Quenching Our Deepest Thirst


Readings for the Third Sunday in Lent (Year A)

This sermon was preached by Fr. Daniel London at the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer in San Rafael CA on March 19, 2017.

In John 4:5-42, we read about Jesus experiencing thirst and asking a woman for a drink. In fact, in John’s Gospel, Jesus expresses his physical thirst a couple times: here, as well as on the cross when he says, “I am thirsty” (19:28) and then receives wine on a branch of hyssop. However, in this Gospel reading, we never actually read about Jesus receiving the drink for which he physically thirsts. It appears that, as a result of his conversation with the Samaritan woman, his deeper hunger and thirst have been satisfied, so much so that he refuses to even eat the food that his disciples bring to him. It also appears that the Samaritan woman’s deeper thirst has been quenched a well as a result of their fruitful and enlightening conversation. Although the Samaritan woman remains nameless in the Bible, Christian tradition has given her the name Photini or St. Photini, which means the “Enlightened One.” She is kind of like a Christian Buddha. (“Buddha” meaning the “Awakened One.”) So through this conversation with Jesus, the woman awakens to some deep theological insight that is so substantial and meaty and refreshing that she and her entire town can feast on it for days. So what is this deep insight and how can it enlighten us and quench our own deep thirst?

Let us begin by first setting the context for this theologically dense conversation and then briefly unpack some of its many meanings. First of all, the Samaritans were descendants of the Israelites who remained in the land of Israel when the Judeans were exiled to Babylon in 586 BCE. The Samaritans were ostracized by the Jews because, during this time of exile, five foreign nations moved in and corrupted the Samaritans with their foreign gods: Babylon, Cuth, Hamath, the Avvites and the Sepharvites (2 Kings 17:29-30). In addition to these five nations and their gods, the Syrian king Antiochus Epiphanes added yet another deity by calling their primary temple on Mount Gerizim the temple of Zeus Xenios and the Samaritans seemed to welcome this addition (2 Maccabees 6:1-2). Some recent commentators have suggested that the woman’s five husbands and current partner ought not be understood literally but symbolically since she herself represents the Samaritan people who have had five foreign gods, as well as one who was currently not their true god. The Samaritans only considered the first five books of the Bible to be Scripture and refused to acknowledge the validity of the other writings, such as the prophets and the psalms. They also refused to acknowledge the validity of the temple in Jerusalem. Their temple was on Mount Gerizim.

So Jesus speaking to a Samaritan woman is scandalous because A) she is a Samaritan and B) she is a woman and according to conventional Jewish wisdom at the time (Pirke Avot 1:5), “he who talks too much with women brings evil upon himself and…will in the end inherit Gehenna.” But Jesus is thirsty and wants a drink and is willing to risk criticism and Gehenna by speaking to the Samaritan woman, who is then flummoxed and asks, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” Basically asking, “Don’t you know that your people look down on us and avoid us because we have a completely different temple and style of worship?” Jesus responds by very subtly hinting at an entirely new way of understanding temple worship. He says, “If you knew who you were talking to, you would be asking me for living water.” Now the phrase “living water” generally referred to flowing water so the woman is now completely confused since Jesus doesn’t even have a bucket. But since Jesus speaks in symbolic and prophetic language, his use of the phrase “living water” likely refers to the “living waters” that would flow out from the true temple of God, as prophesied by Zechariah (14:8) and Ezekiel (47:1-12). With these words, he is pointing to a temple that will both transcend and include Jews and Samaritans, a temple that he himself will fill with his life-giving, thirst-quenching and replenishing spirit.

“Sir,” she says, “Give me this water. Show me this temple.”

Although it initially seems like Jesus changes the subject, I see him as again responding to her request with subtle and prophetic wit. He says, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” Now if we suppose (as most people do) that the Samaritan woman literally did have five husbands, then this would not be a sign that she was a loose and immoral woman (as many male commentators like to suggest). Instead, this would be a sign that she was a victim of her own society. As I mentioned a few weeks ago in a sermon about Jesus’s teachings on divorce, wives generally could not divorce their husbands. At the time, some rabbis were arguing that a man should be able to divorce his wife for whatever reason he wanted (be it overcooking dinner or just losing interest in her). In this case, the woman would constantly be under the threat of being divorced, which would lead to social ostracism and economic destitution. Remember in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus sided with the school of thought (the School of Rabbi Shammai) that protected women from simply being tossed aside by fickle and selfish men. The Samaritan woman, it seems, had been abandoned and tossed aside by men five times!

