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March 15, 2020

Come to the well

Passage: John 4:5-42

You know Jacob’s Well is a real place? It’s in Nablus, in Palestine’s West Bank, just outside of the ruins of the Biblical city of Shechem. There’s a little Orthodox church built up around it, so the square stone well is inside a building now, in a chapel in the basement. It was 141 feet deep in 1935.

I don’t tend to expect physical objects from the Bible to remain accessible in my lifetime. But you could see Jacob’s Well if you wanted to, and, I suppose, I shouldn’t be surprised. Material things—low rocky mountains, broad scrubby valleys, thorn bushes, washes, stones, clothing, bread, olive oil, freshwater fish, sweat, dust—are the stuff of scripture as much as they are the stuff of our lives. And material concerns—what will I eat, what will I drink, what will I use to cover my body—drive people’s interactions with God in scripture just as they do here in the “real world.”

God cares about those things. Perhaps it is obvious, but I do think it bears repeating: God cares about the needs of our bodies; we may forget that God knows about them, as the Hebrew children forgot time and again during their sojourn in the desert, but God does not forget. God made the world and loves it: the rocky and scrubby bits, the thorns, the fish, the oil, our own bodies. Psalms describe God’s glory and power demonstrated in caring for the lives of creatures, human beings and gazelles and foxes alike. God cares about our material needs. Jesus himself teaches us to pray for them: each time we say the Lord’s Prayer, we ask for God’s reign to come to flower on earth the way it flourishes in heaven, the forgiveness of our sins, protection from hardship, and enough to food to eat, all in the same breath. An astonishing thing, that each of these things should be important enough to include in the foundation of all prayer, the things of the spirit and the things of the body together.

Yet we can see that equal weighting at play in this scene with the Samaritan woman and Jesus. Jesus is tired, hot, resting at a well in Samaria, socially hostile foreign territory, in the heat of the day. And here comes a woman to get water: alone with her jar, in the heat of the day. Talk about social distancing: Water-gathering was best done in the early morning and with friends, both to protect you and to make the chore of lugging the big heavy jar back to the village more bearable. This woman came alone, when she knew no one else would be there. That is, she came during the worst part of the day, making a hard task harder, so she wouldn’t have to face anyone. You know the story—she’d had five husbands and was living with someone now, not married. Can you imagine what her neighbors thought? The need of the spirit—respite from shame—shaped the response to the body’s need for water; the two could not be separated, nor could one easily cancel out the other.

When Jesus speaks to the woman—and their dialogue is the longest theological debate in the gospels, as long by verses and longer by word count than Jesus’ conversation with the religious leader Nicodemus in John ch 3—Jesus speaks to her in this way, with the needs of the spirit and the needs of the body not separated and indeed inseparable. She comes for water; he tells her about water.

Our habit, I think, is to talk about how Jesus talks by saying he is using a metaphor, with the subtext at least in my case being frustration that he doesn’t say things to people more directly. Why this coyness about kinds of water? If he’s having this long conversation with her apparently as an equal (no wonder his disciples were startled!), why this dancing around?

But I don’t think that’s quite right. That is, it isn’t simply a metaphor. After all, when the disciples come back and offer him something to eat, he speaks in the same way to them: “I have food you don’t know about.” And they wonder if someone snuck him an orange while they were away, but he is talking straightforwardly about what we might call spiritual nourishment, in just the way that anyone would talk about nourishment for the body, as though they are the same. I think this is because they are effectively the same.

If Jesus teaches us to pray for enough food the way we pray for the perfect working of the will of God and for the perfect working of the will of God the way we pray for food, if Jesus asks the woman for water and offers her water, if the disciples offer Jesus food and he has it already, it is worth considering that the way Jesus speaks and teaches us to speak is not really a failure to clearly distinguish a metaphor from plain reality as much as it’s simply what is real: that spiritual nourishment is actually as crucial to true living as nourishment for the body, and that the parsing out we do of “good for my body” versus “good for my soul” is overdetermining a distinction that just isn’t that important. The only thing that separates spirit from body is death; and the witness of scripture is that they get rejoined. We rise in bodies, spirits in bodies the way God made us from dirt and God’s own breath.

A great benefit of this consideration, that the needs of the body and the spirit should not in fact be placed in two separate baskets, is that it makes things suddenly much more intelligible. Of course we always understand the Israelite grumbling about food and water. But now Jesus’ rebuff of Satan’s temptation to turn rocks to bread, that we live not just by bread but by every word from the mouth of God, suddenly makes sense in real life. Jesus’ insistence that he is always with us is reliable. Saint Paul and other writers and holy people insisting that there is glory and triumph in bodily hardship sounds less insane. We can understand martyrs and religious refugees not as people who primarily denied a real need for the sake of what is holy but rather people choosing to meet a need. And the woman’s leaving her jar and returning to the city to call everyone to the well—that is, wasting the errand and exposing herself to the very neighbors she had been avoiding—is suddenly a reasonable thing to do. The presence of the Messiah, the culmination of hope, the truest “God With Us” she had ever encountered, feeds and refreshes her in real life beyond her real need for water, in the same way that Jesus’ doing the work of the Father feeds and strengthens him in real life beyond his need for food.

We say sometimes that spiritual things are “higher” than physical ones, and what that means in practice seems sometimes to be “higher, as in, up on a shelf and you don’t really get them down that much because you need a stepladder and it’s a whole thing.” It is easy, I think, to get into the pattern of assuming that the needs of the body have to be met and the spiritual stuff is nice if you’ve got the extra time and energy. But if we consider, and I really think we should, that the needs of the spirit and the body cannot really be picked apart, that the body can neither be ignored nor privileged over everything else, that the spirit cannot be neglected, we might consider that many of us are undernourished in a way that is not really a metaphor. If we are not drinking from the water of eternal life and eating the food that can’t be bought at the market—if we are not letting the refreshment of God our over us, soaking us to the root; if we are not doing God’s will, which is true life and perfect freedom—we are hungry and thirsty, vulnerable to the constant assaults of fear, of shame, of loneliness, of shaping our lives not around strength and freedom but around anxiety, embarrassment, certainty that we will not succeed.

We are apart today in body but we are not apart in spirit. We cannot eat and drink at the Lord’s Table today but we are being fed by him in spirit. This is not a pretty metaphor: God attends to our spirits the same way God attends to our bodies. Come to the well. Amen.

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