journeying through Lent and hoLy week with gLee: thirst

Exodus 17:1-7; John 4:5-42

In the long-lost, newly-discovered musical stage production scrolls of “Well, Well, Well,” the writer of the fourth gospel has the production open with Jesus alone on stage, front and center. In the beginning was the word, right? It was at some point yesterday that the sermon became a musical … or a suessical—an unexpected turn for which I’m still not quite prepared! It’s  your good fortune that there was no music (or choreography, for that matter!) included in the scrolls so you are spared any attempt to sing (or dance) through the lyrics found.

It’s a minimal set: a rock front and center on which Jesus sits—a rock we’ll come to find out covers a well. And the word becomes song in a solo about being tired and thirsty—about wandering in a dry and barren land (which would have had all kind of resonance with the original audiences!).

But because you never expect too much from an audience (as opposed to a congregation!), the narrator entered the back of the house at that point singing of the Exodus to make the mash-up explicit—singing of a people tired and thirsty wandering in a dry and barren land.

“Many many miles southwest of here, the mighty God whom we revere
did our ancestors into freedom steer—
from the darkness of Pharaoh’s rule and Pharaoh’s might
into the promise of God’s land’s light.
‘Slaves no more!’ was the exultant roar …
until they realized there was no wilderness grocery store.”

Whereupon Jesus interrupted the narrator to sing an explicitly ironic verse:

“It’s somewhat of an irony
to be so very, very thirsty,
and to see what I see in front of me—
to see what I need right there in front of me,
and yet, to know it’s out of reach.
That’ll preach though … don’t you know?
I’m sitting on top of water I can’t drink.
The irony doth stink.
I’m thirsty, I know. and there’s water I see,
but there’s this big stone between the water and me.
It’s 100 feet down, in a hole in the ground.
I’m sitting on top of water I can’t drink.
The irony doth stink.”

Well, the narrator interrupted Jesus right back, hearkening back to the Exodus, singing about how the children of Israel complained of their thirst, referring to a “stumbling mumbling grumbling chorus” in an evidently still lost musical. And God told Moses: “Take in your hand the crook with which you whacked the Nile, and lo I’ll be standing there in front of you on the rock. I’ll be standing there in front of you on the rock. Whack the rock, and water will mock the barren land—the expanse of sand. The water will pool in a natural sink, and the people will drink to their hearts content. My grace will provide and no one will die.”

And Jesus, standing there in front of us on the rock … Jesus, standing there in front of us on the rock, center stage asks, “Do you mind? I thought this was my story.”

Responds the narrator, “Well, it’s all God’s story. So … well … actually, yes. But hey! someone approacheth.” And Jesus turns around to observe a figure emerging upstage through some kind of haze. This would actually be one of the nicer effects in a movie version. The figure could actually emerge from the heat shimmer in the distance—almost like a mirage—small, getting bigger—an effect only approximated on stage.

The narrator warns Jesus, “Remember, this is Samaria. That’s most likely a Samaritan.”

“On the other hand,” says Jesus, “it could be my disciples. They went into town to buy lunch.”

“No, that’s just one person. Could be trouble, and, oh, oh, it’s double trouble, because it’s a w-o-m-a-n!”

And she emerges from the heat shimmer singing a riff on a song from another musical popular in the day, “I like to be in Samaria!” Not only was she a Samaritan, she was proud of it—proud of her gender, proud of her heritage, proud of her country, proud of her religion. We sometimes, I think, assume someone identified as a Samaritan should somehow know to be ashamed of themselves! But this one demanded r-e-s-p-e-c-t! She was a Samarian woman, listen what I say!

“Excuse me, ma’am.”
The narrator slaps his head in exaggerated disbelief. Jesus goes on.
“I just need a sip or two,
if I could perhaps trouble you?”

“Say what?” she says—or sings.

“Say what?” echoes the narrator who keeps going, “You know what you’re doing?
Don’t you know your religion’s teaching?
You’re really overreaching.
This woman is deemed unclean.
And I’m not talking simple hygiene.
She’ll come between you and God….
Why do look at me like that’s odd?”

At the same time, the woman has launched in on Jesus too,

“How is it that you a man, a Jew, would ask a drink of me?
Are you blind? Don’t you see?
Aren’t you afraid of being contaminated?
Your precious cleanliness dissipated?
Unless we’re segregated?
Are you blind? Don’t you see?
Aren’t you afraid of all the cooties generated, concentrated and circulated through our proximity?
We should be alienated. It’s stipulated—validated, venerated, vindicated and now violated by your law.”

And all the narrator can muster is a stunned, “Yeah, what she said.”

