By Elaine Ramshaw
reflection, Third Sunday in Lent, Year A
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March 12, 2023
The Lectionary readings this Lenten season all highlight the meaning of our baptismal identity and calling. Today, two stories are literally water stories: the thirsty Israelites receiving water from the rock, and Jesus and the Samaritan woman discussing living water next to a well that was used by their ancestor Jacob.
As our baptism is inherently a calling for others as well as a gift of life for ourselves, the exploration of our baptismal identity always has a dimension of the stewardship and sharing of the life we have received. Jesus says to the woman that “the water that I give will become in [those who drink it] a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (4:14). Jesus expresses something similar in John 7:37b-38: “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’” So, once we have received the living water, we become ourselves sources of living water – springs, fountains, places where water flows or gushes abundantly out of the earth to enliven the world.
Note how the Samaritan woman, after her encounter with Jesus, becomes a font of living water that brings the message of Jesus to the spiritually thirsty souls of her village. They all come to see Jesus and come to believe in him.
It’s interesting that the story doesn’t divide the world into thirsty people and people who are sources of water. Jesus himself is thirsty, and he asks the woman for a drink. She is thirsty, seeking water from the well. Both of them then become sources of living water. John’s is the Gospel where Jesus says on the cross, “I am thirsty.” Jesus’ experience of need, God’s entry into human need and thirst in Jesus, is an essential part of his ability to share the water of life.
So our own thirst, if we use it to identify with and have compassion for the thirst of others, is part of our ability to share the water of life, literally and symbolically. We’re not expected to be sources of living water who never experience need ourselves. Rather, we’re expected to use our own need to connect with the need of others and share with them the gift of life we have received. At the same time, we’re called to name our own need and to see the other person as someone who has a gift of water that we need.
Note also that Jesus asks the Samaritan woman for a drink of water. As both female and a Samaritan, she would have been considered a lesser person in the Jewish culture of Jesus’ time. Yet this does not prevent Jesus from seeing her as someone who is able to give him something he needs. As the man who was robbed and beaten in Jesus’ parable (Luke 10:25-37) was willing to receive what he needed from the “Good Samaritan,” so Jesus himself doesn’t see the Samaritan woman as simply someone who needs what he has to give, but as someone who has something to offer him.
When we who are baptized hear about people who need clean water after a natural disaster, or about people whose municipal water is contaminated by lead through governmental malfeasance, or about people in areas suffering from drought, we are called to connect our thirst with theirs and to find a way to share the gift of water with them. And at the same time, we can receive a gift of life from them.
Baptism doesn’t separate us out into a group that never thirsts; it washes us into solidarity with all the thirsty people in the world. How do we live out that solidarity? What are the ways our congregations, our synods, and our denomination can bring water to thirsty people in our neighborhood and around the world? How can we become fonts of living water that spread the good news of Jesus to our thirsty neighbors?
Lent began as a season of preparation for baptism, and the readings in Year A are all about baptismal identity and renewal. This day of the story of the conversation at the well about living water is a good day to use water from or around the font as a reminder of baptism. Sprinkle water on people during the absolution or the benediction; if you can, get kids to help with the aspergillum. Or have the font, or a lovely bowl of water filled during the absolution or prayer of the day, placed so that people can dip their hand in it on the way to or from receiving communion. Make sure it’s low enough that kids and people using wheelchairs can reach it! You can invite people to sign each other with a cross of water on their hand or forehead. During the sermon and the children’s time, the stewardship dimension of our baptismal calling can be spelled out: as we have received the water of life, we become sources of living water to others.
Talk with the kids about how Jesus is like a fountain, a source, a spring gushing the water of life. If you can, do this while gathered around the baptismal font! Invite the children to touch the water. Then go on to talk with them about how we all become fountains, sources, of the water of life for other people and for animals and for the earth. You can quote John 7:38, where Jesus says, “‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’” What do we need water for (drinking, cooking, cleaning, play, beauty)? How do we provide those things to people and animals who need them? How do we pass on the good we enjoy?
Today’s readings have two stories about thirsty people: the Israelites who complain of their thirst to Moses, and both Jesus and the Samaritan woman who are seeking water. Both literal and spiritual living water comes from God for the thirsty people. Ask the teens what stories they’ve heard about people or animals who can’t get the water they need to live. Perhaps they will have heard of the water contamination crisis in Flint, Mich., or the water wars in the Western states, or the places in Africa where women and girls have to walk miles to get water from a well, or the migrating birds who can’t find wetlands.
What are Christians doing to help in these situations? What should Christians do? Are people in our congregation and our Synod working or giving in ways that make clean water more available and more equitably distributed? Be prepared with some examples of Christians’ social action, including the work of the World Hunger Appeal to provide wells or volunteers bringing water after natural disasters or people advocating for oversight of municipal water quality or enforcement of the Clean Water Act.
Elaine Ramshaw is an author, spiritual director and seminary instructor who teaches pastoral care online from her home in Connecticut.