“Encounters on the Way to the Cross” – Lenten Series
The Woman at the Well
(Second in the Series)
February 24, 2008
So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.
A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.)
Jesus answered her, “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.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?”
Jesus said to her, “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.”
The depression took the fun out of 1931. It was no time to go into business. But Ted Hustead had graduated from pharmacy school in 1929 and after working for other druggists for two years, he and his wife Dorothy decided to strike out on their own, using the $3,000 Ted’s father had left him when he died. They searched all over the region for a place to locate that would meet their two criteria: it had to be a small town and it had to have a church. They finally settled on a store in the small prairie town of Wall, South Dakota, home to 326 people, 326 poor people. Ted’s father-in-law told him that Wall was about as Godforsaken as you could get. Grasshoppers had eaten all the crops in the area. This, in turn was followed by a dust bowl, a long drought, and temperatures for ten days at a time of over 100 degrees. They had given themselves five years to make a go of it, but in the summer of 1936, the drugstore seemed about to fold. Ted and Dorothy asked themselves: “How can we get people into the drugstore?"
One hot Sunday afternoon in July, Dorothy had gone home for a little while to put their children down for a nap and rest a while herself. But the traffic on the nearby highway had shaken her awake. She had a stroke of inspiration and rushed back to the store to tell Ted about it: they should put up signs on the highway advertising free ice water for travelers at their store. Dorothy had even written a few lines:
"Get a soda . . . Get a root beer . . . turn next corner . . . Just as near . . . To Highway 16 & 14. . . Free Ice Water. . . Wall Drug."
At first Ted thought it was a silly idea, but he was desperate, so he began to put signs up the next weekend and even before he got back to the store, tourists were already pouring into the store for their free ice water, but also to buy ice cream and other items. And they’ve been coming ever since.
Now there are billboards all over the country telling you just how far it is to free ice water at the Wall, S.D. drugstore. On a good summer day, more than 20,000 people crowd the drugstore in this town of 800 people. It remains the most spectacularly successful drugstore in the entire industry. Druggists had been handing out free ice water for generations. But Ted & Dorothy were the first people who ever thought of advertising it. Ted Hustead later wrote:
“Free Ice Water. It brought us Husteads a long way and it taught me my greatest lesson, and that's that there's absolutely no place on God's earth that's Godforsaken. No matter where you live, you can succeed, because wherever you are, you can reach out to other people with something that they need!”
That’s exactly what Jesus did in today’s “encounter on the way to the cross”: he reached out to the Samaritan woman at the well with something she needed – living water. And her life, and the lives of her fellow townspeople, would never be the same. It’s like he moved into the most “Godforsaken” place he could find and set up a stand offering free water – only his was living water.
Jesus and the woman have a fascinating conversation. As Jesus and the disciples are journeying from Judea in the south to Galilee in the north, they travel through Samaria, which lies right between the two areas. Most Jews of the day would have gone far out of their way to avoid going through Samaria, because to the observant Jew the Samaritans represented a mixed race of pagans and Jews who worshiped God at a different place then they did. But Jesus didn’t avoid the Samaritans – he probably looked forward to the chance to encounter them.
While the disciples go into the village of Sychar to buy food, Jesus sits down at noontime by Jacob’s well for some much-needed rest. It was called Jacob’s well because it was on land that the Old Testament patriarch Jacob had owned many centuries before. A Samaritan woman comes alone to draw water and Jesus asks her to please give him a drink. The conversation that follows might remind you of last week’s encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus, where Jesus was talking about spiritual things (being “born again”) and Nicodemus thought he was talking about earthly things (somehow being born from your mother a second time) and there was a lot of confusion.
This time the confusion is about “water.” Jesus starts talking about “living water” while the woman thinks he’s still talking about the water in Jacob’s well. Jesus offers the woman “living water” – water, that if you drink it, you’ll never thirst again; water that will gush up into a spring of eternal life. The woman thinks that sounds pretty good, so she asks Jesus to give her some of this living water. But first, Jesus tells her to go get her husband and bring him back to the well with her.
