The movie Castaway is about a Fed Ex employee played by Tom Hanks who’s plane crashes on a deserted island. He learns how to survive by himself, and opens all the mail packages that survived the crash to see if there’s anything useful, all but one. And at the end of the movie when he’s back in civilization he delivers that package to its destination, but we never find out what was inside. A few years after the movie, Fed Ex made a funny Super Bowl commercial with someone playing Tom Hank’s character delivering that package. This time he asks the package recipient what was in it. And she says, “Oh just some silly old things like a water purifier, fishing rod, satellite phone and GPS.” The man feigns a smile and walks away.
Of course anybody stranded on a desert island could use that stuff. And today’s Gospel reading reminded me of that commercial because of how essential water is to human survival. It’s one of the most basic human needs. Besides oxygen there’s nothing more important to our immediate survival than water. And only certain water can sustain life. You could be surrounded by an ocean of salt water like Tom Hanks in Castaway and still die of thirst because the water is not life-giving.
The need for water sets the stage for Jesus’ encounter today with the Samaritan woman at the well. Last week, we heard from John chapter 3 about Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus. This week we read the very next section of John’s Gospel, immediately following the talk with Nicodemus. And the way the Gospel is written suggests we’re supposed to connect these two stories. The first encounter was with a Jewish man, a prominent and respected leader of Israel. Today’s encounter is with a Samaritan woman, not prominent not respected. And while Nicodemus’ conversation was at night—this conversation is at high noon. The timing is very symbolic and reveals that this woman gets it. She’s the opposite of Nicodemus in many respects. But even so, in both conversations Jesus focuses on the topic of water and the spirit.
Jesus begins by asking her for a drink of water. It’s important to notice, he initiates the conversation as a person in need. He’s not trying to start a conversation from a position of power, but starts it from a place of need and humility. And eventually he tells the woman, if you knew who I was you’d ask me for water, and I’d give you living water: water so life-giving that those who drink it will never be thirsty again. Of course he’s speaking metaphorically here about the Spirit or about truth or about himself or about all the above. The idea that those who consume the Spirit of Christ will never be thirsty or hungry again is one of the major themes of the entire Gospel of John.
Now let’s take a step back for a moment and consider what it means for Jesus to be having this conversation in the first place. Last week’s Gospel talked about Jesus saving the world. And at the beginning of this section, it’s as if Jesus tells his disciples—“Wanna see who I mean by ‘the world’? Come on let’s go to Samaria!” The Samaritans were maybe the most despised people in the eyes of many Jews in Jesus’ day. Probably in the eyes of some of his disciples as well. Jews thought of Samaritans as Gentiles, but Samaritans thought of themselves as God’s people of Israel too. They understood themselves as descendants of the northern tribes of Israel, while Jews were from the southern tribe of Judah. However, the Judeans understood the Samaritans as foreign people whose descendants were brought to the land by the Assyrian empire and were thus not descended from Abraham or Jacob. The Book of Second Kings describes how the Assyrians conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel, exiled the people, and brought in new people to populate the land. Historians think Samaritans were probably a mix of the new inhabitants and some lingering members of the northern tribes who weren’t scattered by Assyria. And believe it or not there are still some Samaritans today. They understand themselves as descendants of the northern tribes of Israel. Today there are only 840 Samaritans left, most living near Mount Gerizim. Close to where this conversation between Jesus and the woman took place.
It’s clear from what the woman says that she understands her people as descendants of Abraham and Jacob. And she expresses the heart of the disagreement between Jews and Samaritans: where the proper place to worship God is. But Jesus expands this vision of where God should be worshipped. It’s not just on Mount Gerizim or in Jerusalem, he says. God’s plan is to have worship all over the world, not limited to a single place. So that anyone who worships God in sprit and truth will have access to the divine.
And so Jesus is asserting that salvation is not limited to his own Jewish nation. Salvation is for the Samaritans too. And salvation is for people all over the world. It doesn’t matter where we’re from, who our ancestors are, where we worship God, or how we worship God. All that matters is spirit and truth. Because it is in spirit and truth that we connect to God, that we have a relationship with this God who so loves the world.
And to us all God offers the life-giving water of the Spirit. It is this water that unites us. This Spirit which calls us here together to worship on Sunday mornings, which calls together the whole church throughout the world. And it is this life-giving water which will be both symbolically and literally poured over the head of baby Michael in a few moments. The life-giving water Jesus spoke about to the woman at the well is what he shares with Michael today. And what he shares with all who seek God in spirit and truth.
Along with Michael’s Baptism, we also officially welcome in new members to St. Matthew this morning as well. And we remember that it is this same life-giving water and Spirit which connects us to all Christians of every time and place. This life-giving water which refreshes us, sustains us, and helps us grow. Both as individuals and as a community, connected with the church throughout all space and time.
Jesus gives us this life-giving water. He sends his Spirit to dwell with us. And he invites us into relationship. A relationship that, like the woman at well, will change our lives. Thanks be to God for this life-giving water and the blessing it is to know Jesus Christ: the one who pours out this water for the world. Amen.