Saturday, March 19, 2011

He told me everything that I've done

The woman said to him, "Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?"
– John 4:1-26 (Full text here … please read it before continuing.)

This story is so rich I don’t know where to start, or what tack to take. But the word that jumps out at me first is “thirsty.”

As with the story of the Good Samaritan, it’s crucial to understand some cultural dynamics. Samaritans were another “denomination” of Jews, but the main group of Jews didn’t recognize them. Perhaps a parallel might be comparing a dominant sect of Christians to a group of Mormons today. But the comparison doesn’t go far enough, because there was real acrimony between the two groups, so much so that they wouldn’t even eat together or talk to each other. The Jews of the community Jesus grew up in believed that Jerusalem was God’s home base—that to worship God in the Temple was the “real deal.” The Samaritans believed one could worship God anywhere.

So Jesus meets a Samaritan woman at the well and has this exchange with her, this back-and-forth banter as if they were equals. Culturally, it was a major faux pas for Jesus to talk with a woman, let alone a Samaritan! It is the woman’s calling out of Jesus’ faux pas that keeps the conversation going. It’s like they recognize a spark in each other: there’s chemistry.

Jesus shifts the conversation from literal water to symbolic water, and then the woman wonders what kind of water this is. But then Jesus delves into the woman’s personal life. Perhaps she would have been offended if she hadn’t had to wonder how he could know all this in the first place.

So what kind of thirst are the two of them talking about? What kind of water might quench a thirst once and for all?

Here's a pretty straight cover of a gospel song, as done by Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds in 1986: "Jesus Met the Woman at the Well."

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