Ignoring both their reactions, Jesus sings,

“I’m sitting on top of water I can’t drink.
With theological truth I think I’ll now forge a link.
You stand before life and yet do not see
the living water that flows out of me.”

It’s another one of those words, by the way, this water, that can be heard meaning different things. It can mean flowing water, running water, fresh water, or it can mean life-giving water, water of life. The woman hears only the one meaning: flowing water, fresh water—as opposed to water that’s collected in a well. And she laughs.

“You have no bucket. You have no rope.
Why would I not think you’re quite the dope?
Where within this barren land, this expanse of sand,
is this flowing water that you claim?
I look around and see more and more and more of just the same.
I believe my eyes
not what you hallucinate and hypothesize.
You think you’re greater than the one who gave us this well that never runs dry?
Well, that’s a claim you’ll have to justify.
Greater than Jacob—than Israel? Yeah right.”

And there’s a dramatic pause to let the irony sink in. “Well, yeah, right … as a matter of fact,” sings the narrator in an aside to the audience. “He is greater than Jacob—greater than Israel. She’s right. She just doesn’t know it!”

“Everyone who drinks from this well will thirst again—
will have to hike back out here now and then.
You drink my water though, you’ll go with the flow.
You’ll never thirst again, amen and amen.
The water I give will become in you a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.
‘I’ve got a river of life flowin’ out of me.
Makes the lame to walk and the blind to see.
Opens prison doors sets the captives free.
I’ve got a river of life flowin’ out of me.’”

She still doesn’t get it.

“Okay, sir (at least she’s a little more polite!), if you got it, I want it.
So I won’t ever thirst again—
or haul this bucket out here again.
Suffer sunburn, windburn, ropeburn just to turn
around and return.
If you got it, I want it.”

“It’s the right request for the wrong reason” (Gail O’Day, The Gospel of John: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections in The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, Volume IX [Nashville: Abingdon, 1995] 566)! She is still thinking at the literal level. Completely understandable. Last August, some of us walked a half a mile from the church carrying with us buckets and pots. We filled those containers with water and then walked that half a mile back to the church with our full (or partially full) buckets in solidarity with most of the world’s population. How nice to imagine not having to do that.

And Jesus said, “Go, call your husband, and then come right back.”

“I’ve got no husband, cut me some slack.”

“You think I don’t know jack?
You’re quite right in saying you have no spouse.
In poker, of husbands, you’d have a full house!
With an extra card left up your sleeve,
a joker at that, don’t mistake me for someone naive.”

At least one more modern production’s set design interpreted the well as a bar set outside town. Lots of neon lighting. Loud music. Which if you think about it is more an interpretation of the woman than the story, and an interpretation of the woman that Jesus does not make. There is no moral evaluation of the woman—just a clarity of insight into her living.

Impressed at what all he knows, the woman’s respect for Jesus rises again. “Sir, I see that you are a prophet, so I have a question for you. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” Oh, a serious question. Were we expecting that from this woman—a serious religious, theological question?

Samaritans believed that appropriate worship took place on Mount Gerizim, not in Jerusalem. They actually built a temple on Mount Gerizim that the Jews subsequently destroyed. This was their understanding of the holy texts they claimed. It was the understanding of the Samaritans that led them to build their temple; it was the understanding of the Jews that led them to destroy it.

Jesus said to her,

“Believe me now, the hour is coming when the different rules of God will not apply—
when the very presence of God will all worship intensify—
characterized by spirit and truth not rule and decree—
not by what used to be,
Believe me, the hour is coming, and is now here (believe in me),
and only the presence of God will worship justify
and certainty mystify.
And who you worship is more important than where—
more important than how, more important than when,
and it will not matter if you worship here.
It will not matter if you worship there.
You’ll be able to worship anywhere—
in spirit and in truth.”

“I know Messiah is coming, we await the revealing.
Once more with feeling: ‘Oh come, oh come, Emmanuel!’
And when Messiah comes, all will be made clear.”

“I am—.” In Greek, there is no “he.” Your translation probably reads, “I am he.” In Greek, there is no “he.” I am. I am that I am.

“When Messiah comes, all will be made clear.”
“I am that I am (Emmanuel—God-with-you) speaking to you here.”

And … intermission. To give added emphasis to that astounding claim. To give time for that to sink in. To allow the audience to begin to mash together in their heads the God of the history of the Jews and the God of the history of the Samaritans—to mash together in their imaginations the God of their ancestors and this man—to mash together in their wildest dreams the God who provided water in the wilderness with this man who offered the water of life in the wilderness of living.

Act two begins with the disciples emerging from the heat shimmer with various bags marked with the logos of various fast food chains. It’s part of the subtly of this writer, to raise the question as to whether we have too often turned the logos into a logo?

