In an encounter with a woman at a well in Samaria, Jesus confesses who he is, the Messiah, and she not only embraces it, but leads others to make the same confession.
I suggest that you begin your sermon by speaking directly to those who are Christians, who are professing members of The United Methodist Church, and who have already been baptized into the faith. Ask these folks a few questions.
- Why are you here today?
- Why are you a Christian?
- Why do you follow Jesus?
- Why have you confessed Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promised to serve him as your Lord in union with the church that Christ has opened to all people of all ages, nations, and races.
- Why have you committed yourself, according to the grace given in you, to be a faithful member of Christ’s holy church and serve as Christ’s representatives in the world?
- How are you living out this vow made at your baptism?
After recognizing this is too many questions to think about, let alone answer, even if you give your listeners a few minutes to consider them, you will understand that these questions take a lifetime to answer. Furthermore, our answers come not so much from what we say, but from how we live. Nevertheless, it is important to put the questions before us, especially as we consider the story of the Samaritan woman alongside our second baptismal vow:
Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as Lord, in union with the church Christ opens to people of all ages, nations, and races? Will you commit yourself, according to the grace given in you, to be a faithful member of Christ’s holy church and serve as Christ’s representative in the world?
I have always been amazed by this story about Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman. Although many scholars have portrayed her as not just uneducated, but the worst kind of sinner—divorced multiple times, of loose morals, and a follower of the wrong religion—I think it is important to notice how intelligent she comes across in this conversation with Jesus. She really holds her own! As Bonnie Thurston notes in Women in the New Testament: Questions and Commentary (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1998):
The Samaritan woman is, in fact, one of the most theologically informed persons in the Fourth Gospel. She knows the regulations about ritual purity (verse 9), ancestral traditions of Israel (verse 12), the necessity to worship at a valid temple (verses 19-20), and the expectation of a Messiah (verse 25). She is, in short, conversant in Samaritan theology [which is not surprising since, unlike Jews, Samaritans educated religiously both male and female children], and Jesus takes her as seriously as a discussion partner as he did Nicodemus in the preceding chapter (Thurston, pp. 83-84).
Thurston proposes that this encounter brings to a climax a series of conversations with a number of different people in John’s gospel that show individuals progressively living into their understanding of who Jesus is. For Thurston, the Samaritan woman serves as the climax of these encounters: the fullest and most confident example of a true believer. Not only does she hold her own in a difficult and complex conversation, but in contrast to Nicodemus, who comes to Jesus under the cover of darkness, she comes to Jesus at noontime, out in the open, at a public well, and in the full light of day!
And while other religious authorities, including Nicodemus, whom we talked about last week, are consistently skeptical about who Jesus might be, this woman comes not only to have faith in Jesus Christ, but to go public with her experience. John reports that after this encounter, she immediately heads to her village where she confesses to others that she has met the long-awaited Messiah. In doing so, she becomes the world’s very first Christian missionary. By the end of the story, we learn that because of her testimony about what has happened to her and “because of her word,” others have come to believe in the good news of Jesus Christ!
So what convinced her? What caused this woman to confess Jesus as her Savior, put her whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as her Lord?
Part of what convinced her, no doubt, is that Jesus knew not just her life story, but what was in her heart, and this knowledge did not cause him to reject her or turn away from her. But the more compelling thing, it seems to me, is that he offers her living water that will not just quench her thirst temporarily; it will quench her thirst eternally.
Living water. What is this living water that changed the Samaritan woman’s life forever?
Last November I was invited to speak at a preaching education event being held by the Northeastern District of the Iowa Conference. The event was on a Saturday. Since I had arrived early in the afternoon on Friday, my host and driver, Dr. Scott Meador, who is the pastor at the First United Methodist Church in Independence, Iowa, took me on a tour of how United Methodism is being lived out in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Specifically, Scott wanted me to learn about the Matthew 25 ministry.
Cedar Rapids, Iowa, is an interesting city. It is home to many descendants of Czechoslovakia and is the location of the National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library. It is also home to the African-American Museum and Cultural Center of Iowa and the Masonic Library and Museum. In addition, Cedar Rapids has played an important role in the Muslim culture of the United States. It is the location for the National Muslim Cemetery, unique in that all the graves face Mecca, and the Mother Mosque of America, the longest operating mosque in North America, dedicated in 1934. Muslim immigrants, primarily from Lebanon and Syria, have lived in the area continuously since 1895.
Cedar Rapids is named for the Cedar River, which snakes its way through the center of the city. The headwaters for the river are in Dodge County, Minnesota. From there, the river runs south through eastern Iowa, on a roughly parallel path with the Iowa River, until the two rivers come together and eventually flow into the mighty Mississippi River. The Cedar River has served as an important commercial waterway, transporting goods from cities planted along its path, since the mid-1800’s for settlers from Europe, and much further back in history for native American peoples. In this way, the waters of the Cedar River have given a great deal of life and prosperity not just to Cedar Rapids, but to other port cities that were built along its banks.
Downtown Cedar Rapids, located primarily on the eastern bank of the river, is home to many thriving industries, especially those related to grain processing. A large Quaker Oats mill sits prominently on the east bank, north of the city center. General Mills and Cargill also have facilities there, as well as several other significant companies. It is a thriving heartland city that is now enjoying a resurgence, thanks in part to massive revitalization efforts that have come about because of a natural disaster.
