***Editor’s Note: This essay was originally posted for Lent 3 in 2017.***
Lent 3(A): Filled with Living Water
By: The Rev. Chana Tetzlaff
Deep in the heart of the West Bank stands a stone church guarded by a thin, wizened, Orthodox Christian priest with a long white beard. He has been there for decades, despite living under the constant threat of death, escaping a death plot sixteen times. A crumbling chunk of the wall bears witness to the time someone threw a hand grenade at him. This priest, who spends his days writing icons, lived in the church for 14 years while surrounded by a hostile army, refusing to abandon the treasure he guards. He once refused a $1 million grant from Yasser Arafat to continue construction of the church because he did not want any political strings attached to his mission to keep the church open to people of all walks of faith. This priest is the protector of a treasure of the three Abrahamic faiths, and he fights with his simple, quiet presence to keep the site open to Christians, Jews, and Muslims. He is the guardian of the treasure that sits deep at the very heart of the church.
As you enter the church, hundreds of lovely icons greet the eye, but one stands out from the others. It is simple and plain in comparison to the golden saints that gather everywhere the eye can see, but no less lovely for its simplicity.
This particular icon depicts a man and a woman in conversation, their gaze interlocked. She listens intently as he gestures confidently with assurance and authority. He points to the heavens with one hand, perhaps to her town with the other, as if to declare that there is an inherent tension between the two directions. Or perhaps he sends her—commissions her—to tell what he has shared in conversation. Either way, the tension is evident in her body turned toward him even as she appears to take a step away. She remains poised on the edge, almost as if she can barely believe what she has heard, yet yearning for it to be true.
This icon is key to the Christian tradition about the site, and perhaps is why the priest guards this treasure so intently. The priest is the guardian of Be’er Ya’akov, Jacob’s well, a holy site open to people of all nations and faiths. The priest is the guardian of a deep tradition of radical hospitality to the “other,” the hallmark of Jesus’s life and ministry. This is the site where Jesus overcame all social mores and boundaries to encounter a woman in a deep, life-changing moment.
God in Jesus makes a radical statement in his meeting with the woman at the well. She is “other” in every way to Jesus. She is a Samaritan: considered heathen and apostate; he is a Jew: considered devout and Chosen. She is a woman: of low status in a man’s world, undeserving of notice; he is a man: respected as a teacher, noticed by crowds of people. She has a shameful past that distances her from her community (she comes alone at noon instead of in the morning, as women usually would); he is of good repute. She is nameless; he is Christ, the Son of God. Everything about this woman separates her from Jesus and from society: her gender, her religion, her social habits, her personal history, and her lifestyle. In the eyes of the world, she is a nobody.
But in Jesus’ domain, she is somebody—somebody worth noticing; somebody worth saving. Somebody worth filling to the brim with the gift of God, the living water of eternal life. Despite what she has done, Jesus does not turn away from her. Rather, he invites her into conversation, takes her seriously, and lodges in her village. He cares deeply about her welfare and about her community.
This is not just a tale about an individual. The story plays on a geopolitical front as well. Jesus approaches the nations, not just individuals. She represents an “outsider” nation. Samaritans believe in one God, but that God’s holy place is on Mount Gerizim not at the Temple in Jerusalem. Samaritans believe that they, and they alone, keep the “pure” faith, having preserved the bloodlines, traditions and old ways of worshipping for over 2,000 years. When Jesus tells her “Go, and come with your husband,” we may assume that he speaks to her in the language of the time. In Hebrew, the term ba’al may refer to master, husband, lord, or the particular god of a region. In Deuteronomy 22:22, an ishah ba’al is a married woman. The Hebrew word is also used in Jeremiah and Hosea to depict the relationship of husband and wife between God and Israel. Jesus tells her she has had five husbands (five gods?), and the one that she is living with is not legitimate. He describes her personal story, but also her nation’s story. The gods, traditions, and holy sites worshipped in the past are not legitimate. Legitimacy comes of worshipping the one God in spirit and truth, unconfined to particular spaces.
This is Good News, but also challenging news for the Jews and Samaritans of Jesus’ time, just as it is for Jews, Christians, and Muslims today. It is challenging news because it reminds us that the people we think of as nobodies are somebodies in the eyes of God. This text, says Deborah Kapp, “reminds faithful readers that sometimes our attempt to draw the boundaries of the faith community are too narrow. We often prefer to leave out the nobodies, but Jesus does not do that. He welcomes outsiders, as well as insiders, into discipleship.” What does it mean that Jesus cares as deeply for the outsider as for his own chosen people? What does it mean to worship God in spirit and truth, when the particulars of tradition and dogma don’t seem to matter much to God?
The example of the priest at Be’er Ya’akov may provide us with the answer. Drinking deeply of the living water of God means having compassion for the other. In fact, as Jesus reminds us, it is at the heart of what it means to live out the Gospel. “There is no greater love than this, that one lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). If only we could open our hearts as Jesus does! Perhaps then the world would overflow with living water—embodying the true peace of God.
The Rev. Chana Tetzlaff is an Episcopal priest with over two decades of leadership experience that includes public advocacy, social justice, teaching for transformative change, and interfaith collaboration. She currently serves as the Associate Rector at St. Christopher’s in Carmel, Indiana. Her great joy in ministry is helping people of faith ask the hard questions of life and God, to discover that “it is in the shelter of each other that the people live” (old Irish proverb), as she and they live their faith in their everyday activities. In her spare time, Chana can be found fulfilling her bucket list items before she turns 65 (so far 23/75!), playing D&D, or exploring local activities and events with her husband, TJ, and their dog-children, Molly and Momo.