“But he had to go through Samaria. So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon…” John 4:4-6
“But he had to go through Samaria…” I thought a lot about this passage this week and I kept returning to this phrase. First because the disciples go into the city for food and Jesus stays behind, resting by a public well. In the midst of a global pandemic in which people are understandably fearful and cautious about being in public spaces, the simple phrase, “But I have to go to the grocery store…” or the pharmacy, or the doctor’s office, or the bank brings a certain level of anxiety. As one person bluntly said, “I fear I will either get the virus or transmit it without knowing it.” Grandparents, including my own, are suddenly concerned to be around their grand kids. Even though Jesus was not dealing with Covid-19, it is clear that his disciples had some concerns about their travel itinerary on this particular journey, including their passing through Samaria.
Samaria was an area that arose suspicion and quite a bit of discrimination in Jesus’ time. Samaritans and Jews were more than wary of each other and they practiced social distancing without having to be told to do so. Samaritans and Jews did not share things in common; they were uneasy neighbors. So, passing through Samaria is an activity that would have brought a certain degree of dis-ease and, likely, protest from Jesus’ companions.
But they pass thru and while they are passing thru, they separate: one to sit at a well, and the others to find food in the city. I don’t know why, but Jesus doesn’t accompany them. Perhaps he is tired from their journey; the scripture suggests as much. Worn out, he is thirsty. So, Jesus finds the local well, like we would stop off at the 7-11, or convenience store in an unfamiliar town. This village well at that hour is deserted. It’s high noon and not a time when most of the villagers would gather. They—the women, that is, would rather get their water in the cool hours of the morning, when the sun isn’t scorching hot and the sweat doesn’t run down their necks. Now the sun is high in the sky, the well appears deserted like our local mall, and Jesus needs water. He stops. But he doesn’t have a bucket. So, he sits and waits.
Along comes a Samaritan woman and Jesus asks her for a drink. Perhaps this would be like a person asking a person who appears Asian for the last bottle of Gatorade at the grocery store. Late on Friday night, I asked a lone man scavenging the aisles of the Dollar Store if there was any Gatorade left. At that moment, I didn’t really care what his nationality was or what brought him to the store. I needed Gatorade in case illness hit our household. The last time my son had pneumonia, it was the recommended drink to keep him hydrated when nothing else worked. The gospel writers are clear that Jesus asks THIS Samaritan woman for a drink, which reveals the hidden thoughts of bystanders to the incident. To be clear, Jesus asks her to draw water from her bucket, a bucket that they would share. She rightfully inquires why he should address her, a Samaritan and a woman at that. This was an uncommon interaction. It broke socially acceptable boundaries and conventions. Jesus was not practicing the kind of social distancing that we are being asked to do.
Instead of backing away, Jesus begins a bit of playful conversation with the woman. He laughs and says that he has living water, contrasting the water she fetches with a special something that answers a different need—not purely physical, but emotional, psychological, and spiritual. She is amazed when he seems to know her “story,” and why it is that she must come to this well in the heat of the day, away from the local gossips and those who would judge her wrong.
Our woman from Samaria has had 5 husbands, Jesus says, and is even now with another one.
Yet, this may not mean what we think. We don’t know if the woman who stands at the well has been socially dependent on male provision—perhaps she is a widow and has been forced to “marry” successive providers. I think of those who are dependent on the beneficence of various agencies just to get their basic needs met. Or of the single mom who must scrabble together lunches for her children and relies on the school system or the county system or whatever “system” has been put together by those who haven’t had to swallow their pride in visiting a food pantry or social welfare agency in desperation. Whether 5 husbands, 5 agencies, or 5 urgent care centers without the necessary resources, there will be those standing at the public “wells” and on public corners in the heat of the day, without a bucket and asking for a drink. This passage is about Jesus and the woman, but it is also about why people like the woman find that they must come to the well in the heat of the day, alone, and why resources can be so hard to obtain, receive, and share.
Again, we might consider the scenes of this past week—fearful people trying to obtain resources for families, some hoarding and some left hoping, and others resigned because it has always been that way for them.
And yet, this woman and Jesus DO share. They find commonality in their own need—Jesus needs a drink of water; the woman needs a different kind of spiritual and emotional help—the kind of living water that Jesus provide that urges connection in the midst of disconnection, sharing in the midst of scarcity, and laughter in the midst of very real social and physical isolation, illness, and death.
What will be the “living water” in these days of social distancing, fear and anxiety, illness and pandemic?
I found myself asking our elders if they had seen anything like this. “Not really,” was the unanimous response. September 11 and H1N1, Ebola and AIDS felt different, they said. It is a credit to our leadership that we were able to collectively decide to suspend our religious services with so much uncertainty, unanswered questions, and hour-by-hour changes in precautions. Public safety must be our primary concern right now. We naturally wonder how to proceed in waters that haven’t been charted precisely this way before.
And yet, there are “knowns” despite all the “unknowns.” Like Jesus knowing the woman’s story, we know the things that make for a healthy society which are not dependent on physical proximity. We can exercise love at a distance through our maintaining intentional communication with each other. At a time when we are called to stay apart from one another physically, we can rediscover ways to offer each other solace, comfort, compassion, and help with daily living without connecting necessarily in-person. We have come to the well, most of us, without a bucket—asking for a drink of living water from our God that won’t create more anxiety or more illness or more suffering. Jesus has shown us the way to do this. We remember our shared humanity and do not discriminate out of fear. We do not tolerate harassment of the Chinese, Italians, Californians or those who come from other hotspots in this pandemic. We practice good hygiene but don’t freak out if someone is unable or forgets to cover their cough. We remember that we are in this thing together; this is new and difficult territory for everyone.
“But he had to pass through Samaria…” What areas do we have to “pass through” in order to reach the deeper “water” or deeper truth of our shared humanity? What will this virus teach us about the difficult territory that we have yet to pass through in our health care system and in our own personal circles of caring? For what “living water” are we thirsty? And how does our faith fit into those questions?
Sisters and brothers, as we walk together virtually and prayerfully in the coming weeks, I believe that we will discover some of the answers to these questions. When the disciples were out trying to get supplies, a tired and thirsty Jesus appeared to a beleaguered woman in trust and faith that she could provide what he needed. In the exchange, they are both uplifted, and their story inspires generations to come.
Even if we are anxious, uncertain, and downright fearful, we can trust that there are places within this pandemic where Jesus will show up again. May the story that we share with each other be one that inspires future generations to come.
Let us pray: Oh God, we must pass through this difficult territory and we wish we didn’t. Guide our steps that we may come together even while we are physically apart. Ease the fears and anxieties of your people as we grapple with the pain and suffering that we see. Give us courage for these days and trust that we will get through this together. In Jesus’ name, Amen.