Because my wife and I were on international insurance that didn’t want to pay the high costs of health care in the United States on an ongoing basis, we had to leave the country shortly after our eldest son was born or forfeit the insurance benefit for his birth and aftercare. The easiest and quickest way to do this was to go to Niagara Falls, Canada, where we could figure out our next steps. So we packed up our 10-day-old in a borrowed car and headed north.
As long as we were in Niagara Falls, we decided to see the falls themselves. Sarah and I loved it, but for our newborn, it was a loud, wet, uncomfortable experience. Still, I’ll never forget holding my baby in the tunnel underneath the falls. He and I weren’t accustomed to each other yet, and we were embarking on a whole new journey together. Somehow our first adventure together—leaving one place and traveling to another, surrounded by water—has become the pattern for much of our life together. This week’s lectionary texts tell stories of strange/holy experiences with water that showcase God’s presence with people
In Exodus 17 we have the first of a couple of stories about provision of water from a rock in the wilderness. In this story, the people grumbled against Moses as they wandered through the wilderness. In fairness to the Israelites, the text explicitly says they didn’t have water to drink. I would have grumbled, too, just as my children now grumble when I take them on a long road trip and forget to bring snacks and drinks. Moses became frustrated and passed the people’s complaint on to God. Unlike Moses, however, God didn’t seem to get upset and just set about providing water for the people. While God could have opened a well then and there, God instead told Moses to appear before all the people and strike a rock that would gush forth water and quench their thirst.
The similar provision of water in Numbers 20 gave rise to the early interpretive movement that saw the rocks in Exodus 17 and Numbers 20 as the same that rolled along with the people to provide water everywhere they lacked it. The tradition of a mobile watering station was so well known that Paul referenced it for a mixed Gentile and Jewish audience in Corinth, saying, “And all drank the same spiritual drink, for they were drinking from a spiritual rock which followed them; and the rock was Christ” (1 Corinthians 10:4). Paul says the rock followed them and was God’s presence in Christ. The accompanying rock answered the people’s question of “Is the Lord among us or not?” in the affirmative (Exodus 17:7).
God was present to provide water, but even more, to provide God’s own presence.
Years later Jesus intentionally went to the well of Sychar to provoke an interaction with a Samaritan woman. Interestingly, this story seems to have been related to John by a Samaritan source. There is no Jewish tradition of Jacob having dug a well in the vicinity. The Samaritan woman regarded herself and her people as the true heirs of their father Jacob (John 4:12). Indeed, she referenced her ancestors to say that they worshiped on Mount Gerizim. Fights between Jews and Samaritans continue to this day, but a traditional site of worship of the God of Israel seems to have existed at Mount Gerizim at an early date, long before the fragmenting of the United Kingdom of Israel (Joshua 24:1, 26-27).
In addition to history, the Samaritan woman also had infrastructure on her side. She told Jesus that the well was deep and that he had no bucket to retrieve any water, living or otherwise. Even today, after centuries of the well filling in with limestone fragments, it remains about 140 feet deep. In the woman’s opinion, Jesus, as a Jew, had no claim on the water at the well.
Jesus brushed aside discussions of which mountain might be God’s preferred home to insist that the water of the well was nothing compared to the water of life that he offered. The woman seems to have accepted quite quickly that Jesus was the Messiah, who could produce living water. She immediately told her neighbors in Sychar about him. The Samaritans confessed later that they initially believed in Jesus’ claims because of the woman, but after listening to him for a couple days, they believed he was the savior of the world because of what they had witnessed firsthand (John 4:39-42).
Jesus journeyed to a somewhat strange and disputed site of water in order to point out that he was and would be with the people—Jewish, Samaritan and Gentile—to provide the living water of his presence for them on their life journeys.
During the Israelite experience of wilderness, and the political-religious wilderness of the first century, God was present to provide water, but even more, to provide God’s own presence. God’s same presence is here for us today!