In the fourth chapter of the Gospel According to John, there is the wonderful story of the woman at the well. Jesus, tired and thirsty in his journey, asks her for water. She is astonished that a Jew would ask a despised Samaritan woman to draw water for him from the well – one of the enemy, kin whose vision of God is just enough different to evoke vituperative conflict – and a sinful enemy at that. The well happens to be one that Jacob provided for his people. Both Jews and Samaritans trace their heritage back through Jacob to Abraham.
Jesus tells the woman, “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.” Living water, in biblical times, was water that flowed in streams; it was fresher and preferred to the rainwater captured in cisterns. Confused, she asks him where he gets that living water. He replies, “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.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”
Perhaps she is still convinced Jesus is talking about actual, literal water. Or perhaps she is more open to metaphor than we think, and begins to understand what is being offered – not physical water, not even some distant eternal reward, but spiritual nourishment and refreshment in the here and now. In the course of their conversation, Jesus lets her know that he knows all about her, including her five marriages and her current unmarried relationship. She concludes that he must be a prophet, and returns to the city and calls out the townspeople to hear Jesus, who does indeed offer them the living water of his teaching, telling them, “God is spirit, and those who worship God must worship in spirit and truth.”
I thought of this story as two of my friends and I hiked up the steep trail that runs along the stream in the oasis of En Gedi, not far from the Dead Sea. En Gedi, named for the wild goats that have populated the oasis since Old Testament times, is a spot of lush greenery and delightful waterfalls in the midst of a bleak limestone desert. En Gedi’s beauty is so great that the beloved is compared to it in the Song of Solomon (1:14).
Cliffs pocked with caves loom over the strip of vegetation that runs long the stream. Here it was that David fled from King Saul. In these crags and caves, he lived in hiding from Saul, and here Saul sought him out. In one of these caves, Saul went to relieve himself and David cut off a corner of his cloak to prove to Saul that he could have killed him but was loyal.
Clear water sparkles over several waterfalls, and calm pools welcome the hot and weary traveler. Trees, grasses, and other plants border the stream, providing shade and dappled light. The air is clear and fresh, and the hot sun embraces instead of scorching. En Gedi is a preserve, now, a national park protected from the development that is encroaching on the desert nearby.
Walking through this green gift of grace in a harsh and hostile countryside, I understand better than ever the image of living water. Out of water and light, life is created. Out of the light of God’s love and the living water of the Spirit, we are given the opportunity to choose to live in relationship with God in our present lives, as David did, as Jesus did. The Kingdom of God is ours, not in some remote life to come, but in the life we are living now, if we choose, as the Samaritan woman did, to live in love and the mystery of God’s presence.
There is yet another lesson in the story of the woman at the well. She expects hostility and distancing from Jesus. Instead she receives the gift of revelation. Two peoples, closely related, children of the same father Jacob, cut off from one another, one despising the other for their supposed inferiority, the other hating back with the same intensity. How like them we are today! Children of the same Parent God, despising and hating one another, refusing to see how alike we are. Blacks and whites, Christians and Muslims, gays and straights, men and women, liberals and conservatives, rich and poor, all looking at one another with hostility and distrust. What would it be like if we all were to give grace to one another, worshiping our God in spirit and in truth?
As we walked back down the trail toward the exit from En Gedi, Barbara and I sang for Lucy the lovely song based on Psalm 42: “As the deer pants for the water, so my soul longs after you. You alone are my heart’s desire, and I long to worship you.”