In 2008 historic flooding devastated the city of Cedar Rapids. For three solid weeks, communities on both sides of the Cedar River struggled to cope with rising waters. The river eventually crested at over 31 feet, surpassing all previous floods on record. 1,126 city blocks were left underwater on both banks. 7,749 properties were evacuated, 5,900 of which were homes and 310 of which were city public facilities (information from Wikipedia).
Homes in the neighborhoods located on the western bank were generally of lesser value in the real estate market than neighborhoods further out from the city center, or on the eastern bank. Some were rental properties; others were owner-occupied. People who had been struggling already lost everything in the flood, and many had little means with which to replace their basic possessions, let alone rebuild their homes. The building that housed Matthew 25 ministries itself had to be demolished following the flood.
Only two years into their mission to revitalize this struggling city community, the founders of Matthew 25 faced a tough decision. Should they relocate to a different part of the city, or should they remain and rebuild alongside their neighbors after the devastation caused by the waters of the Cedar River? They chose the latter.
According to the website, after founding the ministry in 2006 “to help strengthen and elevate neighborhoods on the west side of Cedar Rapids, Iowa,” only two years later, Matthew 25 was forced by the shared disaster to reach out to their neighbors in new and unexpected ways. They turned flood waters into living waters by partnering “with other organizations to invest more than $6 million to empower people to rebuild 25 blocks and renew their neighborhoods – Block by Block.” Their efforts to respond to the changing needs of their neighborhood, and especially to a natural disaster, did not go unnoticed. “The Block by Block program has been recognized statewide and nationally as a model for disaster recovery and neighborhood revitalization. More than 250 families were able to move back into their homes because of the work of Matthew 25.”
Not only did Matthew 25 help to rebuild people’s homes after the flood, but they began new programs specifically geared to help their community continue to grow and revitalize in other ways. They built a tool-lending library so that people who needed tools lost in the flood to make their homes livable again could borrow what they needed to get the job done. They created Iowa’s first urban farm and the Cultivate Hope food program on abandoned lots where houses had to be torn down. They began reaching out to support and connect with young people from all of the different cultural, religious, and racial backgrounds who called their neighborhood home. They offered services to help their neighbors make their homes more energy efficient.
In sum, Matthew 25 responded to the devastating waters of the 2008 flood by pointing to the living water of grace and healing love offered through Jesus Christ.
What is the living water that Jesus provides? It is that which saves us. It is that which saves, especially, the least and the lost, the rejected and disenfranchised, the oppressed and suffering, who live among us.
Once we drink the living water Jesus offers, we can no longer be satisfied by what physical water alone provides, whether it be for economic gain brought about by proximity to the transportation that a river offers or our basic human need for relief from dehydration.
Physical water can only satisfy our physical thirsts.
The living water Jesus Christ provides satisfies our eternal thirst: “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (John 4:13b-14, NRSV).
As those who have, in our baptismal vows, confessed “Jesus Christ as our Savior, put our whole trust in his grace, and promised to serve him as Lord, in union with the church Christ opens to people of all ages, nations and races,” our experience of drinking the living water offered in Christ is the same as that of the Samaritan woman who met Jesus at a well under the noonday sun all those generations ago. It is life changing. It is deeply satisfying in a way nothing else is.
Not only is our experience the same; our mission is the same as well. Once we have tasted the living water that has become in us a spring of water gushing up to eternal life, we become compelled to offer that water to others. How do we do that? By our testimony, both with our words and through our self-giving actions.
In his new booklet, The Meaning of Baptism in the United Methodist Church (Nashville: Discipleship Resources, 2017), author Mark Stamm makes a direct connection between our responsibility to the world made in our baptismal vows and the living water Jesus offered to the Samaritan woman at the well:
We take up the baptismal calling of the church to intercede for the world, and to continue to live more deeply into the mind of Christ. In the lifelong pilgrimage with the church begun in baptism, we discover again and again that our purpose in life is deeply tied up with giving ourselves in service to others. In baptism, we step into the flow of living water, and in it we experience, now, already, a foretaste of heaven.
Stepping into the Living Water: On the Ritual Practice of Baptism
Jesus told a Samaritan woman he could offer her “living water.” He said, “those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty” (Jn. 4:13). When we receive this living water, says Jesus, our deepest needs are satisfied. More than that, initiated into the flow of living water, we become part of God’s blessing to the world, participants in that “spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (John 4:14). Becoming a part of that gracious flow satisfies many of our deepest longings, for God created us to “give ourselves for others.”1 Self-giving is at the heart of the life of the Trinity into which we are baptized. We are at once most deeply human and closest to God when we give ourselves in love.
The good news is that the living water offered by Jesus Christ is available to all—Samaritan or Jew, Christian or Muslim, black or brown or white, female or male, slave or free, rich or poor, able-bodied or differently-abled, gay or straight or transgendered—it doesn’t matter. God’s grace is offered to all who will drink of it.
We who have drunk of this living water, we who have come to faith and who claim faith in Jesus Christ, can only testify to what drinking of the living water of Jesus Christ has done for us. We cannot give the living water of faith to others. But we can become part of God’s blessing in the world. We can join in God’s mission by giving ourselves in love. And we can commit ourselves anew, according to the grace given to us, to be representatives of Jesus Christ in the world, and, through our words and self-giving actions, point people to the only one who can give us the living water that we most need.