I have long loved the story of the “Woman at the Well” found in John, Chapter Four of Holy Writ. The Samaritan woman’s encounter with Jesus always seemed to me to be the practical illustration of John 3:17 (not quite so famous as 3:16) that says, “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” I’ve always read the woman-at-the-well story as a “Jesus-rescues-the-fallen” tale. I’ve even performed the story publicly that way. But recently, the UCC Still Speaking Daily Devotional opened my mind to a new reading of that familiar passage.
This viewpoint asks readers to see Jesus as the one who’s needy. You see, he’s the one who’s thirsty, and she’s the one with the bucket. I never thought of the encounter from that perspective. Interesting. And then it occurred to me: “What if all of us saw our experience of religion that way?” What if we truly believed God needed us, more than the other way around?
You see, I think far too much we believers perceive ourselves as sinners pleading for redemption, as beggars hoping for heaven, not as God’s children equipped for meeting the needs of others. In other words, we create religion to be all about OUR needs, not God’s. We go to church (the well) to get our own cool drink, not anticipating that Jesus will ask us to draw forth an offering for him. Or we don’t bother to go to church for reasons as equally focused on ourselves: “I don’t get anything from church. The sermons are boring. I can feel just as close to God on the golf course.” Why does it never cross our minds that WE might be needed to do something for God, rather than the other way around?
You might take umbrage at a viewpoint t,hat proposes God might ever be needy. Surely the great God of the Universe can manage without the likes of us. Yes, of course. However, don’t good parents show their children how to behave by saying, “I need your help, Johnny, to bake this cake.” Or, “Please hold the door, Sarah, while I carry in this bag of groceries.” The goal is to include children in the tasks of living in order that they might be useful, that they not grow up expecting life to serve them, and that they might know their own value.
Granted, the story does affirm God’s power. Jesus does offer “living water” of the Spirit to this Samaritan, a woman of questionable moral credentials. He sees her spiritual need. He makes it clear that she should ask him for a drink that would quench her existential thirst forever. They banter about the proper place for and nature of worship, and he makes it apparent that he knows more about her than she knows herself. Then she runs away to evangelize her village and brings them to meet this new-found messiah. But nowhere does it say Jesus got the drink he asked for.
Now, sure, you can tell me that the whole “draw me some water from the well” request was a ruse on Jesus’ part to save her wayward soul. We figure she’s a big sinner. Why else would she be going to the well in the noonday heat except to escape the judgment of her neighbors regarding her previous five husbands, or to avoid the other women’s gossip about her current sinful living arrangements? She needed saving in our perspective; perhaps that was her perspective as well.
But consider an alternative reading: she wasn’t the needy one – Jesus was. Abundant, thirst-quenching life was already hers for the asking, no strings or salvation conditions attached. What if in this storyJesus communicates to US that humans are the ones who are missing the point: God reveals through this woman that – while God knows everything we need – it is our job to recognize what God needs. Each of us has a bucket. The well is deep. We need to be about the work of drawing upon the resources granted to us in this life. God is thirsty for what only we can share. God needs us to get on with the work we are capable of doing. Instead, we argue about what is the best way to worship. We discourse about what is the “Truth.” We are quick to try to get others to understand our experience oF God so we can feel important. Meanwhile, Jesus stands around thirsty.
Can you envision him shaking his head at the senseless response of humans? His incredulous look when we fail to see the problem? His dumbfounded shoulder shrug inspired by our philosophical wrangling when we could easily honor this simplest of requests? Sadly, I can.
Yet there is a bright spot for us in this story. Jesus seems to forget about being tired or thirsty as he shares God’s hope for humankind with this woman and her friends. He draws on the very Living Water he tells her about as he reveals to her the nature of God’s promise to accept us as we are – male or female, privileged or outcast – of God’s ability to level walls of separation and mistrust between those who claim to be followers, and of God’s power to draw us together despite our differences.
The Good News is also that (1) we have everything we need to be helpful to God on earth. That (2) we are welcome to come into God’s presence even before we get everything straightened out in our lives, and that (3) God invites our participation to bring God’s story to a happy conclusion on earth.
We know the way to the well. It’s our everyday path of life. We have a bucket. It’s the tool we use to dispense compassion and justice to those who thirst for our help. The question is — Will we be distracted by our “religious agenda,” or will we be the ones attending to Jesus’ request to share what has been freely given to us?
Each person brings a bucket to the well of life. The point is not to let it remain empty. Others thirst and we can help. It’s that simple.