The Rev. Melanie L. McCarley
Educator, Booker T. Washington was fond of telling a story about how a vessel in the South Atlantic Ocean signaled for assistance from another vessel not far off: “Help! Save us, or we perish for lack of water!” The Captain of the other vessel’s reply was “Cast down your buckets where you are.” Supposing that the second captain had not gotten the message accurately, the troubled ship signaled yet again. “Help! Save us, or we perish for lack of water!” Again the nearby ship signaled back, “Cast down your buckets where you are!” This exchange went on until the first ship, in desperation, decided it had nothing to lose by following this outlandish advice. When crew members cast down their buckets, they drew them up filled with clear, cool, sparkling water. They had not realized that the powerful current of the Amazon River , where it empties into the Atlantic Ocean, carried fresh water from the South American rain forests many miles out in to the South Atlantic Ocean—far from the sight of land.
Water and Thirst are themes which are drawn throughout the readings appointed for this morning. The wandering Israelites found themselves camped at Rephidim; alas, there was no water to be found. The people, not surprisingly, felt the need to blame someone for the unfortunate turn of events, and Moses happened to be handy. The Bible tells us that the people “quarreled” with Moses (which I suspect is simply a biblical way of saying they whined and complained) saying: “Give us water to drink.” For his own part, Moses, who was no-doubt re-thinking the wisdom of rescuing these difficult people from bondage in Egypt replies: “Why do you quarrel with me?” and promptly begins to whine to the Lord saying: “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” And the Lord God directs Moses to take the elders of the people with him and with staff in hand, strike a rock, from which water promptly gushes forth.
Fast forward to the Gospel of John and we find another story about water and thirst. This time, the Son of God is the thirsty one, and sitting by a well—he waits until a Samaritan woman arrives to draw water and Jesus says to her: “Give me a drink.” This woman, we discover, might have a questionable background, but she is no fool. She knows that she is a Samaritan and this man sitting by the well is a Jew. The two do not share things in common. For Jesus to request a drink from her, utilizing her bucket and cup, he would be engaging in unclean behavior. In other words, no good Jew in his right mind would be asking a Samaritan for a drink. Come to think of it, no good Jew would be speaking to a Samaritan woman! Yet here he is, the Son of God, engaging in some rather coy repartee with a woman with a reputation.
Jesus says to her: “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” I can imagine her looking at him with a raised eyebrow as she responds: “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” And here we discover something more about this woman—she is drawn in. She is curious. She doesn’t simply give him a cup of water and there let the matter drop. What we come to discover is this: this woman, the one with a reputation, she is the first person to whom Jesus identifies himself clearly as the Messiah when he says: “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.” In response to her statement: “I know that Messiah is coming…When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Now, if that doesn’t knock your socks off, few things will.
This woman might have a reputation, but she is a remarkable individual of spiritual awareness. She responds to our Lord’s offer to provide living water and behold, her life is changed. No longer is she a woman coming to the well at the hottest part of the day—most likely in an effort to avoid people who would most certainly shun her—she runs back to her village and shares the good news with absolutely everyone! She leaves her water jar behind to live a new and different life and to share with others what God has done for her. Remarkable.
Yet, back to the image of the bucket. John chose his words carefully when he wrote his Gospel, and he included that bit about this woman’s initial observation when she spied Jesus sitting by the well: “You have no bucket and the well is deep” for a reason. It’s an accurate assessment of the situation on the basis of appearances. What she’s saying, in effect is this: “The task before you is big—huge in fact, and you don’t possess the means to accomplish it.” The same, for that matter, could be said of the situation facing the people of Israel in the desert. The well is deep, and you have no bucket.
I don’t know about you, but I have had moments in my own life when I have felt as though I was standing next to a deep well with no bucket in hand. Maybe you have too—times when we realize we’ve bitten too much off to chew at work or at home, times when the obligations we have to fill seem oversized for our time, energy and wallet. The well is deep, and you have no bucket. Perhaps a loved one is struggling with illness—the well is deep and you have no bucket. We may feel this way when we consider the situation in our world, North Korea plays fast and loose with the threat of weapons; flooding overwhelms Peru; Russia is accused of tampering with the electoral process in several nations, including our own; an earthquake strikes and the stock market is dips. The well is deep and we have no bucket.
Like the sailors who believed they were perishing for lack of water on the South Atlantic Ocean, the Israelites complaining in the wilderness, and the woman standing at the well, each of them, without knowing it at first, were right in the midst of what could provide their salvation. Their prayer, in truth, is our prayer as well: “Give us this water, so that we may not be thirsty.” The Good News is this: Jesus, the Son of God, offers us living water to quench the thirst not simply of our bodies, but of our spirits. Henry David Thoreau once said: “Life in us is like the water in a river.” Jesus offers us life—the kind of life that courses through us like a spring fed from a great, reservoir that has no end. Like them, the answer is right before us. It is held in the promise of God; the vessel, if you will—our bucket—is our heart and the water of life comes to us by way of the Holy Spirit and is offered to each of us in turn. Drink deeply, that you may have life, and find yourself renewed. In Jesus’ name. Amen.