are often much less attentive to spiritual thirst than we are to physical thirst. And because of our inconsistency, because of our fickle spiritual desire, a deeper, primal desire is required.
What really brought Jesus to the well? Scholar and former Fr. Jeremiah New Testament professor Stephen Moore explores this question. He says, “...Jesus desires a drink. But he has another desire that well water cannot satisfy... What Jesus longs for from this woman, even more than delicious spring water, is that she long for the living water that he longs to give her.” And it is this desire, Jesus' desire, that drives a Jew into enemy territory, that transgresses boundaries and takes chances, that offends his followers, and transforms lives. Before the woman at the well desired Jesus, Jesus desired her.
And before we desire Jesus, Jesus desires us. If it were the other way around, we would have long ago died of thirst. In what seems to be a rather implausible scenario, it is actually Jesus who is desperate to be loved by us. We are the object of Jesus' desire.
And that desire is a desire that cannot be quenched – an unquenchable thirst. Jesus will stop at nothing. He wants us to want him. Jesus longs for us to love him.
This is a story about desire – about Jesus' burning, unquenchable desire. As Moore reminds us, “'The well is deep' as the woman says. Desire, however, is bottomless.”