How to Drink of Living Water
I’m just going to cut right to the chase on this text: Jesus is undermining us and our priorities yet again, because he loves us too much to let us continue in our self-protective delusions.
Every time I think I’ve got him figured out, he knocks me over once again with his subversive and all-encompassing love.
The woman at the well is one of John’s most beloved stories.
We have a woman who is trapped in an unenviable social situation, the origins of which we do not clearly understand.
She has to come to well to draw water in the heat of the day rather than the cool of the early morning. This is a clue that she is ostracized from the company of the other women in town, respectable women, who would come as a group to draw water at dawn.
Why is she not respectable? We don’t know, but more than likely it is a result of gender-based shame imputed to her.
She may be penalized for exercising sexual autonomy, i.e. being a “loose woman.”
Or she may have been passed around from husband to husband to finally a man who doesn’t even bother to marry her because she is barren, unable to have children, the other major source of shame for women in her society.
Even without knowing her story and its shades of disgrace in the eyes of her culture, the gospel says the disciples are shocked to find Jesus talking with a woman, any woman.
Regardless of what she has been through, and we understand that it cannot have been pleasant, she has enough pluck in her to enter into conversation with an unaccompanied adult male whom she quickly discovers is a Jew.
This reality alone would have further diminished her already precarious position in society.
But there is a spark of curiosity in her that responds to Jesus and answers the invitation to go deeper with him.
She is thirsty for more than what she can find at the bottom of that well, and so she asks.
In fact, she more than asks, she requests, demands, even: “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”
How often do we share our need with Jesus so un-self-consciously?
And here is what fascinates me. The woman asks Jesus for the Living Water, and what does he give her?
One would expect him to give her comfort, understanding, affection, healing, assurance of salvation.
But he gives her none of these.
She asks Jesus for the Living Water, and he gives her truth.
Truth is the Living Water.
Entering into this reality deeply has the potential to transform us, just as it did for this woman.
When we come to Jesus longing for comfort, to be shielded from uncomfortable facts, to gain respite from what we hate about ourselves, to find refuge from a harsh outside world, he does not oblige us in our stance of denial.
But this is key: Jesus endows his truth-telling with divine love in a fundamentally different way from how we’re used to hearing it.
Jesus completely and entirely divorces truth from shame, and this is why truth from Jesus is Living Water.
A spiritual teacher I was listening to defines Original Sin as the first time shame was associated with truth.
If we prayed on that for a month we’d probably find our worldview tilted out from under us.
We’d understand what it means to never be thirsty again.
Because if we know that the truth about ourselves, whatever it may be, need not be a source of shame but instead is an opening for God, we would no longer thirst for external approval, for status, for ego security.
We might finally start to believe we are beloved by God.
Wow! Truth really is Living Water!
This actually makes sense if we take it deeper.
Consider truth as water: cleansing.
Washing away the euphemisms and obscurations that cover over our pain and uncertainty.
Washing our secret wounds to make them ready for healing.
Clearing the film from our eyes so we see clearly not only our need for God but God’s tenderness toward us.
It takes us all the way back to the reasons we use water for baptism, for rebirth into the Body of Christ.
This woman has probably been battered by truth as wedded to shame her entire life, whether it be for sexual autonomy, infertility, poverty, or any one of the thousand reasons we use to exclude one another from the in-group.
Truth about her literal external circumstances has been weaponized with shame until she is parched and weary, so thirsty for someone to see her for who she really is that she will risk this conversation with Jesus.
But Jesus makes the truth into Living Water by marrying honesty and compassion, liberating her to enter with him into what may be the very first relationship with a man in her entire life based on respect, equality, and love.
And it changes her at her depths.
He, the Son of God, says to her, “Give me a drink.”
He goes into this encounter with her in a shared thirst for relationship, and shows her that truth without shame has the power to transform everything.
And she is empowered by what may be one of the most important, albeit brief, mystical marriages in history.
Mystical marriage is a great meeting of souls on a spiritual level—think Francis and Clare, John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, Jesus and John, the Beloved Disciple, or Jesus and Mary of Bethany.
A mystical marriage is when two souls recognize a grace within each other that will transform them both, and experience ecstatic union that empowers them to share love with the whole world.
Sometimes it’s lifelong, and sometimes it’s the fruit of a single encounter as in this story, but these lightning strikes of spiritual harmony usually change the world.
And believe it or not, you and I are invited to mystical marriage with Jesus.
How’s that for some terrifying truth telling? How long would we need to pray for that truth to feel like Living Water?
Because look at what Jesus divorcing truth from shame and marrying truth to love and transformation does for this woman.
First, she leaves her water jar at the well.
Her thirst is more than assuaged, her cup runneth over.
And she goes back to town—town, where she has never had a stable home in her adult life and is a constant victim of demeaning gossip and exclusion—and proclaims truth confidently, even joyfully.
She is no longer ashamed of the truth in her life and she offers it, along with the truth about Jesus, as the means of salvation for others: “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!”
This is revolutionary. This is the power Jesus can have in our lives, to transform our secrets and shame into the very means of access to grace for others.
This changes everything.
I hope you’re getting thirsty!
Jesus says elsewhere in John, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
The truth is that Jesus sees us for who we really are, in all of our sin and all of our glory, and loves us there.
And more than that, he shows us how deeply we can be refreshed and sustained by setting down our burden of shame and welcoming his healing love.
What would it be like for us to ask Jesus for the Living Water ourselves?
What would it be like to go to him in the heat of the day and ask for truth, truth we need to see, truth we’ve been blinded to, truth we think we’re too weak to bear?
I suppose the first prayer is for courage to approach him with the curiosity and boldness of this unnamed woman, and ask him for Living Water.
Truth may be the first vow of mystical marriage, a spiritual union of love that lights up the universe, a pillar of fire in the desert that leads others on through the darkness to new hope.
You’re risking a lot to drink of the Living Water.
But this story shows us that there is love unimaginable in that drink in and of Jesus’ presence, a love so overwhelming that we can’t help but share it with others.
What is the Living Water? Perhaps the psalmist put it best: “Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other.”
Or as Jesus might say, “Come on in, the water’s fine.”
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