“Impolite Water”

“Impolite Water”
Romans 5:6-8; John 4:4-26
Dr. Bobby Hulme-Lippert
March 12, 2023

Last Sunday, I mentioned my 2015 trip I took with a group of pastors to the Holy Land. Another story from that – and apologies, because I know some of you have heard it:

On the final day of that trip, a few of us attended a service of worship at the St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Jerusalem – founded there in 1930, run by the Church of Scotland.

Near the end of the service, the two ministers get up to preside over communion.  They said a couple of prayers and the words of institution. Then they served each other.  First, they each took a piece of bread and eat. Then, they took the same cup, and one at a time, they took a drink.

Then, one minister placed both the cup and the bread back on the table, preceded to take a handkerchief out of his pocket and gave a big ol’ blow of his nose directly above the bread and the wine (as the handkerchief balloons out)

It’s obvious he thinks nothing of this.

He takes some time to wipe both nostrils and ensure everything is clear.  Puts the handkerchief back in his pocket, picks up the elements, and heads our way to serve communion with that bread and that cup.

I look down at my row of fellow pastors – every one of them staring at the ground, wincing. And I’m doing the same, and I know what they are all thinking: “And now we are going to eat and drink that.”

And we did… we dipped the sneezed-over bread into the sneezed-over wine and partook in the manner they had instructed.

But I thought to myself when I looked at myself and down my row of fellow pastors, all of us wincing, “Isn’t this so often how it is? “Give us Jesus. The bread, the wine, the living water…but no germs.”

However, the first verse of our passage today points in precisely the opposite direction.

“Jesus had to go through Samaria.”

Actually, Jesus did not have to, technically. Most Jewish people of that time did not go through Samaria when traveling from Judea to Galilee as he was. They went around Samaria because the Samaritans were despised.

The Samaritans were neighbors to the Jewish people and even shared ancestry, but at this point, the Jews and Samaritans were different ethnicities, worshipped differently, and interpreted Scripture differently, and in recent years real violence and destruction had been known between them. Enemies.

Jesus ‘had’ to go through Samaria. The verb there – “had” – is a Greek word that is often used to talk about a divine imperative. Jesus “had” to go because this is God’s design. God’s design is for Jesus not to go around but toward whoever is considered the germs. The enemy. The people whose presence, beliefs, and way – is contaminating.

The Apostle Paul captured the implications of this truth this way: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”  With Jesus, the normal walls and divisions – they are gone.  Jesus has embraced the germs on every side and every reality and made us one.

Or again, Paul writes in Ephesians: “Jesus has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16 and might reconcile both groups (Jew and Gentile) to God in one body through the cross.”

These are beautiful, powerful truths.

The question is always this: How does it work?
What does this kind of breaking-down-the-walls reconciliation look like?

Because whether it’s Jews and Samaritans or Jews and Romans

White Collar and Blue Collar
Baby Boomer and Gen Z or
Black, White, Asian, Hispanic,
Republican and Democrat or
Evangelical Christian and Mainline Christian or
(Longhorns… A&M)
This side of the family and that side of the family or

There are people with whom we have a pretty hard time.

Someone or some people whose beliefs, actions, or convictions are full of germs.

People, honestly, we usually travel around rather than toward.

If we are all reconciled in Christ, as Colossians 1 declares, how is this truth actually experienced on earth as it is in heaven?

The extended conversation between Jesus and this Samaritan woman shows how the Good News of Jesus unfolds across prejudice, division, and even animosity. And we hardly have time for all that is in this passage, but let’s simply appreciate the exchange for a moment.

Jesus begins – “Give me a drink.” Or, as Dale Bruner points out, the real sense of the Greek here would translate more faithfully into English, “Would you please give me something to drink?” The tense is not a command but an asking.

Of course, we know this is Jesus – the Savior of the World, the Truth of God embodied. But where does he choose to start?  Not with an answer,  but with a question.

With a question in which he is the one asking for help, he is the one putting himself at the mercy of this woman who has the water in the well.

