At a Well, Without a Bucket

The woman said to Jesus, “Sir, you have nothing to draw with, and the well is deep.” (Jn. 4:11)

There is much to distract us in the story that we hear today of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well.  There is the implication of ethnic tension here; the issue the scarcity of water; the possibility of lurid details of the woman’s personal life; the ethics of marriage; the disciples’ tendency to miss the point; questions about the role of the Messiah; and other aspects of this encounter that would yield interesting results were we to dwell on them.  That is to say that this is the type of biblical story that could easily lead to a long, boring sermon.  I hope it will not – and I bet you do too!

As I have been reading and re-reading the story this week, I’ve begun to think that the crux of the story – and the aspect that connects it to our own lives – is to be found in the woman’s reaction to Jesus when she says to him, “Sir, you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep.”  Or, to use a different translation, “Sir you have no bucket, and the well is deep.”

“Sir you have no bucket…”

I say that this is what connects the story to our own lives because of all the details of this episode, this is the one that does not require us to learn anything new.  You might need me to explain to you something of the background of the relationship  between Jews and Samaritans.  We could spend time delving into the issue of water scarcity in biblical lands and biblical times, and in our own.  We could do a study of the ethics of marriage, etc.  And from all these inquiries we would undoubtedly learn something useful that would shed light on the meaning of this passage.

But when we listen to what the woman says to Jesus, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep,” we don’t need to do complicated analysis in order to understand what she is getting at.  How are you, Jesus, going to give me water, when you have no bucket?  Why do you expect me to think that you have anything for me when you are standing there without the proper gear?  What would make me think that you have anything for me, when anyone can see that you don’t even have a bucket to draw water from the well?!

You have no bucket, and the well is deep.

This story takes place in an ancient context but it poses a very modern question to Jesus.  Because in our world it often looks as though Jesus is standing at the well with no bucket.

We want to believe that he is the Prince of Peace.  But war rages around us, our cities are locked in cycles of violence, and we all know households where crucifixes hang on the walls but peace is far from home.  It would appear that the well of peace is deep, but Jesus has no bucket.

We want to believe that Jesus is the Judge eternal who brings justice into the world.  But we know that justice is not evenly distributed to rich and poor, or to the weak and powerful, and that in many corners of the world might still makes right.  The well of justice is deep, but where is Jesus’ bucket?

We want to believe that Jesus is the Great Physician who heals all our infirmities.  But the more medically sophisticated we become the more frustrated we are by the cancer that comes so swiftly and so decisively, by the Alzheimer’s that settles in so slowly but surely, by the Parkinson’s that takes over so viciously, by the virus that lurks so silently but menacingly.  We have hoped that the well of healing would be deep, but how can Jesus show us since he has no bucket?

We want to believe that in Jesus we meet the Son of the God of love.  But all around us we see failures where we thought love was planted: in broken marriages, estranged families, lost friendships, and unrequited romances.  We want to believe that the well of love is deep, but even if it is, where is Jesus’ bucket?

We want to believe that Jesus conquers death with the hope of life everlasting.  But don’t we still lose the ones we love to the grave?  Isn’t our grief still real?  Don’t we still know the pain of loss and still fear the uncertainty of death?  The well of hope, if it exists, might be deep, but we cannot be sure that Jesus has a bucket.

And so we can be tempted to say, as skeptics and non-believers would, Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep.

Perhaps questions like these ran through the Samaritan woman’s mind as she stood there talking with Jesus.  If so, something happened to overcome her questioning.  Something mysterious and even mystical happened in this exchange between the woman and Jesus.  Notice that John tells us that when the disciples came “they marveled that he was talking with a woman, but none said, ‘What do you wish?’ or, ‘Why are you talking with her?’”  Something kept the disciples silent, preventing them from interrupting whatever it was they witnessed.  Something was happening there that prevented the disciples from making their predictable objections.  It was not just a conversation taking place between the woman and Jesus; some mysterious and mystical exchange transpired that so transformed the moment that the woman set down her water jar and left it behind.

I wonder if what happened was something like what Saint Paul is talking about when he says that “God’s love has been poured into our hearts.”  Was there a moment, as the woman stood there assessing Jesus, ready to dismiss him because, after all, he had no bucket, and the well was deep, was there a moment that something happened to her and she realized that God’s love was being poured into her heart?  Is it possible that the Holy Spirit – as yet unrecognizable to the disciples – carried a measure of love from Jesus’ loving heart and poured it into hers?  Was it the unmistakable power of that exchange that kept the disciples silent?  Was it the overwhelming flood of God’s love, poured into her heart, that transformed all the woman’s expectations and caused her to set down her water jar and leave it behind as though she had no more need of it?

God’s love has been poured into our hearts.

During Lent we stand before God to acknowledge, among other things, that we so often stand before Jesus with a skeptical stance, as though we want to say to him, Sir you have no bucket, and every well we can think of, every well we encounter, every well that might have something we need in it is deep!  What good do you do us if you have no bucket?  

Is this any different from the stance of our earlier generations who murmured against Moses (which was really murmuring against God) and said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our cattle with thirst?”    What could they possibly have thought as Moses stood there in front of the rock at Masseh?  Moses, you’ve got no bucket!  And we’re pretty sure you’ve got no sense left if you expect us to believe that you are going to get water from that old rock!

And do we find it any easier to believe that God is pouring his love into our hearts?

Tradition has it that it was for his failure of faith that God would bring water from the rock that Moses was prevented from crossing the Jordan and entering into the Promised Land.  At the end of his life, Moses was allowed to see the land to which he had been traveling for forty years in the desert, but not allowed to go over.

Jesus knows that you and I have been traveling too, sometimes across arid, lonely, painful ground.  He knows of our anguish for peace and justice and healing and love and hope.  He knows that we are afraid to place our trust in him, because the well is deep, and where is his bucket?

But Jesus does not want us to get so close to God’s promise and still miss out on it.  He doesn’t want to leave us stuck on the wrong side of the Jordan.

And so he calls us, day by day and week by week; and he calls many others who have not yet heard or responded to that call.  He calls us to make room in our hearts for the love of God that the Holy Spirit is pouring into them.  He calls you and me to come apart with him and pray.  He calls us to spend at least a moment of communion with him.  He call us to notice, when we draw close to him in prayer, in communion, that instant when no one dares speak because of that mysterious and mystical exchange when we hold out our water jars to him.  We are only hoping that he might fill them with some water.  We are only holding them out, hoping for the measure of peace we came for, the measure of justice we came for, the measure of healing, love, or hope we came for…

… and so often we have little expectation that we will receive what we have hoped for.  But see how the disciples have stopped in their tracks.  See how silent it is.  See how something more than what we had hoped for passes from him to us.  See how God’s love has already been poured into our hearts.  See how ready we are to set our jars down and leave them behind, because it was you and me that needed to be filled – not our jars.

And see how, when we let ourselves get near enough to him - to this great Rock of ages - we are filled to overflowing with that love, by which all other gifts flow in a fount of every blessing.  And we thought that Jesus didn’t even have a bucket!

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
24 February 2008
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on February 25, 2008 .