Third Sunday in Lent
By Rev. Carmen Retzlaff
In Central Texas, we think a lot about water. The Texas climate is famously described by meteorologists as, historically, “drought with periods of flooding.” And so it seems. After seven years of droughts in which water wells dried up in our area, the nearby Blanco River flooded the small town of Wimberley and towns downstream in 2015. With this view of water in mind, I read the story of Jesus’s conversation with the woman at the well as a story about water.
…the centrality of water to this story can hardly be ignored. It takes place at a well, and Jesus uses the immediate situation to draw a metaphor for what he gives that offers life: himself, his word, his Spirit, his ministry….This is the water that saves, which is the ministry and purpose of Jesus: that the world might be saved through him (3:17). (Susan Marie Smith)
The Trinity aquifer and the Edwards aquifer meet and overlap in our area, and we attend to news about their fullness, and their pollution levels. Signs on the highways indicate when we are passing over the recharge zone of the Edwards – sensitive because of the karst formations and caves that give runoff easy access into it. We watch the levels of the lakes—dammed portions of the Colorado River, and we worry. We hear about the falling levels in the giant Ogallala aquifer to the northwest, and the Rio Grande river to the south, which seems to now seep rather than flow into the Gulf of Mexico at the end of its journey. We monitor the politics of water allocation.
I am the pastor of a unique church in Dripping Springs, Texas — we worship outside. All the time, all year round. This makes us particularly aware of the weather, of course, and of the patterns of drought and flooding. There is a seep that runs through our 12 acre sanctuary, and we squish through it during wet times, and are prevented from driving up to the hilltop, or we see cracks widening in the dirt during hot summer months. We have a small community garden that relies on rainwater collection from our bird-watching blind, and we monitor its fullness. We are able to do that well because several of our congregation’s families have and have built rainwater systems for their homes. More and more people in this area are reliant on rainwater for all of their water needs – in times of drought, it is more reliable than individual wells. This gives us an awareness of water needs, how much we use, how much we need, its sources, and the ways in which it is made potable.
We worry, as humans, and especially as humans in a dry place, whether there is enough. But what is enough? Usually we mean enough for us to drink. And when it is very dry, we start to wonder about enough for future generations, and enough for plants and animals to recover from this year’s summer or this long drought.
The Hill Country of Texas looks a lot like the Hill Country of Judea in the Bible, and the woman at the well in Samaria surely was familiar with the same water worries of all humans in all dry areas. She lived in a time when drinking water had to be drawn and carried to each home. Today is such a time in some parts of the world, in parts of the world where communities are poorer. The poor are of necessity more aware of environmental changes that threaten our species and our world. It is the poor who suffer first the affects of drought.
But what is enough? And why don’t we have enough water? The same water that existed at creation exists now, as we learned in elementary school science classes. “Today there is just as much water on the planet as there was when the first signs of life appeared. Every year, about 110,000 billion cubic meters of water falls on the land surface of our planet as rain or snow,” confirms National Geographic Voices writer Brian Richter.
So why do we have shortages? Just more people that need it? Climate change? Yes, and related factors. More pavement and buildings, impervious cover that doesn’t allow the rainwater to soak into the earth. Fewer forests and more areas without vegetation.
In the text, Jesus refers to the gift of the water he offers as “living water.” The Samaritan woman might have been confused because she assumed the literal meaning in their vernacular, which was flowing water. Living equalled moving.
“Living water” has two possible meanings. It can mean fresh, running water (spring water as opposed to water from a cistern), or it can mean life-giving water. Once again, the Fourth Evangelist intentionally uses a word with double meaning (cf. 3:3, 7 and the expression “born again”/“born from above”). (Gail O’Day)
And in environmental terms, it may mean both. Not so much a spring or river, but water moving through the water cycle in the appropriate way, and specifically, moving through the ground, through the natural filtration system of soil. Water should be evaporated, fall from the sky, and a substantial portion of that water should fall to earth, to seep into the ground and be filtered into life-giving clean drinking water. But less is getting there in some areas, especially over-populated and deforested areas. Add to that the fact that agriculture, primarily, and to a lesser extent industrial and domestic uses extract water from those living water sources (aquifers, rivers) at an increased rate, often in those same parts of the planet, and we get shortages. For people, these shortages are disproportionately among the poor and poor communities, who can less afford to pay for sanitation services, and from whom drinking water and other resources are often more easily taken, with less powerful protest. (see map)
For other earth-inhabitants, these areas often represent fragile wetlands, river deltas, estuaries, etc. where plant and animal species are shocked, harmed and eventually eliminated in prolonged absence of fresh, life-giving water.
John 4:11 The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12 Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” 13 Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14 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.”
Even the great wells of powerful human ancestors are young in relation to the water purification and supply system of God’s creation. Wells dry. Human water systems overdraw in some parts of the world. God’s intricate water cycle balance is the one that causes springs to gush up for sustainable life.
As Christians, we connect this life-giving water to baptism. The water in which we are baptized is that same water of creation, the same water the Samaritan woman pulled from the well and then left when she realized she was speaking with the one who joins us in that water, and quenches the thirst of all the earth.
Richter, Brian, Nature Conservancy and University of Virginia, National Geographic Voices: Ideas and Insights from Explorers, March 14, 2012
O’Day, Gail, New Interpreter’s Bible 9, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995
Hoekstra AY, Mekonnen MM, Chapagain AK, Mathews RE, Richter BD (2012) Global Monthly Water Scarcity: Blue Water Footprints versus Blue Water Availability.
Smith, Susan Marie, New Proclamation, Year A 2011, Advent Through Holy Week, Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2010