The disciples were astonished that Jesus was speaking with a woman (it was against all the rules—decrees), but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” No one said anything. None of the disciples were going to talk to a woman—didn’t want to talk to Jesus in front of a woman—particularly this woman—a Samaritan woman (double trouble!). The woman sensed their rejection of her, and she wasn’t going to say anything. Jesus had already said what he wanted to say. And the woman eventually just left—got up and walked upstage—up and left her water jar—to disappear back into that haze making her way back to the city.

And the silence that had grown quite awkward is then broken by Jesus—drawing attention to the jar she left behind, “By the way, hand me that bucket she just left, would you please? I am still, in fact, thirsty, you see.” The need for that particular irony (well water, fresh water, water of life) is past. And the bucket left behind draws attention to a conversation over, to the urgency of her return to the city, and, maybe, to the fact that she finally chose—ultimately chose a different kind of water than you can get in a bucket.

And from upstage, all we hear is the woman’s voice.

“Could it be?
Y’all come and see.
This man who knows me through and through.
Could it be true?
He can’t be the one for whom we’ve waited? Can he?
Yet in my heart, his words reverberated.
A word to the wise: Don’t just believe your eyes!
All he says is fuller than can be.
I was blind but now I see.
I take what he says at face value.
He means something new.
And in the residue of what I thought I knew,
I see something so absolutely true
I must try to get through to it and get it through to you.”

And then her testimony (“All he says is fuller than can be. I was blind but now I see.”) gets all mashed up with a growing chanting chorus from the townspeople: “let’s go see for ourselves what might be for ourselves.”

Meanwhile the disciples were urging Jesus to eat something.  But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” And from upstage, we hear, again, “All he says is fuller than can be. I was blind but now I see.”

Said the disciples one to another,

“Well, how do you like that?
while he on that rock so comfortably sat,
we walked through the heat
even though we, too, are beat
to get him some lunch
from that Samaritan bunch.
And now he’s not hungry?”

“I take what he says at face value.
He means something new.
And in the residue of what I thought I knew,
I see something so absolutely true
I must try to get through to it and get it through to you.”

Jesus said, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work.”

And Jesus offers them a parable: Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”

And it doesn’t make any sense whatsoever to the disciples. “What harvest? What fields? What reaper? What wages? What fruit for eternal life? Who sows? Who reaps? You didn’t send us to reap. You sent us for lunch. All we reaped was a long walk. Whose labor did we enter? What are you talking about?”

“I take what he says at face value.
He means something new.
And in the residue of what I thought I knew,
I see something so absolutely true
I must try to get through to it and get it through to you.”

At this point, the harvest—the townspeople arrive—the woman almost unnoticed in the midst of them. And they surround Jesus—actually crowding out the disciples to the very edges of the stage. and there’s much excited gesturing, and the sound of much conversation.

And there were many who said to the woman, “We heard you and we believed.” But there were many more who said to her, “We heard you and we wondered. We heard you and we hoped—hoped that the truth for which we’d yearned might be here. But now we hear for ourselves. And we believe. This is truly the savior of the world.”

It’s quite a progression—from initial impression to full confession. At first the rude encounter—no title, the verbal assault. Then signs of slow respect, the added “sir.” Then the recognition of Jesus as prophet, as Messiah (could it be?), and finally, as savior of the world, and the whole crowd bursts into song:

“Spring up oh well (and all the children go “gush gush gush gush!”)
within my soul!
Spring up oh well (gush gush gush gush)
and make me whole!
Spring up oh well (gush gush gush gush)
and give to me
that life abundantly.”

You never knew that chorus had such ancient and august origins, did you? Thing is, in modern singing, the chorus follows right up on the invitation. “I’ve got a river of life flowin’ out of me.” Well then, “Spring up oh well.” It’s too quick—too easy. And you bypass all the misunderstanding. You miss out on the whole conversation—the depths that have to be pointed out to us in the shallows. You miss out on Jesus’ persistence—the growing respect (of him for her, of her for us). You miss out on the dawning hope. You miss the progression to confession.

Jesus stands before us offering us we know not what. So much more than we can understand or even imagine. and we who try and quench our thirst in so many ways—so many ways that just make us thirstier—we stand before the one through whom flow the waters of life. Do you see? Do you want?

And if those are waters we’ve already chosen, then we have the opportunity to stand as witness. Have you done that? It doesn’t require certainty. “Could it be? Y’all come and see. He can’t be the one for whom we’ve waited? Can he? Yet in my heart, his words reverberated. A word to the wise: don’t just believe your eyes! All he says is fuller than can be. I was blind but now I see.”

Open our eyes that we may see … all that’s fuller than can be … glimpses of truth … for we are blind, but pray to see.


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