A Meditation on John 4
Did you know that several of our friends, several of us, are preparing for baptism on Easter Sunday? 7 in the morning. Easter Sunrise. Down at the beach. I can’t think of many moments that excite me more. It’s such a privilege to stand out there, knee-deep in the Pacific, with sisters and brothers making new commitments. New commitments to Jesus and his way of compassion and peace. We do a little singing, we lay our hands on their shoulders in solidarity and blessing, and then we wade into the deep. To give our lives to the God of love.
It’s powerful: like the ocean’s powerful, like life itself is powerful, like love is powerful. And in a world of heartbreak, it’s a stunning reminder that love is strong.
It fascinates me that, these days, scholars are speculating that the Gospel of John was first assembled as a kind of catechism or study-guide for baptism. Months before baptism, initiates would gather with church leaders to read these strange tales and reflect on Jesus’ teachings and explore new patterns of belief and practice. The Gospel of John was their prayer book, their daily devotional, and their weekly curriculum.
Water is a persistent theme in the Gospel. From story to story, water suggests renewal and transformation; it provokes deep conversation and it evokes surprise and wonder. Scholars suggest that each story invites meditation on the meaning and consequence of baptism. What does it mean to wade into the waters of grace? What kind of life emerges on the other side?
This morning’s story is perhaps the longest conversation in the entire Christian Bible. So long, in fact, that we’ve divided it here and read it in two parts. It begins, of course, with Jesus wandering through strange and foreign territory, Samaria, and asking a Samaritan woman for a drink. Immediately there’s something like tension in the air: Jews and Samaritans have a history, and it’s painful and conflicted. So it’s odd that Jesus stops at the well in the first place, and stranger still that he reveals his weariness and asks a woman for assistance.
And she is taken aback, thrown by his asking. “How come you, a Jew, are asking me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?” Set everything else aside for a moment, everything you know about this story and where it’s headed. And appreciate for a moment the tension between these two at the well. A Jew and a Samaritan. This is not an easy moment; she’s uncertain of his motives, and he’s pretty much in the wrong place at the wrong time. It seems to me that this is the first thing, the first important thing, for our reflection this morning. How is it that we handle ourselves, and express ourselves, and entertain compassion—when we end up in the wrong place at the wrong time? How is it that we explore differences with sisters and brothers who come to us from very different places, very different belief systems, very different values?
I find it so interesting, even thrilling, that both Jesus and the Samaritan woman seem to welcome this opportunity. As tense as it may be, as insecure as each may be in the new situation, they keep at it. And as the conversation evolves, there’s even a playfulness to it, a kind of fun-loving-ness to it. Jesus responds to her befuddlement by suggesting that she should be asking him for a drink, that he’s got the real stuff, the living water hidden away. And she kind of plays along, right? She says, “Hey, how can you get any water by yourself? You don’t even have a bucket.” And with some respect, some honesty and some humor, they go along like that, carrying on the Bible’s longest conversation.
Now there’s so much to say about this story. But let’s just say a couple things this morning. First, the two of them, together, are a stunning example of faithfulness in the midst of uncertain circumstances and tense new realities. Instead of digging in and fighting out their theological positions: they play around with language, they risk self-disclosure, they explore one another’s truths. Instead of recoiling in disbelief and high-tailing it out of there: they look one another in the eye, treat one another with respect and hang in there long enough to find some shared interest, even some common ground.
The German philosopher Rudolph Bahro once said: “When an old culture is dying, the new culture is created by those people who are not afraid to be insecure.” It strikes me that this is exactly the case here, with Jesus and the Samaritan woman. Sure, Jews don’t often wander into Samaria. And yes, it’s odd for a Jewish prophet to be hanging out at a Samaritan well, asking for help from a working woman at midday. His presence there makes her uneasy. And her courage undoubtedly challenges his sense of purpose and direction. But the two of them, together, are not afraid to be insecure. And this makes everything else possible. She finds someone who sees her and knows her for who she is. He finds someone with whom he can fully and courageously explore his calling, his mission, his hope. She goes on to be an evangelist, sharing this wildly unexpected good news with others. And he goes on to embrace his identity with courage and more than a little hutzpah.
Now what in the world, we might ask, does all this have to do with baptism? How does immersion and commitment relate to the long, winding, playful conversation in this morning’s story?
Well, maybe baptism joins us to the story, unites us with the story—so that we’re able to move ahead in uncertain circumstances and tense new realities. That’s pretty much what life is, right? Uncertain circumstances and tense new realities? Maybe baptism is your celebration of Jesus’ hutzpah in your own hearts: that you can embrace a dynamic calling and meaningful mission in a strange world. Maybe baptism is something like solidarity with the Samaritan woman: that you are not afraid to be insecure, that you are empowered to live playfully, delightfully, boldly in a baffling and befuddling world.
You know, in our own tradition, in our United Church of Christ, we are baptized into the body of Christ, into the community which understands itself as the body of Christ. Baptism isn’t magic, and it’s not an entirely personal event either. Instead, we are baptized into the loving ministry of Jesus, into the loving community that finds meaning in his story. And I think that’s why this story shows up in the Gospel of John. I think we take on—in baptism—the same playful and compassionate spirit we find in the story: Jesus’ playfulness, the Samaritan’s playfulness, the story’s playfulness. I think we discover that the real joy of living is discovered in conversation, in community, in working out our truths with friends whose truths are very different from our own. That’s what Living Water is all about. That’s what Jesus and the Samaritan woman discover. That’s what we discover together.