It’s at this point that her “dirty laundry” comes out into the open. The woman tells Jesus that she doesn’t have a husband – not entirely accurate, but as much as she wants to reveal to a perfect stranger. Jesus says back to her…
“You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” (John 4:17-18)
Wow! Sounds like something off of Jerry Springer. Five husbands and now she’s living with a man but they’re not married. That might not even raise an eyebrow nowadays, but I’d have to think that would be pretty scandalous back then. No wonder she came to the well all by herself in the middle of the day. She was probably trying to avoid all of the wagging tongues and disdainful looks of the other villagers. She quickly changes the subject and asks Jesus a question about which mountain is the right place to worship God. They go on to discuss true and false worship, and Jesus finally tells her that he knows all this because he is the Messiah.
She leaves to go back and tell her fellow villagers about this amazing man she’s met who just may be the Messiah. Many of them come out to meet Jesus and see for themselves, and the story concludes with them saying, “We know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”
There’s enough in this story for ten sermons, but let me focus on just two points.
1) Jesus reaches out to us with something that we need.
The verse for the song whose chorus we sang a moment ago begins, “Like the woman at the well I was seeking for things that could not satisfy.” If you read between the lines of the story, you can see that this woman was seeking love, acceptance, understanding, companionship. All good things, but she was seeking them in the wrong places: in the arms of five different men who had been her husband and now in one to whom she was not married. Her daily trips to the well to draw water were symbolic of her never-ending quest to satisfy an emptiness she felt deep down in her soul. She needed something, but if you’d asked her, she probably wouldn’t have been able to tell you what.
But Jesus knew immediately what she needed: living water. Jesus had an amazing ability to meet someone and to know right away what was their deepest need. For Nicodemus, Jesus knew he needed a new birth, from above, that he couldn’t find as a Pharisee in following the never-ending requirements of the religious law.
To others who were hungry he offered the Bread of Life and to those trapped in blindness he offered the Light of Life.
Jesus met this woman right where she was and gave her what she needed the most. Even though she was a Samaritan, a woman, and living in an immoral relationship, Jesus didn’t hold any of that against her. He simply reached out in love.
Jesus is reaching out to you and me, right where we are, with what we need the most. The same living water that he offered the woman he offers to us as well. Water is such a rich image and it can represent so many different things – life, love, forgiveness, fulfillment. The living water Christ gives us meets our every need. And he gives it to us in a supply that never runs out. It doesn’t matter who we are or what we’ve done. Jesus offers us living water.
But there’s another part of this story we shouldn’t miss:
2) We can reach out to others with something they need.
As soon as the woman realized who Jesus was and what he could give her, she ran back to her village to tell other people about him.
Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?
It was like she had put up her own billboards advertising free ice water for hot and weary travelers. And the people flocked out to Jacob’s well to receive living water from Jesus for themselves. They even convinced Jesus to stay with them two days – that was a lot of time for a man who was always in a hurry because he knew that his time on earth was short. And many more people besides the woman came to believe in Jesus as the Savior of the world.
This gift of living water, of new life, that Jesus has given us is too valuable to keep to ourselves. It’s meant to be shared. Jesus knew that the woman at the well had a deep-down thirst and that she needed living water.
We know there are people around us who are thirsty and they try to quench that thirst in all kinds of unhealthy or unhelpful ways. We know what can satisfy them: the living water of Jesus Christ. All we have to do is to reach out to them right where they are and offer free living water.
I read about a church that decided to do this in a literal kind of way. Their church is located on a major street that has a walking/jogging path beside it. So they set up a table by the path and offered free bottled water to thirsty folks who were walking or jogging on the path. They attached little cards to the water bottles that invited people to come to their church. It’s a simple gesture, but it shows that they care. And sometimes that’s all it takes.
Wall Drugstore now occupies the majority of the downtown area of a little town that was once known as the “geographical center of nowhere.” All because Ted and Dorothy Hustead offered thirsty people free ice water 70 years ago. Wouldn’t it be something if our church grew like that simply because we came to be known as a place where thirsty people could come and receive free living water? Amen.