Column: Thirsting for Hope
By Drew Williams
An adult body is an astounding 57 to 60 percent water. Because our bodies contain so much water, to be in severe thirst, to be dehydrated, is to be in agony.
Imagine your growing thirst as you walk for hours along a dusty rural path in the heat of the day. It is in that setting that John’s Gospel records a curious account of Jesus meeting a woman and asking for a drink of water (John 4: 1-30). We are told that it is about midday, when the sun is at its hottest, and the disciples have gone into a town to buy food. Jesus, tired from the journey, has remained behind and is sitting alone beside a well when a solitary figure approaches—a woman. Here is someone who can reach the water for him that will assuage his thirst. The story has a twist. What begins as a story about Jesus’ thirst turns out to be the story of this woman’s much deeper thirst—a thirst that pertains to loss of intimacy, identity and hope, a thirst that we might even recognize within ourselves. This is a story about the recovery of all of these losses and the quenching of a profound spiritual thirst.
To begin with, a woman collecting water from a well at midday is not some lovely ancient Middle Eastern pastoral vignette. This is no oil painting of life in the countryside. In that culture, no woman would ever go out in public alone and the convention was that women went to the well either at the beginning of the day or in the evening.
So a woman at the well in the middle of the day on her own means that her community has shunned her. She is an outcast and we might even wonder whether she is at the well to attract another kind of business. Along with this loss of intimacy, her identity is lost in the stigma that surrounds her; she is a prisoner to her past. And then there is her loss of all hope. Maybe a few years ago she would have attempted to join the other women at the well—tag along at the back, keep her head down—but clearly that plan did not work. There is no strategy that could reverse her fortunes. Her solitary presence at the well at this time of the day signals that she has given up hope.
To all of this brokenness and loss, Jesus is about to bring restoration and quench the agony of her thirst. Before He does, however, there is some interesting discussion that passes between them. In short, there are two major issues. The first (and we shall call this “the elephant at the well”) is that she is a woman, alone at midday, and Jesus is a man. This conversation should not be happening. The second issue is one of religion and politics. Jesus is Jewish and she is a Samaritan, and there is a 400-year-old feud between the two groups. Again, this conversation should not be happening. Like draping a dust cloth over the elephant, she attempts to hide the first impropriety by deflecting attention upon the secondary issue. Jesus does not point out the elephant; rather, he patiently plays along.
But then she gets really close to her real situation. In response to Jesus’ invitation to quench her thirst through the gift of living water, she says, “…give me this water so that I will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water.” In other words, give me this water so I don’t have to endure this living hell by showing up here each day. This is the closest that she has come to bearing her own heart. And so Jesus comes a little closer: “Go, call your husband and come back.”
And in her answer she comes clean with the truth. No more politics, no more religion—just the truth. She says, “I have no husband.” Jesus says to her, in effect: Well done! You got there in the end. We both know that you have had five husbands and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have said is quite true. There is no condemnation and neither does she try to excuse her circumstances. She is, however, overwhelmed that this man she has just met could know her so well—all her dark corners, all the things that make her ashamed, all the things that have separated her from the community. Here is man who can know all that and yet still give her the time of day.
Perhaps this is the most intimate conversation she has ever had. Every man she has ever known has let her down. Jesus looks into her heart and in just a few words expresses the truth to her that He knows her, really knows her. And with this restoration of intimacy comes a restoration of identity. Jesus says, “But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4: 23-24). In other words, “in spirit and truth” her new identity is not as an outcast, not as a Samaritan, not as anything less than a child of God.
And then follows the most beautiful recovery of hope. Buried deep in this woman is a little shard of hope. Jesus has patiently led her to make her own confession and now He is drawing on the well of her heart to uncover this hope. It is like Jesus is gently sifting all the debris in her life to uncover her one hope.
She says, “I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us all things” (John 4:25). And there it is, just poking above the surface. In all her wretchedness, and in all her isolation, there is this little, some would say childlike, hope that one day someone might come to save her. She is standing on the tip of her toes. This is all that she has of any value. And Jesus stands before her and says, “I who speak to you am he” (John 4:26b). I am the one who you have been waiting for. When nobody else in this community would speak to you, I am speaking to you and I know you for who you are when everybody else knows you for what you have done. I am He. I am the one that you were hoping for.
Why did the woman have that encounter that day? To begin with, because Jesus was thirsty and He saw an opportunity to assuage her thirst. But John wants us to see that this was a much deeper encounter. Of this moment, Tim Keller writes, “It was because the divine Son of God, the maker of heaven and earth, had emptied Himself of His glory and descended into the world as a vulnerable mortal, subject to becoming weary and thirsty.” She found the living water because Jesus Christ said, “I thirst.” On the Cross, Jesus took our spiritual thirst upon Himself so that we will never thirst again.
So how do we get this living water? In short, we just come and receive. How do we come? At the well, this woman came broken, only partially honest, and in truth, Jesus came to her. So the invitation is that we come as we are—broken, most times only partially honest about our “stuff.” (Am I the only one who prays, “Lord, forgive me… but let me justify why this was not really my fault…”?)
It appears that God sees our own avoidance in the midst of our own confession and chooses not to hold that against us. Jesus said, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment (Revelation 21:6). Accept His invitation and come, just as you are.
The Rev’d Drew Williams, Senior Pastor of Trinity Church.