My parents made it abundantly clear that the well behind my grandparent’s home was out of bounds for my sister and me. Perhaps this is what created the intrigue for me. Something about a hole in the ground where fresh, pure water can be fetched captured my imagination.
“Don’t go near that well, Tommy. If you fall in, you’ll drown, and no one will know you down there!” Well, that was good enough for me. Sort of.
I was anxious to go with my father to the well and help him get water. The well had a bucket tied to a rope running through a single pulley connected to a rafter holding up the small roof over the well. My dad lowered the bucket down the well until it broke the water’s surface, tipped over, and filled with water. Then he pulled on the rope, letting it curl up by his feet until the bucket emerged from the top of the well, overflowing with water.
When my dad lifted me up so I could look into the well beyond the darkness, I could see the bucket sinking into the water below, if the light was just right. A common dipper was hanging on the side of one of the corner posts holding up the roof. It was too high for me to reach it. But once the bucket was out of the well, my dad would offer me a drink out of the dipper. The water was cold even on the hottest days.
My mom was right. It was a long way down to the water below and dark. And it was impossible to tell the depth of the water. So my sister and I found other places to explore, leaving the well for the adults. But as I got older, my grandmother would send me out to the well to fetch water for meals or ensure her dogs had fresh water. Fortunately, her well was only a short distance from the backdoor and her kitchen.
My grandparents were fortunate to have their own well, close to their home. Although by today’s standards, at least in the U.S., their situation was archaic. My grandmother finally got water coming directly into her kitchen a few years after my grandfather passed. Initially skeptical, she worried the water wouldn’t be as fresh.
It’s hard to imagine that millions live without access to clean water and millions more spend a lot of their time fetching water for everyday use. Research offered by water.org estimates women and girls spend 266 million hours daily accessing water for their families. And 771 million people lack access to safe water. How can this be in a world where so many of us fill our tubs and take longer showers than necessary for cleanliness?
The challenges are numerous but solvable. However, many systemic obstacles require changing cultural norms founded on bias and discrimination. The solution begs for divine intervention and transforming hardened hearts even as we hold tight to the way it was. Okay, the way we think it was!
Cultural do’s, and don’t do’s take time and effort to learn. And as they’re passed down through generations, the details get lost and convoluted into new justifications. While many, if not most, customs come out of learned experience, some are based on bias. Unfortunately, caretakers often pass these on to the children under their care camouflaged as wisdom.
Jesus saw through bias and frequently ignored traditions based on prejudice rather than wisdom. A famous example is the story of the woman at the well.
Jesus and His followers pass through Sychar on their way to Galilee. Jesus finds a place to sit next to a well while the rest go into town to find food. We learned last week that the well was first dug by Jacob and his family when they settled there. And the well provided water for the generations that came after them. After the others left for town, a Samaritan woman came to the well to fetch water.
Constructing plausible scenarios that fill in missing information has long been a favorite pastime for theologians. Our pursuit of what isn’t said is understandable. While the most important facts are found in the conversation between Jesus and the woman, a lot is going on between the lines that isn’t said.
For example, one of the cultural never do’s could have prevented the conversation from taking place at all. For one, according to Jewish custom, men don’t engage in discussions with unfamiliar women. Moreover, this woman was of Samaritan descent, which created a strong cultural barrier that wasn’t ordinarily crossed. And the woman was quite aware of the rules.
When Jesus asks the woman for a drink of water, she responds, “You are a Jew, and I am a Samaritan, so how can you ask me for a drink?” But then, the narrator adds a further complication. The two conflicted cultures also don’t share common dippers.
Whether Jesus was thirsty when he asked the woman for a drink is buried in the backstory and not spelled out. Jesus and His friends were on the road and likely tired, dusty, hungry, and parched from a day of walking. Have you ever been so thirsty the word “parched” described your condition?
Roger Owens, a Professor of Christian Spirituality and Ministry at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, shared a story in a reflection published in the Upper Room Disciplines. A student’s presentation was particularly impactful, using parched repeatedly to emphasize a thirst that demands resolution. Have you ever been parched?
Have you ever reached a point where your mouth was so dry you could taste and feel the gritty dryness?
Likely, there wasn’t a common bucket and rope at the well and no pulley to make retrieving water less burdensome. And clearly, Jesus wasn’t carrying a bucket when he arrived. But Jesus also had the woman’s attention. Social customs melted, making way for a deeper conversation.
Thirst is a condition of dryness caused by more than dehydration. The same is true for hunger. Even after we’re hydrated and satisfied, we’re still parched if lacking other necessities for abundant life.
The answer that Jesus offers back puts outdated social customs in their rightful place while opening the treasure chest of possibilities. “If you only knew what God gives and who it is that is asking you for a drink, you would ask Him, and He would give you life-giving water,” Jesus replied.
Those who drink the water that I will give them will never be thirsty again.
This scene took place centuries before telesales, TV ads, and email spam. Nevertheless, the woman knew a line when she heard it. But instead of walking away, she dug a little deeper. After all, she came to a public well for water.” You don’t have a bucket, and the well is deep. Where would you get that life-giving water?” the woman replied.
I’m willing to go out on a limb here and tie the way this conversation progresses to the divine intervention I mentioned earlier. How can some of us access extravagance while millions lack the means for basic sustenance? How can parts of our country be food deserts amid so much waste? How can most of us sleep in comfortable beds within the safety of an affordable home while numerous others lack dependable shelter?
These injustices happen because so many of us are parched. We’re thirsty for living water that transforms us into doers rather than complainers.
Jesus reminds us that when we quench our thirst for basic necessities, we get thirsty again. So experts tell us to drink water daily and eat balanced meals. But each day is another meal schedule and another trip to the well for water.
And then Jesus tells us about living water that quenches a deeper thirst. A thirst that creates competition for resources and bias towards anyone who we perceive as threatening our advantage. And all who drink the water that Jesus offers will never be thirsty again. Instead, the Holy Spirit will be in them like a spring, providing them with life-giving water and eternal life.
“Sir,” the woman said, “give me that water! Then I will never be thirsty again.”
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Our series was inspired by and relies on content provided by CleanWaterfortheWorld.org.
Content for this series is also based in part on:
Eric Nilsen. Understanding Social Justice. © Eric Nilsen, 2022. Independently published.
Roger Owens. “Thirsty for God.” The Upper Rom Disciplines 2023: A Book of Daily Devotions. Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2022. p. 125.