In my third year at the School for Deacons, I worked twice a week as part of my field education at The Canon Kip Senior Center. It is part of the Episcopal community services of San Francisco. Once a week, I participated in the homeless support group there.
The group would meet in the morning and discuss the needs and issues of San Francisco’s homeless people and how to address them. Episcopal community services provided coffee and a breakfast buffet.
On one occasion, an older woman attended the meeting and was somewhat combative with people around her to the point of disrupting the meeting. She used a walker to get around, and it became apparent that she was in a bit of pain, so I cut her some slack but told her to be quiet a couple of times.
She went to the buffet, took items, and stuffed them in a carpet-type bag on her shoulder. She also took most of the sugar packets and creamer provided. Now I knew she was homeless and taking as much food as possible to provide for herself later. It irritated me that he was depriving some of the people at the meeting of breakfast.
When noontime came, we served lunch, and the same woman was at the disabled reserved table. Again, she was a pain, but I helped her get situated so we could begin serving. I was starting to be irritated at myself for being annoyed at her as I walked by. She grabbed my sleeve and asked if I could get her a cup of water. I went to the water cooler and filled a cup. When I turned to walk back to her, I started saying to myself the line from Matthew’s gospel that Jesus said, “whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”
When I handed her the cup of water, she looked up and made eye contact with me for the first time. When I looked into her eyes, I saw Jesus looking back at me and thanking me. I was almost brought to my knees and took my breath away.
Water plays a vital role in the Gospels and is very prominent in the Gospel of John, In baptism, miracles, and healing. In our gospel reading today, water plays a central role in bringing people to believe in and discipleship of Jesus.
Jesus and his disciples traveled north from Jerusalem to Galilee to avoid conflict with the Jerusalem Pharisees. The shortest route from Judea to Galilee is through Samaria. Usually, pious Jews would avoid Samaria like the plague and take a course around it, which meant crossing the Jordan River twice and adding another day of travel. And yet, this verse says Jesus “had to pass through” this territory, so Jesus decides to lead his group through Samaria.
The walk through Samaria is long and tiring. Jesus sat by the well while his disciples went to buy food in the village, where he and the Samaritan woman met. It ought to be easy for a thirsty man to get a drink at a well, but notice that Jesus cannot do this by himself. He asked the woman to give him a drink and gave her a chance to recognize the face of Christ in a stranger. There is something beautifully simple in the staging of this scene and its premise: Jesus is thirsty at the well, and we are the ones with the bucket. The deeper metaphorical conversation that follows makes no sense until we take this in. Can a little thing like a cup of cool water, offered in love, be the beginning of a salvation journey?
Much has been made of the Samaritan woman coming to the well at noon to draw water. Many Bible commentators conclude that she must be a woman of ill repute, having had five husbands and living with another man, not her husband. She comes to the well at noon to avoid contact with the other women of the town. Her marital status may have nothing to do with adultery but may result from a miserable life. Besides, the hottest part of the day would probably be around 3 PM, not noon.
Like Pope Gregory the Great’s branding Mary Magdalene as a prostitute. Biblical commentators have often seen women as ones who are in the greatest need of redemption—just sayin.
The woman at the well understood the Torah well enough to speak with Jesus about the difference between the Samaritan’s holy Mount Gerizim and the Jews. Mount Zion. “I was brought up to think that this mountain, here in Samaria, was God’s holy mountain. But you Jews think yours is the right one.”
Jesus explained that worship requires no physical place, but true worship is in spirit and truth.
God seeks those who will worship “in spirit.” The Greek is quite evident here. It does not say “in the Spirit” but “in spirit.” In other words, Jesus is not discussing worshiping in the Holy Spirit. He is talking about worshiping with or in the human spirit. What our Lord means is he is looking for those who will worship him in the truth of who he is and in the very depth of their inner being—in spirit.
Authentic worship happens only when we employ the very core of our being in worshiping God! Outward performance may or may not be worship. As the renowned Baptist preacher Spurgeon said, “God does not regard our voices, he hears our hearts, and if our hearts do not sing, we have not sung at all.” Sometimes we sing but do not worship. Sometimes we pray with our lips, but worship does not take place. Sometimes we give, but we do not worship. And sometimes we do none of these things but are in most profound worship!
God and the church aren’t the same thing. God’s claim on every human life and offer of a new life for all who give up the stagnant water and come to Christ for the living variety is absolute. It can’t be avoided by questions about which church people think they should go to, any more than Jesus’ claim on this woman’s moral conscience could be avoided by the debate, already hundreds of years old, as to whether Mount Zion, in Jerusalem or Mount Gerizim, in Samaria, was the true holy mountain.
Part of the point of Jesus’ mission, to bring the life of heaven to birth on earth, was that from now on, holy mountains wouldn’t matter that much.
This wasn’t a new insight. When Solomon dedicated the Temple a thousand years before, it was clear that heaven itself wasn’t big enough for God, so one building couldn’t contain her. Religious buildings, and holy mountains, are, at best, signposts to the real thing. If they become substitutes for it, you’re in trouble. That way lies idolatry, the worship of something that isn’t God as if it were.
Again I ask, Can a little thing like a cup of cool water offered in love be the beginning of a salvation journey? Yes, and we will never know until we meet the stranger and tend to the human need first. Amen.