Another way to put it: Jesus leads with vulnerability.

Can you imagine showing up to the other person, side, or people…and leading with a question? Leading, even, with our need for them to help us?

The woman responds with a question, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?”

Another question.

  • Questions set the table for this whole conversation to move into possibilities beyond the normal Jew-and-Samaritan reality.
  • Questions, actually, are so often what gets us to the table, to begin with.

If you read through all four Gospels, Jesus asks over 300 questions. This is to say, when the “Way, the Truth, and the Life” shows up with Good News…how often his love is made known by questions.

Krista Tippett has been the host of the OnBeing radio program for over 20 years now – a program (or podcast at this point) that has millions of listeners every week.

And on it, she interviews a wide diversity of guests about what it means to be human. She’s talked with Maya Angelou and YoYo Ma, Glen Beck and John Lewis, Abby Wambach, Nick Offerman, and Desmond Tutu. Truly, a wide diversity of fields, experiences, and perspectives. And what is the secret sauce? Why do so many listen and are eager even to be on the show?

She observes: [W]e trade mostly in answers— competing answers— and in questions that corner, incite, or entertain. In journalism, we have a love affair with the “tough” question, which is often an assumption masked as an inquiry and looking for a fight. … My only measure of the strength of a question now is in the honesty and eloquence it elicits…there is something redemptive and life-giving about asking a better question. 

Tippett looks to ask good questions.

As we look at our passage in John 4, we see how far and wide and deep this conversation between Jesus and this woman eventually goes – it is readily evident that they have not started with questions meant to silence, win, or corner…but somehow questions that invite honesty.

It’s a beautiful sentiment on one hand, but we should also be clear: the woman’s question (how are you, a Jew, asking me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?) is making clear that this is not comfortable, not natural to have this kind of exchange.

The Greek implies that she points out that he is a Jewish man, and she is a Samaritan woman…so not only are they ethnic rivals, but this is highly irregular and suspect for a man to be talking with a woman in public.

And from there, we get this back-and-forth. The woman misunderstands Jesus some of the time as he talks about the free gift of living water that he has. And there are more questions.

The conversations move into the personal as they talk about this woman’s marriage history… and then the religious as they talk about what true worship is. And there is so much in all of this, but for now, I simply want to note that ultimately this conversation proves to be the single longest conversation Jesus has with anybody in all four Gospels.

No disciple, no Jewish insider, no reputable leader gets near the extended time as this outsider, this woman, this person from the enemy tribe receives.

If the preceding chapter of the Gospel of John, John chapter 3, famously declares at one point: God so loves the world…

Then chapter 4 makes this clear:

  • Love takes time.
  • Love takes questions.
  • Love takes a long conversation.
  • Or how does Paul famously put it? Love is patient.

A few weeks ago, I interviewed Ron Swain on our FPC podcast, The Corner of Change. Ron is a longtime leader in Georgetown and has recently begun serving as the Chaplain at Southwestern.

And he was talking about the Courageous Conversations endeavor he helps lead in Georgetown – which is a group that seeks to promote a culture of justice and compassion in Georgetown, and one way they do that is by facilitating conversations around race and racism – conversations often fraught and anxious for many.

I asked about this group’s philosophy and what helps make for meaningful, just, good change in individuals? Society?

He said, “conversations are the currency of change.”

With whom have we been in conversation these recent days? Any surprising or noteworthy questions asked of us recently?

Living Water likes to show up that way.

And have we found ourselves going not around but directly toward spaces or people or a person with whom we normally would avoid? Anyone on our heart this morning?

Strange how the Living Water within us has a gravitational-like pull toward those we could easily write off as contaminated.

And what if the next step in showing forth the kind of love that loves the world…what if the next step is a good question? Or a few? What if questions are like the deep grooves of land through which the Water flows all the more freely?

Living Water is patient. Living Water is faithful. Living Water cannot help but move to and among and for all the wrong people. Thanks be to God. Amen.

About Dr. Bobby Hulme-Lippert