March 15, 2020, The Drink That Refreshes, John 4:5-42 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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George MacDonald, who was a Scottish minister and writer in the nineteenth century, once wrote, “It has been well said that no man ever sank under the burden of the day. It is when tomorrow’s burden is added to the burden of today that the weight is more than a man can bear.” And we know that. We know, especially in this time of anxiety about spreading disease, that worrying about the future weighs us down. But all of us are also burdened by our past. People tend to go through life lugging the burden of human history on their backs. No matter who you are, in some way or in many ways the events of the past intrude themselves into your present. Our nation carries the burdens of slavery and genocide from our very beginning, and we feel those wounds right up to the present day. The deeply-ingrained injustices of poverty and racism are the root causes of so much violence and suffering and division. When we read the news, every single day, there are stories behind the stories, sinfulness and woundedness from the past that feed the sinfulness and woundedness of today.
And of course it doesn’t just happen on the level of societies and nations, because every one of us has his or her own history that we carry around, our own personal “baggage” that weighs us down and also weighs in on our every reaction and thought and decision. We’re like elephants, we never forget. We might forget what we had for breakfast or that we have a dentist appointment at 1:30 today or where we put our glasses, but we will never be able to forget that our teacher laughed at us in third grade when we stumbled over a word, or that a friend betrayed us, or that we hurt someone we love. Guilt and shame and anger and resentment, those things cling to us: they make our steps heavier, and they darken our relationships with God and with other people.
And so when we read about Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well, that story bears the weight of a lot of other stories that came before it. There was first of all the story of this long enmity between the Jews and the Samaritans. They both traced their lineage from Abraham, they both called themselves Israelites, they both followed the law of Moses, but something had happened that had come between them and that had made them enemies instead of brothers. So much so, that Jews traveling from Galilee in the north to Judea in the south would go way out of their way to avoid passing through Samaria. So much so that it was almost unthinkable that Jesus, a Jewish teacher, should strike up a conversation with a Samaritan when they met at the well at lunchtime that day. A Samaritan and a woman, too, which made it all the more unthinkable.
The story behind all that animosity had begun almost eight centuries before Jesus sat down by the well, when God punished the Northern Kingdom of Israel for its sin and idolatry. Those Northern Israelites had been carried off by the Assyrians, and those who were left behind had intermarried with the Assyrians and were considered “half-breeds”, no longer “real” children of Abraham. Meanwhile, a couple of centuries later the Southern Kingdom, Judah, was carried off by the Babylonians for the same sins as her northern sister. But still the animosity lingered through the centuries. Neither branch of the family thought the other worthy of reconciliation. Both branches of the family thought of themselves as the “true Israelites.” So that burden of history was hanging heavy over them when Jesus and the woman met at the well their common ancestor had dug for his livestock, near the field that had once belonged to their common ancestor Jacob, and been handed down to their common ancestor Joseph.
But more than that, this woman carried the burden of a long and painful personal history as well. She had been married five times. We don’t know whether she had been widowed or divorced or abandoned, and that really doesn’t matter. What we know is that her life had been full of loss and grief. And she would also have suffered a lot of shame and disgrace, because the world tends to assume, when a person’s life is a mess, that somehow, they must have done something to deserve it. And at the end of all those years of pain and grief, the woman was living with a man who was not her husband at all, and that would have put her in a very low social position indeed in those days.
It was a very heavy load that woman had carried to the well that noontime. No wonder she jumped at Jesus’s words about living water. “Please, sir, if you have something like that, give it to me, because I am weary to death with coming day after day to drink, only to be thirsty again, coming day after day, with no change and no hope in sight of anything different.” She knew her life was a mess, and she knew that in the eyes of people like Jesus, her people were looked down on, but the kindness and gentleness of Jesus’s voice and manner must have been so great that she was not afraid to speak openly and honestly to him.
Jesus was gentle as Isaiah had described him when he wrote, “a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench.”And so the woman with the bruised and battered life spoke to Jesus freely, and she believed in him. The Messiah had come, God had sent the One he promised. And miracle of miracles, he had sent him to her, to a woman of all people, a Samaritan woman no less, and a Samaritan woman with no social standing or virtue or wisdom to speak of. Just weary woman, weighed down with the burden of many stories.
The virtue of the Living Water that Jesus offered to her is that it brings healing to all stories. The woman called the whole village out to meet the one who knew them all, who knew all their stories. And the healing began at once because Jesus and his disciples, Jews though they were, accepted the hospitality of these Samaritans, staying with them for two days, enmity and resentment forgotten, all racism and superiority and self-righteousness suddenly meaningless in the joy of the Presence of the Messiah, who did not consider himself too important to talk to women or too pure to eat with non-Jews or too good to love sinners, but who poured out his Living Water freely to all so that their stories could begin afresh. It was exactly the kind of rebirth Jesus was telling old Nicodemus about.
“If anyone is in Christ,” Paul wrote, “he is a new creation. Behold, all things are made new. The old has passed away, behold the new has come.” How many times have you felt that you would give anything for a chance to do things over again? The Living Water of the Christ is the only thing powerful enough to wash away the bitter taste of history, so that mankind can be relieved of the intolerable burden of all those stories that we carry around with us.
We have been spending quite a bit of time lately talking about washing. We’re supposed to wash our hands many times a day. We’re supposed to wash with soap and water for at least as long as it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” twice. There are articles out there about the efficacy of this or that disinfectant, about how long the virus can live on this or that kind of surface. Stores are selling out of hand sanitizers. A lot of people are carrying around an extra heavy burden of anxiety these days, afraid of catching the virus from some one or some thing, afraid that the people they love will get sick, anxious about the disruptions in their lives – schools and workplaces closing, stores running low on supplies, anxious about the economy and the strain on our fragile healthcare system.
Only the Living Water of the Christ can wash away the burdens we are carrying – burdens of anxiety for the future, burdens of the stories of our past, burdens of our nation’s history. It’s not that these things cease to exist. We still need to be prudent in washing our hands, and maintaining a safe distance when we would much rather give a big hug. We still need to be gentle with ourselves in caring for our past wounds. We still need to be bold and courageous in opposing the injustices of our society. But in Christ we have been filled with the living water of his Spirit, and we have been set free to make a new beginning. There is no more condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, as Paul writes. There is nothing in heaven or on earth, there is nothing in our past or in our future, that can separate us from the love of God that is ours in Christ.
We have heard the voice of Jesus say, “Come to me, all you who are weary and carrying around your heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me. I’m not too proud to sit by the well and talk with you. Come, set your load down, and you will find rest. My yoke is easy. My burden is light.” Just like the Samaritan woman, we don’t have to carry our tired old stories around with us anymore, because we have come to the One who knows everything we ever did. Like the Samaritan villagers and the disciples, we don’t have to be bound by the prejudices and bitterness and separations of the past because he has broken every chain. And here, even in the midst of pandemic and political chaos and uncertainty we don’t have to carry the fearful weight of tomorrow, because all of that is in his hands. Bathed in the Living Water of his Spirit, we are free to live today. His mercies are new this morning and every morning. Great is his faithfulness.