However, the most likely reason for this series of failed marriages would not have been the fickleness of the men but rather the barrenness of the woman. Being barren was often grounds for divorce since a man was obligated to father two children.[1] It seems that the Samaritan woman was likely barren which would also explain why she came to the well alone at noon, thus avoiding the other women who would have likely seen her infertility as a punishment from God.

By understanding the woman in this light, we see Jesus reaching out to someone who has been pushed around by men because of her womanhood, belittled by Jews because of her Samaritan identity, victimized by society and scorned by other women because of her body and its apparent barrenness. Jesus is reaching out to an excluded person who represents a whole community of excluded people. He is reaching out to someone who is excluded by the excluded; excluded because of her body by a group of people who are excluded because of their ethnicity.

The Samaritan woman then seems to bring the conversation back to the subject of temple and worship and the differences between the Samaritans and the Jews. But for Jesus, he was already addressing this issue by gently inviting her to acknowledge the ways in which she felt abandoned and betrayed by men and by a God who seemed to give her a deeply flawed body. He was responding to her questions about temples and worship from the beginning by inviting her to see her body not as flawed but as a vessel for the living waters of the Spirit of God to rush through, as a temple for the Holy Spirit. He says, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (4:21, 23-24).

Jesus is saying, “Beloved sister, your deepest thirst is not to know about who is right and who is wrong when it comes to the temple and worship. Your deepest thirst is to be loved and accepted and to love and accept yourself and your own body, which has been the source of such shame for you. I am here to quench that deepest thirst by telling you that you are not only loved and accepted by God and by me but also by revealing to you that the true temple of the Holy Spirit of God is now your body.”

Jesus says this to the woman in his mystical and subtle way and she responds incredulously and dismissively by saying, “Well, yes, I know that the Messiah is coming and someday he will explain all these things and finally accomplish all of these wonderful things you’re describing.” And Jesus says, “No, it’s happening right now. Someday is today. Right now, if you are open, I can make your body into a temple of the holy spirit, out of which the living waters of God will come gushing forth. I can quench your deepest thirst. I am the Messiah, the one who is speaking to you.”

At these words, the Samaritan woman becomes Photini, the enlightened one. She leaves her water jar at the well because now her deeper thirst has been quenched. She begins to understand her body as a temple of the Holy Spirit as she returns to the city with new courage and conviction, inviting others to meet the man who knew and quenched her deepest hunger. She invites us as well to “come and see” and encounter the Christ who can satisfy our thirst by making our bodies into temples of the Holy Spirit. Her conversation, conversion and subsequent evangelism of the Samaritans of Sychar are so profound that one Johannine scholar, Sandra Schneiders, suggests that she is the textual alter-ego of the author of John’s Gospel; that perhaps Photini is not only the enlightened one but also the beloved disciple who leaned on Jesus’s bosom at the last supper, and who listened to the heartbeat of the one who gave his spirit to her so that the body which was once a source of shame could become a holy temple for the divine spirit to dwell. From then on, every time she would take a simple sip of water or wine or eat a piece of bread, she would remember and invite us to remember the one who quenched her deepest thirst and satisfied her deepest hunger by making her body into God’s true temple.

I can’t help but imagine St. Photini inspiring St. Paul to write the following words to the church in Corinth, when he said, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God…therefore glorify God in your body” (1 Cor 6:19-20). As we appreciate the bodily gifts of listening and tasting (and seeing, smelling and touching) throughout this season of Lent, may we do so as people enlightened like Photini, giving thanks and praise and glory to the God who dwells within the mansions of our hearts and the temples of our bodies. Amen.

[1] The School of Hillel argued that a man should have one daughter and one son while the school of Shammai argued that a man should have two sons. Sefer Hasidim

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